Burning Man: A Temporary Organization?

Burning Man is a temporary community that is set up in the middle of the desert in Nevada.  It is expected that each person who attends participates and establishes their own role within the community.  By the time the last of the volunteers leave, there is no trace left of the community.  Also, while there are safety rules and rules regarding individual cleanup for campsites, Burning Man prides itself on encouraging individuality and self expression.  Most of what I have said thus far does not appear to be the typical characteristics of organizations that we see as successful, I would argue that Burning Man is very successful in what it does.

The natural systems approach to organizations has been defined by Scott and Davis as “collectivities whose participants are pursuing multiple interests, both disparate and common, but who recognize the value of perpetuating the organization as an important resource.”  In many ways Burning Man meets this definition.  While the main purpose of Burning Man is to establish a community for a short period of time, participants also bring their own art form and work to the community, demonstrating that they have both individual and shared interests.  Also, in the end of the day it is about keeping the community alive, not in the sense that it is a lasting community that is there forever and always, but rather the concept of Burning Man.  There are certain guidelines that are followed because if broken then Burning Man may lose its privilege to organize again.  This I find very interesting because Their goal is to keep Burning Man alive each year, but also to leave no trace of it.  It is a very forward thinking organization because of its idea of no traces left behind.  We typically think of organizations as entities that want to last forever, they establish goals and modify goals as the environment changes.  Iron Man on the other hand is more about the experience of establishing a community, its goal is to collectively form a community over the course of a week and leave nothing behind at the end of that week.

Burning Man challenges McGregor’s Theory X principal assumptions.  Burning Man exists because people come together, take responsibility for themselves, and individuals come together as a group to form the community.  While there are some rules, Burning Man in no way controls and coerces its participants into doing specific work.  Instead this is develop more on the idea of Theory Y, which states “the most significant rewards are those associated with ‘the satisfaction of ego and self-actualization needs.'”  People participate in Burning Man because it allows them to be a part of this greater experience and project.  Since it is advertised as an experience of participation instead of an event of spectating, this draws in the type of people who understand that participation is key.  Since Burning Man takes place in the middle of a typically desolate desert, I must wonder if that adds to the fact the most attendees are there to participate.  Learning about Burning Man brought up more questions for further discussion.  If this occurred in a more public, easy access location, would Burning Man draw in more of the spectator type, thus causing it to not meet the major goal of the organization?  Can we argue that an organization that is active once a year for a week is just as successful as those that have been around for over one hundred years?  Also, while Burning Man is only a temporary community, it is present throughout the entire year.  There are websites, blogs, books, videos, and photos that are able to be viewed throughout the entire year, even when Burning Man is not occurring.  Does this mean that Burning Man the “organization” is temporary, like its community is, or is it a lasting organization whose primary work only occurs for a short period of time each year?

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7 Responses

  1. The Burning Man by your definition is definitely an organization in the sense of structure and goals. The strength of the informal structure based on personal characteristics and relations between participants has created a formal structure through social networking and desire to achieve the goals that the community in turns serves outside the actual “event” that is Burning Man. The culture may change every year from new guests, new art, and the interaction of all the participants, but the goal shared by everyone doesn’t. The culture of communities always change, but usually over long periods of time. The Burning Man’s structure though reduced the period of time for this. So the evolution of the culture is just faster than an average organization. And I agree that the deserted locations helps prevent the introduction of people only interested in seeing what Burning Man is like and not in participating in the event.

  2. Please give us the page number when you quote from the book (or any print source!).

  3. I agree that Burning Man fits the natural systems description of an organization as people seeking multiple goals but through the common framework and mechanism of the organization. Katehrine Chen, who studies the organization and has written a book on it, Enabling Creative Chaos, details how fascinating Burning Man is as an example of inducing cooperation from many constituents and maintaining a unique mission. There are many ways in which Burning Man could have veered off in more “normal ” directions or simply evaporated.

    What I also find fascinating is how much of the Burning Man story replicates in other organizations.

    Dr. Chen is coming to Bucknell later in the semester and I am working to see if she can come to class. We shoudl all try to go to her public lecture.

  4. After hearing about Burning Man I am really excited to see her speak. I agree with you Mike that it is an organization that lasts throughout the year because while its main activities occur for a short period of time the rest of the year there is publicity about the event.

  5. After hearing more about Burning Man from Dr. Katherine Chen, I thought it would be a good idea to revisit this post. It was interesting to look at the impacts that Burning Man leaves on the community surrounding it despite leaving no physical trace behind. Dr. Chen mentioned that Burning Man cannot just be about the experience and the event itself because so many other organizations become involved. As it is recognized as an organization by law enforcement and the media; Burning Man must take them into account, as well. For example, when the media portrays Burning Man as an event in which laws are being broken, the local law enforcement is then told to buckle down and do their job. In order to deal with these situations and still exist Burning Man must function as an organization.

  6. That is a great point. It gets more complicated ad authority over the land is split between a federal agency and local law enforcement. The organizers have to balance reaching out and accommodating law enforcement while trying to preserve what it essential about BM so that the 40,000 keep coming back. One detail in the book I found interesting is that the revenue from BM (or maybe it was a direct contribution) bought equipment. Now, that is clever. In my experience there is nothing Police, Fire, and Rescue types like more than shiny new trucks and toys!

    Similarly, the embrace of a leave no trace ethic was passionate concern meets political reality: they had to minimize their impact on the desert.

    One of the most interesting aspects to me, and one that may be interesting for all kinds of organizations, is how to maintain the feeling of belonging and social purpose while being open to the media. They experimented with various ways to bring the media in but empower them and the participants to set boundaries about what is coverable and what isn’t within the idea of “everyone participates.” That breaks down the gawking, voyeur quality of a lot of media coverage.

  7. Just an update:

    Burning man is trying to renew their permit for the next four years.

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