Charismatizing the Routine: Storytelling for Meaning and Agency in the Burning Man Organization
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- Chen, K.K. Qual Sociol (2012) 35: 311. doi:10.1007/s11133-012-9229-1
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Expanding organizations face the routinization of charisma dilemma in which rationalization, or everyday organizing activities, drains meaning and depresses agency. Using an ethnographic study of the organization behind the annual Burning Man event, I show how storytelling can combat disenchantment by promoting consideration of agency and meaning-making. This research demonstrates how storytelling infuses organizational rationality with meaning and agency, thereby “charismatizing the routine.” Through storytelling, people can derive meaning from even the most mundane routines and inspire listeners to imagine possibilities not covered by rules or conventions. Stories also stave off bureaucratic ritualism by clarifying the boundaries between appropriate and inappropriate activities, encouraging a range of actions over coercive restrictions.
KeywordsCharismaCharismatizing the routineMeaningOrganizationStorytelling
So ends a story shared by an attendee of Burning Man, an annual event devoted to the arts and community that manifests for a week in the Nevada Black Rock Desert. The event’s countercultural festivities are well-documented by the media, but what happens during the other 358 days? Throughout the year, organizers, staff, and volunteers make plans, develop and implement routines, and participate in meetings, trainings, and other activities, all of which support the goal of producing the event. Amidst this sea of organizational rationality, Burning Man supporters share stories via meetings, email discussion lists, and the official www.burningman.com website. Through these interactions, storytellers and audiences can collectively recapture enchantment, or a sense of meaning and magic, that otherwise is depleted by the routine, everyday mundanity of organizing activities.
“Burning Man, my favorite playground, best party on the planet, more magic per square foot than any place I’ve ever been…in your eyes, every sparkle tells a story.” (Lalla 2006)
The dilemma of how to intertwine rationality and enchantment is not limited to Burning Man. To sustain supporters’ efforts and commitment, expanding collectivities, especially those with large formal organizations, need to coordinate ordinary organizing tasks but still excite a sense of extraordinary wonder among members. These seemingly polar activities of maintaining and enchanting the collectivity consume voluntary and non-profit organizations that promote self-help, social change, or spirituality, as well as for-profit organizations, whether they produce or hawk environmentally or socially conscious goods, competitively priced goods or services, or experiences. Growing organizations face what Weber (1978) described as the “routinization of charisma” dilemma.
To survive their founders’ departures or to integrate new members in a growing organization, some collectivities introduce bureaucratic practices such as hierarchy, positions, and rules. Such practices supposedly enhance the technical efficiency of collectivities (Weber 1946/1958). On the other hand, neoinstitutionalists have argued that bureaucracy’s presumed efficiency is a myth and that bureaucracy has proliferated because organizations ritually conform to expected norms (Meyer and Rowan 1977). Irrespective of the specific reason or process underlying the adoption of these practices, such organizational rationalization can enhance a collectivity’s stability and survival. However, rationalization’s specification of means (practices) and ends (goals) can also have the unintended consequence of stripping members’ experiences of magic and meaning, thereby introducing disenchantment (Weber 1978). As wonder and excitement ebb with increasing rationality, members can become so alienated that they no longer feel that they can exercise agency, or the ability to act or consider action. They may stop participating or leave, accelerating their group’s decline. By subsuming the extraordinary to the routine or ordinary, collectivities can persist, but the depersonalized, universalistic organizing practices can disenchant and alienate members (Shils 1975).
Such consequences raise the question: How can collectivities routinize charisma without triggering disenchantment and alienation? Previous studies have examined how rationalization can convey charisma upon a larger entity, such as a community, formal organization, or institution (Eisenstadt 1968; Shils 1965), suggesting that rationalization and enchantment can co-exist. Numerous studies have examined storytelling as an important meaning-making activity (i.e., Polkinghorne 1988), with several researchers arguing that stories help individuals exercise agency in their individual lives or over public issues (Perrin 2006; Smilde 2007). However, with the occasional exception (Trice and Beyer 1986), studies have not explicitly connected storytelling with the dilemma of organizational rationalization’s “routinization of charisma.” In other words, prior studies did not address how stories help members deal with the undesired consequences of organizing—in particular, ensuring that organizations serve as a supportive tool that helps members contemplate alternative avenues of action, rather than just promoting elite interests or organizational maintenance. This omission is somewhat puzzling given earlier studies that identified how introduced organizing practices do or do not serve their members’ interests (e.g., Freeman 1973; Jenkins 1977; Staggenborg 1988). To bridge this gap, this paper builds on research about how shared stories and meaning underpin collective action (Fine 2002) and meaning-making within institutions (Mohr and White 2008). Thus, the paper examines how storytelling serves as a mechanism for meaning-making and promoting agency, thereby fostering enchantment, in the growing organization behind the annual Burning Man event.1 In doing so, this research links previously unconnected streams of research on storytelling, organizations, and the routinization of charisma dilemma.
When the Burning Man event first started in 1986 as a small summer solstice celebration, it did not need a formal organization. Twenty friends and family, including the event’s two co-founders, gathered around a bonfire of the eponymous sculpture on a San Francisco beach, ushering in an annual tradition. After the event moved to Nevada and ballooned from an evening bonfire into a weeklong city, it required year-round organizing efforts. To ease the coordination of increasingly complex tasks, such as securing resources and managing relations with governmental agencies, organizers formed the Black Rock City Limited Liability Company, hereafter referred to as the Burning Man organization.
As the predominantly volunteer-powered organization expanded, members and event-goers worried that increasing rationalization eroded their experiences of meaning. To combat such disenchantment, some Burning Man members engaged in what I call “charismatizing the routine”—infusing organizational rationality with meaning—through storytelling. Following Weick’s mantras of “stamp out nouns” (1979, 44) and “stamp in verbs” (1995, 187), I use the gerund charismatizing rather than the noun charismatization to emphasize that organizations are not static entities; rather, they consist of constant activities collectively enacted or carried out by individuals. Although storytelling is not the only way of revitalizing meaning, it has not been as well studied as rituals or other forms of collective meaning-making. By focusing on storytelling, I link together previously separate strands of research.
What “counts” as a story or narrative?2 Narratives include at least three characteristics: they recount past events and actors, they present events in a temporal order, and they relate events and actors with one another, typically in “opposition or struggle” (Ewick and Silbey 1995, 200). Stories may not comprehensively describe actors and events; they may lack content and details without diminishing their importance to listeners (Polletta 2006; Tilly 2006). However, they provide sufficient context for tellers and listeners to interpret and understand information (Feldman and Sköldberg 2002; Smith 2005). Like organizational routines (Feldman and Pentland 2003), stories have ostensive aspects—they contain abstract understandings of the structure of activities to be performed—and performative aspects—listeners can enact and adjust these shared models for particular contexts. In other words, stories provide a rich, contextualized basis for contemplating how to undertake otherwise unfamiliar rules or routines toward specified goals.
Using ethnographic and archival research on the growing organization behind the annual Burning Man event, I argue that through storytelling, rationalized organizing activities acquire meaning, thereby charismatizing the routine. First, stories help tellers and listeners consider exercising agency and engage in meaning-making, even with everyday, mundane routines. Stories allow people to share meaning drawn from experiences, as well as share information and inspire listeners to imagine possibilities not sufficiently covered by rules or conventions. Through stories, individuals can consider their agency. In other words, they can take action based on “social choices that occur within structurally defined limits among structurally provided alternatives” (Hays 1994, 65). Such actions can reinforce or reshape existing structures such as rules, norms, or goals. Stories’ expansion of collective knowledge and possibilities is crucial in guiding unfamiliar activities toward complex goals in uncertain environments. Second, stories stave off bureaucratic ritualism by clarifying boundaries that separate appropriate from inappropriate actions. I demonstrate how stories constitute a “soft” form of power, or informal social control that draws upon appeals to uphold a particular meaning, one that advocates a range of action over narrowly conceived ones. Such stories highlight how inappropriately interpreted guidelines conflict with these meanings and redirect actions toward desired activities.
This research on how storytelling charismatizes the routine makes three contributions. Connecting separate literatures on storytelling and organizations, this study examines how one type of everyday, shared organizational activity—the codification and dissemination of information and meaning via storytelling—can check undesired consequences of rationalization. Storytelling helps members explore organizing possibilities beyond conventional activities. Second, this study provides a nuanced understanding of how members are both collectively shaped by and shape organizing. These analyses show how storytelling can reinforce control by assimilating new and continuing members, as well as imparting meaning. On the other hand, these analyses also suggest how storytelling could catalyze change by articulating views and practices that can provoke contemplation of possible but otherwise unfamiliar organizing activities, an underexplored aspect in organizational studies. Third, in uncovering such micro-level interactions, we can more strongly link structure with agency. We gain insight into how shared cultural repertoires generate structures of meaning and activity, and we also learn about how members can draw upon and reformulate their cultural toolkits (Swidler 1986), or repertoires of organizing techniques and possibilities. Such research on storytelling in organizations can help us understand organizing paths, including ones not taken; in particular, storytelling can help members check excessive rationalization by more reflexively examining organizing possibilities and their associated meanings.
The Routinization of Charisma Dilemma
In some collectivities, including cults, communes, and companies, members obey and contribute because of their allegiance to charismatic authority, one of several ideal-types of authority identified by Weber (1968). In one definition, Weber argued that charisma is derived from members’ recognition of a leader’s exceptional qualities, which elicit members’ creativity and innovation in a tumultuous, disordered world. Others have expanded Weber’s definition to include charisma of the collectivity or group, such as a commune (Zablocki 1980) or a company (Biggart 1989). Although Weber’s definitions of charisma vary across his writings (Miyahara 1983), charisma is best understood not as a property or quality, but as part of a conundrum (Schluchter 1989): Collectivities that rely upon charismatic authority—whether derived from their leader or the collectivity itself—suffer from transience. Followers may abandon the group, or leaders may depart or become incapacitated, precipitating a collectivity’s survival crisis (Weber 1947/1968). To weather the departure of their founders or to mature, some groups institutionalize charisma by formally organizing. For example, successors assume leadership with rituals that highlight the transition of authority. The introduction of bureaucracy’s designated positions, rules, and procedures helps groups recover from turnover, integrate new members, and secure needed resources (Weber 1947/1966).
Although such structures can enhance a collectivity’s longevity, they are either difficult to implement or can inflict unintended consequences. For instance, when organizations operate in rapidly changing environments (Stinchcombe 1990), standardized organizing activities may be difficult to sustain. Moreover, rationalization could trigger an “iron cage” of ever-proliferating practices, rules, and structures (Weber 1947/1966), particularly when members face pressures to adopt such practices. Groups adopt these practices not for their superior efficiency but because they are pressured to do so by other organizations, such as the state and resource providers; they cope with uncertainty by copying practices of successful organizations; or by importing particular practices, professionals benefit in status and prestige (DiMaggio and Powell 1983). Efforts to enhance organizational stability, certainty, and predictability can drain members’ involvement of meaning; this disenchantment dampens members’ fervor (Weber 1947/1966). In addition, the over-specification of permissible activities can depress members’ agency (Adler and Borys 1996).
However, institutions, such as intentionally formed communities (Kanter 1972; Roth 1975; Zablocki 1980) and formal organizations (Beyer and Browning 1999; Biggart 1989; Clark 2005; Huang 2009; Trice and Beyer 1986), can become infused with charisma (Shils 1965). Members can “charge entities with charisma, for instance by imbuing something perfectly ordinary or mundane with a kind of enchantment” (Kärreman et al. 2006, 334). For example, organizational rituals instill “institutionalized awe” (Kanter 1972, 113–114; Clark 2005; Weber 1947/1968), reinvigorating members’ beliefs and reinforcing their commitment to their group (Biggart 1989; Huang 2009). Such rituals can also reinforce traditions, thereby intertwining charismatic, traditional, and rational-legal forms of authority (Clark 2005). When buffeted by demoralizing setbacks, social movement members reconnect with their collectivity by participating in rituals and gatherings with fellow members and leaders (Nepsted 2004). These not only help members deepen their convictions and identification with their collectivity, but also reinforce new routes of action (Effler 2010). Even bureaucratic practices can support enchantment. Although many experience routines as depersonalized, standardized activities (e.g., Leidner 1993), routines can also encourage members to build meaningful ties with others (Lopez 2006).
Although research on organizational culture does not explicitly address the link between charisma and symbolic management, in which founders, leaders, or managers promote goals and norms intended to impart direction and meaning (Shils 1968), such research concerns the same vein of shaping meaning. Using symbolic management, leaders manipulate catchphrases, rituals, and other symbols to bind members together and influence their activities, thoughts, and emotions (Hochschild 1983; Kärreman et al. 2006; Kunda 1992; Martin 1992; Martin et al. 1998; Van Maanen 1991). In particular, leaders use stories to orient, acculturate, and control members. Stories help contextualize rules and routines by sharing the rationales and history behind such structures (Boal and Schultz 2007). Stories also provide a compelling means for members to comprehend and enact the values and orientation of their organization, as posed by higher-ups (Kunda 1992; Martin 1992; Schein 1992). In social movement groups, stories build commitment by expressing and stirring emotions (Benford 2002; Davis 2002; Fine 1995; Polletta 2002). Such stories can also reinforce “clan” or normative control that depends on shared social knowledge among members (Wilkins and Ouchi 1983).
However, leaders’ attempts to impose meaning are tempered through the negotiated order, as members and leaders interact over how to carry out activities (Fine 1984; Strauss et al. 1963). Relationships among members, prior perspectives held by individuals, and other conditions moderate whether members adopt intended meanings or, instead, develop or retain their own (Hallett 2003; Hill-Popper 2006). Members may not internalize meanings intended by leaders, and they can resist or form their own subcultures (Chen 2012a; Grant et al. 2009; Hill-Popper 2006), disregarding or selectively implementing leaders’ directives (Fine 1984; Strauss et al. 1963). Discussions and clashes between leaders and members can unveil disagreements about appropriate organizing activities (Crozier 1964; Gouldner 1954). By examining interactions among members and leaders, we can see how they collectively establish mutual “understandings” of permissible activities.
During interactions, members engage in sensemaking, in which they collectively interpret their activities (Weick 1995, 2001). Storytelling aids sensemaking by helping members derive purpose from their actions (Boje 2008; Weick 1995). In incipient social movements, storytelling invites listeners to “imagine together an alternative social order” (Davis 2002, 24); in addition, repeated storytelling can help identify choices for future action (Polletta 2002). In linking past, present, and future efforts (Bartel and Garud 2009; Boje 2008), storytelling helps members discern meaning in their activities (Boje 2001, 2008; Czarniawska 1997); storytelling also guides and legitimatizes actions (Ochs and Capps 2001; Smith 2005), particularly in uncertain or ambiguous environments (Boyce 1996; Orr 1996; Tilly 2006). Storytelling may also play an important role in meaning-making among those doing seemingly monotonous, marginalized, unrewarding, or “dirty” work (i.e., Ashforth and Kreiner 1999; Martinez 2010; Perry 1978; Wrzesniewski et al. 2003).
Stories are ostensive in that they model how to carry out organizing activities. By providing heuristics for decision-making, presenting scripts for action, and signaling shared values and perspectives (Fine 1995; Wilkins 1983; Wilkins and Ouchi 1983), stories orient listeners toward desired actions (Boyce 1995). For example, through storytelling, church congregations promote the acceptance of gays and lesbians (Moon 2005). Examining stories thus can help uncover cultural schemas or the “logics or models for action and interaction” (Polletta 2006, 13) tapped by individuals and organizations. We can also understand day-to-day organizing activities that generate identity (Martin et al. 1983), memory (Boje 1991), learning (Boyce and Franklin 1996), and closure (Duckles et al. 2005).
Stories are also performative in that they can act as a springboard for agency, facilitating introspection about the ability to take action and how to adapt actions to circumstances. By cultivating a “subjunctive mood,” storytelling encourages audiences to consider alternates to convention (Wagner-Pacifici 2000; White and Epston 1990). Researchers expect a greater reliance upon storytelling in organizations whose members need to engage in rapid learning (McDonald 1991) or face turbulent environments (Peters and Austin 1985). In emerging for-profit organizations, storytellers tell stories to share leaders’ visions with others (Aldrich 1999), establish an organizational identity, and secure resources (Lounsbury and Glynn 2001). Similarly, stories help members make sense of incipient social movements (Polletta 1998a, b, 2006) and maintain organizational structures and respond to individual needs (Borkman 1999). Furthermore, storytelling can help members recover from blows to group solidarity (Effler 2010), reclaim agency in overwhelming circumstances—such as organizational change (Driver 2009)—and elicit feedback that can facilitate collective action during moments of extreme duress (Quinn and Worline 2008).
To summarize, several literatures have examined storytelling’s role in meaning-making—usually, by reinforcing topdown, organizational control over activities—and promoting agency by outlining larger goal and appropriate activities. However, these studies do not link storytelling with the routinization of charisma dilemma. This may partly be due to how such studies were conducted. Typically, studies examine widely circulated accounts, such as founding stories, available on websites, pamphlets, and public relations materials, rather than everyday stories told in situ with organizing activities. Moreover, organizational rationality is so taken-for-granted that members rarely question what ends bureaucratic rationality serves, much less whether these are desirable (Zucker 1983). Although recent studies of institutional entrepreneurship examine how organizations advocate less conventional markets or practices (i.e., Lounsbury and Crumley 2007; Suddaby and Greenwood 2005), like older neoinstitutionalist studies, these do not show how organizational members initiate unfamiliar activities. Nor do they delve into how practices such as storytelling serve as a mechanism that can stave off the “iron cage.”
Data and Methods
The Burning Man Research Setting
Building on the research of Zablocki (1980) and Biggart (1989), I examine efforts to routinize the charisma of an expanding collectivity, rather than that of a specific leader. The data for this study comes from extensive, in-depth qualitative research of the Burning Man organization. Each year, this organization and some 50,000 attendees create the evanescent “Black Rock City.” Participants revel in the event’s distinctive art, activities, and principles that emphasize community, participation, and a gift economy. The bonfire of a neon-illuminated, 40-foot-tall wooden figure, known as the “Man,” anchors the event’s festivities. An estimated 2,000 volunteers help construct the city’s grid and shelters for infrastructural services, place artists’ installations, work with media who cover the event, welcome and acculturate arriving event attendees, staff an information booth, patrol the event for medical, fire, and other emergencies, teach environmentally-conscious practices, and maintain IT and web services for the organization and event. Such members work year-round to coordinate the Burning Man event, collaborating through email lists, meetings, trainings, workshops, and mixers.
Prior studies have analyzed Burning Man to understand how organizations can engage in “artful” management (Hoover 2008), blend bureaucratic and collectivist practices that enable rather than constrain members’ efforts (Chen 2009), and innovate organizing practices (Chen 2011; Chen and O’Mahony 2009). Studies of event-goers’ experiences have argued that Burning Man’s inversion of conventions encourages reflexivity, catalyzing individual and collective change (Hockett 2005) and fostering transformation (Gilmore 2010; Pike 2001) and re-enchantment of relations (Kozinets 2002). However, the latter studies do not address how these phenomena unfold at the organizational level, as they concentrate on event-goers who are not involved in regular organizing activities outside of the weeklong event. This study links these strands of research by focusing on storytelling as a meaning-making mechanism that reinforces connection to an expanding collectivity.
Several features make the Burning Man setting ideal for analyzing how storytelling constitute organizing activities. First, leaders face the challenge of inculcating large numbers of newcomers and returnees with norms or “principles” about how to organize and interact that are often antithetical to societal conventions (Burning Man 2012b). For example, attendees are discouraged from passively consuming the event; instead, the Burning Man principle of participation exhorts them to prosume or co-create the event by volunteering, making art, and communing with others (Chen 2012b). Second, excluding the organizers, staff, and most active volunteers, many participants do not regularly interact face-to-face since Burning Man manifests only once a year, much like a seasonal gathering (e.g., Birnholtz et al. 2007; Coleman 2010) or groups that gather infrequently, like large religious groups (e.g., Huang 2009) or corporations whose members travel (e.g., Biggart 1989). Thus, Burning Man’s indoctrination efforts and interactions depend in part upon stories circulated orally or in print, usually via email, meetings, newsletters, and their website. These challenges make more visible storytelling activities that are typically taken-for-granted in more conventional organizations (i.e., Kunda 1992; Weeks 2004), as well as the development of collectivities like nation-states or large organizations where face-to-face contact among members is irregular or fleeting.3
Event-goers, volunteers, organizers, and other groups, such as the media, governmental agencies, and law enforcement, co-create the output of the Burning Man event (Chen 2009; Gilmore 2010; Kozinets 2002; Sherry et al. 2007). I therefore have included Burning Man attendees, identified as participants per Burning Man parlance, as part of the organizing efforts. I use the term members to include organizers, compensated support staff, and uncompensated volunteers. I also use the term organizers for leaders and the terms coordinators and managers for department or committee leaders. When referring to informants, I usually report their actual names or nicknames. The term theme camp denotes a group who camps together around a central motif that promotes interactions with passer-bys, such as hosting a “chill space” or running a disco roller-skating ring.
My data collection and analysis included observations of organizing activities and stories shared via emails, electronic newsletters, and the Burning Man website. I recorded field notes, often typing in real time on my laptop, of observed daily organizing efforts, meetings, volunteer trainings and mixers, and other activities at the organization’s headquarters. These intensive observations covered regular 3 to 8 month-long periods between July 1998 through January 2001. In addition, I conducted follow-up visits as recently as 2011, when I attended the Convectional Caucus and 5th Annual Burning Man Regional Leadership Summit. Over 150 leaders from San Francisco or Burning Man-affiliated groups in other locales across the US, Canada, and Europe attended this 3-day-long workshop on organizing local activities. I also volunteered for three departments and participated in 13 Burning Man events between 1998 and 2011. These observations and participant-observations documented interactions that comprised the negotiated order. Since such research captures storytelling in situ, I can focus on storytelling as constitutive of organizing (e.g., Boje 1991; Boudes and Laroche 2009). In addition, I interviewed 81 organizers and members about their organizing experiences and perspectives of Burning Man’s efforts. Interviewees included active and former volunteers and staff from various departments. During these interviews, some shared stories about their experiences or recalled stories shared during meetings and other interactions.
I also analyzed 145 writings on the publicly accessible Burning Man website’s “Tales from the Playa,” named after the Spanish word playa for an intermittently wet desert basin. “Tales from the Playa” invites writing as a form of “artistic expression,” indicating that “every effort would be made to post submissions as they are submitted” but cautions that submissions including “overtly illegal activity (such as drug use and public sexual acts)” will be returned for revision (Burning Man 2007). Posted stories and poems are dated between 2002 and 2007. Most contributions referred to experiences with Burning Man during the 2000s; a subset of stories revisited Burning Man’s earlier years during the 1990s. Several storytellers briefly described themselves, such as a “45-year-old business woman (mother, mother-in-law, grandmother, daughter, daughter-in law, wife) from Connecticut” (Kennedy 2005) or “a GI from New Jersey” (Orndoff Nd.), but most did not share such information. Details about gender, age, occupation, hometown, and number of Burning Man events attended appeared only on occasion. Of the 135 authors, 26 identified themselves as newcomers; a handful mentioned their ages as between 19 and 60. Stories ranged in length from a pithy one paragraph to several pages excerpted from longer accounts. I coded these stories by their mentions of the gift economy, art, music, transformation, and other topics.
In addition, I examined stories shared on electronic discussion lists and the Jack Rabbit Speaks newsletters. The former included a listserv subscribed to by leaders and members across the organization and another listserv that connected volunteers of a specific department. The Jack Rabbit Speaks newsletters, which shares information and tips regarding preparations for Burning Man or related activities, were composed by an organizer or staff and were emailed as frequently as once a week during the months leading up to the event. Currently, this newsletter reaches over 100,000 subscribers (Burning Man 2012a). Although stories in the Jack Rabbit Speaks newsletters and the “Tales from the Playa” section of the website are accessible to the public, their primary audience consists of new and returning Burning Man participants. When analyzed together, these written stories and observed face-to-face storytelling interactions capture both carefully recorded and spontaneously recounted stories intended for fellow participants. Unlike prior research that analyzes stories told by leaders to promote their organizations’ legitimacy to the public (i.e., Elsbach 1994, 2003) or to influence members (i.e., Martin 1992), my research focuses upon a wider variety of stories circulated among leaders, members, and participants. This research concentrates on how these stories help revitalize meaning and encourage agency among these parties.4
The Ubiquitous Iron Cage of Rationalization
In shifting from ad hoc to formal organizing, the Burning Man organization relied upon both bureaucratic and collectivist practices that emphasize expressiveness (Chen 2009). These organizing practices, coupled with Burning Man’s unusual output, suggest that the Burning Man organization offers copious opportunities for meaning-making and agency. Some might thus assume that Burning Man’s activities are irrelevant to more conventional, bureaucratic organizations. Some might also presume that conventional organizations lack opportunities for meaning-making and agency because their practices and outputs are highly specified.
However, these assumptions are erroneous for several reasons. First, research has shown that members of organizations that are not devoted to expression, including a staid British bank (Weeks 2004), a Midwestern insurance company (Linde 2009), governmental agencies (Feldman and Sköldberg 2002), public schools (Hallett 2010), and a discount behemoth (Moreton 2009), all use storytelling, rituals, and gatherings to engage in rich meaning-making. Second, even heavily bureaucratized organizations require members to exert agency. Not only do members have discretion about how and when to carry out practices (Lipsky 1980), but they also must improvise since routines and manuals are often insufficient for guiding activities. For example, by swapping stories that help diagnose and troubleshoot problems (Orr 1996), copier machine repair technicians have created a community-of-practice that encourages agency (Brown and Duguid 1991). Such research underscores how meaning-making and considering agency are important for all organizations. However, such research does not study how storytelling can help members deal with the unintended consequences of increasing organization.
Third, the Burning Man organization faces the same routinization of charisma challenge that confronts conventional organizations. For example, in an email to the Burning Man organizers and staff, one critic described how an inquiry about a department’s new procedures resulted in “Kafkaesque nonsense.” He complained that he and fellow event-goers felt “disillusioned and alienated,” arguing that the event had become “too normal, and not the escape it once was” because of increasing rationalization. Similarly, after a protracted meeting to review plans, several dispirited volunteers groused that these gatherings felt too much like “work,” and they wondered aloud whether they should continue attending. Likewise, organizers worried that “bigger is better is not a good idea” and that increased bureaucracy “makes us less accessible,” leading to constant discussions of what to do about these unintended consequences (Chen 2009, 2012a). These concerns indicate that disenchantment stalks even organizations that actively promote expression and meaning. By examining how Burning Man members have infused organizing with meaning and reinforce possible agency, this research provides insight into a dilemma that afflicts other organizations, including those with more conventional practices and outputs.
Stories Promote Exercising Agency and Meaning-Making
Most common themes from the Burning Man website’s “Tales from the Playa” section
Stories with this theme (N = 145)
Description of event
28 (19.3 %)
Mention of Black Rock Desert
29 (20 %)
Mention of art
59 (40.7 %)
Mention of theme camp
38 (26.2 %)
Mention of music
28 (19.3 %)
46 (31.7 %)
Moral or lesson about Burning Man
21 (14.5 %)
32 (22.1 %)
Getting unexpected help
13 (9.0 %)
24 (16.6 %)
7 (4.8 %)
23 (15.9 %)
21 (14.5 %)
Loneliness or loss
14 (9.7 %)
Emotions or free expression
11 (7.6 %)
Danger, injury, or illness
16 (11.0 %)
Sex, romance, or flirtation
14 (9.7 %)
DeLaHunt explained that the story was intended to convey the Black Rock Rangers’ philosophy about creatively redirecting situations on an ad hoc basis:
Danger showed up at the Rangers meeting to tell little stories that communicated the philosophy. Like he told a story … two artists had gotten into a fight, and one artist … gets into an argument with artist B is mad and decides to hit artist A’s artwork and damage it. And Danger tells us how he got summoned to…this dispute, and he made a unilateral decision of justice, saying [that] justice demands that artist A gets some kind of compensation or revenge, and so they decided that artist A would get to damage and deface artist B’s artwork. So Danger got a sledgehammer, and Danger took his Ranger hat off and put it on artist A’s head and gave him the sledgehammer and said ‘here, take a couple of whacks,’ and artist A took a couple of whacks, and Danger took his hat [and]…his sledgehammer back and said, ‘there, case closed.’
Such a story reinforced members’ agency under the guidance of Burning Man principles.
You look at the situation, and you come up with a just solution, and you implement it based on very situational ethics. And then you close it out there and don’t worry about what kind of precedent that creates. And that you also have … as a Ranger, great discretional authority to do unorthodox things as a way of making justice and harmony prevail.
At meetings, stories also fleshed out guidelines and rules with examples intended to encourage listeners’ agency in making connections and committing volunteers. For instance, at a training session for volunteer coordinators, Molly Tirpak emphasized how sharing stories could enhance the commitment of prospective volunteers: “How you get and keep those really great volunteers…I’m convinced that one of the key things is letting them in on poopy-scoopy.” She then told two stories to show how providing a context and making personal connections could hook people into contributing. In one story, a coordinator shared his life stories with volunteers while undertaking hard labor; this sharing helped build commitment: “I don’t know how Carl builds that trash fence five miles long [around the event site]….people are dying to be on his crew, it’s because Carl talks to them. He works his ass off, and he talks to them; he opens himself up to people.” In another story, an experienced volunteer mentored a recruit by recounting the historical context of the event, including stories of those involved in the event; this sharing helped the new recruit contextualize the importance of his own volunteer efforts.
Similarly, at other meetings, attendees recounted stories about how they transformed otherwise frustrating situations into positive experiences. For example, when invited to share “success stories” about volunteering for the Greeters—who are responsible for welcoming and acculturating new arrivals to the event—Susan Strahan, aka SweetThang, described how a participant, rather than fuming over the misfortune of waiting several hours for a locksmith, joined the Greeters instead: “This guy who got locked out of his car, he was greeting for 2 hours, and he came back [later] to be a Greeter!”
As these examples indicate, stories allowed tellers and listeners to situate themselves in on-going organizing activities. Stories not only demonstrated tellers’ agency in undertaking activities, but they also illuminated how listeners could similarly claim agency, especially during setbacks. During such storytelling moments, listeners appeared attentive and even electrified in comparison with meetings that lacked opportunities for story-telling exchanges. For example, at the 5th Annual Regional Summit, presenters shared stories about surmounting challenges before a rapt audience; attendees also swapped stories and tips in intimate clusters. In this revival-like atmosphere, a few listeners commented that they felt teary and inspired. Others cheered or bellowed jokes and memes to fellow attendees, indicating their engagement. When stories resonated with listeners, people not only nodded in support, but some also shared their own stories in response.
Observations and interviews revealed that such storytelling encouraged a community-of-practice or meaning-making. For example, at the end of a meeting of Media Mecca, a team of volunteer public relations specialists who work with the media, the leader asked each meeting attendee to share preparation experiences during the remaining few weeks before Burning Man. One meeting attendee recounted a past Burning Man experience of bringing newcomers, otherwise known as virgins in Burning Man parlance, and her plans to repeat this: “I brought 14 virgins last year from London and Sydney. I swore I’d never do this again. This time, it will be 17 [newcomers]…These people have not met before; they’re coordinating themselves. It could be a complete disaster, but it’s working out.” In response, Margot Duane, a professional photographer, suggested documenting their camp’s activities, showing how stories could help listeners brainstorm possible actions: “I’m going to infiltrate you guys. That’s an intentional community that I want to shoot.” In addition, storytelling reinforced the meaning of organizing efforts, as exemplified by the following narrative told at the same meeting. Fiona Essa admitted how her initial dread of the event had transformed into anticipation: “I’ve been doing 80-hour weeks for Burning Man….It was an amazing learning experience; every group has amazing people….Before, I was not looking forward to Burning Man at all; now, I’m stoked.”
Through storytelling, participants shared experiences that contextualized Burning Man principles of community, participation, and radical self-reliance (i.e., taking care of one’s physical and mental health), preparing listeners for likely challenges in their collective endeavors. At an emergency services meeting for Black Rock Rangers, attendees swapped stories when asked, “What was your most interesting last call?” Volunteer Delta Lima recounted how she patrolled the event to rescue those who were sleeping in the open, exposed to the searing sun: “I picked up young moonwalkers, stretched over tires at 10 am, like baked chickens.” She explained that moonwalkers were “people who, in middle of the night, head for the moon or light source.” The volunteers then shared cautionary confessionals about needing medical attention or rest to recuperate from heat exhaustion and dehydration, reminding listeners to take care of themselves.
Graham concluded his story with the lesson, “You’ll form relationships beyond the event,” encouraging volunteers to reach out to seemingly hardened professionals. Such stories demonstrated how listeners had the agency to transcend challenging conditions and creatively bring the event’s principles to life.
Romy, he was hardass photographer. By day four [of the event], he had a fannypack, two cameras, and nothing else. That was’98. By’99, someone drives up in a car with New York state license plates—it’s the naked photographer!
Likewise, in a September 25, 2002 email to the Media Mecca list, a volunteer described how he stopped to help a stranger collect papers strewn along the road in his hometown, only to find out that both their actions were influenced by Burning Man’s environmentally conscious principle of “Leave No Trace”:
Our group … decided to donate some physical labor to Burning Man since we had read that you must participate and build this event to make it all work.…We went out the maze and found the first guy with a construction belt on and asked how we could help….From about 10:00 AM to 1:00 PM, we nailed the walls of the maze in place. It was hot, sweaty, and dirty, but out here, I would get my first lesson that nothing goes unpaid. I came upon a man that was working on the lighting system and started talking to him. I told him my story, he told me his, and then he showed me the trick to getting around the maze. That really made my day. (Orndoff Nd.)
Such stories conveyed how deepening commitment to Burning Man principles could generate meaning and connections, both during and after the event. Audiences could contemplate applying principles beyond the event, thereby reconfiguring cultural toolkits and fostering meaningful interactions within society at large.
Today i was driving home … and i saw someone trying picking up a load of papers that were blowing all over the road. and i stopped to help and then someone else stopped and all three of us were picking up these papers … i find out that the first person was just trying to clean up the mess, the papers didn't even belong to her. so i say, well i just got back from burning man and a major value there is--and she interrupts me and says--really? i just got back from burningman too. and we ended up chatting right … and i found out that there's a group of b-man folks who congregate in the morning for coffee at peets in palo alto and so now i've got some local connects...cool huh?
Such stories not only underscored how the gift economy extended beyond the conventional exchange of material items to shared experiences, but also underscored how creative and mundane actions alike fostered mutual meaning-making.
Whether you make a cup of coffee for the folks camped next door or help someone you hardly know unzip the back of their costume in preparation to use the port-a-potty, you can be a participant of Burning Man.…If you reach inside of you, chances are you will enjoy Burning Man. (Anonymous Nd.)
Such stories conveyed how fulfilling responsibilities, even under challenging circumstances, fostered meaning and communion with others.
Monday. A stalwart few of us struggle to finish cleaning camp in 80–90 % whiteout…. Grumpier and grumpier we get, muttering … What the hell are we doing here, anyway?
Suddenly, a thin, bent guy in a wheelchair comes racing out of the swirling dust…he zips along, head thrown back and tongue slightly out, a grin of utter ecstasy on his face. He appears grinning out of the dust, and a moment later disappears grinning into the dust again.
We stare after him long after the dust has swallowed him up. We imagine how unusual it must be for him to be out here in the elements, able to race his wheelchair as fast as he likes with the wind and dust on his face.
Grins return to our faces as well. Ah yes, that’s what we’re doing out here. (Gasperini Nd)
In reacquainting storytellers and audiences with moments of magic and wonder, stories charismatize the routine. Stories not only helped listeners anticipate possibilities not covered by rules and goals, but also locate their actions within a meaningful collectivity.
Sooo, I’ve been feeling distant. It’s been 6 months [since I attended Burning Man]….So I jaunt over to the burningman.com website, re-visit the tale of Katweasel and realize, fuck, I had the best time of my life at that place. I’ve never been so blissfully free of expectations, both my own and others’, and now, after this diatribe, I’m not feeling so distant anymore. (Cochran 2005)
Stories Stave off Bureaucratic Ritualism
Although some stories encouraged listeners to reach beyond convention to find meaning and connection, other stories illuminated the contours separating desirable from undesirable actions. The latter stories sought to advance particular meanings and courses of action over other possible interpretations of principles. Event co-founder Larry Harvey grimaced as he explained how some event-goers enforced the mantra “participate” with an “almost fascist slant.” Explaining that “people half get it,” he anticipated having to “educate” people about the principle of participation. He and fellow members and organizers worried about the use of Burning Man principles to justify abuse of others and their contributions. Experiences reported on listservs and during informal meetings, as well as repeated observations of the event, revealed that self-appointed enforcers pecked away at perceived transgressions of Burning Man principles. Targets included those who were not attired in colorful or revealing costumes or whose activities were deemed as spectatorship (i.e., gawking without participating or visiting for the day or weekend rather than the weeklong duration). Or, on the grounds that Burning Man encouraged free expression, individuals instigated incivilities, such as verbally harassing passers-by or setting others’ artwork on fire.
In a more conventional organization, such actions are immediately recognizable as bureaucratic ritualism, in which members follow rules to the letter, rather than appropriately applying them to the context (i.e., Merton 1957). Unchecked, such actions could alienate and disenchant supporters of the growing event and its organization, undermining the event’s principles of inclusion and community. Because guidelines often lack context, storytelling became an important way of explicating that context. At first glance, such storytelling appears to routinize the charisma through more explicit specification of appropriate activities, rather than charismatizing the routine. However, such storytelling reminded listeners that the purpose of guidelines is not to coercively apply them to restrict members’ agency, as commonly done in overly rationalized collectivities, but to encourage a range of activities that support the larger collective. Such stories thus reinvigorated meaning and inspired agency.
Goodell used this and other incidents to educate readers about how attendees participated in ways that were not as visible as wearing elaborate costumes or building an art installation (Goodell 2001b; c).
I was mortified. Here were local citizens that allow us to camp in their back yard each year.… Most are ambivalent about our presence, but very very few have done anything to keep us away.…
Listen, so many organizers are so exhausted from their work at the event they hardly have time to don a costume. Wouldn’t you feel embarrassed if you hassled me? Wouldn’t you feel embarrassed if you harassed someone who’d put in 200 volunteer hours working for the Tech Teams? …
Don’t judge a book by it’s [sic] cover. (Goodell 2001b)
Dr. Lizard, the author, explained that the inspiration for costuming occurred in 1993, Burning Man’s third year in the Nevada Black Rock Desert, during a cocktail hour at sunset:
There’s a long-running argument over whether “dressing up” in a costume is “participating” at Burning Man….to set the record straight, i felt i ought to tell this story. From the historical perspective. Because in the “early days,” we didn’t wear costumes at Burning Man.
This account humanized a taken-for-granted practice by identifying its introduction by a group marginalized in larger society, implicitly reminding listeners of the goal of community. Such context could promote greater reflexivity about the relationship between means and ends. With a mixture of such appeals and education, these stories discouraged mistreating others in favor of inclusion.
A troupe of fully decked-out and frocked-up drag queens from San Francisco came sauntering up to the party….They had pulled out all the stops. Velvet corsets, fishnets, enough make-up to embarrass Mary Kay herself. Boots, heels…stilettos. Vermilion, burgundy; skirts, lace, garters. In the glow of the sun-streaked sky their outfits were positively stunning. The conversation ceased, and something—something just *clicked*….The next year, most of us came back with costumes. (Lizard 2003)
Goodell acknowledged that the culprits were unlikely to read the newsletter and thus would not learn this lesson. Nonetheless, she encouraged readers to step forward and question actions, thereby enabling their agency, rather than standing mutely aside (Goodell 2000).
One participant told me a story of watching three people struggle to light a piece on the playa. They succeeded and moved onward. It was only after they departed that this person realized the piece was not theirs to burn, the story became even sadder when the artist and his family approached the piece and in his devastation accused the small group warming their hands of having lit the fire. PLEASE. There is no need for this. (Goodell 2000)
This depiction rendered the group’s claim to free expression moot. In a similar vein, one “Tales from the Playa” story about an art performance gone awry cautioned that proponents of free expression had to also consider community:
Radical self-expression means that you reach into yourself and then you take that and you present whatever that is to other people as a gift… It doesn’t mean that you just do anything you want, man! …. it’s not a gift to say, “I’m going to fuck your little girl.” That’s not a gift! That’s abuse! (Interview with Larry Harvey, October 25, 2000)
Such stories suggested that those who cloaked destructive interactions under the principle of radical self-expression better be prepared for a negative reaction, rather than beatific acceptance, from others.
I remember being by the Emerald City [theme camp] … when this Evil Fucking Clown with a green mohawk took the stage with his drums and screamed into the mic: “Is this broken yet?!” He then smashed it on the ground and then went “Well now it is!” …. While in line at the Costco Soul Trading Center [theme camp] the next day, I overheard the couple behind me talking about the incident and how after I left, the Evil Fucking Clown did this violent performance art piece and then thrashed himself on the floor. When he was done, the Sound Engineer … kicked the clown in the back of the head and cursed him out for breaking his mic. The girl who was telling me this story felt that even though the clown was out of line so was the sound engineer …. and that punching the clown in the head didn’t accomplish anything and I was all, “Yeah, but you gotta remember, not everyone’s a Buddhist. You antagonize some people and they’ll turn the other cheek. Antagonize others and they will respond with violence.” (Bolger Nd.)
While meeting attendees chuckled about the ignominious fate of the Ralph Nader stickers, Harrison outlined how such well intentioned but problematic trash disposal efforts jeopardized the event’s future. Harrison ended her story with a reminder of the implicit social contract between the organization and the participants to jointly enact the event: “The community bears an enormous responsibility for doing more this year.”
I have…a partial list of what they found: an entire rack of ribs, entire chickens, entire watermelons, fruit, paper plates, clothing and shoes, a full one gallon of urine. Forty-gallon bags of waste from RVs, batteries, one thousand Ralph Nader Green Party bumper stickers.
This final story exemplifies how storytelling can charismatize the routine in a full-circle. First, a story highlights how individual actions misguidedly enact a principle. These actions and their possible consequences prompt discussion and promote agency—in this case, people cultivate agency by implementing creative solutions; storytelling also imbues seemingly mundane activities with meaning. In other words, stories facilitate contemplative interactions, reconnecting individual actions with the larger collectivity. Together, people could explore alternatives, expanding possibilities for action and infusing rationality with meaning.
We placed an early article in the Jack Rabbit Speaks to inform the community about the problem, and invited interested citizens to join our pottie discussion list on the topic….The list generated hundreds of signs placed at each toilet bank, public service announcements for the radio stations, a “Pooping Man” logo (seen on t-shirts, dust kerchiefs, etc.), lots of activity on many other community email lists and discussion groups, and more bad puns than you could possibly imagine. The Black Rock Gazette [the now-defunct event newspaper] team jumped in with an article in the Gate edition, the Greeters added a crash course on pottie etiquette to their welcoming spiel, and the signs on Gate Road reminded incoming citizens of what (not) to do. The final result renewed our faith in our community: when people are educated about what is needed, we ARE capable of adjusting our behavior to make our city run smoothly (and our potties stay clean). (Burning Man 2001)
As organizations formalize organizing practices, their increasing rationality can inflict disenchantment and alienation, draining meaning, and sapping agency from members. I argue that storytelling infuses organizing activities with meaning and promotes consideration of agency, thereby charismatizing the routine. Storytellers and audiences can contemplate the significance of their efforts, including mundane, routine activities such as cleaning up or mediating disputes. Stories also delve into the tensions generated between desired and undesired actions, creating additional opportunities to co-create meaning. Such meaning-making invigorates a connection and commitment to the collective, curbing the disenchantment and alienation believed to afflict growing organizations and communities.
However, storytelling is not the only means of enhancing enchantment. Like other groups (i.e., Biggart 1989; Coleman 2010), the Burning Man organization hosted periodic face-to-face gatherings, where people could commune. As others have shown, rituals are also an important way of revitalizing meaning-making (i.e., Clark 2005; Huang 2009).6 For example, to welcome and integrate new recruits at training orientations, the Black Rock Rangers jump en masse while holding hands over a line drawn in the ground to symbolize their collective entering of a new experience. In other departments like Media Mecca, representatives concoct quirky questionnaires for newcomers to answer on a listserv, eliciting witty or heartfelt introductions. At the 5th Annual Regional Summit, Harley Dubois recommended bonding volunteers with “traditions.” Citing a potluck as an example of a tradition, she commented, “each group will find its own habits.” However, departments walked a fine line in cultivating “esprit de corps” among members. Although these practices bonded their members within a specific department, they could also intensify rivalries with other departments rather than uniting members under a common purpose (Chen 2012a). Moreover, these practices may not facilitate reflection about the benefits or drawbacks of particular organizing activities to the degree that stories do. Rather than just replicating well-worn rituals, stories invite storytellers and listeners to reflect on possibilities.
Previous research has focused on stories’ ostensive aspects by examining how leaders inspire commitment and exert control over members’ activities via storytelling. Since such studied organizations’ management are concerned with motivating members and maintaining control, this focus is not surprising. My research adds another dimension by examining stories’ performative aspects; interactions via storytelling encourage storytellers and audiences to co-create or rework meaning, possibly shaping subsequent activities. Stories also emphasize agency, creating a space for imagining possibilities not adequately conveyed by rules or routines. Such reminders that the locus of agency resides among members, and not just their supervisors, can be potent. This is particularly evident when members use storytelling to argue that their organization should be more responsive to their interests, especially when the organization’s goal recognizes the importance of reflecting members’ interests (Chen 2009). The resulting shared repertoires invite members to rethink their activities and even reformulate their toolkits for society at large.
Studies of a variety of organizations, including corporations (Boje 1991; Martin et al. 1983; Orr 1996), voluntary associations (Moon 2005; Polletta 2006), and governmental agencies (Jackall 2005) suggest that the latter form of storytelling is not idiosyncratic. Further research could compare how charismatizing the routine via storytelling works at different stages during organizations’ development. For example, prior research has illuminated how storytelling helps listeners envision a nascent organization’s potential, thereby cultivating legitimacy and attracting funds (Lounsbury and Glynn 2001), whereas storytelling helps more mature organizations cohere and re-invigorates members’ involvement (Biggart 1989; Borkman 1999; Effler 2010). As organizations increasingly coordinate complex tasks in multiple, changing environments, we are likely to observe growing reliance upon storytelling. Moreover, developments in communication technology, such as blogging and social networking sites, offer additional opportunities for interactive storytelling among a wider swath of participants. In addition, such technology can preserve and disseminate the rank-and-file’s stories that might otherwise disappear. Future research could examine similarities and differences in storytelling among leaders, managers, and the rank-and-file.
Building on prior research, this research resituates charisma as part of an interactive process involving collectivities, rather than a static quality of individual persons. By charismatizing the routine, storytelling helps render the ordinary extraordinary. This research also demonstrates how storytelling is one mechanism by which individuals collectively make sense of their activities, allowing them to connect with a larger whole. By examining activities in situ, we can see how members can draw meaning and conceive of agency. These highlight how through storytelling, members can connect with others or take action without mindlessly resorting to conventional organizing practices and their associated undesired consequences. In other words, such research offers insight into how charismatizing the routine can break the dreaded iron cage.
Building on pragmatism and prior conceptualizations of mechanisms, Gross (2009) defines a social mechanism as “composed of chains or aggregations of actors confronting problem situations and mobilizing more or less habitual responses” (368). Although actors rely upon repertoires of thought and action, they may also develop novel activities that can alter these chains.
Starbuck (1993, 1998) discusses how “extreme” cases shed insight into phenomena that “average” cases cannot. Similarly, Small (2009) argues that qualitative research has the advantage of logical inference through saturation and that pursuing statistical generalizability of the “average” case is inappropriate.
See Chen (2009) for how volunteers worked with the media to shape stories for those unfamiliar with Burning Man.
Structures such as rules help underpin action and even improvisation (Feldman and Pentland 2003). Otherwise, “without rules, there is no ground for, and no direction to, one’s personality, and therefore no possibility for conscious, purposive action” (Hays 1994, 61).
This research was supported by the Harvard Graduate Arts and Sciences and the Social Science Research Council’s “Corporation as a Social Institution.” Special thanks for suggestions made by the Editor and anonymous reviewers. I also thank John Chin, Gerald Davis, Gwendolyn Dordick, David J. Frank, Joseph Galaskiewicz, J. Richard Hackman, Lily M. Hoffman, Jacqueline Johnson, John Krinsky, Howard Lune, Peter V. Marsden, Miranda Martinez, Stephen Steinberg, the Davis Conference on Qualitative Research, ICOS at University of Michigan, the Faculty Fellowship Publications Program at CUNY, MAJAC, and writing groups at Harvard University and William Paterson University for comments made on earlier presentations and drafts of this paper. All errors are mine.