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Sacred Playground: Adult Play and Transformation at Burning Man


Sacred Playground is an ethnographic study of adult play and transformation at Burning Man, a countercultural gathering that takes place in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada each summer. I studied this cultural phenomenon using mixed methods, relying primarily on person-centered interviewing with sixteen informants from the Los Angeles Burning Man community. I began this project in 2009, conducting this research as a cultural insider who has been participating in the event since 1999 and collecting quantitative data there since 2004. People who go to the event report having personal transformations there, and this research seeks to understand the psychocultural processes that produce these reported experiences.

I conclude that some people experience transformative moments at the event, which I refer to as entering into a mood of play in which a person becomes absorbed in the present moment, highly sensitive to their environment, susceptible to external influences, and more likely to take risks that can lead to learning. It is a state of mind that seems difficult to achieve in adulthood and is rarely enjoyed by adults in public spaces in the United States, and so the sensation can feel particularly intense and profound when it happens out in the open during the Burning Man event. The primary argument presented here is that if we conceptualize play as a mood, and if this mood can increase social learning and cultural adaptation, we must question why this mood is often repressed in adulthood.

In the course of my research I came to describe my field site as a sacred playground. The place is especially meaningful to those who participate year after year, becoming experts in particular play practices, adopting the ethos of play that predominates in this community, and endeavoring to spread their ethos and practices to other locations. This ethos of play contradicts the dominant culture that posits adult play as useless frivolity, suggesting instead that the experiences occurring at Burning Man are important and highly meaningful. This dissertation offers an in-depth description and person-centered analysis of five play practices--going naked, heckling, sexy encounters, drinking alcohol, and working--building out from the body to larger social contexts as I seek to understand the consequences to a participant's mind, body, and developmental trajectory.

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