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Festivals: combining conservative and anti-establishment dynamics

les festivals s’apparentent tout à la fois aux rituels d’antan, mais intègrent toujours une part de contestation. Analyse d’un subtil cocktail de conformisme et de militantisme…
Published on
16 July 2019

At local, national and international levels, festivals are a continuously growing phenomenon. Despite their short-lived nature, many have earned recognition as enduring social institutions. With roots in antiquity, festivals mix conservative rituals with modern anti-establishment dynamics. Each festival finds its own balance between protest and conformism

We speak with Gazi Islam, a researcher and professor of organizational sciences at Grenoble Ecole de Management. He is the author of several studies on the topic of rituels, and in particular, two on the topic of festivals. The research covered the years 2009 to 2019. A variety of events were analyzed such as the UN summit in 2018. Analysis was carried out in collaboration with Charles-Clemens Rüling, a professor of organizational theory and research director at GEM.

Festivals are an odd social institution with their primary characteristic being the fact that they are temporary. How do you describe festivals?

We can draw an analogy between a festival’s short-lived nature and the timing of seasons, agriculture or religious rituals. In anthropology, society thus demonstrates its limits or temporality. As a result, we can describe festivals as a type of ritual.

The short-lived nature of a festival breaks away from the permanent nature of most social institutions. Thus festivals highlight the limits of social temporality: during a festival, a population is gathered for a given period of time and then participants go their separate ways. This is why our research first looked into rituals, whose nature is quite tied to festivals.

What are the current goals of festivals?

A festival in today’s world aims to promote social unity. Our current society is fragmented and a festival offers a physical location that reaffirms the social body in the face of temporality. It’s also ironic because it’s truly a paradox.

For example: The Festival de Cannes - the film industry is particularly fragmented and it’s a miracle it even works. You will find gathered a multitude of authors and actors who are often very different. At the same time, it’s a competition with winners and losers, just like old fashioned tournaments. Of course this is not always the same in every festival. For the Oscars or the Grammy Awards, it’s the creation of a community with a hierarchy. They are events that define the field. They set the standards, which films can win and not win.

Most festivals are therefore smooth and standardized in their goals?

Not all are in this situation. Major international events like the COP 21, which is not a festival but resembles one, re-affirm and reproduce societal operating procedures. To summarize, we can define three types of festivals:

  1. A conservative ritual that follows a certain social order
  2. An event that unites members of society
  3. An event that aims to change society

Most festivals combine a subtle mix of these three components. A UN summit can play out like a conservative ritual all the while fringe elements will engage in environmental protests to affirm a desire for change. The underlying issue is the role of criticism in festivals. It’s the focus of our study: how do festivals encourage or discourage criticism and protest?

Could you illustrate your analysis with examples?

A music festival will for example mostly count on volunteer work. This is because there is a solid sense of community created by the desire for unification in a way that is different from the workplace. By definition, volunteer work is free (at best, volunteers receive a free ticket), for work that is ungratifying even though festivals have become mega industries. In this case, the festival has become a colonized space. The social value is expropriated by the organizers. So volunteers must ask themselves: can I participate with becoming a “free worker”? Here we find a battle between the status of worker and volunteer. The question of festival contributors therefore raises the issue of whether or not festivals are conservative or anti-establishment?

Our two studies confirm that all festivals combine conservative and anti-establishment dynamics.

The study of Mardi Gras in New Orleans also illustrates the combination of conservative dynamics and internal, anti-Trump movements. Both dynamics take place alongside each other. Gay Pride marches have also come to be supported by major companies despite them initially being anti-establishment movements. The Festival d’Avignon has long combined more or less spontaneous theatrical acts (Avignon Off), and the Official Festival, which is the center of French artistic festivals.

In a manner of speaking, the Gilets jaunes movement in France (which is not a festival), also demonstrates a combination of conservative and anti-establishment components.


  • Toraldo, M.L., Islam, G. & Mangia. G. (2019) Serving time: Volunteer work, liminality and the uses of meaningfulness at music festivals. Journal of Management Studies, 56(3), 617-654.
  • Toraldo, M.L. & Islam, G. (2019). Festival and Organization Studies. Organization Studies, 40(3) 309–322.
  • Islam, G. and Zyphur, M.J. (2009). Rituals in organizations: A review and expansion of current theory. Group and Organization Management, 34, 114-139
  • Islam, G., Rüling, C.C. & Schüßler, E. (in press). Rituals of critique and institutional maintenance at the United Nations Climate Change Summits. In J. Sieweke, L. Wessel and P. Haack(eds.) “Microfoundations of Institutions” (Research in the Sociology of Organizations, Volume),pp.. London: Emerald
  • Islam. G., Zyphur, M.J., Boje, D. (2008). Carnival and spectacle in Krewe de Vieux and the Mystic Krewe of Spermes: The mingling of organization and celebration. Organization Studies, 29,1565-1589.

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