Socialization within the “Burning Man” community

Socialization within the “Burning Man” community

Sumedh Chatterjee


Burning Man is an annual art event in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada. It attracts a large community of people who stay there temporarily. The mission of burning man is to produce a positive spiritual change in the world. Similar to the Esalen Institute, Burning Man is now an expanded organization, which has founding principles just like it.  This paper explores the socialization of the community associated with this event and the social construction of this event.  This is analyzed in the light of theories from different experts in the field of cognitive sociology/social psychology such as  Stryker, Cooley, Pagis, Holloman, Brekhus, Becker, Goffman, Fine, Heider & Weiner and others.

Research shows that the Burning Man community is adequately self-sustaining and wants to overthrow authority. It has a rule that goes – “say YES to everything”. It is important that the members of the community participate at Burning Man event.  Burning a wooden man (effigy) is a metaphor for overthrowing authority. The event brings to light Stryker’s views that “human beings are an active agent of behavior, not just a passive respondent to external stimuli”. The videos and pictures related to the burning man event show how  “Burning man” has a real bohemian vibe to it. The ways people are dressed seem to breach normality. The community of burning man is diverse and there is definitely an emphasis on freedom. It attracts a lot of youth because of this quality.

The transformative quality of the burning man community has a lot to do with the experiences that the community had to go through. It had to move out from a site of more conformity -a California beach to one with less conformity -the rocky mountainous desert scenario in Nevada. This reminds me of Cooley’s theory of the looking glass self, which states that we see ourselves, through the mirroring of how others see us.  Pagis talks about shifting attention of humans to the sensations in our bodies. This is probably the meditative quality that the people in the Burning Man community have from restorative experiences. Holloman’s article speaks about “psychic openings” which is a ritual manifestation of emotions. This seems to happen a lot within the burning man community and during the event, without the members actually thinking about it. Just being a part of this environment and watching a burning effigy can have a transformational quality.

William Brekhus splits humans into three groups. Are the people in Burning Man community -Lifestylers, Commuters or Integrators? There seem to be broad ranges of social categories that come into play. Most of the people working on art and the installations would be commuters (something they do) , a large portion of the community is likely to be lifestylers (something they are- e.g. Free-spirited, hippies)  and a lesser portion would be integrators (a part of them but not something directly related with their sense of self and what they do). Most people who go to Burning Man, seem to want to do so because they are 1. Visual people -like seeing art and aesthetic beauty, 2. Free-minded and Liberal -don’t have any pre-conceived notions and are liberal minded, 3. Fantasy-Oriented -escape from reality, and move away from the norm). The community people say that it’s cathartic; it’s difficult not to reevaluate life and how one lives until one lives in the Burning Man lifestyle. It forces people to be creative and delve into the art world along with some idealism.

There is a sense of risk associated with the Burning Man, as one comes with a ticket that essentially says that he/she may die. It gives a person the opportunity to be truly self-sustaining and self-reliant and bring everything that he/she needs. However, it is also a place for self-expression and according to some participants ‘Burning Man’ is the ultimate expression of human catharsis. The reason this place seems so oddball is because it has no institutional cache attached to it. The idea of Burning Man is that when everybody is sharing, everybody has enough.

Goffman has a theory on the presentation of self, in which he describes social interaction and life, as if it is a performance. He also talks about saving face. This sociological concept by him , means the positive social value a person claims for himself. In Burning Man event and community, it would probably be a place where people are constantly performing but for themselves.  People are constantly shelving each other’s back, so there is a lot of “saving face”- The individuals are free to do whatever and not be judged, however there is definitely a possibility for arguments. I refuse to believe that this temporary society does not have any disputes. It could be interesting to see how these disputes are handled. In the terms and agreements of burning man, Black Rock City, LLC reserves the right, but has no obligation, to monitor disputes among the users.

Howard Becker talks about the social basis of a Drug-Induced experience. He states that when a user takes a drug, mainly a hallucinogen, they experience the world subjectively and it can induce or imitate psychosis. Drug related fatalities are actually fairly uncommon, it seems that most burners realize that wandering into the desert with a head full of LSD to have spiritual experience might not be as good of an idea as it sounds, and take necessary precautions. A Hong Kong fashion model was busted on felony drug charges at the Burning Man counterculture festival and crashed her rented motor home into Reno’s landmark arch.

It is interesting to see whether the people who join the community are attracted to the risk associated with Burning Man. There are people who are classed as “adrenalin junkies”. The “high” one get from dangerous or risky activities is similar to the high one would get from cocaine or amphetamine , only more so. The effect of these stimulants is to flood the brain with dopamine; an adrenaline high is similar. Burning Man itself is an adrenalin filled environment that could by itself recreate a drug-like psychedelic atmosphere. Also being surrounded by the desert heat definitely has a somatic response, affecting the brain (consciousness) in some way.

Berger states in his article “The Social Foundations of Human Experience” that that humans must interpret, define and endow their environment with meanings so as to respond to it effectively. For burners (people who go to Burning Man) life has set up an objective reality from birth, society is telling them what they should be from what they see. At Burning Man, this rule is broken, everyone is treated equally and it is a shared experience.  Any negative stereotypes placed upon the individual by society are removed at this annual art event. The focus is on unity not on individuality. However, the ironic aspect of this is, it’s also all about self-expression, which seems to be a very outward, projection of oneself or their independent thought. Burners want to stand out creatively but also fit in. In a certain sense, burners are walking contradictions.

Fine’s article discusses, social groups and culture creation. I believe that the hippy subculture has a collective identity and the scene that may bring them together is in fact, the event of “Burning Man”. The ritual of art and creation creates an emotional collectivity and a shared mood (Heider and Warner).

Originally imagined as an experiment in creating a utopia where the restrictions of modern life – the nine-to-five rat race, laws and confining societal norms – vanish, the event’s popularity and scope has now exceeded even the creators’ wildest dreams.

On a personal level I would love to immerse myself in the freedom and awe associated with the Burning Man experience and cope with the hardships of life. This in itself is like a spiritual experience where freedom and self-reliance are quite significant.

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