Burning Man is an art festival and emerging culture centered on the ritual burning of a wooden effigy in Nevada each summer. It is a community made up of artists, misfits, LGBT individuals, and people who want to experience a different reality for one week. Each year 70,000 plus participants pay to attend the event and live in a temporary city that operates on a gift economy, where vending and corporate advertising is banned and people share a diverse array of playful, cultural practices with one another—free of cost. Over the past 29 years the Burning Man community has grown larger than this annual face-to-face event. Members are connected by the desert where they share their art and burn the Man each year, by the Internet when they are not together, and by regional collectives and groups that foster other times and places to gather and play.
I study the demographic make-up of this translocal community, its emerging culture, and playful ethos, and I investigate participants’ claims to have “transformative experiences” at their events. I have an active program of publically engaged, interdisciplinary research. For over ten years, I have received funding from the Burning Man community to study the demography of people in attendance at the event. In 2015 I managed a team of over 150 volunteer-participants’ collecting and sharing data on this unique population. For this project I brought together an international team of researchers studying Burning Man from different perspectives and our work contributes to scientific inquiry into the effect of sociocultural context on behavior, health, and social change. In addition, the community needs our research. Organizers use our findings to advocate in favor of this stigmatized community and the continued existence of the annual burn in Nevada, especially in their dealings with authorities at the local, state, and national levels of government. Our annual results can be viewed by the public on the official Burning Man website (journal.burningman.org/census/).
I collaborate with the following researchers on projects related to Burning Man:
- Kateri McRae – Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Denver
We have published our findings of the effect of sociocultural context on emotion regulation. Working with a psychologist from Oxford, Molly Crockett, we have recently received funding from the Templeton Foundation to study prosocial transformational experiences at Burning Man. We are currently seeking additional funding to study happiness and well being in this context.
- Dominic Beaulieu-Prévost – Department of Sexology at the Université du Québec à Montréal
- We are studying sexuality and health issues associated with relationships formed at Burning Man.
- Vernon Andrews – author of “The Control of Black Expression in American Sport and Society”
We are studying the experience of black people at Burning Man.
- Isabel Behncke Izquierdo – bonobo researcher from Chile at Oxford University
We are comparing playful behavior in adult humans and non-human primates.
- Yating Liang – Recreation, Sport, and Park Administration at Missouri State University
We are exploring visitors values and behavior from an event management perspective.