Occupying Political Science

A Q&A with several members of the Pace Community who have come together to observe and comment on the Occupy Wall Street movement and Pace’s unique vantage point.

Political Science Department Chair Christopher Malone, PhD, Associate Professor Meghana Nayak, PhD, and Assistant Professors Emily Welty, PhD, and Matthew Bolton, PhD, discuss their recently published Occupying Political Science: The Occupy Wall Street Movement from New York to the World, which offers a unique look at the Occupy movement, Pace’s downtown locale, and how political science is interwoven into our everyday lives.

The Occupy Wall Street movement has been discussed in a variety of ways, but how has teaching at Pace’s New York City Campus given you a unique perspective on the movement?

Christopher Malone: It’s a collaborative effort between us—the four co-authors and editors—as well as two current students working with Matt and Emily on their chapters, and the Pace alumna and adjunct professor working with me. We took very seriously Pace’s location in downtown Manhattan in relation to the Occupy Wall Street movement and in general, the notion of a university’s relation to its environment. As we say in the last chapter, we’re not in the middle of nowhere. New York City—downtown—is our campus.

Matthew Bolton: We’re trying to take seriously the ways in which political and social science is always embedded in politics and so everything we do is affected by our location. We interpret and reflect on our context—the place where we are. Pace is in a specific location and we spent a lot of time thinking about what political science means in the context of being so close to Zuccotti Park, Wall Street itself, and City Hall.

Emily Welty: We don’t teach in a vacuum. We can look at the world around us and know that ideas are not flat and dead in a book. I think this is a teachable moment for us—to be able to show students that this isn’t a theoretical artifact of the past, but actually living ideas. The book was Pace-centric in that, for us, it meant that our teaching is very relevant and embedded in the world that we live in.

Meghana Nayak: The political science department on the NYC campus has always approached this discipline in a unique and exciting way—by combining a variety of mainstream and alternative theories with the perspectives of practitioners, by emphasizing social justice and political change not just analysis and description, and by thinking about who we as both academics and a part of larger communities. To write about OWS allowed us to reflect upon what makes our way of teaching and doing political science unique, and to show how our approach might be really useful in thinking about the events around us.

How has studying the Occupy Movement differed from research you’ve done in the past?

EW: I think when students think about research, they get the impression that it’s something that happens when you go away for a year and ask questions of people far away. What was unique about this experience is that we could go to Zuccotti Park on our lunch hour, walk through it on our way to work, stop by in between classes. We were able to observe and participate and move around that fuzzy line of who we are as people—our own belief systems—and who we are as educators.

MB: Part of what Occupy was about was taking seriously the discussion of what it means for our bodies to literally occupy space. It put people close to the nexus of the global political economy and allowed them to have a very lively conversation about  what they wanted from their economic and political system. Similarly, our book is about Occupy Wall Street, but also political science itself and, in a sense, about us—recognizing that we as scientists, people, and educators, occupy a social location.

MN: I have always tried to think carefully about what I’m doing as a researcher, meaning, what I’m trying to say about the people and places I study. But this book really forced me to think even more carefully about the effects of what I say in my research because people involved in the Occupy movement have been really concerned about how they are scrutinized and dissected. It is scary how easy it is to be detached as a researcher and academic, and I’m glad we had this opportunity to hold ourselves accountable. And we also had to be even more honest and open about how we don’t know everything, we’re still not sure about the long-lasting impact of Occupy or what might happen next, if anything, and how there are some limits in some of our academic approaches to studying political processes.

CM: Most of my prior research has been in a field of American politics which is known as American political development. It is largely a historical approach to the study of American political institutions. In other words, much of my research is about the past. For me, studying something that was and continues to unfold in real time was quite different – and in many ways much more difficult. This was truly a first draft at the history of the OWS Movement, which was quite a new approach for me but also very exciting.  For me, it will be interesting to see if the project holds up under the weight of time.

What misconceptions do you think Occupying Political Science addresses?

EW: The book is not about telling the Occupy movement what it should’ve done differently—how it should think, what it should do. I think it’s very easy to reduce the picture of college professors writing about Occupy. It’s really important for us to make very clear that this is about learning from a social movement, not about telling a social movement what it should do.

MB: Because we are studying human beings, rather than rock formations or butterflies, we wanted to engage in dialogue with the Movement. We’re studying a serious human conversation and we believe Occupy has something to say. We have something to learn from both Occupy and our surroundings too. We are implicitly critiquing social science that tries to hold itself aloof and separate from the people that it studies.

MN: In addition to what my colleagues have pointed out, I hope that the book shakes up people’s ideas about what academia, theory, and critical analysis are all about. Our discipline is really about what is done with power and the stories we tell about how the world works. We think that’s pretty cool, and we’d like people who aren’t all that interested in academics to learn that political science can be pretty useful in asking provocative questions and thinking in new ways about the stuff that affects us all: financial hardship, safety and security, wanting life to be fair, feeling like we belong to a community, feeling like our voice matters.

CM: I think the biggest misconception about any social movement is that it can be defined, interpreted, quantified, analyzed, and placed in a box or a series of categories. It is in the nature of political science to want to impose these things upon something like Occupy in a unidirectional fashion. I think we’ve insisted that that Occupy forces us to hold a mirror up to our profession and to the inner workings of the institutional structures of civil society. So the analysis and perspective is pointing in both directions in dialogical fashion.

To learn more about Occupying Political Science or to order a copy, please click here.