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Order in the Desert: Law Abiding Behavior at Burning Man


April 10, 2013 5:30pm - 7:00pm

Room 180



Brought to you by the Stanford Program in Law and Society


Carnivals are generally seen as opportunities for lawlessness or, at the very least, as pretexts to depart from the ordinary, and breaking with every day’s order. Law enforcement efforts tend to step up in anticipation, and for the duration of carnivals and similar events. Official statistics often reflect a significant rise in reports of criminal activity, arrests, citations, and other enforcement actions triggered by disruptive behavior generally attributed to carnivalgoers. Burning Man appears to be different. At the weeklong event that takes place in the Nevada desert, more than fifty thousand participants are explicitly encouraged to engage in any imaginable form of radical self-expression. Interestingly, Burning Man has one of the lowest crime rates of any comparable event, and its attendees seem to show a high level of law abiding behavior, the utmost respect for norms and voluntary cooperation. This article, which is based on research conducted at the Burning Man event and related mass gatherings between 2006 and 2012 explores this issue, and explains the factors that promote law mindedness and voluntary cooperation at Burning Man in furtherance of social order. In order to set the context for the discussion, this article begins by describing the liminal environment in which the Burning Man event takes place, the community that supports it, and the role played by the different mechanisms of social control available at the event. Following, this article places the analysis of law-abiding behavior at Burning vis-a-vis the broader discussion on the relationship between legitimacy and voluntary cooperation, by comparing Burning Man with other examples of private ordering. The research presented in this article has an impact beyond the realm of Burning Man and similar carnivalesque events in two concrete ways. First, it contributes to understand the dynamics between legitimacy, compliance with norms and voluntary cooperation beyond the use of reputation-based sanctions and other instrumental mechanisms to enforce intra-community norms in the context of private ordering. Second, this article highlights the importance of social motivations in shaping law-abiding behavior in liminal social settings and discusses the role of personal incentives, group identity, and emotional or affective predisposition as drivers of law-abiding and cooperative behavior.

About the Speaker -- Manuel Gómez

Manuel Gómez is Associate Professor of Law at Florida International University. His primary research interests include the impact of social networks on dispute processing, private order, international arbitration, complex litigation in Latin America, legal and institutional reform in Latin America, legal education reform and the globalization of the legal profession. He obtained a law degree from Universidad Católica Andrés Bello, Venezuela, and a JSM and JSD from Stanford Law School.