Occupation Studies

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Maastricht University

The Changing Face of ‘Occupation Studies’

Jeremy E. Taylor, University of Nottingham

While the recent US military withdrawal from Afghanistan has inspired much discussion about geopolitical power dynamics in the ‘Indo-Pacific’ and the Middle East, far less coverage of this event has engaged with the idea of ‘foreign occupation’, despite the influence of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 (and of Iraq in 2003) in prompting scholarly reappraisals of ‘occupation’ from a range of perspectives some twenty years earlier. After all, many important studies comparing US-led post-WWII occupations and early 21st century US occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq emerged in the mid 2000s.  However, in the period since then, various changes – both in the wider world and within the academy – have taken scholarly debates about occupation in entirely new directions. The emergence of the Occupy movement in 2011, the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, the 50th anniversary of the start of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and other areas in 2017, and on-going conflicts in a range of disputed territories, have all inspired new reflections on the meaning and utility of the word ‘occupation’. This development is itself fascinating, but it also poses a range of methodological and conceptual challenges for historians.

What is perhaps most striking is the extent to which the term occupation is used far more widely today than it was in the early to mid 2000s. There is now more willingness on the part of many scholars to question the distinction between occupation and other forms of external control, most noticeably colonialism. To be sure, attempts to compare occupation and colonialism were already being made in the early 2000s, with Cornelius J. Lammers adopting the broad definition of occupation as ‘Foreign domination brought about and/or sustained by force of arms’ when comparing the American occupation of Iraq with Dutch, French and British colonial administrations in various parts of the world in earlier centuries. Many other scholars, however, have been critical of attempts to ‘elide’ occupation and colonialism, stressing the fact that under international law, occupation represents a specific type of control in which the sovereignty of occupied territory is not usurped, and in which foreign rule is temporary.

Criticism of this distinction between occupation and colonialism has arisen on a number of fronts in the last decade. Take the field of legal history, for instance. Antony’s Anghie’s efforts to highlight the inherent Eurocentrism of international law has paved the way for a number of important interventions which have questioned the definition of ‘occupation’ as set out in the Hague Conventions. As scholars such as Yutaka Arai-Takahashi have argued, for example, the reason that many territories subject to European colonial rule were never considered to be ‘occupied’ was simply because European states did not consider such territories to be ruled by ‘sovereign’ powers. Aeyal Gross’ 2017 call to ‘rethink’ the international law of occupation might be said to fit within this approach, though his insistence that we critically engage with the origins of the very notion of occupation are also driven by a specific scholarly interest in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT).

This is not the only way in which the OPT has shaped these wider debates. On the contrary, the on-going Israeli occupation has inspired a quite different body of scholarship – one which looks more at the lived experience of occupation, especially in the West Bank, and which has found inspiration in the burgeoning scholarship on settler-colonial history. Indeed, proponents of this approach, such as Lorenzo Veracini, have argued that ‘settler-colonial studies as a heuristic device can contribute to the analysis of the history and contemporary predicament in Israel-Palestine’, and that the lessons learned in histories of settler-colonial societies in Australasia and North America can help us to understand the nature of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, both historically and in the present era. One of the most fascinating outcomes of the application of settler-colonial studies to the specific case of the OPT has been, in turn, renewed efforts to apply the concept of ‘occupation’ to the social history of Indigenous communities all over the world. In other words, just as settler-colonial studies has come to be utilised as a new approach for assessing power relations under occupation in the OPT, so too has ‘occupation’ come to be a far more commonly used concept in Indigenous history.

The arrival of the Occupy movement in 2011 also had consequences, for it demanded a more general reappraisal of the roots and origins of the term ‘occupation’ itself. Yet in a fascinating and perhaps unforeseen confluence of debates over terminology, this movement was forced to consider the politics of the very term it had adopted: Indigenous activists and scholars justifiably reminded the world that the land which was being ‘occupied’ by protestors in 2011 was the same land that had been forcibly taken from Indigenous communities centuries earlier.

I suspect this increasing tendency to move beyond the definition of ‘occupation’ as set out in international law (and to critically examine the historical conditions under which the occupation/colonialism distinction was first made) reflects wider concerns about the structural legacies of colonialism that has arisen in the last decade or more in Europe, North America and elsewhere. And while the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq ignited scholarly interest in the comparative study of occupation, a far wider array of events has taken the field (if it can indeed be called a ‘field’) into unchartered and complicated territory. Such developments have opened up space for new and meaningful conversations across disciplinary lines, and have forced scholars to question many long-held assumptions about the exceptionalism of occupation as a mode of foreign control. If a good deal of earlier scholarship sought to make a clear distinction between occupation and colonialism, increasing amounts of research today emphasise the continuities and parallels between them (or denies any distinction between the two). The question now, then, is how scholars can usefully continue to encourage debates about the utility of the term ‘occupation’ in the context of such a proliferation of definitions, while still attempting a constructive comparative analysis of foreign rule across various societies in the modern era.



Anthony Anghie, ‘The evolution of international law: Colonial and postcolonial realities’, Third World Quarterly 27.5 (2006): 739-753.

Yutaka Arai-Takahashi, ‘Preoccupied with occupation: Critical examinations of the historical development of the law of occupation’, International Review of the Red Cross 94.885 (2012): 51-80.

Adam J. Barker, ‘Already occupied: Indigenous peoples, settler colonialism and the Occupy movements in North America’, Social Movement Studies 11. 3-4 (2012): 327-334.

Aeyel Gross, The Writing on the Wall: Rethinking the International Law of Occupation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017).

Cornelius J. Lammers, ‘The American occupation regime in comparative perspective: The case of Iraq’, Armed Forces and Society 40.1 (2014): 49-70.

J. T. Mitchell, ‘Image, space, revolution: The arts of occupation’, Critical Inquiry 39 (2012):

Peter M. Stirk, A History of Military Occupation from 1792-1914 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016).

Lorenzo Veracini, ‘Israel-Palestine through a settler-colonial studies lens’, Interventions 21.4 (2019): 568-581.

Cover picture: Occupy London, 19 November 2011  © Colin Smith

Jeremy Taylor is Associate Professor in Modern Asian History at the University of Nottingham