What started as an awareness raising and ethnographic styled walk through Sierra Leone, this site now details the encounters of a not so academic academic who spends more time occupying Wall Street and squats than a university...

Saturday, December 1, 2012

My Statement of Purpose

I started my academic career as an undergraduate in sociology. Growing up in a household that always had to make do with a modest income, my studies emphasized economic injustice in American society and issues of race and ethnicity. I was especially influenced by the way that economic sociology brought social and cultural depth to scholarship on economics that tended to focus almost exclusively on “the maximizing, rational individual.” After completing my BA in sociology, I pursued an interdisciplinary MA in Economic and Social History at the University of Manchester, where I gained exposure to theories and methods from economics, social theory, political science, and history. Together with my supervisor, Peter Gatrell, my research centered on the social transitions that accompanied economic and political transformations in post-Soviet societies. My thesis on post-war Czechoslovakia examined how Cold War politics shaped socioeconomic institutions. Specifically, this project examined how multilateral aid efforts had been undermined by geopolitical shifts, creating economic challenges for the local populace and hampering the reconstruction process. The Manchester program helped me to refine an abiding interest in the relationship between crisis and economic transformation.

Once I completed my MA, I found myself living abroad with no visa and few employment options. So, I took a job in an industry that drew on my past research, although ultimately tested my ethical and political boundaries. Based in Prague, the position involved working on security and economic development in Iraq and Afghanistan. In addition to research, writing, and improving my Czech language skills, my job included work on private and institutional financing, planning and proposing economic development strategies in war-torn areas, government contracting, and aid work. It quickly became clear to me though that I was flirting with war profiteering. The political and ethical conflicts with this job created one of the most challenging periods of my life. However, my disillusionment helped to develop my critique of the relationship between militarism and economic and political development. I saw first-hand how neoliberal development priorities penetrated all facets of everyday life in developing regions, limiting individual and collective empowerment as exploitative low wage employment led ordinary people to make distressing choices between feeding or protecting their families. I watched as neoliberal institutions, corporations, and political interests worked to “rebuild” countries and societies upon the “blank slate” created by war and destruction.

Wanting to situate this critique intellectually, I pursued graduate study at Central European University in the Sociology and Social Anthropology department. Whereas my work at Manchester was focused on macro-level socioeconomic analysis, CEU's program was far more anthropological, providing the opportunity to explore local systems and individual agency to a far greater extent. Classes on development, globalization, power, and resistance exposed me to the scholarship of Karl Polanyi, James Ferguson, Giovanni Arrighi, David Harvey, Arjun Appadurai, and Jean and John L. Comaroff, among others. This line of inquiry led me to realize that the theories and methods employed in many types of economic analysis were inadequate to the social problems and historical contexts that comprised the focus of my research. I was inspired by the insights sociological and anthropological approaches could offer the study of economics and politics.

At CEU I broadened my interest in post-conflict societies through sustained attention to the history and development of Sierra Leone. My research highlighted social and economic crises in the context of the patchwork of structural adjustment programs and various genres of civil strife experienced there. My work centered on the theoretical concept of “liberal peace” (or “democratic peace”), which posits that liberal societies—with their focus on the individual, private property, civil liberties, and free markets—are inherently more stable and peaceful. My research suggested that, to the contrary, an idealized notion of individualism often led to more competition. Because competition is inherently antagonistic, it often leads not to peace but more readily to conflict, increasing the probability of outright war. Following my research on Sierra Leone at CEU, I planned, fundraised for, and undertook an investigative/awareness-raising trip to Sierra Leone to learn and to identify opportunities for community-based entrepreneurial and humanitarian work to help people recover from civil war. As part of building local alliances, I worked on increasing cultural awareness, became proficient in Krio, and used my time to set up a community-based organization in the city of Makeni aimed at small-scale projects that could create jobs and provide investment for the local community. This work helped me appreciate the logistical problems of development aid in Sierra Leone, symptomatic of analogous situations elsewhere in the global South.

Back in the United States, that course of inquiry shifted in the beginning of October 2011 when I became active with Occupy Wall Street (OWS) and channeled my intellectual energy into applying this socioeconomic critique here. For years, I had hoped to establish an online People’s Think Tank for research and discourse using democratic and participatory approaches. When the Zuccotti Park occupation began, I used these skills and resources to help create and facilitate the Think Tank Working Group, which expands direct democracy through the collection and dissemination of ideas by directly engaging and empowering individuals. We continue to facilitate informal, open, and documented discussion forums throughout New York City and have expanded the Think Tank to other Occupations, community groups, and now to a weekly radio show here in New York City (wbai.org). Discussions range widely, from health care policy and corporate personhood to race relations in Zuccotti Park and Hurricane Sandy relief efforts. We have yet to realize the full potential of the project and are currently working on the logistics of how ideas generated in Think Tank discussions can be more accessible to the public, as well as part of public Think Tank research projects involving the ideas generated both through this process and those surrounding the greater movement.

My involvement with OWS has led me to a fuller appreciation of the relationship between economic and social change and academic scholarship on societal transition. My participation has only raised more questions for me about the relationship between liberal democracy and neoliberalism. In particular, I’m interested in mechanisms of social control in neoliberal society. For instance, the state's exceedingly violent crackdown on the protests has been largely shaped by military tactics and narratives based on the so-called “legitimate” use of force. These tactics have repeated modern methods of social control: a monopoly on the use of force, control of ideas, social messages, and protests. My experiences within the movement, and especially my interactions with the media, have raised unavoidable questions for me: Was there a systemic attempt to use repressive/oppressive and ideological apparatuses to exclude ideas, and to unfavorably skew public opinion away from the movement? What (if any) collusion was there between public and private actors—especially regarding the media and policing? How did the movement's own structure and message (anarchic, amorphous, and without clearly enunciated direction) affect coverage and public understanding of the movement? And most importantly, what does the Occupy movement and its interaction with state, private, and informational apparatuses mean with regard to “democracy” in neoliberal America and the world?

These are the questions I hope will frame my PhD work. Broadly conceived, the crux of my inquiry looks at a broader contradiction that has regularly surfaced in U.S. society in the face of civil unrest: On the one hand, U.S. national identity is often articulated in terms of rights and freedoms to political assembly and free speech, civil liberties and property rights, economic and social freedoms, and freedom from the use of repressive tactics often seen in “less democratic” regimes. Yet, this ideal has been in direct conflict with an institutionalized response using brute force, censorship, and coercive methods to suppress the Occupy movement. This was on prominent display during the slow transition of public empathy for the Occupy movement to the "law and order" and state/corporate message that many people bought into, even despite its obvious contradiction to the freedom of speech, expression, and fight for economic and social justice—the true democracy—that people are taught and wish to believe America is about. Are media, police, and public perceptions mere outcomes of a greater contradiction? And if so, to what origins? As the aforementioned institutions are largely shaped by state actions and interactions with private and corporate interests, the study's core would look at neoliberalism's dominant position within the shaping of American policies, worldviews, and culture, as well as exploring whether there is a growing part of America that has become so entrenched in “the system” (media, education, law and order, mass culture, etc.) that they can no longer assess and critique “the system” surrounding them.

Having spent the last year on the ground with OWS, sleeping in the park, organizing discussion groups, being actively involved with the media, engaging with Occupy on every level, and feeling the very repression I look to study, I am uniquely positioned with ties to the movement's core to carry out this study ethnographically, historically, and archivally....