What summer festivals can teach us about people

| February 14, 2019

Last month’s Rainbow Serpent Festival, an annual gathering in regional Victoria that attracts more than 15,000 people, has received lot of media coverage. Unfortunately, most coverage focussed on drug use and arrests, rather than the positive experiences that attract festival goers.

What is being missed in this commentary is that the Rainbow Serpent Festival is part of a wider global emergence of what have been labelled ‘transformative festivals’.

These include Boom in Portugal, Ozora in Hungary, and Burning Man in the United States. Research on this community-building festival culture is yielding valuable new insights into how people relate to each other, are motivated and work together.

The research on transformative event culture is still very much in its infancy. That said, we do have some evidence from a range of disciplinary backgrounds, including religious anthropology, organisational sociology, psychology and management.

Overall, these studies point to the social and cultural significance of these types of events. We are also gaining a more robust understanding of the experiences participants can have, and what we may learn from these grand social experiments.

Most of the research has so far focused on Burning Man (though Whirl-Y-Fayre in the United Kingdom and Boom are also attracting study). Burning Man occurs for one week in late-August in the Nevada desert. It attracts approximately 70,000 people each year.

Participants build a temporary city that includes interactive spaces dubbed ‘theme camps’, a sacred temple and a wide variety of art. It’s also become the inspiration for over 80 regional ‘burns’ around the world – festivals that model the ethos and structure of the Nevada event.

One of the central themes in the research is the notion of change or transformation. A recent study by psychologists from Oxford, UCLA, NYU and the University of Denver found that 75 per cent of participants at Burning Man in 2015 report having had at least a ‘somewhat transformative’ experience.

Of these, 85 per cent say they were still experiencing this change at least six weeks after the event.

These results are further supported by a separate study currently being run by anthropologists in Switzerland looking at regional Burning Man events around Europe. Study participants point out that one of their main motivations for attending a regional ‘burn’ is for the events’ transformative or educative potential.

What is actually meant by transformation here, however, is a bit harder to pin down.

In the first study mentioned above, it most commonly referred to as psychological changes in how people understood the world, or a deeper feeling of connection with a community or culture.

In the Swiss study, it’s referred to as “personal growth”. What these actually mean in practice, and whether they are shifting how people actually behave in their day-to-day life, requires better understanding – something that a group of scholars from Finland is hoping to uncover.

Related to notions of ‘transformation’ are ideas of emancipation. A small-scale 2002 study by the University of Southern California’s Professor Robert Kozinets argues that Burning Man offers participants an opportunity to “escape the market” – to redefine their relationships with other people, not in terms of consumer transactions, but through participation and collaboration in what he calls a “temporary hyper-community”.

Religious and cultural anthropologists like Dr Sarah Pike, Dr Graham St John and Professor Francois Gauthier also point to the religious overtones of transformative festivals.

In this view, the events borrow from many other forms of religion, in what Dr Pike calls an exemplification of “the movement of religious meaning-making to sites outside traditional religious institutions”. Here, the annual trip to the Nevada desert resembles a religious pilgrimage, while the temple represents a place for grief and for healing.

Finally, Burning Man is producing insights from the fields of organisational sociology and management theory.

For instance, Katherine Chen has studied the ways in which the Burning Man Organisation (the entity responsible for the event) has responded to challenges of its growing scale by adopting work practices that allow for participation and authenticity.

According to Associate Professor Chen, this occurs through three mechanisms: empowering individuals; storytelling; and ‘communifying’ labor – emphasising the individual’s work within a larger collective.

This research provides several lessons for decision-makers seeking to ‘scale up’ a small-scale initiative into a large one – a key concern for many policymakers and bureaucrats.

Taken as a whole, the literature on transformational festival culture provides a rich and nuanced picture of these events. It points to the ways in which participants can step into new ways of being – with themselves, with each other and within their organisations.

More work needs to be done, but current research suggest that we are dealing with a significant social and cultural phenomenon – one that demands deeper attention.

This article was published by Pursuit.

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