On September 17, 2011, a few thousand protestors arrived at Zuccotti Park to participate in the Occupy Wall Street Movement. Inspired by the popular assemblies of Egypt, Spain and other regions, the activists set out to challenge the system of corporate dominance that defines government in modern day America. The initial Call to Action by Adbusters tapped into widely held perceptions about a political system controlled by corporate greed: Private money in politics has undermined democracy, subsequently causing the transfer of wealth away from 99% of American citizens, and into the hands of a small elite. Occupy Wall Street, in creating a micro-community during the occupation of Zuccotti Park that operated under a consensus-based decision-making model, sought to demonstrate a visible alternative to the hierarchical structure of human relations that perpetuates the gross inequality and injustice that exist today (Syrek, 2012: 72; Rehmann, 2013: 4). Participants in the movement are “prefiguring” the world they wish to live, and attempting to lead by example. Protestors took up residence in the park for two months, until eviction measures executed by the NYPD (in accordance with a legal measures instituted by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Brookfield Properties), forced occupants to disband.
Occupy Wall Street is, at its core, a public critique of the economy, and of the fraudulent relationship between the government and corporate America. The dispute between the 99% and 1% is multi-faceted, containing plenty of nuance. The goal of the analysis performed for this thesis was to make sense of these nuances, and to develop theories regarding the motivations for protest action that take into account the social and historical circumstances surrounding those motivations.
The first section of this discussion provides an overview of the analytical approach employed for this thesis, summarizing the methodological procedure and theoretical framework provided in Chapters 1 and 2. The second section provides an overview of all the major topics identified during the coding of source material. These topics are examined in relation to each other in order to reveal major themes in the literature; themes that connect topics within and between sub-studies. The discussion of themes, and the insight they provide into the relationship between individual troubles and public issues, makes up the third section of this discussion. The final section will situate these public-private relationships within the historical context discussed in sub-study 1, satisfying the three “pillars” of individual, social, and historical that comprise the Sociological and Criminological Imaginations. The insight drawn from these final two sections will be used to develop theories regarding the motivation behind Occupy Wall Street protests.
A Summary of the Research Purpose and Analytic Approach
Using Blaikie (2007), Charmaz (2006) and Creswell (2013), an analytical approach was developed for this thesis that encompasses five essential elements: a “research paradigm” containing assumptions about reality and how it is to be studied, a “research problem” to be investigated, the “research question” or questions that require a resolution, the “posture” to be adopted by the researcher towards the researched, and a “research strategy” to be employed to answer the questions (Blaikie, 2007: 5).
I orient myself within an “Interpretivist” ontological and “constructionist” epistemological paradigm, recognizing that Occupy supporters, participants and commentators will have varying opinions and interpretations of the event based on their own personal experiences, and the meanings they attach to them. This meaning creation-association process is dictated by individual perception and social context, taking intrinsic characteristics of the protest into account. Part of my mandate as a social researcher under these paradigms is to recognize that multiple interpretations of Occupy exist, and that identifying and comparing these interpretations is a necessary feature of the research process.
The problem I seek to address with this research study is the confusion that arises when one attempts to make sense of the overwhelming quantity and variety of conflicting information found in the various interpretations surrounding the Occupy Wall Street protests. The initial goal of this research project was to construct a “big picture” of the Occupy Movement in order to rectify this problem, performing a grounded analysis of a corpus of source material to answer broad questions about the protests related to who was involved, what transpired, and why. The questions would be modified later in the research process to become narrow in scope, in keeping with the theoretical framework outlined in Chapter 2. The primary focus of the research pivoted to that of the dissenting group in the Occupy dispute, the “99%,” seeking explanations as why protestors convened at Zuccotti Park to demonstrate against the behaviors and practices of corporations, the government, and the wealthy individuals that comprise those groups, collectively labelled the “1%.” The posture I adopt as a researcher combines elements of an “outside expert” with an “inside learner.” This thesis, being a review of documentary accounts of the protests that were written during and after the occupation took place, makes the researcher an outside observer by definition. Having some familiarity with the core issues surrounding Occupy Wall Street prior to the initiation of the research process, allowed for the inclusion of relevant academic articles in my data sets in order to enhance my knowledge of the issues as they emerge from the analysis.
Elements of both an Inductive and Abductive research strategy were employed for my examination of Occupy. Recognizing that different opinions and perspectives (meanings) surrounding the Occupy protests were bound to exist, I collected a substantial number of texts to ensure that a variety of perspectives would be represented. The goal of inductive analysis is the identification of generalizations, or patterns of ideas that can be found consistently throughout the source material. The underlying “logic” surrounding this research strategy is that the frequency of identifiable topics in the text is related to the importance and relevance those topics have among those who commented on the Movement within the source material. Abductive analysis acknowledges that the meanings individuals attach to the event are embedded in the language usage and vocabulary. The “reality” of what happened is constructed by those who experienced it, and is a function of how the event was interpreted, and how those interpretations were communicated and distributed to others.
My thesis draws upon three collections of extant texts found on three online platforms: Google Search, the University of Ottawa Online Library, and Tumblr. These data sets can be seen as three “voices,” with each speaking about the Movement from a unique perspective. Media pundits offer facts and provide commentary on what they see unfolding before them. Their opinions are derived from personal experience in connection with documentary observation of the protests. Authors published in scholarly journals tend to abstain from providing personal opinions that cannot be substantiated with evidence. Protests are examined critically and objectively, with many parallels and comparisons drawn between Occupy and other major social demonstrations in recent history. The incorporation of scholarly literature is in keeping with the research practices of Mills (1959: 122), who noted the importance of considering the work of other scholars in helping establish a foundation from which to build your own research. Testimonials posted to the “We Are The 99 Percent” Tumblr thread provide insight into the personal biographies of those who support Occupy Wall Street. They are understood as journal entries written by individuals who align with the 99% occupying Zuccotti Park. Each post is intended to provide evidence of the consequences of wealth disparity and inequitable access to opportunities for the average American citizen, and that the claims being made by the 99% are true. Every testimonial is taken at face value, ignoring the possibility of falsehoods and exaggerations.
Charmaz (2006), offers a general outline for performing grounded theory, which includes 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”), theoretical sampling to refine categories, and the integration of categories into a theoretical framework. Mills (1959) provides insight into the creation of analytic codes, arguing that the identification of common ideas into “types,” and cross-classifying them in order to uncover the “conditions and consequences” of each type, is the best way to draw relevant conclusions from the source material. Mills (1959) differentiates between the terms “topic” and “theme,” words that are often used synonymously with “type.” A topic is defined as a broad concept requiring a section or chapter to discuss, for example, the topic of “Economic Inequality in America.” Themes are trends and “master conceptions” that are revealed by comparing topics and examining the logic in which topics unfold in the analysis, for example, “Social Stratification” or “Crony Capitalism.” Themes that were identified during my cross-classification of topics is discussed in the next section of this chapter.
In the analysis performed for this thesis, the categories that emerge from the source material are referred to throughout the study as “topics” and sub-topics. These topics were identified by performing multiple close readings of the source material, “coding” the concepts found within the content in a process involving three steps, borrowed from the coding procedures provided by Strauss and Corbin (1990; 1998). First, initial concepts were identified during the first round of close readings (“open coding”), followed by the grouping of important topics together into larger subjects or “conceptual families” (“axial coding”) during the second round of close readings. For example, the initial topics of “social media utilization,” “Adbusters Magazine,” and the “occupation of Zuccotti Park,” were eventually grouped together in order to discuss the “subject of place” in relation to Occupy Wall Street. The final stage of coding, involving the refinement of categories (topics) into a theoretical framework (“selective coding”), was accomplished by incorporating the Sociological and Criminological Imagination.
Mills (1959) and Young (2011) contribute to the analysis in the form of a theoretical framework, translated into both a methodological model for grouping and comparing topics found in the source material, as well as a process for the development of theory. Mills (1959) and Young (2011), in their critiques of “Grand Theory” and “Abstracted Empiricism,” argue that research intended to construct a unified theory, or that is motivated entirely by quantitative, empirical studies in the natural sciences, ultimately produce no revelations of value. Grand theories draw conclusions that are broad with little practical application to everyday problems, while Abstracted Empiricism, suffers from issues of specificity, adding limitations to research stemming from the application of the Scientific Method. Mills (1959) argues that classical research “lies between abstracted empiricism and grand theory,” requiring a level of abstraction both broad enough to facilitate the observation of everyday milieux, while having a targeted focus on social and historical structures (124).
Both authors conclude that this balance can be achieved by conducting “imaginative” social research. The primary tenet of the Sociological Imagination (Mills, 1959) is the importance of understanding the relationship between biography, history and social structure, defined as the capacity to link biography, or the personal experiences of an individual life, with the impersonal workings of a historical era and social or institutional structure in which that life is located (Mills, 1959: 5). The “fundamental triangle” that Young (2011: 2) identifies, the inner life of human actors, and the social and historical setting in which they live, involves placing an individual within a social structure at a particular place and time.
Applying the three elements of the “fundamental triangle” to my investigation of Occupy Wall Street resulted in the creation of three sub-studies, each intended to explore one aspect of the event, a structure that is in keeping with Mills’ (1959: 126) best practices. The first and second sub-studies (Chapters 3 and 4), draw insight from the “news” and “academic” data sets only, with the former discussing topics related to the immediate historical context of the protests, and the spaces in which mobilization and action took place, while the latter identifying public issues at the core of protestor grievances, responses to the protests by politicians and law enforcement officials, and the utilization of horizontal decision-making strategies by protests organizers as a model for a reformed democracy. The third sub-study draws from its own source pool, the Tumblr blog “We Are The 99 Percent,” to gain a better understanding into the individual circumstances of those who supported the Movement. Patterns in the vocabulary and phrasing used within a sample of testimonials were used to construct a series of protestor character profiles, including students, the unemployed, and the underemployed.
A Review of Topics Identified in the Sub-Studies
Key topics and sub-topics that emerged from each sub-study are listed in tables located in Appendix 1.4-1.6. The first sub-study (Chapter 3) examined topics related to the historical context of the New York City protests in mid-September, 2011, satisfying the first “pillar” of an imaginative analytical framework. For the purposes of this study, the concept of “historical context” was divided into the two broader subjects of Time and Place. Hardt and Negri (2013) make an extremely important argument, one that supports the incorporation of an imaginative model to an examination of Occupy Wall Street, stating that an understanding the protests necessarily requires one to “situate it alongside the other “encampments of the past year,” and once the protests are examined in connection to one another, an “emerging cycle of struggles” can be identified (1). Andersen (2011) states that, ”do-it-yourself democratic politics became globalized” in 2011, suggesting, along with several other writers, that the “Arab Spring” protests set off a domino effect of worldwide dissent, with each successive protest borrowing inspiration from the previous (Barnard, 2011; Hardt & Negri, 2011: 1; Pepitone, 2011; Bennett, 2012: 37; Gaby & Caren, 2012: 368; Hatem, 2012: 401; Hickel, 2012; Kern & Nam, 2013: 199; Milkman, Lewis & Luce, 2012; Pickerill & Krinsky, 2012; Wagner-Pacifici, 2012).
Situating the protests alongside one another revealed four major parallels between the instances of public protest that preceded Occupy Wall Street in 2011, including Tunisia, Egypt, Spain, Wisconsin and “Bloombergville.” The first parallel identified was the neoliberalization of public policy, or government support for the privatization of public services, free trade, market de-regulation and reduced public spending. State legislative decisions that handed control of essential services to private corporations, and provided tax breaks to corporations in the hopes that the additional capital would “trickle down” to stimulate spending and job growth among the general public, were perceived by dissenting parties as further collusion on the part of corporate and government interests to redistribute wealth and power. State governments in each instance were held accountable for creating and facilitating the economic and social inequality experienced by protest supporters, and as a result, government leaders either resigned or negotiated with protestor demands in order to reach a fair resolution. The occupation of public space was a popular tactic used by protestors worldwide in 2011; a tactic shown to have a high probability of success at forcing government bodies to consider and implement protest demands. Large public spectacles have a high probability of gaining media attention, and ultimately widespread public attention, forcing governments to act or risk losing public support altogether. Protestor populations were also shown to have a high concentration of youth participants, a parallel understood to be a consequence of unemployment, low wages, heavy tax burdens, and overwhelming debt, affecting a larger proportion of youth in each instance of public protest. The last parallel identified was the utilization of social media platforms for garnering support and organizing demonstrations. Such a feature illustrates both the popularity of social media among the young, tech-savvy supporters of each protest movement, both also the capacity such technology has to translate personal commitment to online social welfare initiatives into collective, real-world action.
In regards to the subject of Place, analysis of source material revealed that the “occupation” of Wall Street has both a physical and virtual dimension, relying on online channels such as social media networks and blogs to circulate messages related to Occupy’s intent and purpose, in order to generate interest among would-be supporters and Zuccotti Park occupants. The mobilization of support on heavily trafficked internet forums and public streets, as previously mentioned, was a defining characteristic of the protests that erupted in the Arab Spring and Spain and U.S., reinforcing the influence these events had on the execution of the Occupy Movement. A two-tiered strategy for occupation is discussed in the second half the first sub-study, examining the convergence of supporters taking place in Zuccotti Park, as well as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Tumblr.
Traditional and online forms of media were utilized for solicitation and communication purposes, a phenomenon referred to as “transmedia mobilization” (Costanza-Chock, 2012: 378). The articles and blogs published in the summer of 2011 by Adbusters magazine, are recognized in the source material for being instrumental in catalyzing Occupy initiatives, providing the Movement with a preliminary set of directives, and more importantly, name-brand recognition. The internet hacktivist group Anonymous, as well as the publishers of the Occupied Wall Street Journal, are each discussed in this study in regards to the performance of a similar function, with each group attempting to disseminate Occupy’s core philosophies to an expanded audience, albeit, using different forms of media. Anonymous demonstrated a desire to help spread the word about Occupy Wall Street by creating viral movie campaigns published on YouTube, while Journal creators distributed newsletters to protest supporters in and around the Zuccotti Park for the same purpose. The physical occupation of Zuccotti Park was a tactic employed for both its practical and symbolic value. New York’s Financial District is widely recognized as the primary “source” of American economic inequality, making the selection of Zuccotti Park as a central hub of protest demonstrations appropriate considering its proximity to many Wall Street financial institutions. Also, the act of ‘re-appropriating the commons’ and erecting ‘sustainable protest villages’ is viewed by some as a way of creating ‘equitable space,’ embodying the principles of participatory democracy and consensus-based decision making in order to demonstrate what an ideal democracy should resemble.
The second sub-study (Chapter 4) explored topics related to issues of social structure, satisfying the second “pillar” of imaginative social research outlined by Mills (1959) and Young (2011). Issues raised by protest supporters and commentators regarding the functioning and operation of the American economic and political system, were identified and discussed in detail. Two primary issues, believed to have contributed to the growing dissent among American citizens, were isolated among the variety of grievances and demands expressed by protest supporters. The first issue has to do with the distribution of wealth, with a growing realization among American citizens that a small group of individuals – the 1%, or ‘corporatocracy’ – control a significant proportion of the wealth, which translates into greater political power and influence. Corporations, operating under the principle of profit maximization regardless of the broader social consequences, have been accused in the source material of re-investing capital in speculative investments, instead of allowing it to ‘trickle-down’ into the possession of employees through increased labour or better wages. The second issue has to do with political representation, a critique of hierarchical government structures and the collusion of corporate and political interests in legislative decision-making. Protest supporters argue that their best interests and needs are not reflected in policy changes or initiatives. Protestors adopted a “horizontalist” organizational structure in response to this concern, effectively leading by example through the demonstration of a functioning participatory democracy, as illustrated by the General Assemblies. Any effort by protestors to convene in large numbers, including General Assemblies and the occupation of Zuccotti Park, was met with resistance by government and law enforcement officials. Police officers engaged in the ‘strategic incapacitation’ of protestors by erecting barricades, prohibiting access to public spaces, and performing mass arrests, in an effort to restrict the mobility of participants and dissuade protestors from assembling and causing public disruptions in the future. After repeated police interventions failed to quell protest efforts, legal intervention was taken in the form of a municipally-enforced eviction from Zuccotti Park.
The debate surrounding the existence and importance of demands issued by the 99%, is discussed in the final section of the second sub-study. The consensus in the source material is that an “official” list of demands from protestors – a list drafted through the process of consensus-based decision making during a General Assembly – does not exist. However, four “unofficial” lists – written by individual protest supporters on behalf of the 99% as a whole – are discussed and compared in my analysis. Lists developed by Hayat and Covert (2011), Michael Moore (as discussed in Chopra, 2011), ‘GandhiKingMindset’ (occupywallst.org), and Gitlin (2013) in the ‘Charter of the 99%,’ offer insight into the wide range of broad and specific requests made by members of the 99%. Some recurring trends among the demands include reforms to the tax code to ensure that corporations and the wealthy individuals who own them pay a proportionate amount of taxes based on income, regulation of the financial market to prevent careless, risky and often illegal ventures by major financial institutions, reducing the ability of corporations to supply funding to political campaigns, and the appointment of an oversight committee to investigate the economic recession of 2008, holding those responsible for the crash accountable for their actions. The debate regarding the importance of demands alludes to a broader concern regarding the benchmarks by which to measure the “success” of protest efforts. Some in the source material maintain a relatively low standard, arguing that the 99%’s capacity to mobilize and demonstrate in public makes protest efforts meaningful and worthwhile. However, others argue that concrete changes in the form of policy initiatives, which address specific demands held by protestors as a collective, are needed in order to gauge whether Occupy initiatives had any demonstrable value.
The final sub-study (Chapter 5) explores the individual biographies of protest supporters, satisfying the third “pillar,” completing the ‘fundamental triangle’ of imaginative social science research. This study identified consistencies among a sample of personal testimonials offered by Occupy supporters on the Tumblr thread “We Are The 99 Percent.” Analysis of the data set revealed several shared life experiences among contributors, each providing insight into the common and differentiating characteristics of protest supporters. A majority of contributors express distrust in the ability of the capitalist economic system to distribute opportunities for wealth on the basis of merit. Of all the life experiences discussed by contributors to the thread, participation and completion of a college or university program is mentioned most frequently. Students who come from working class households often have to assume large student loans in order to attend a post-secondary institution. The underlying faith being placed in the educational system is that earning a degree translates into meaningful employment prospects, however, many in the source material argue that this is not the reality they experienced. The value of academic credentials in the eyes of potential employers is viewed with skepticism among contributors. In addition, many express concerns about the scarcity of available job positions, especially jobs that pay more than minimum wage. Unemployment and underemployment force individuals and households to plunge deeper into debt, making only enough money to afford the bare essentials for survival.
Private Troubles & Public Issues
The relationship between “the personal troubles of milieu” and “the public issues of social structure” (Mills, 1959: 14), is an integral dimension of the Sociological and Criminological Imagination, providing insight into the motivations and impetus behind Occupy Wall Street. Imaginative research is a process of revealing how individual problems have roots in systemic and structural problems; a movement from micro concerns to macro issues. An examination of themes that connect major topics, is necessary for the identification of private/public relationships, and ultimately the development of theory. This section of the discussion will elaborate on themes identified in the source material through comparative analysis of the major topics revealed in sub-studies 1 through 3, reviewed in the section above. These themes will form the basis of discussion into the relationship between personal troubles and social issues provided in this section. The final section of this chapter will examine those relationships within a historical context provided in sub-study 1. This process satisfies the “fundamental triangle” inherent in the Sociological and Criminological Imaginations, and will provide us with the insight needed to infer about motivations behind Occupy Wall Street.
THEME: Social Distance – The Gap Between the Rich & Poor
One of the fundamental aspects of the Occupy Wall Street Movement is the conflict between two parties divided on socio-economic lines. Owens (2011), commenting on the impetus behind Occupy Wall Street, notes that Americans cannot help but get upset when presented with substantial evidence of “systematic foul play,” and that protests were a way to express dissatisfaction with the corrupt capitalist practices and political favoritism that have contributed to the polarization of society into two segments: “poor and powerless” and “disproportionately wealthy and powerful.” The prevailing perception in the source material, an important social issue raised by Occupy supporters, is that the distance between the poor and wealthy continues to grow, eliminating the middle class who enjoy moderate incomes. The reality that Occupy supporters no longer accept is that there are few individuals who collect annual salaries in the hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of families suffer starvation and homelessness. From this perspective, Occupy protests can be understood as an uprising of a new “class” calling themselves the 99%, comprised of members of the lower and working classes, rallying against the tyranny of the economic elite: a modern example of “class warfare.”
Conversely. there is a sense that some individuals have accepted this social and economic arrangement, evidence of the “great markdown” Francis (2011) discussed, describing their financial circumstances on Tumblr as being “lucky,” despite living “paycheck to paycheck,” making just enough money to afford necessities and “break even.” Over time, individuals accept the declining lifestyle and reduced standard of living that is a consequence of escalating debt and chronic unemployment.
THEME: Scarcity – Wages, Unemployment & Debt
A theme of scarcity is evident in the source material, mentioned in relation to two resources necessary for survival in a capitalist economy: employment and money. Well-paying jobs are in short supply, if jobs exist at all. Difficulty securing lucrative employment is responsible for several individual problems identified in sub-study 3, such as an inability to accumulate savings, having only enough money to afford necessities, and escalating personal and household debt. The tensions that arise as a result of real or perceived financial scarcity, a social phenomenon commonly referred to as “economic insecurity,” can be credited as a motivation for Occupy Wall Street. This perception of scarcity also accounts for the decision to choose Wall Street as the central hub for protest demonstrations, being a symbolic representation of excess and abundance.
Money is truly the root of all problems, with those who associate with the 99% suggesting that they are caught in a vicious cycle of debt, resulting from low wages, escalating living expenses, and existing debt associated with education, home ownership, health care, child care, auto insurance, and many others. This vicious cycle is illustrated below.
Existing Debt (Student Loans, Home Ownership, etc.) + Low Wage Employment OR Unemployment + Increased Cost of Living = Deeper Debt
The rate at which individuals plunge deeper into debt only accelerates when the “Low Wage Employment” variable is replaced with “No Employment.” Satisfying debt obligations requires such a large proportion of individual income, that many experience difficulty being able to afford necessities for survival, such as housing accommodations, health care and food
THEME: Impediments to Upward Mobility
The most prevalent individual problem expressed by protest supporters in the source material is difficulty achieving upward mobility within the established social and economic order, a concern that relates to the “broken promises” sentiment discussed in sub-study 3. The system is fundamentally unfair, structured in a way that impedes membership into the upper class for the vast majority of Americans, and the operation of the education system is a prime example of this unfairness. A widely understood principle among Tumblr contributors is that investment in the “knowledge economy” is essential for individual success in the free-market economy. To put it bluntly, individuals are told to go to school and earn a degree if they want an opportunity at their “dream job.” The frustration and anger expressed by Occupy supporters, stems from the realization that the educational system ultimately serves the opposite purpose it is intended to perform: Instead of helping people achieve upward mobility, it plunges people deeper in debt, cementing their membership in the lower class.
The debate surrounding the value and utility of education is revealed in sub-studies 2 and 3. Opinions differ between those that view education as a key ingredient to achieving financial success, and those who view it as a substantially expensive and risky investment that yields little, if any advantage within the existing social and economic system. Contributors to the Tumblr thread question whether their expensive degrees provide any observable advantage in the competing job market. Many believe that candidacy for a “good job” does not improve the higher up the educational ladder one ascends. The prevailing sentiment is that higher education is not necessarily viewed by industry leaders as having direct applicability to roles and positions that need filling. Most jobs available to job seekers entering the market are low-skilled, repetitive tasks and customer service positions that will no doubt become automated tasks in the not-so-distant future. These jobs do not require a theoretical knowledge base or critical thinking skills in order to perform adequately. Alternatively, Krugman (2011), suggests that members of the media, representing the interests of the corporate elite who own the news organization, attempt to alter the framing of the dispute between the 99% and the 1% from “poor v. wealthy” to “uneducated v. educated,” an idea that falls in line with Brooks (2011) notion of “Red Inequality.” The implication being that protestors who express concern about reduced or non-existent employment prospects and dismal salaries lack the education and skills required to secure a better paying, and ultimately more fulfilling career.
THEME: Systemic Corruption – The Collusion of Government and Corporate Interests
The association between wealth concentration and political influence can be found throughout the source material, but particularly in sub-studies 1 and 2. From a protestor’s perspective, the capitalist and democratic systems in the U.S. have been co-opted by the financial elite. Analysis of the source material reveals that financial status and political favoritism are intimately intertwined, attributed to the resources corporations possess to persuade government officials to enact policies that allow them to generate even greater profit. Corporations wield political influence in a variety of ways. Corporations can fund lobbyists that campaign government officials to pass or vote against certain policies. The Citizens United decision, discussed in sub-study 2, gave corporations the ability to donate unlimited funds to political campaigns. Ross (2011) notes that the pursuit of profit is not exclusive to Wall Street financiers, with politicians also being easily subverted by greed, making them susceptible to the lobbying efforts of large banks and corporations. Evidence of the sentiment that “politicians don’t care about the poor” can be found, for example, with the repeated references to the 2008 decision by Congress to spend public funds in the billions of dollars to bailout Wall Street banking interests once the speculative investment market began to implode.
The funneling of wealth upward to a small economic elite is another core social issue surrounding the Occupy Movement. The consensus in the source material is that American capitalism has been shaped by the proliferation of powerful transnational corporations whose operations influence global economics and national politics (Ellison, 2011; Gutting, 2011; Grossman, 2011; Jickling & Hoskins, 2011; Pepitone, 2011; Porter, 2011; DeLuca, Lawson & Sun, 2012: 488; Hatem, 2012: 402; Tabb, 2012). Corporate greed is believed by many to dictate the actions of the 1%. Corporations honor a “bottom line” that focuses exclusively on turning a profit for shareholders, regardless of the social and economic circumstances that result. As discussed in sub-study 2, and substantiated by the accounts of personal financial hardship provided in sub-study 3, evidence to support the effectiveness of “trickle-down economics” (a strategy in-keeping with a neoliberal economic philosophy), whereby corporations reinvest profits into increased production, an expanded labour force and higher wages, does not exist. Companies see no reason to increase production of goods by investing in additional raw material and labour, because the bulk of the consumer base is either drowning in debt or unemployed, either of which causes a significant decline in household and personal income (Tabb, 2012: 269). The profit motive takes precedent over hiring more employees and increasing wages, a motivation that often results in the elimination, outsourcing or automation of jobs.
The end result is a funneling of capital to a small group of corporate investors, who subsequently gamble that money in stock markets, speculative financial instruments and foreign currencies. Kristoff (2011) said it best, suggesting that banks and corporations are “privatizing profits and socializing risks,” a feat that can only be accomplished with collusion between the federal government and private corporations. “Crony Capitalism,” the practices that allow corporations and wealthy individuals to invest in speculation and have all their errors corrected with taxpayers money, is fundamentally challenged in this protest, with the occupation of Zuccotti Park in New York’s Financial District viewed as a symbolic manifestation of this challenge (Kohn, 2011a; Censky, 2011).
THEME: The Struggle for “Equalism”
A relationship exists in the source material between the operation of the current system of representative democracy, and the individual struggle for “equalism” (Abzug & Greenberg, 2011) or the right of any citizen to be served equally by government bodies. The operation of the capitalist system allows for a concentration of wealth to a small minority that threatens to make the U.S. a “democracy in name only” (Hardt & Negri, 2011: 2; Krugman, 2011a; Ross, 2011; Zelizer, 2011; Hatem, 2012). To Occupy supporters, money has replaced the voice of the people in the democratic process. Rushkoff (2011) argues that tactics used at Occupy demonstrations reveal a prototype for a new model of democracy where everyone can participate in the decision-making process. Two manifestations of this idea are identified in the source material. The first is the creation of what Pickerill and Krinsky (2012: 283) refer to as a “prefigurative alternative community” within Zuccotti Park; a self-sufficient micro-community with the capacity to provide basic social services to residents, all while circumventing traditional service providers like the government. The second is the practice of holding General Assemblies, involving frequent public assemblies and consensus-based voting protocols that required no elected officials or appointed leaders to function, viewed as a “horizontalist” variant to the existing democratic decision-making process (Moreno-Caballud, & Sitrin, 2011; Hickel, 2012; Lubin, 2012: 187; Sitrin, 2012; Syrek, 2012: 73). In such a system, everyone present can contribute by offering proposals to the rest of the group to be debated and voted on, with those that achieve a majority vote receiving additional attention in order to develop plans of action (Syrek, 2012: 74). According to Hardt and Negri (2011), the General Assembly provides an example of “real democracy” in action (2).
THEME: Resistance by the Elite
An important theme that appears in all three sub-studies is that of resistance to change on the part of the government and economic elite. The actions of repressive government regimes in the Arab Spring and Spain prior to Occupy Wall Street, and the intervention of the New York Police Department, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and Brookfield Properties during the occupation of Zuccotti Park, are all indicative of a fearful elite attempting to protect the established social and economic order, as well as their own standing within the social hierarchy. Government opposition to Occupy demonstrations, particularly at the municipal level, is well documented in the source material. The office of Mayor Bloomberg, in cooperation with Commissioner Paul Browne of the New York City Police Department, executed several targeted police interventions for the purposes of preventing the Movement from picking up further momentum. Erecting barriers in order to contain protestors or funnel them in a certain direction, and the arrest of large numbers of protest participants during public demonstrations, are characteristic of a “risk management” approach to crowd control, what Gillham, Edwards and Noakes (2013) refer to as “strategic incapacitation.” Several examples of police intervention that illustrate the utilization of this policing strategy are discussed in sub-study 2. While arresting mass numbers of protestors and setting up barricades around landmarks designated for Occupy gatherings suppressed some instances of public demonstration, as a whole their actions served to give the Movement greater legitimacy in the eyes of the public and media, garnering widespread news coverage that amplified the messages of Occupy to a national audience. After two months of occupation, once it became readily apparent that efforts to contain the occupation had failed, a series of events unfolded that would ultimately result in the eviction of protestors from Zuccotti Park. Brookfield Properties presented a legal challenge to Mayor Bloomberg, arguing that the protestor’s First Amendment rights did not supersede the property owner’s legal obligation to ensure the park is clean and safe. Bloomberg supported the challenge in court, adding that the occupation threatened the quality of life for residents and small business owners in Manhattan. Bloomberg’s endorsement undoubtedly help authorize the legally sanctioned eviction proceedings. Protestors were offered a compromise, however, maintaining the right to protest in Zuccotti Park, while losing the right to camp there.
The Fundamental Triangle: Applying the Sociological and Criminological Imagination to Occupy Wall Street
Placing the Occupy Wall Street Movement within an historical context, in-keeping with an imaginative research model presented by Mills (1959) and Young (2011), must identify and elaborate on social circumstances particular to that time period that may have affected the social phenomenon or event under examination. The entirety of this study focuses on events that transpired during the 2011 calendar year, examining articles published on various internet platforms including online magazines, academic journals, and blogging forums, that commented on events while they happened and afterward. The 11-month timeframe beginning in January and ending late November, 2011, serves an important methodological purpose, establishing the contextual boundaries under which to examine the Occupy Movement. These boundaries were not selected prior to analysis of the source material, but emerged as a result of the analysis, with several authors commenting on the significance of events that transpired prior to, and after demonstrations began in mid-September. The contextual timeline for this thesis begins death of Mohammed Bouazizi in Tunisia, and ends with the eviction of protestors from Zuccotti Park.
Two important insights can be drawn from the source material in regards to the historical context surrounding the Occupy Wall Street protests. First, the Occupy Movement was neither an isolated nor spontaneous incident of social dissent, with evidence of both national and international influences present within the source material. Analysis of the source revealed that Occupy borrowed features and characteristics of other protests that took place that year, with four commonalities identified in particular: the implementation of neoliberalist economic policies by national governments, the use of “occupation” as a protest strategy, the participation of youth, and the utilization of internet and social media tools. As well, references are made to specific policy changes enacted by the U.S. government that contributed to the country’s economic recession, an important grievance identified by Occupy supporters. Second, the selection of Zuccotti Park in the Wall Street Financial District as the location for protest demonstrations, as well as the act of occupying that space, hold symbolic meaning that is fundamental to the protest’s purpose and goals.
The year 2011 is viewed in the source material as an exceptional period historically, with authors commenting on the concentration and “viral” spread of protests, highlighting the unique similarities between them. Andersen (2011) states that, ”do-it-yourself democratic politics became globalized,” suggesting, along with several other writers, that the “Arab Spring” protests set off a domino effect of worldwide dissent, with each successive protest borrowing inspiration from the previous (Barnard, 2011; Hardt & Negri, 2011: 1; Pepitone, 2011; Bennett, 2012: 37; Gaby & Caren, 2012: 368; Hatem, 2012: 401; Hickel, 2012; Kern & Nam, 2013: 199; Milkman, Lewis & Luce, 2012; Pickerill & Krinsky, 2012; Wagner-Pacifici, 2012). Hardt and Negri (2013) make an extremely important argument, one that supports the incorporation of an imaginative model to an examination of Occupy Wall Street, stating that an understanding of the protests necessarily requires one to “situate it alongside the other ‘encampments’ of the past year,” and once the protests are examined in connection to one another, an “emerging cycle of struggles” can be identified (1).
The implementation of neoliberalist economic policies by a national government, and opposition to these policies by members of the general public, is a characteristic fundamental to every example of social uprising in 2011, including Occupy Wall Street. In Tunisia, Egypt and Spain, social services intended to benefit the poor either had their budgets cut dramatically, or were privatized. In all three states, escalating unemployment ensued, generating the fervour needed for mass public uprising. The public demonstrations that took place in the U.S. prior to Occupy, in Wisconsin and New York City, were not in opposition to national policies, but rather, were responses to local budget proposals (by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg) that also sought to cut funding to essential public services. Supporters of Occupy Wall Street express specific concern about policies and a lack of government oversight that contributed to the economic crash of 2008. The U.S. government is accused of drafting a tax code that allows large corporations to shield their earnings from federal tax obligations. Corporations are accused of using that capital to invest in speculative financial instruments that serve to funnel money upward to a small, economic elite. Once these speculative investments began to fail, threatening to bankrupt businesses that employ tens of thousands of Americans, the government proceeded to use taxpayer money to bail them out. A tactic that, under the principles of trickle-down economics, would be beneficial to society as a whole. However, because corporations have the discretion to use bailout money however they see fit, the odds of it trickling down to employees is slim, especially when one considers the overwhelming power of the profit motive.
The discussion of protestor demands found in the third section of sub-study 2, identifies two federal policy amendments that some Occupy supporters believe contributed significantly to America’s economic recession. The proposed lists of demands offered by Michael Moore and “GhandiKingMindset” posted on occupywallst.org, both mention the reinstitution of the Glass-Steagall Act, which was eliminated as part of provisions to the Banking Act of 1933 under the Gramm–Leach–Bliley Act of 1999. These provisions terminated the separation between commercial and investment banks, effectively allowing any American bank to engage in speculative investments, further exacerbating the concentration of wealth. The Citizens United Supreme Court decision also appears on two lists, including Gitlin’s (2013), which some Occupy supporters believe is the primary cause of under-representation and corrupt government-corporate collusion. The decision removed restrictions on how much corporations are allowed to contribute financially to political campaigns, giving corporations considerable influence regarding who gets elected, and the kinds of policies they enact.
Even though demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt took the form of mass gatherings in public squares, the 15M protests in Spain are credited with being the first protest of 2011 to utilize an occupation strategy, whereby protestors set up camp in a public square for extended periods of time until demands are met. The actions of protectors in the Arab Spring and Spain had a significant impact on the organization and impact on all three instances of American public protest that took place that year. Reminiscent of what transpired in Egypt and Tunisia, protestors in Wisconsin gathered in the thousands around both the State Capitol building and the governor’s mansion. The group, New Yorkers Against Budget Cuts, were the first to propose setting up sleeping bags and camping out in front of major landmarks in New York’s financial district for the “Bloombergville” protests. The combination of mass public gatherings, and the long-term occupation of symbolically significant public spaces, were both identified in the source material as being instrumental to the execution of Occupy Wall Street.
The selection of Wall Street as a centre for Occupy protest demonstrations was done deliberately, recognized in the source material as a hub of materialism and greed, and the location of many of the home offices belonging to the corporations and financial institutions deemed responsible for the economic downturn. It sends an overt message of collective condemnation on the part of protestors, for the activities perpetrated by these institutions; activities that serve to funnel money upward, creating an ever-increasing gap between the rich and the poor. The occupation of Wall Street demonstrates a recognition on the part of protest supporters that the causes of wealth disparity in America are not intangible; that individuals and corporations can be held accountable for the role they played in creating the dire economic circumstances that exist today. If the selection of Wall Street signifies distrust in private organizations to distribute wealth equitably and fairly, than the act of occupying Zuccotti Park, and establishing a participatory, consensus-based organizational structure, signifies a distrust in the government officials that assist the actions of private organizations and wealthy individuals. The sense of betrayal expressed by protest supporters in sub-study is understandable, and justified, with ample evidence provided in the source material to suggest that the wealthy enjoy political favoritism in the form of policies and policy amendments that allow them to dodge tax obligations. With the ability to supply political candidates with unlimited campaign financing, the corporate elite can ensure that only representatives who condone their fraudulent behavior get elected. The collusion of government and private interests threatens the democratic principle of political representativeness by giving the wealthy more political influence than a single vote should afford them. The use of General Assemblies to organize and vote on Occupy initiatives, is intended to act as visible rejection of the current, and corrupt, political hierarchy, while demonstrating an “ideal” alternative of what direct, participatory democracy should look like.
The term “Indignados,” applied to protest supporters during the 15M Movement in Spain, literally translates into “contemporary youth in search of social injustice,” and could easily be applied to supporters of Occupy Wall Street. The participation of youth in the Arab Spring, Spain and Occupy, can be understood as a consequence of mass unemployment primarily affecting recent college graduates. The implication made in the source material is that being young, educated and unemployed, is a combination of personal characteristics that necessarily leads to participation in activities related to widespread social injustice. Youthfulness implies greater energy and enthusiasm towards participation in social causes. Being educated implies a level of understanding and awareness of the social injustices that exist in society. While being unemployed implies that individuals have the additional time needed to commit to social causes and see them through to the end.
In Tunisia and Egypt, smartphones equipped with photo and video capture technology, and the utilization of social networks like Facebook and Twitter, helped spread graphic images of death and police brutality in order to generate public dissent. In Tunisia, images of Mohammed Bouazizi’s death, as well as copycat acts of martyrdom, were spread across various social networks in order to amplify a message of mass opposition to the policies of President Ben Ali – policies that were believed to be responsible for creating the economic and social conditions that prompted Bouazizi to commit suicide. In Egypt, video of Khaled Said’s murder by police officers went viral on Facebook, which prompted Wael Ghonim to construct a Facebook page in commemoration of Said’s death. The demonstration that Ghonim would later call for in protest against Said’s death, would ultimately serve as the foundation for nationwide protests that sought the resignation of President Mubarek. Ghonim’s role in creating and disseminating the initial Call-to-Action, is not unlike the actions of Adbusters Magazine, calling for support and participation in a “US Day of Rage” in protest against the corruption inherent in the American political and economic system. In Wisconsin, protest organizers created several channels for communication intended to facilitate the spread of protest information, as well as the mobilization of support. A website and several social media profiles were created under the banner “DefendWisconsin,” similar to the websites and social media profiles later set up by Occupy supporters and organizers under the banner “#OccupyWallStreet” or “#OccupyTogether.”
Evidence of “transmedia mobilization” (Costanza-Chock, 2012: 378) for the purposes of mobilizing support and organizing protest demonstrations, is provided in sub-study 1. The online magazine Adbusters introduced the idea of Occupy Wall Street to the general public, providing the purpose and logistics for the initial “Day of Rage” that ultimately became the launch date for the Occupy Movement. Adbusters is responsible for giving the Movement name brand recognition, allowing the Occupy literature to spread across multiple media channels very quickly. Social networks like Facebook and Twitter, along with internet blogs including occupyewallst.org and Tumblr, provided “virtual forums” for Occupy supporters to share images and videos of demonstrations, discuss protest demands and goals, organize General Assembly meetings, and communicate between other encampments being erected across the country. Social media is described within the source material as an extremely vital tool necessary for the sharing of Occupy narratives and the execution of protest initiatives. The spread of Occupy literature also took place outside of virtual networks, with the publication of the Occupied Wall Street Journal, handed out directly to protestors occupying Zuccotti Park.
The Motivation Behind Occupy Wall Street
Drawing connections between the individual problems expressed by Occupy supporters related to financial hardship and a lack of political representation, with social issues related to the collusion of government and private interests that serve to funnel money and power into the hands of a wealthy elite, reveals six important themes including social imbalance, scarcity, systemic corruption, upward mobility, “equalism,” and resistance. By placing these themes, and the public-private relationships they address, within the historical context discussed above, two broad conclusions can be drawn about the motivations behind Occupy Wall Street. Based on my analysis, the actions of the 99% can be understood as a response to systemic issues related to access and fairness. In regards to access, protestors demand to live in a society that determines membership into the upper class based on merit. The operation of the current capitalist system is not conducive to the equitable distribution of opportunities to achieve wealth, creating a fissure between the “promise” and “reality” of what American capitalism is intended to deliver. In terms of fairness, protestors wish to live in an economic and political system that recognizes and responds to their needs, seeking systemic reform that eliminates the political favoritism that the wealthy enjoy.
The issue of access relates to the notion of “equal opportunity” expressed by protest supporters in sub-study 3. The overall perception demonstrated in the source material is that the “ideal” way to distribute wealth in society is to reward those who work for it. The “capitalist promise” discussed in sub-studies 2 and 3, can be understood as a series of decisions people are advised to make throughout their life to ensure a greater chance of attaining wealth. The chain of events unfolds as follows: Enroll in a reputable college or university and earn a degree in a field of interest; Upon graduation, enter the employment market and search for positions that match your newly acquired knowledge and skill set, competing with others who have lesser or similar credentials; Secure a position within a large multinational corporation by distancing yourself from others in the applicant pool; And finally, commit to employment with that organization until you have attained the status and wealth you desire. The belief that all American citizens have an equal opportunity to achieve wealth through participation in this established order, is best understood as the “American Dream.” The continued operation of the flawed political and economic systems can be attributed to a socially engrained commitment to the meritocracy that both the “capitalist promise” and “American Dream” imply: that truly hard-working, intelligent and loyal individuals are rewarded financially for their efforts. Convincing the masses that the American Dream is still possible has been the establishment’s greatest accomplishment.
The conventional path to wealth is paved with hard work and active participation in social institutions, such as education. Occupy supporters describe being lead to believe that commitment to the acquisition of knowledge and skills through successful completion of post-secondary programs, will translate into higher-paying career opportunities after graduation. Unfortunately, this outcome is elusive to many, despite their best efforts. The sentiment that the “American Dream is a lie” is a poignant way of stating that the prescribed method of obtaining wealth within the American capitalist system is in no way a guarantee: The “promise” and “reality” are vastly disconnected. The “Robin Hood” analogy does not apply to the demands of Occupy supporters, as revealed in the source material. Protestors do not want to ‘steal from the rich and give it directly to the poor,’ but instead, want a fair chance at earning wealth for themselves. The issue is access to opportunities for wealth, not direct access to wealth itself.
The issue of fairness is related to the widespread concern among the 99% regarding a lack of political representation within the hierarchical government system that exists today. The problems and obstacles encountered by the poor and working classes are perceived to be ignored by elected government officials. The mutual government and corporate interest in accumulating wealth (the “profit motive”), takes precedent over issues affecting society as a whole. Concentrations of wealth and power are fundamentally anti-democratic, creating what some would consider a “republic,” where a small group of people wield political power and control in order to further their own interests. The 1%, and the institutions they control, demonstrate a strong tendency in the source material towards self-preservation, deploying legal sanctions and law enforcement officials in order ensure the maintenance of the existing corrupt social order. Horizontal, participatory democracy is considered by Occupy supporters to be a “true” form of democracy, because It reinforces the legitimacy of power based on people, and not on money. The 99% demonstrated an alternative to the operation of the existing democratic system; a system that the wealthy and powerful work diligently to protect.
The 1% act with impunity, believing they can do whatever they desire with the corporate gains they accumulate. This brash behavior is a function of a lack of government oversight, and lenient tax policies that allow corporations to shield earnings from tax obligations, depriving the American public of money that could fund job growth, educational bursaries and scholarships, and a variety of social welfare programs and essential public services. The legal loopholes exploited by corporations result in a disproportionate amount of federal income tax being collected from the working class, as well as escalating unemployment, further exacerbating the concentration of wealth to a small, powerful elite. In addition, government bailouts allowed many corporations and banks to remain solvent during the economic recession, which also came at the expense of taxpayer funding. In short, the corporatocracy is accused of committing financial fraud, while the government is accused of allowing it to happen.
Free market capitalism, in its current form, is unsustainable. Kohn (2011b) and Censky (2011) argue that protestors are not seeking the complete elimination of free market capitalism, but rather, demand economic institutions and processes undergo a thorough audit in order to identify and eliminate “criminal workings” (Tabb, 2012: 272) and “violent antagonisms” (Kristoff, 2011b) embedded within the system. Analysis of the source material reveals that protestors demand targeted interventions to ensure that two goals are achieved. First, that the individuals and corporations responsible for the economic recession are held accountable for their actions to the fullest extent of the law. And second, that the tax code undergo a huge reformation in order to ensure that corporations assume their fair of the nation’s tax burden. If neoliberal economic policies that reduce government intervention in the market are the problem, than Keynesian economic policies requiring greater government intervention, is the solution. An economic system that exploits for profit and lacks any legitimate checks and balances to prevent corporations from committing acts of financial fraud, will continue to exploit until it collapses.
Limitations and Shortcomings
This thesis, as thorough and as detailed as it may be, is not without its shortcomings. Upon formal review and examination of the research, several recommendations were made by professors in the Department of Criminology at the University of Ottawa, in order to help improve the accuracy and quality of my analysis. This section addresses these limitations by providing additional insight and information into the aspects and elements of my research that are confusing, vague, or discussed inadequately.
Questions were raised by examiners regarding positionality, or the relation between the researcher and the data being analyzed. To address this concern, it is necessary to return to my discussion of ontological and epistemological assumptions, as well as the researcher’s posture. Drawing inspiration from Creswell (2013), the ontological and epistemological orientation of my thesis recognizes, in a very broad sense, that individuals come to understand the world around them by attaching subjective meaning to life experiences, and that our interaction with objects and other individuals plays a significant role in this meaning-creation process. Creswell’s (2013) conclusion that a social researcher must recognize the abundance and variability of subjective meanings for each individual, is a guiding principle of my examination of Occupy Wall Street, but unfortunately, that point was not made clear in the Introduction. The application of this principle to my research becomes more apparent if we substitute every instance where I use the words “perspectives” and “opinions” in reference to my data sources, with the term “subjective meanings.”
Having discovered in my initial online research that an abundance of opinions and perspectives existed surrounding the Movement, I made it my goal as a researcher to identify and compare the various interpretations of the event in order to reveal larger themes, believing (on an intuitive level) that this method would be the best way to perform the sense-making activity I had originally intended. As stated on page 3, my analysis recognizes that the “meanings” attached to Occupy Wall Street are the result of individuals, who experienced and participated in the event as it happened, commenting on and disseminating the details of the event with others. Identification of “meanings” that appear consistently throughout the source material, serve as the foundation for the topics and themes that are used to reveal the motivations behind Occupy Wall Street, a discussion that is found in the latter half of this chapter.
A key feature of positionality is the relationship between the researcher and the data being examined, an idea that is discussed briefly in the introductory subsection entitled “Researcher’s Posture.” Blaikie’s (2007: 11) text is used to highlight two important choices that must be made in regards to determining a researcher’s role, or “stance”, when conducting social research: first, whether to distance yourself from those being studied, or to immerse yourself deeply in their culture and environment (an “outsider” versus an “insider”), and second, whether to approach the research having already possessed knowledge on the topic, as opposed to being a “clean slate,” possessing no preconceptions of the object under investigation (an “expert” versus a “learner”). The role I identify with, as discussed on page 4, is that of an outside learner. To better understand how I came to choose this stance for my research, a more in-depth discussion of two important methodological characteristics of my research is needed, a discussion I neglected to provide in my Introduction.
The first discussion is the recognition that, in an ideal situation, the data I would use to answer the question regarding motivations behind the 99%’s decision to protest, would be first-hand accounts provided by protestors themselves. Having begun my graduate studies just a few weeks prior to the start of protest demonstrations, travelling to New York to conduct interviews was simply not an option. This forced me to consider alternative data sources, the most readily available of which were online publications by individuals who witnessed and participated in the protests as they happened, which places me in the “outsider” category by Blaikie’s (2007) definition. In lieu of interview data, I decided instead to use source material provided by news organizations, academics, and protest supporters active on social media, a discussion of which is provided at length in chapters 1 and 2. The second important discussion involves making a connection between the method chosen, and the position the researcher must assume as a result. Taking into consideration that grounded theory is being utilized as my primary research strategy, insights revealed in the analysis are ‘grounded’ in the interpretations themselves, significantly reducing the number preconceived notions of what might be uncovered, which places me in the “learner” category.
Admittedly, the insinuation made on page 4 that no preconceived notions are introduced when engaging in grounded research, is false. The political and corporate entities that comprise the 1%, which are discussed throughout this thesis (particularly in Chapter 4), are not discussed in a favorable light, causing some professors to question the neutrality or objectivity of my research and analysis. At first read, it is understandable to suggest that I reinforce a negative bias towards the 1%. The word “antagonist” is used in the Preface (iv) in reference to the role the 1% played in the Occupy conflict. In my discussion of broader themes in this chapter, I argue that the 1% “act with impunity,” acting however they desire with the corporate gains they earn, with virtually no government oversight. But this bias is, in actuality, drawn from the data itself, and is the result of my interpretation of the topics and themes revealed within the source material. The discussion of “economic disparity” in Chapter 4, beginning on page 65, is used to illustrate how authors of the source material attribute the growing dissent among American citizens pertaining to how corporate interests and the U.S. government collude to create and maintain the economic conditions needed for a large income gap to exist.
There was, in conjunction with the issue of positionality, some confusion among thesis examiners regarding the distinction between ideas and opinions in the analysis that are my own, and those that are provided by authors in the source material, what can be understood as issues related to “attribution,” or the researcher’s “voice” in relation to the analysis. As a researcher, finding your position in the analysis involves making a determine as to whether to accept, question, or reject the claims that sources make. Demonstrating that position in my thesis could have been performed more effectively by making more of an effort to verbalize which ideas were my own, and which were borrowed. A fair amount of quoting, summarizing, and paraphrasing of data sources occurs throughout the analysis. A greater effort should have been made to use more phrases like “according to,” and “attributive verbs” such as say, show, and suggest, in order to better indicate which claims are coming from the source material.
Two examiners raised questions with regards to the selection of Tumblr as a data source, pertaining to issues related to representation. There is concern that the data set, the personal testimonials drawn from the Tumblr blog thread “We Are The 99 Percent,” are not truly representative of the 99% protest group as a whole. These concerns are entirely valid, for reasons I neglected to discuss in Chapter 5. (Pillar 3). In keeping with the concepts of the Sociological and Criminological Imagination presented by Mills (1959) and Young (2011), a data set was needed that focused on the personal biographies of those involved in the Movement. Because of the availability and wealth of information on Tumblr directly related to the individual life circumstances of those who support the 99%, it served to adequately fulfill Mills and Young’s requirement, at least partially. My discussion of personal biographies does not include an analysis of the individual circumstances of the 1%, drawn from a data set of personal testimonials published voluntarily online. Such a resource, unfortunately, does not exist. The selection of posts from the thread at random, does potentially eliminate the inclusion of certain articles that might have pertinent information relevant to my research. A more purposive sampling method may have been more appropriate. In addition, because Tumblr is an online social media and blogging platform, contributors to the thread are limited to those who are technically savvy, and have access to a computer and an internet connection, representing only a small cohort of those who align with the 99%. Many assumptions about the Tumblr posts have to be made in order for them to be considered biographical. The truthfulness of the information being shared by contributors is taken as a given in my thesis, taking any exaggerations regarding an individual’s personal circumstances at face value. It is also assumed that contributors to the thread are writing the posts themselves, not dictated or posted o behalf of others.
The importance of my thesis as a sense-making activity cannot be understated. The abductive, grounded research strategy utilized for my thesis, is ideal for such an endeavor, allowing themes to be revealed through careful analysis of the data. It was Blaikie (2007): 10), who stated that abductive research aims to reveal how social actors construct their social reality by examining the meaning individuals apply to their social world. He goes on to suggest that the best way to uncover these meanings is by examining interpretations and productions created by social actors involved or affected by the event being investigated (a discussion that can be found on page 5). An important argument forwarded by Blaikie (2007: 10), one that deserved additional emphasis and explanation in my thesis, is that the meaning people attach to reality is embedded in language usage towards a particular topic, and It is through examination of language that one can uncover “motives behind actions.” In this respect, my research into Occupy Wall Street resembles that of a content analysis, isolating important word and phrase choices selected among authors in the source material. The language choices are understood to provide insight into the personal opinions of those who commented on the Movement.
Occupy Wall Street is one of the most discussed and debated examples of mass public dissent in U.S. history. Occupy demonstrations were a public challenge to the democratic government structures that are believed to be compromised the profit motive. The desire to substitute the existing hierarchical structure of government institutions with one that incorporates a consensus-based decision making model, was expressed through the occupation of Zuccotti Park, and the creation of the General Assembly, a group consisting of concerned citizens and small “Working Groups” responsible for the oversight and execution of Movement initiatives. The creation of the General Assembly was necessary in order for Occupy protests to operate outside of the perceivably flawed and inherently corrupt political system; a system bought by wealthy corporate interests. Activists sought to create a Movement that was a reflection of system of democracy they wished to see incorporated into society; one based on consensus, participation and direct action. Such a system facilitates self-empowerment.
Occupy protestors were successful, if nothing else, at demonstrating solidarity; a rebirth in an American sense of community. Despite being unsuccessful at initiating broad systemic changes in policy form, Occupy created a dialogue among many different people across the U.S. regarding systemic inequality. In this respect, a visible presence in the form of occupation of public space, is not necessary in order to ensure the struggle for fairness and access embodied in the Occupy dispute, continues for years to come. The Movement created a space within the American consciousness, to believe in a different type of political power. One, not controlled by politicians or by corporate money, but by people, taking direct action in order to enact change for the betterment of all society.