Occupy Academia

May 2nd, 2012

Academics across the country have embraced the movement since it emerged in September, organizing classes, publishing reams of commentary and issuing calls to “occupy” not just Wall Street but also sociology, anthropology, history, philosophy or the entire “academic vampire squid” itself, as a poster for a session at the recent annual meeting of the International Studies Association put it.

A smaller number have also been turning to a more difficult task: turning a sprawling movement into hard — and publishable — data.

“This thing just erupted so quickly,” said Alex S. Vitale, a sociologist at Brooklyn College who studies the policing of demonstrations. “It’s almost overwhelming to deal with all the information that’s out there.”

Mr. Vitale is finishing a 10-city study of interactions between protesters and the police since last fall, which he said showed a lack of overall “militarization” in police response in major cities. (New York is an exception, said Mr. Vitale, who organized a demonstration against police tactics in Zuccotti Park last fall but said he did not consider himself part of the Occupy movement.) Other researchers are doing ethnographic studies, crunching survey data, recording oral histories and analyzing material by and about the movement, all at lightning speed compared with the usual pace of scholarship.

“Academics are used to taking forever, but we don’t have to,” said Theda Skocpol, a sociologist at Harvard and author, with Vanessa Williamson, of “The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism,” a study of Occupy’s right-wing counterpart published in January.

That book, which combines in-depth interviews with quantitative analysis of the Tea Party movement, is a model for the kind of ambitious work that could emerge in studies of the Occupy movement, some social scientists say. But getting a handle on Occupy, with its amorphous structure and aims, could be more challenging, Ms. Skocpol said.

“The Tea Party from the beginning saw themselves as leveraging and changing the Republican Party, while the Occupy people are much more ambivalent,” she said. “That makes them harder to pin down.”

Hard to keep track of a group that is so ephemeral.