Who Are the Census Researchers, and What Are They Studying This Year?

If you’ve been following the Census team’s Journal posts, you know filling out your annual post-Burn Census is critical to the survival of the event. The data we collect is relevant to the media as well as to the organization itself — to help plan traffic and encourage carpooling and use of the Burner Express Bus and Burner Express Air programs, to inform discussions with Pershing and Washoe counties, and, in 2016, to collect new data about how Burners dispose of trash and Leaving No Trace, to name a few examples.

What you may not know is many other researchers here at Census rely on your data, too. A lot of us tend toward data-nerdiness in our everyday lives and are fascinated with this wonky, wonderful world we rebuild in the desert every year (sometimes despite our better judgment). We want to know how the event morphs over time, and how we change as we experience it anew. What details make it kin to events like Symbiosis or Lightning in a Bottle, and what critical spark sets it apart?

Dr. S. Megan Heller, aka “The Countess,” giving a talk at Center Camp Cafe at Burning Man 2015 (photo by Rubylaser)

Adult Play

Census is currently home to four areas of inquiry: adult play, sexual risk-taking, diversity, and transformation. The first is a group is headed by Black Rock City Census founder Dr. S. Megan Heller (also known as The Countess… because she counts Burners, geddit?).

She’s an anthropologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, and also a longtime Burner (since 1999!). Using data from the BRC Census, as well as her ethnographic research, she studies the practices of play people use at Burning Man to facilitate their personal development and push the boundaries of their culture.

The group includes Jenn Sander (Global Innovation Advisor for the Burning Man Project), Dr. Isabel Behncke (Primatologist at the University of Oxford), and Gwen Gordon (Emmy-award-winning creative director, filmmaker, and consultant), some of whom participated in a panel discussion at the American Anthropological Association’s 2015 Annual Meeting in Denver, Colorado, titled, “Trolls and Hecklers: Disruptive ways of playing.” [Editor’s note: Burners? Disruptive?! Well, I never!] The panel explored how people use teasing, heckling, and pranking tactics to invite like-minded players to join a game, to strengthen relationships, or to transform dangerous situations into playful ones. Panelists also discussed disruptive players’ and their targets’ experiences with a wide range of emotions (not always joyful ones), and how participating in and navigating disruptive play sometimes requires sophisticated emotion regulation.

At the 2016 event in BRC, Countess helped negotiate a peaceful détente between the Census and Media Mecca teams, longtime frenemies-slash-exchangers-of-disruptive-shenanigans.

Socio-Sexual Diversity and Risk-Taking

Dominic Beaulieu-Prévost, aka “Hunter,” at Burning Man 2013 (photo by David Nelson-Gal)

The second group studies socio-sexual diversity and risk-taking at Burning Man, headed by Census Principal Investigator and Lead Data Analyst Dr. Dominic Beaulieu-Prévost, playa name “Hunter.”

He’s a Sexologist at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM), where he researches topics like sexual diversity, gender, victimization (anything from traumatic events to discrimination), mental health, and approaches for harm reduction for both sexuality and substance use. He began work on recreational subcultures and mass gatherings in 2012, which brought him to the Black Rock City Census Lab (though he’s been a Burner since 2010). For him, Burning Man is both a unique event and a type of transformational mass gathering.

He says,

“I try to describe the culture of Burning Man along these dimensions to understand the powerful psychosocial processes at play. I also sometimes put on my public health hat to explore how Burners’ experiences in BRC could be improved while minimizing health risks.”

He helped design the online Census survey, and one of his Master’s students, Mélanie Cormier, just finished her thesis on the predictors of safe sex practices at Burning Man.

Community Diversity

David Nelson-Gal, aka “Scribble,” at Burning Man 2012 (photo by Rubylaser)
Dr. Vernon L. Andrews, aka “Uncle Vern,” at Burning Man 2016 (photo by Uncle Vern)

The third group studies diversity within and across the Burning Man community, including racial, ethno-cultural, socioeconomic, and gender dimensions.

The Diversity group includes Dr. Vernon L. Andrews, aka “Uncle Vern,” (San Jose State University), Hunter, Countess, David Nelson-Gal (Computer Scientist), and Bianca (Virginia Tech), all of whom have been to multiple Burns since 2012.

The work of this group explores topics across the fields of sociology, African-American studies, anthropology, computer science, and neuroscience. For example, Uncle Vern merges his individual on-playa discussions with Burners with data from the Census survey about how black people (among others) negotiate a radical social space like Burning Man.

He says,

“My working question was, ‘Why would black people show up to a place like this – with so many white folks, so much alcohol, and so many people burning shit up?’ Well, because the people doing all that Burning, drinking, love making, art making, and spontaneous dancing are wonderful folks, that’s why. Black people want to be a part of a larger community also, and at Burning Man, they commune in social peace. Burning Man offers a safe space for cultural interaction without many of the prohibitive barriers to creating a casual, non-threatening environment that often exist outside Black Rock City.”

Most recently, the group has produced Diversity in BRC: Census Data Interpreted by a Biracial Burner and Play and Possibility: Organic Racial Contact at Burning Man. Also, some of you may have seen Scribble, Uncle Vern, and Jim Toole present on income and ethno-racial measures at Center Camp Café at the 2016 Burn.

Bianca at Burning Man 2015 (photo by Carolyn Marut)

In addition to Census volunteering, Scribble and Bianca enjoy helping build artwork on the playa: 2014’s Temple of Grace, 2015’s Photo Chapel, and 2016’s Catacomb of Veils for Scribble; Figment D.C. in 2012, Blitter Bike in multiple years, and 2016’s Temple for Bianca.

Transformational Experiences

Tim Muller, S. Megan Heller, Annayah Prosser, Judy Saunders, Molly Crockett, Daniel Yudkin, Valerie Avalos, Cecilia, and Theo at Burning Man 2016 (photo by Sarah Williamson)

The final group is a collection of researchers studying transformational experiences at Burning Man and in other locations — a topic that builds on the fields of social psychology, anthropology, and neuroscience. The project is based at the University of Oxford, where project leader Dr. Molly Crockett is currently an associate professor [Editor’s note: She departs in summer for Yale University, oh là là!]. The group is composed of researchers from five different universities across the world: Annayah Prosser (University of Bath, University of Oxford), Daniel Yudkin (New York University), Dr. S. Megan Heller (UCLA), and Dr. Kateri McRae (University of Denver). Many of the group’s on-playa helpers come from even farther afield!

Annayah writes,

“Many people report experiencing meaningful personal ‘transformations’ at Burning Man. They say going to the Burn has dramatically changed who they are and how they live their lives. Unfortunately, very little research has been done to determine exactly what the nature of these changes are and how those changes influence people’s subsequent behaviors and responses to psychological and relational problems in everyday life. Our work hopes to fill this gap in the research by using scientific measures to discover more about these transformational experiences.”

This group asked questions on the post-Burn Census in 2016 as well as in the optional follow-up survey. Together, these gather detailed information about Burners’ transformative experiences and their effects, including the way Burners think about and relate to other people. The group has written up some of the preliminary results for the Journal, and some members are also analyzing the qualitative content of transformative experiences. Below is a word frequency cloud of the most common terms people mention when discussing their experiences.

If you’d like to find out more about the work this group does, visit the Crockett Lab’s website.

So there you have it, mes amis. These are many — but not all — the fascinating research projects made possible thanks to you participating in the Census each year. You help us push wide the boundaries of our knowledge about Burners, Burning Man, and the communities we create and recreate over time. Give yourself a pat on the back for making it possible! (And if you see any of these folks on the playa, give them a pat on the back, too.)


Written by Sarah “Picky” Williamson

Edited by the Census Team, including Rachel “Chipper” McKay and Dana “DV8” DeVaul

Top photo: Census Lab Scenic Lookout at Burning Man 2016 (photo by Sarah Williamson)

About the author: Census Team

Census Team

The Census Lab is a volunteer team of information geeks, academic researchers, students, and general data nerds who have surveyed Black Rock City (BRC) residents since 2002.

5 Comments on “Who Are the Census Researchers, and What Are They Studying This Year?

  • Ruth Talisman says:

    I love the Census team. All of us ‘Burners’ will benefit from your hard work. Those statistics ain’t gonna count themselves. Thanks.

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  • S. Beard says:

    So interesting to learn about the various projects fo which researchers use information gleaned from the Burning Man Census

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  • Strange says:

    I’m Just climbing a to nowhere. NBD

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  • Gerflash says:

    The Census folks are super folks! “Countess” is named first in this article, and she’s number one with me, too! We go way back to when she was working on her doctoral dissertation. I was pretty new as a burner, and was surprised that someone might write a dissertation (let alone approve one!) about Burning Man. I’m smarter now, and she, along with this camp, has provided a continuous stream of info on BRC’s evolutionary course.

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  • Kat King says:

    Thanks so much for sharing the updates, I am really interested in the qualitative pieces of the projects. You are all doing such important and wonderful work!! Thank you!

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