burning man round table discussion at the society pages

Several sociologists (Matt Wray, Jon Stern, and myself) and an anthropologist (S. Megan Heller) have a round table discussion on Burning Man at the Society Pages. We’ve all done research at Burning Man, an annual temporary community in Nevada that has inspired events and organizations worldwide.

Have a peek at our discussion, which includes ideas for future studies. We discuss answers to questions such as:

Why might the demographics of the Burning Man population be of interest to researchers? For instance, there is a cultural trope that people who go to Burning Man are often marginalized individuals—outsiders in some way. Could the festival’s annual Census be used to measure this rather subjective characteristic of the population? Is there a single “modal demographic” (that is, a specific Burner “type”) or are there many? What else does the Census Lab measure (or not measure)?


Burning Man sometimes gets portrayed as little more than a giant rave—a psychedelic party on the playa. It is like a party in many ways, but those of us who go know that the label doesn’t begin to capture the full experience. What larger phenomena does Burning Man represent in your research? In other words, how do you categorize the event and why should we take it seriously?

Going to Burning Man? Check out the un-conference schedule. Looking to volunteer? Start with this post.

A 2003 San Francisco billboard ad for a voluntary association references Burning Man.  As Burning Man's popularity and legitimacy have increased, other organizations and individuals have sought to expropriate the Burning Man name, imagery, and output for their own use.  Photographer unknown.

(Unfortunately, this photo didn’t make it into my book because the image quality wasn’t sufficient for a black and white reprint.) A 2003 San Francisco billboard ad for a voluntary association references Burning Man. As Burning Man’s popularity has increased, other organizations and individuals have sought to expropriate the Burning Man name, imagery, and output for their own use. Photographer unknown.

Written by katherinechen

August 14, 2013 at 8:09 pm

3 Responses

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  1. Great discussion, Katherine. The Rainbow Gatherings also started in San Francisco, but these much earlier (mid to late 70s?) when policing got heavier on Haight Street and kicked the hippies out — so they went to the national forests to party. At least that’s the history I learned at the Nationals in 2004.

    They’re roughly the same phenomenon as Burning Man, except lots more broke hippies and gutter punks who do intentional poverty and drug use as a lifestyle rather rather than upper middle class whites and graphic designers taking vacations from their well-paying jobs to invest in art installments. Rainbow family also attempt a gift economy, get high for a week straight, set up tent cities, leave no trace (the National Forest Police continue to let them happen because they’re so good about cleaning up), take on fake names, do morning Yoga, have drum circles, and so forth.

    None of these people would be afforded the opportunity to make a symbolic ritual out of being wildly unproductive (i.e. ditching our usual division of labor and cooking all of their own food, building their own shelters, and dancing several hours a day), were it not for the incredible productive capacity of market societies.

    With the loose themes of tribalism, imported African Djembe drums, inefficient barter economies, and so forth, these phenomena look like cargo cult reenactments of Noble Savage myths and Marshal Sahlin’s style Original Affluent Society — except they lack precisely the material poverty that allegedly made the Original Affluent Societies so much more affluent in meaning and expression.


    Graham Peterson

    August 14, 2013 at 9:52 pm

  2. Hi Graham, sorry that the spam filter delayed the publication of your comment and thanks for your thoughts about the Rainbow Gathering. In an email, you asked about ethnographies about the Rainbow Gathering. I know of one: Michael I. Niman’s People of the Rainbow: A Nomadic Utopia (1997, University of Tennessee Press). Maybe readers know of others.

    As for where are the hippies and punks at Burning Man, there used to be an internal Burning Man joke about calling not-wanting-to-labor (i.e., lazy) hippies a “code 48” – look at my chapter on motivating volunteers. Punks still have a presence at Burning Man; see Chicken John (known for Circus Redickuless) and the Dept. of Public Works (DPW) crowd.

    If you want to know more about the SF milieu behind Burning Man, John Law has co-edited a new book on the Cacophony Society that may be of interest – see



    August 26, 2013 at 6:22 pm

  3. Yeah at Rainbow Gatherings, the gutter punks who don’t want to work and literally want to get drunk all day stay at “A” Camp — Alcohol Camp toward the front entrance (these are the street kids who show up in your town wearing dirty military fatigues, their dogs, and a Hep C infection begging for money). Drinking is otherwise discouraged at Rainbow; copious amounts of LSD and Psilocybin encouraged.

    I think you have a point in separating these free loading gutter punks from other contributing community members, and they’re easy to pick on. They have a reputation for violence, hard drug addiction, disrespect, and so forth.

    It’s also amazing to watch the local riff-raff drift into Rainbow Gatherings and other intentional communities like the Emergency Kitchen and other camps that went up after Katrina. These kinds of communities attract a non-zero population of felons with warrants and other deviants.

    I’m all for week-long campouts and artistic conventions where people get loose and take on a new social role. I just think the ways in which these groups consider their lifestyle and organization an alternative to, and dramatically different from, more common social organizations, is wildly overblown. One of the principle reasons I went back to the philosophical drawing board in my early twenties was because of how not-different these organizations looked to me from the wider society, despite my biggest hopes. Seeing that “genuine alternatives” really didn’t exist, I set out to understand why the modal organization functions like it does, and the potential benefits it provides as against the confused criticisms in Adbusters Magazine and at art parties.



    August 26, 2013 at 6:43 pm

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