Occupy Ethnography: Reflections on Studying the Movement

Winter has seen Occupy Wall Street shift gears. Meetings have moved indoors, and the movement is now more a network of decentralized groups working on symbiotic projects and campaigns. Winter has also brought a moment of self-reflection. Conversations about strategy abound, as do conversations about how best to use one’s time and energy. This moment of self-reflection is also an opportunity to turn the analytic gaze upon ourselves and ask what it means to do research on a constantly changing social movement and what lessons Occupy may have to teach the ethnographer.

Here in New York, since January, Occupy has been planning for the General Strike on May 1st. These meetings, which started as unwieldy debates about the very idea of a general strike, are now becoming focused planning meetings where important decisions about march routes, alliance-building, tactics, and points of negotiation with organized labor are being decided. In such a context, participation often means being involved in an outreach cluster, taking on some share of the labor in your working group, and thereby becoming implicated in the success or failure of the tasks of the day. The “participation” of participant observation, then, is a process whereby one becomes part of the group (ethnos) that one is writing (graphos) about. Far from being unique to these planning meetings, we argue that because of the structure and process of Occupy, ethnography becomes a practice through which the researcher is inscribed in the movement.

The Occupy movement is one deeply concerned with its process, seeking to realize ideals of inclusion and democratic participation through the practice of consensus decision making. With this practice, the process of making a decision is just as important as the decision itself. Consensus explicitly aims to prevent the oppression that occurs through a system of majority and minority voting, in which the minority is always disenfranchised. Instead it actively seeks to include the voices and concerns of each and all. As researchers, we become structurally implicated in the process of collective decision making, because to not voice a concern carries as much weight as voicing one—for it is to be implicitly in agreement. Simply put, the process of consensus includes the voice of the participant, social researcher or otherwise, into its very fabric. Through this inclusion the researcher directly affects a material outcome, thus becoming part of the group he or she is studying.

Secondly, there is the physical question of occupation. To occupy means to put one’s body in the space of an occupation. At this primary physical level, to attend a general assembly at Zuccotti Park, Oscar Grant Plaza, or the London Stock Exchange was to take part in occupying those spaces. Here an ethnographer becomes an “Occupier” through his or her very presence. As the possibility of being an external observer is eclipsed, the issue becomes: How is the occupied space changed, affected, and produced through a researcher’s actions and practices? This takes on a distinctly political character given that occupations are also contentious spaces and sites of struggle. Indeed, the spaces themselves often pose political questions that researchers cannot evade: e.g. when an occupation is being evicted, the choice to remain in the space means to put one’s body into direct physical confrontation with the police (and therefore the state), and to leave is a choice that carries political weight. But even in the everyday politics of an occupation, merely being there has important consequences for how the space comes to be shaped and used. An example from our own fieldwork:

September 25th, Day 8: Late morning on a crisp and sunny Sunday in September. First visit to Zuccotti. People move around the park, others waking and crawling out from underneath tarps layered on the ground. Tourists wander through without knowing what they have stumbled upon, pausing to read the cardboard signs arranged on the ground on the Northwest side of the park. I arrive, unsure of what to do. I sit on a bench and start writing fieldnotes. Suddenly there is a commotion to the right of me and everyone rushes to the side of the park. I hear something being chanted, so I stand on a bench in order to see better. Men in suits are walking through with a stack of papers attempting to pass them out. Protesters are surrounding these men, following them as they walk, chanting: “Don’t take the paper, don’t take the paper.” From the chatter around me I gather that the men are from the real estate company that owns the park and are passing out eviction notices. The protesters are refusing to take these notices. They are refusing to be served. I am struck by the ingenuity and simplicity of the act, but before I have a chance to dwell on this for too long the crowd is around me and one of the men in suits is trying to hand me something. I instinctively reach for it but catch myself. The voices around me are chanting “don’t take the paper.” I withdraw my hand quickly and start chanting with them.

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.

In these ways ethnographic practice affects the development and unfolding of a social movement; and in turn, the social movement, through the consensus process and occupation, significantly affects the practice of ethnography. Bound up in the movement, the ethnographer must now write primarily from the position of intimate participation. What is important is that the political decisions that the ethnographer makes along the way become both part of the unfolding of the movement and constitutive of ethnographic practice itself. These are sometimes small moments, such as the decision to refuse a piece of paper, but sometimes these are larger political and ethical decisions (e.g. blocking an ethically compromised proposal, or arguing about tactics at a Direct Action meeting). 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.

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  1. Michael says:

    I think this was an interesting article, especially questioning ethnography boundaries, ethics and methods. Do you think that your experience of refusing to accept the “eviction notice” was based more on peer pressure? And on the other side of the coin: What if you had taken the eviction notice? What would have been the end result and your conclusion of the experience as an ethnographer?

  2. Dan says:

    What does Dave Harvey think of all this. You might study under him at CUNY. I can only imagine Zizek would have a field day.

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