March 3, 2012

Anthropology & Occupy (anthropologies)

[Note: This is a post that I wrote for the latest edition of anthropologies that tries to review some of the anthropological involvement and reactions to the Occupy Wall Street protests and movement]

On September 17, 2011, largely in response to an Adbusters campaign and growing frustration with the state of affairs in the US economy, people flocked to Zuccotti Park to, tents in hand, to make their voices heard.  Similar movements around the US (and beyond) were soon to follow.  One thing is pretty clear: there were many different opinions about OWS, and plenty of disagreements.  Some people felt it was a necessary step to take to challenge the status quo, while others seemed to see it as a harbinger of disaster for US society.

If nothing else, OWS certainly garnered its fair share of attention, whether in the form of support, solidarity, derision, or outright counter-protest.  Searching for meaning in the midst of such a massive (and contentious) social movement is anything but simple.  Contemporaneous events are all the more difficult to analyze, understand, and assess.  So where to begin?  Well, here's the basic OWS summary from Wikipedia (apropos for an issue that deals with Open Access):
Occupy Wall Street (OWS) is a protest movement that began September 17, 2011 in Zuccotti Park, located in New York City's Wall Street financial district. The protests are against social and economic inequality, greed, corruption and the undue influence of corporations on government—particularly from the financial services sector. To effect change OWS uses "direct action" instead of petitioning authorities.[5]Their slogan, We are the 99%, addresses the growing income inequality and wealth distribution in the U.S. between the wealthiest 1% and the rest of the population. OWS was initiated by the Canadian activist group Adbusters and has led to Occupy protests and movements around the world.

Adbusters poster for OWS.
For people who feel like they already know everything they need to know about OWS, or who have already heard enough, maybe that quick summary is enough.  It gets to the point.  What I'm wondering, though, is where all the anthropologists (who study these sorts of things) were during all of this.  Where were you, for example?  I can tell you pretty much exactly where I was on September 17, 2011: sitting in front of this very laptop, working on one or another draft of a grant proposal.

Like many graduate students, I was basically buried in the process of becoming an anthropologist, for better or worse.  Considering many of the concerns that OWS protesters voiced, my trapped-behind-the-computer-fate is somewhat a part of the problem.  What happens, after all, if everyone is "just too busy" to deal with a social and economic system that has basically run right off the track?  I'm not going to try to answer that.  Instead, I'll leave that question hanging and see if anyone picks it up.

Anyway, my experience of "OWS" was mediated through things like TV news, twitter, blogs, and Facebook.  Does this mean that I was completely disconnected?  Does it mean that I was just some passive observer, and no more?  Not really (and see Adam Fish's post a little later on).  At the same time, I wasn't exactly in the thick of things, even if I tried to follow along, read up, and see what was going on.

One of the issues that I saw with OWS was that it was so polarizing: for some people there was no middle ground.  They were either for it, or against it.  During the whole time I wondered about the people who found themselves somewhere in between.  I also wondered who, among those really active voices, had actually been to an OWS protest and seen how things were actually playing out on the ground (outside of the clips and sound bites on TV).  Sometimes "being there" is a good antidote to both unflinching idealism and unending criticism and cynicism.  And the idea of "being there" is part of anthropology's stock and trade.  So where were all the anthropologists?

Read the rest on anthropologies, here.

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