Anthropological Analysis

“What is it, to occupy Wall Street? It is not moving your money, walking righteously on the sidewalk, holding smug panel discussions in the ivory tower, or taking advantage of the sales at Best Buy. To ‘occupy’ means to decolonize territory stolen, whether land or flesh. It means to refuse division, to stand shoulder to shoulder with untouchables, to seize, to make a home where people are homeless, to explode the hegemony of ‘middle class’ citizenship, and to defend the bodies of the politically invisible, who are the people who make politics possible.”
Sophie Lewis “As Odious as the word Occupy”
Journal for Occupied Studies, February 2012

What is it to Occupy?

There is a large divide between what is being said by the news media and what is being said by academics about Occupy Wall Street.  While the news media focuses on the motivations and impetus behind the movement, who is taking part, and the moral status of the Occupiers, academics are examining its meanings, effectiveness, and reasonings.  Academic coverage of Occupy Wall Street ranges from investigations of the social, political, and economic backgrounds that led to the protest as well as to its continuation, to ruminations of Occupy’s effectiveness and its ability to make positive change into the future.  I think that George Shulman in his essay “Interpreting Occupy” does an excellent job describing this difference by saying that:

“My impression is that journalists have typically framed OWS by reading it into inherited narratives of “sixties” social movements, while also insisting that there must be leaders to whom to attribute its appearance. Many journalists have also claimed that OWS is illegible, or literally without sense, unless it addresses “demands” to established authorities. They require OWS to be an integral agent with avowed intentionality, so that it can be a protagonist in a story… While proposing the story of a social movement as a protagonist, however, they also recognize that OWS lacks the feature of unified intention or agency. They resolve this contradiction, and rescue their story, by depicting OWS as a faulty (or a not-yet crystallized) social movement… Academics readily analyze such representational strategies and so have thematized (and resisted!) the media’s insistence on locating demands and leaders.”
George Shulman “Interpreting Occupy”
Possible Futures, December 20, 2011

More than just being a social movement, many academics have cited Occupy Wall Street as an example of a prefigurative society, an exercise in the citizens’ of the United States moral and political imaginations.  Occupy is an expression of discontent and a desire for something new, a realization that the current socio-political systems in the United States cannot and do not have the peoples’ interests at mind, and a movement towards and exercise in what that alternative could look like.

“The Occupy movement is an expression of a generalized and global outrage over corporate irresponsibility and lack of government oversight. Its primary concern regards the corrupt relationship between elected and corporate officials, and the ways in which “The 99 Percent” have been disenfranchised from the relations of power that shape their lives and life chances. If I were to guess at a common goal, it’d be a complete overhaul of our political and economic systems from the bottom up. Trust for our politicians has indeed waned, but even more so for the system itself, which is clearly marred by the unholy influence of money and personal gain.”
Heather Gautney “Occupy Wall Street: An idea whose time has come”

Occupy Wall Street and Anthropology

Occupy Wall Street, besides being a look into the future, also offers the academics that are studying it the possibility of change.  Academics, especially anthropologists and other social scientists that rely heavily on field work and participant observation, have the chance to be transformed by their relationships to Occupy.  Occupy offers the perfect vehicle for an activist anthropology, almost demanding a reformulation of the relationships that anthropologists form with the things they study.

“As Occupy is trying to redefine the parameters of what it means to participate in a social movement, it is also having a methodological impact on the parameters of ethnography, calling into question, yet again, the very substance of participant observation. The Occupy movement is then an opportunity—perhaps an imperative—to rethink the boundaries, ethics, and methods of social research.”
Zoltán Glück and Manissa McCleave Maharawal “Occupy Ethnography: Reflections on Studying the Movement”
Possible Futures, March 14, 2012

“Both acts—taking or refusing the paper—carry political significance and ally the ethnographer on one side or another of a political divide. This places the participant observer within an unfolding set of events wherein his or her actions affect the outcome. Of course, any social movement or politically fraught situation may present an observer with similarly difficult choices. Our point is merely that Occupy, by virtue of its structure, creates a situation whereby the ethnographer becomes an inherent part of the movement.”
Zoltán Glück and Manissa McCleave Maharawal