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CCNY Professor Wins Award for Book on Burning Man

“Enabling Creative Chaos: The Organization Behind the Burning Man Event,” the groundbreaking volume by CCNY sociologist Katherine Chen, won the 2011 Best Book Prize for the Outstanding Book in Nonprofit and Voluntary Action Research.

Each summer, tens of thousands of people camp in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert to create the countercultural phenomenon famously known as Burning Man, an arts festival named after its spectacular bonfire of a forty-foot tall wooden and neon sculpture of the “Man.” More than 50,000 faithful attendees establish “Black Rock City,” a temporary metropolis dedicated to community, art, “radical self-expression,” and a gift economy. Campers depart seven days later, having left no trace whatsoever.
Several books have examined the history of the event, which originally started as a summer solstice bonfire on a San Francisco beach in 1986, or, more recently, its artistic, spiritual, or communal aspects. But it was not until 2009 that Dr. Katherine K. Chen, assistant professor of Sociology, The City College of New York and The Graduate Center, The City University of New York, provided the first in-depth organizational analysis of the gathering. She did this in her groundbreaking book, “Enabling Creative Chaos: The Organization Behind the Burning Man Event” (University of Chicago Press), which examines how this organization handles relations with the media, law enforcement, and other agencies, reconciles conflicting perspectives among members on how to organize, and recruits, places, and motivates volunteers.
The book recently earned Professor Chen the 2011 Best Book Prize for the Outstanding Book in Nonprofit and Voluntary Action Research from the Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action (ARNOVA).  This award honors “the best submission, which in an imaginative and innovative manner, addresses a core theoretical or research issue, or illuminates a topic of major importance, for those who study philanthropy, nonprofit organizations and voluntary action.”  Judges noted that “Enabling Creative Chaos” is “a well-conceived, well-written, clearly argued, and creative work…A thoughtful and careful theorist, Katherine Chen contributes to organizational and institutional theory by applying familiar ideas to an unfamiliar setting.”  She accepted the award at the ARNOVA conference in Toronto last month.
“Enabling Creative Chaos” also received Honorable Mention from the American Sociological Association (ASA) as a candidate for its 2011 Max Weber Award for “an outstanding contribution to scholarship” in the Organizations, Occupations, and Work (OOW) section. Last year, Professor Chen’s co-authored article comparing Burning Man and open source projects was named the Outstanding Author Contribution Award winner at the Emerald Literati Network Awards for Excellence.
The book has established Professor Chen, whose research specialty is the study of organizations, as a leading authority on Burning Man, which she has researched and participated in since 1998.
Regarding the awards, Professor Chen stated, “I am grateful that people have gotten the chance to read this research and develop an understanding of this phenomenon. It is the only book that focuses on the daily, yearlong activities of the organization behind the event. “Enabling Creative Chaos” shows how an enabling organization can support members’ efforts without succumbing to either under-organizing’s insufficient structure and coordination or over-organizing’s excessive structure and coercive control.”
Critical acclaim has come from a myriad of sources.
In a 2010 book review for “Contemporary Sociology,” Fred Turner of Stanford University wrote: “Katherine Chen’s richly researched volume provides a much needed sociological analysis [of Burning Man]... she offers an original and important analytical account of what happens when bohemian modes of sociability meet bureaucratic forms of organization.”
John Sherry, Jr., Mendoza College of Business, University of Notre Dame, opined in his review for “Journal of Consumer Culture”: “In this meticulous ethnographic account of the staging of a major American countercultural festival, sociologist Katherine Chen has given us a glimpse of a possible future of organizing...”
The University of California at Irvine’s Francesca Polletta, meanwhile, noted in the “American Journal of Sociology” that “Enabling Creative Chaos” was “topical, smart, and interesting.”
In addition, the book has been reviewed in the “Administrative Science Quarterly” (2010), “Journal of Arts Management, Law, and Society” (2011) and “Nova Religio” (2011).
Noting its interdisciplinary appeal, Professor Chen said “Enabling Creative Chaos” has been used widely, including in sociology, arts management and business management, at various institutions nationally and internationally, including at the Copenhagen Business School in Denmark.
A member of The City College faculty since 2008, Professor Chen received her PhD and AM in sociology from Harvard University. She did her undergraduate studies at Stanford University.



Jay Mwamba
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