Chapter 1: Introduction

I began my M.A. studies days before Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protests erupted. Demonstrations began the morning of September 17, 2011, with individuals identifying themselves as members of the 99%, flooding New York City’s downtown financial district. Images and videos of the demonstrations spread quickly online. Thompson (2011) credits popular social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook for being instrumental in growing awareness among the general public about a “leaderless resistance movement,” and with the help of the large user bases both social networks boast, along with some assistance from online blogs and alternative news sources, an estimated 1,000 protesters came out in support of OWS in its first day (Addley, 2011). By early October, Occupy had become an international phenomenon, with demonstrations taking place in 95 cities in 82 countries, and as of December 20, the website occupytogether.org listed 2.571 Occupy communities worldwide.

The protests were a trending topic on the internet and on major social media platforms in the first few weeks. However, news of the growing dissent was virtually ignored by traditional media sources (such as television and print) until New York Police officers started arresting supporters in droves. Once the number of occupiers of the privately-owned public park referred to as Zuccotti Park (or Liberty Square) reached a critical mass, attracting a few key celebrities, inciting police brutality, prompting New York’s municipal government to consider eviction measures, did major media outlets begin to cover the protests in a diligent, consistent manner. The entire event fascinated me, and I knew I wanted to explore it more in-depth. The problem I encountered when attempting to indulge my fascination was what appeared to be inconsistencies among various sources regarding details of the dispute. Admittedly, I was confused. I found it impossible to get the facts straight with so many differing perspectives and opinions available. The issue of clarity and consistency of fact was only exacerbated as the amount of information surrounding the protests grew. Eventually, I became convinced that making my Master’s thesis a sense-making exercise, directed at better understanding the Occupy Wall Street Movement, might be a worthwhile endeavour to which others could benefit.

Having chosen the Occupy Wall Street protests as an event worthy of examination for my thesis, the most logical first step was to select an analytical approach from which to thoroughly and systematically examine the literature surrounding it. For me, on an entirely intuitive level, the best way to make sense of the protests was to explore it from multiple angles. This meant gathering as many different accounts, interpretations and opinions of the event as possible, and examining them both individually, and in relation to each other. My over-arching goal early in the research process was to construct a “big picture” for what happened on September 17, 2011; to develop a well-rounded and detailed explanation for the event that took into account the variety of interpretations that existed, drawing comparisons between accounts in order to gather insights and develop theories. I began conducting my own research, gathering information from several sources including online news articles, comments and posts from social media websites, documents posted online on behalf of protest organizers, and articles published in academic journals. The research questions I initially intended to resolve were broad in scope, uncovering ideas about what happened, why it happened and who was involved on both sides of the dispute. Ideally, the conducting of interviews with individuals directly involved with protest initiatives would be the best way to obtain the information sought after. However, the location of protest demonstrations being held in New York City, prevented me from being there personally.

Analytic Approach

Norman Blaikie’s (2007) book entitled Approaches to Social Enquiry, provides a concise roadmap for researchers to follow when conducting social research. According to Blaikie (2007), any approach to social enquiry must necessarily include both the philosophical and theoretical ideas and assumptions about what constructs our social reality (ontological assumptions) and how knowledge of it can be produced (epistemological assumptions), as well as the “logics” (strategy and methodology) used to develop new knowledge and generate theory (5). He provides a detailed list of elements to be taken under consideration before social research can begin. These elements include a “research paradigm” containing assumptions about reality and how it is to be studied, the “research problem” to be investigated and the “research question” or questions that need answering (both of which were previously mentioned), the “posture” to be adopted by the researcher towards the researched, and the “research strategy” to be employed to answer the questions (Blaikie, 2007: 5).

Ontological & Epistemological Assumptions

Blaikie’s (2007) “research paradigm” is essentially a combination of Ontological and Epistemological assumptions about the object under investigation. In social research, ontological assumptions refer to the nature of reality and its fundamental characteristics. Researchers embrace the idea of multiple realities, which are investigated by exploring multiple forms of evidence from different individuals’ perspectives and experiences (Creswell, 2013).The ontological orientation for this investigation draws inspiration from Cresswell’s (2013) discussion of Interpretivism. To Creswell (2013), Interpretivists achieve an understanding of the world in which they live through the development of subjective meanings that are associated with life experiences. A social researcher, therefore, must recognize the abundance and variability of these subjective meanings for each individual (Creswell, 2013: 30).

Epistemological assumptions provide the philosophical grounding necessary for identifying what can be known, and the criteria for deciding how knowledge can be judged as being both valid and accurate (Blaikie, 2007: 18). Another way of thinking about epistemology is by looking at it in terms of the relationship between the researcher and the “things” they wish to acquire knowledge about. “Things” can either be real or ideal, exist in material reality or as ideas alone (Blaikie, 2007: 18). When researchers view things objectively or empirically, items have intrinsic meaning that the researcher must simply uncover. When things are perceived subjectively, meaning is not derived intrinsically, but is imposed onto objects by the perceiver, and because the object itself plays no part in the creation of meaning, multiple meanings by multiple observers are possible (Blaikie, 2007: 19). Having chosen Interpretivism as the ontological orientation for my thesis, it naturally leant itself to the adoption of a Constructionist epistemological orientation. Whereas Interpretivism is the realization that people attach subjective meaning to objects and events in the material world, Constructionism is recognition of the meaning-giving process that individuals undertake as they interact with people and objects in their daily lives. A constructionist’s perception of objects sits in the middle of objective and subjective perception, with the observer playing an active role in meaning creation.

The “Thing” being examined in this thesis is the very real event that took place September, 2011 in New York City’s Financial District. This examination of the protests will recognize that all the meaning attached to it is the result of hundreds of thousands of people speaking and commenting on the events with others. The only meanings attached to the protests that are useful for my analysis are the experiences of those who participated directly in the protests, or witnessed the events as they unfolded in real-time. My analysis will account for the variety of perspectives and opinions that exist in statements surrounding the Movement, during two stages of the research process: the data and source material collection stage, which will seek out sources in several media formats from different authors, and during the analysis stage, where similar topics will be isolated and grouped in meaningful ways.

Researcher’s Posture

Blaikie (2007) identifies two important decisions social researchers must make in regards to the extent of their role in the research process. The first decision considers the relationship between the researcher and researched; a choice relating to the stance the researcher intends to adopt regarding their involvement with research participants. This is essentially a decision as to whether to distance yourself from those being studied, or to immerse yourself deeply in their culture and environment; being either an “outsider” or “insider” (Blaikie, 2007: 11). The second choice a researcher must make has to do with whether they consider themselves to be an “expert” or “learner” in the area under investigation (Blaikie, 2007: 11). An “expert” researcher approaches the problem already possessing relevant existing research, using the theories and conclusions drawn from these studies to influence the way in which the research questions are formulated and research strategy executed. The “learner” does the opposite, trying hard to approach the research with as few preconceived notions as possible, the idea being, to allow the details of the event by those who participated to “speak for themselves” (Blaikie, 2007: 11). In this strategy, the questions to be answered emerge from the research process, and not an existing body of scientific work. The typical research strategy employs either an “outside expert” or “inside learner” approach, but Blaikie (2007: 11) admits that many variations exist in between.

In keeping with my intended research approach thus far, the role I will play as a researcher will resemble that of an outside learner. Because I was not present in New York City while the protests were happening, I am in no position to provide an ethnographic account of the events. Thus, all of the personal accounts I have gathered during the initial data collection were published online by those who witnessed and participated in the event as it happened, making me an outsider in this respect. Employing an interpretivist, abductive research approach for examining data, naturally positions the researcher as a learner, allowing insight to be grounded in the interpretations themselves, without any preconceived notions of what might be uncovered.

Research Strategy

This “logic” Blaikie (2007) discusses is referred to throughout his text as a “Research Strategy”: a procedure for generating new knowledge that provides a series of steps needed to answer “what” and “why” questions, with four major strategies being identified: Inductive, Deductive, Retroductive and Abductive (2007: 8). I intend to apply elements of both the Inductive and Abductive strategies, as described by Blaikie (2007), to my investigation of Occupy Wall Street. The Inductive approach begins with data collection, proceeding to determine what general conclusions can be derived after analysis of the data is complete (Blaikie, 2007: 9). Theory is derived from the generalizations that attempt to explain what was found in the data. The aim of the inductive process, according to Blaikie (2007: 9), is to “describe the characteristics of people and social situations, and then to determine the nature of the patterns of the relationships, or networks of relationships, between these characteristics.” The theories revealed, under this logic, are believed to predict and explain the occurrence of specific events by locating them within an established pattern. Blaikie (2007) admits that such an approach is great at answering “what” questions, but very poor at answering “why” questions (Blaikie, 2007: 9). The manner in which Inductive research unfolds strongly resembles the research process I intuitively undertook when originally embarking on this study, making it a natural fit. The first step I took was the accumulation of a large pool of data, and the theories developed out of this data (discussed in the final chapter) will be derived from the patterns and links founding during analysis and coding of the data, which will be discussed in subsequent chapters.

The aim of the Abductive approach is to reveal how social actors construct their social reality, or the meaning individuals apply to their social world (Blaikie, 2007: 10). The primary means by which a researcher can assess these social constructions is by examining interpretations and productions created by social actors regarding the phenomenon under investigation, with the “reality” being embedded in everyday language usage towards a particular topic (Blaikie, 2007: 10). It is through examination of language that one can uncover motives behind actions (Blaikie, 2007: 10). Incorporating an Abductive approach to my study of Occupy Wall Street will involve examining interpretations of the event from various social actors that include members of the news media (both traditional and online), academics who have a documented interest in the event, and most importantly, protestors and protest supporters. It will also focus on the language used to describe the protests, and the meaning implied in the vocabulary choices.

Combining an Inductive and Abductive strategy together, where theories to explain a phenomenon are generated by the data itself, a process involving the examination of language use towards the phenomenon in order to get an understanding of the meaning attached to it, resembles a variant of Grounded Theory (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). Glaser and Strauss (1967) argue that, in social research, “verification of theory” has become more important than the discovery of theory itself, advocating a methodological approach where theory is revealed within the data using a comparative analysis of source material (1). A grounded analytical approach allows theory to evolve naturally, resulting from the continuous interplay between data collection and analysis; “generating theory and doing social research [as] two parts of the same process” (Glaser, 1978: 2). One of the primary tenets of grounded theory is that multiple perspectives must be systematically sought during the research inquiry. The social researcher is responsible for revealing the multiple “voices” that are embedded in the research material, and to examine them against one another (Strauss & Corbin, 1994: 280). It is the only means for generating theory that ensures the “theory suit[s] its supported uses” (Glaser & Strauss, 1967: 3); the best way to conduct research to arrive at theory that has practical value and applications.

The analysis performed for this thesis draws upon three distinct collections of online source material, each of which is representative of the various “voices” who commented and reported on the protests as they happened. Texts and documents for analysis were found using three different resources: Google, the University of Ottawa Online Library, and the online blogging platform Tumblr. All three sample collections consist of what Charmaz (2006) refers to as “extant” texts (35); texts to which I had no hand in producing, and are treated as data in and of themselves, used to help answer the primary research questions, despite not being written explicitly for that purpose (35).

The collection of source material contains articles and editorials published by American and British news outlets on their individual websites. The rationale behind this collection was to achieve an understanding of the news media’s perspective on the demonstrations that took place in New York, and the goals of the Movement as a whole. Articles sampled for analysis were chosen on the basis of a two-step process. First, a broad search on the Google Search Engine was performed in late October, 2011, and continued periodically every few weeks. Below is a list of the Boolean search terms used throughout the research and analysis process, with terms being added as investigation into specific topics became necessary:

Keywords and Phrases used in Google Searches

  • “Occupy Wall Street”
  • “Occupy Movement”
  • “Occupy Protests”
  • “99%”
  • “1%”
  • “Zuccotti Park”“New York City General Assembly”
  • “Adbusters”
  • “Occupy+”
  • “Arab Spring”
  • “Tunisia”
  • “Egypt”
  • “Spain”
  • “Bloombergville”
  • “Social Media”

Articles found on the first five pages of Google’s search results that were published by reputable, internationally-renowned organizations were selected for initial review. At its peak, the collection of sources in the first phase was approximately 275 articles from a dozen news outlets. In the second stage of the sample selection process, several criteria were applied in order to reduce the sample size down, filtering out the articles that had little or no relevance. These criteria included: eliminating any articles that did not have a readily identifiable author, those that did not directly comment on any of the subjects raised in the previously mentioned research questions, and those that only reported facts about particular incidents related to the protest without offering any opinion or commentary on what was being reported (these articles often resembled small blurbs of approximately 25o words, intended to forward “Breaking News” to interested parties). The only exception to the “no author” rule was given to two articles published by Adbusters magazine, whose importance in helping to mobilize support during the organization of Occupy Wall Street cannot be understated, and is explored in Chapter 3. After an initial reading of all articles was conducted, and the criteria applied, the sample was reduced to 140 articles published by dozens of authors on behalf of nine different news outlets, beginning on September 17, 2011, and ending on September 17, 2012, a full year after protests began. For a complete list of online news articles selected for analysis, refer to Appendix 1.2.

The second collection of sources consists of articles published in scholarly journals. Texts in this sample were selected with the intention of achieving a better understanding of the insights presented by “experts,” those with extensive experience studying acts of collective, public dissent. The rationale and process undertaken to select articles for this collection parallels that of the news article collection. The same keywords entered into Google’s Search Engine for the purposes of finding news articles were also used to conduct searches within the University of Ottawa’s online academic databases. These databases included Academic Search Complete, Criminal Justice Abstracts, ProQuest (Political Science and Sociology databases), and Social Theory. The only selection criteria applied to these articles in the second sampling phase was relevance to any of the research questions. The final sample included 40 articles from two dozen scholarly journals, published between January, 2011 and December, 2013. A complete list of sources sampled for this collection can be found in Appendix 1.3.

The final collection of source material for analysis consists of a collection of personal testimonials posted on the popular blogging and social media platform Tumblr (owned by Yahoo!): a thread entitled “We Are The 99 Percent,” and consisting of posts containing both text and images.[1]  Contributions to the thread are supplied by supporters of the Occupy Movement; those associating with the 99% protest group. Each contribution is both an account of personal and familial hardship, detailing the many obstacles and problems of the “average” American who feels cheated by the current social and economic system, as well as a proclamation of allegiance to the 99%. The purpose of this sample category is to get a sense of the biographies of individuals actively voicing support for the Movement by revealing common characteristics found within the testimonials. The selection process undertaken for creating this sample is discussed in greater detail in Chapter 5.

Charmaz (2006), despite recognizing the variation that exists among practitioners regarding the execution of grounded theory, identifies several features that all grounded theories must necessarily possess: the simultaneous collection and analysis of data, the creation of analytic codes and categories developed from data and not by pre-existing conceptualisations (“theoretical sensitivity”), the inductive construction of abstract categories, theoretical sampling to refine categories, and the integration of categories into a theoretical framework.

Dey (1999) elaborates on the concept of “theoretical sensitivity,” a term related significantly to Blaikie’s (2007) discussion of the “outside learner” research posture discussed earlier, describing it as a methodological “best practice,” one that encourages researchers to have as few predetermined ideas and hypotheses as possible before examining the data. This is said to ensure that the researcher remains “sensitive” to the material, being as open as possible to theories and connections that are drawn from the text, and may not be readily apparent; being deeply immersed in the material affords the researcher the best opportunity for understanding what those affected by the phenomenon recognized as being significant (Dey, 1999). Dey (1999) is clear to point out that immersion in the material without preconceptions does not mean ignoring existing literature and theory on the subject, arguing that this, along with the researcher’s own personal experiences, can become instrumental in the formation of meaningful categories later in the analysis. Prior literature and knowledge should be used to inform our analysis rather than direct it. Strauss and Corbin (1994), acknowledge that existing theories may be included in research if it is deemed appropriate to the area of investigation, but they must be elaborated upon and modified as new data is introduced (273). Also, it is not enough to simply reconsider the usefulness of any pre-existing theory when new data is introduced, the theory must be matched and compared to other theories introduced through data collection, and that this action be performed rigorously (Strauss & Corbin, 1994: 273).

In Glaser and Strauss’ (1967) model, the process of theoretical sampling (the data collection procedure for generating theory) involves the collection, coding and analysis of sources as they are found, deciding upon future courses of action with the research based on what is uncovered (45). Strauss and Corbin (1990; 1998), distinguish between open, axial and selective coding types: “Open coding” refers to the process of generating initial concepts from data, “Axial coding” to the development and linking of concepts into conceptual families (formation of a coding paradigm), and “Selective coding” to the formalising of these relationships into theoretical frameworks. Grounded theory is intended to guide researchers in producing theory that is “conceptually dense,” containing many conceptual relationships presented as propositions (Strauss & Corbin, 1994: 278). Theory consists of plausible relationships proposed among concepts and sets of concepts, and are comprised of propositions. The process of theoretical conceptualization involves pattern recognition, identifying trends in the actions and interactions of various social units (“actors”). More specifically, the patterns being identified should have something to do with the process of change itself, how changes to internal and external conditions cause changes to actions/interactions among individuals (Strauss & Corbin, 1994: 278).

Modes of interpretation for grounded analysis, according to Strauss and Corbin (1994), run the gamut from, “let the information speak for itself,” on through theme analysis and the elucidation of patterns (biographical, societal, and so on), theoretical frameworks or models (sometimes only loosely developed), and theory formulated at various levels of abstraction (278). They elaborate on the idea of “theoretical frameworks,” stating that they provide a conceptual guide for choosing the concepts to be investigated, suggesting research questions, and framing research findings (39). Frameworks, essentially, provide structure to social inquiry. Anfara Jr. and Mertz (2006), note that a substantive body of work exists that equates theory in qualitative research with the methodologies used to conduct the research and the epistemologies underlying those methods (xx). They point to the work of Denzin and Lincoln (2003: 33), who equated methodological paradigms (including positivism/ postpositivism, constructivism and interpretivism, critical theory, hermeneutics, and others) with theory, arguing that these paradigms contain the epistemological, ontological and methodological premises that guide research (xxi). The typical research project unfolds such that, the researcher approaches the investigation with a framework (theory, ontology) that specifies a set of questions (epistemology) that he or she examines in some specific way (methodology, analysis). They define “theoretical framework” as any empirical or quasi-empirical theory of social and/or psychological processes, at a variety of levels (e.g., grand, mid-range, and explanatory), that can be applied to an understanding of a phenomenon (Anfara & Mertz, 2006: xxvii). They go on to describe them as “lenses,” (xxvii), suggesting that the adoption of a theoretical framework allows the researcher to “see” certain aspects of the phenomenon, while negating others (xxviii).

A detailed theoretical framework, employed within my grounded analytical approach to assist in the organization and examination of the selected source material, is developed and discussed in Chapter 2. It is important to note at this juncture that the model draws entirely from the work of C. Wright Mills in his seminal text The Sociological Imagination (1959), and Jock Young’s application of Mils’ critique to the discipline of criminology, in his text The Criminological Imagination (2011). Each author provides an evaluation of the popular research philosophies being adopted in their respective disciplines, offering an “imaginative” alternative that is argued to provide more useful insight and theories. Social researchers must strive to be less like natural scientists, and instead, become “intellectual craftsman.” Analysis of sources must take into account the plight of those affected by the phenomenon, and examine personal troubles in relation to social structures and issues, as well as their place within a broader historical context. In summary, in order for an examination of Occupy Wall Street to be indicative of Mills (1959) and Young’s (2011) imaginative approach, the analysis must take into account personal biographies, historical context and social structures / processes. The categories and themes that emerge from the analysis will be used as a means of exploring the different dimensions of the protest that fit Mills’ (1959) and Young’s (2011) criteria

Summary

Considerable variation exists among available sources regarding the facts and details of Occupy Wall Street. In order to achieve a better, and more informed understanding of the OWS, I believe a sense-making exercise that follows a credible research method, would benefit both myself and the academic community at large. This thesis will be the culmination of my efforts to make sense of what transpired on Wall St. on September 17, 2011. It seeks to explore several aspects of the protests for the purpose of achieving a better understanding as to what happened, why it took place, and who was involved. Using a grounded analytical approach, set within a theoretical framework influenced by Mills (1959) and Young (2011), the goal of this thesis will be to develop theory surrounding OWS. Three collections of sources will be analysed and re-analysed for the purposes of identifying meaningful topics, and grouping similar ideas into categories or themes within the theoretical model inspired by Mills (1959) and Young (2011). The following Chapter provides an overview of the ideas presented by Mills (1959) and Young (2011) in their respective texts, using overlapping tenets to construct a model for approaching the analysis of source material.

[1] “We Are The 99 Percent” Tumblr thread: http://wearethe99percent.tumblr.com/

Jason Quintal | December 15, 2015

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