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Enabling Creative Chaos

The Organization Behind the Burning Man Event

In the summer of 2008, nearly fifty thousand people traveled to Nevada’s Black Rock Desert to participate in the countercultural arts event Burning Man. Founded on a commitment to expression and community, the annual weeklong festival presents unique challenges to its organizers. Over four years Katherine K. Chen regularly participated in organizing efforts to safely and successfully create a temporary community in the middle of the desert under the hot August sun.

Enabling Creative Chaos tracks how a small, underfunded group of organizers transformed into an unconventional corporation with a ten-million-dollar budget and two thousand volunteers. Over the years, Burning Man’s organizers have experimented with different management models; learned how to recruit, motivate, and retain volunteers; and developed strategies to handle regulatory agencies and respond to media coverage. This remarkable evolution, Chen reveals, offers important lessons for managers in any organization, particularly in uncertain times.


“Katherine Chen immersed herself in the world of Burning Man, the fascinating community that gathers annually for a week-long arts celebration in the Nevada desert. Her marvelous portrait of this unusual collective provides a rich template for considering how organizations of all varieties strike a balance between flexibility and fairness and creativity and security. This is one of the best organizational ethnographies I’ve seen in many years.”

Walter W. Powell, Stanford University

“From open source software to the 2008 election, organizational research has not yet come to terms with the conceptual and theoretical underpinnings of these new organizational forms. Katherine Chen has succeeded in writing an engaging ethnography of Burning Man and skillfully developed its implications for organizational theory and managerial practice. Bravo.”

Rakesh Khurana, Harvard Business School

Table of Contents

            List of Illustrations        



1          Introduction: The Perils of Under- and Overorganizing  

2          Context: The Development of the Burning Man Event and Organization 

3          “Do-ocracy”: Acting on Suggestions and Criticisms      

4          “Radical Inclusion”: Attracting and Placing Members    

5          “No Spectators”: Motivating Members to Contribute    

6          “Immerse Yourself”: Managing Relations in the Pursuit of Legitimacy     

7          Conclusion: Sustaining Creative Chaos 

            Appendix 1. Ethnography and Qualitative Research      

            Appendix 2. Interview Protocols          


            Reference List 



ASA Occupations & Organizations Section: Max Weber Award
Honorable Mention

Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action (ARNOVA): Outstanding Book in Nonprofit & Voluntary Action Research

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