Just what IS occupation?

Just what IS occupation?

No, it’s not your job.

computer otter

Although in a way that can be part of one!  It’s any activity or task carried out which has an end goal and provides meaning to you. There are many definitions put forwards, all slightly different, which does make it hard to compare different articles or pieces of research effectively.  However it is generally agreed there are certain aspects of any occupation:

  • Form  the observable aspects of the occupation: what how & when
  • Function the way the occupation influences health, and its purpose or intended outcome
  • Meaning -the entire subjective experience of an individual who is engaging in the occupation

Considering occupations broken down in this way helps practitioners to understand why people choose to participate in certain occupations.

Analysing someone’s ability to carry out an occupational activity in order to assess where problem areas lie is the cornerstone of occupational therapy. The American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) has created a useful guide to the standardised terminology that should be used when documenting activity assessments (it can be found here for BAOT members).

Occupational science seeks to answer questions about the nature of occupation, such as:

  • WHO engages in occupations?
  • WHAT occupations are there?
  • WHEN do people engage in occupations?
  • WHERE do people engage in occupations?
  • HOW are occupations performed?
  • WHY do people engage in occupations?




American Journal of Occupational Therapy, March/April 2014, Vol. 68, S1-S48. [Access at: http://ajot.aota.org/article.aspx?articleid=1860439 for BAOT members]

Article review: “The Challenge of Occupation: Describing the Things People Do” – Clare Hocking (2009)

Article review: “The Challenge of Occupation: Describing the Things People Do” – Clare Hocking (2009)

Hocking says that occupational science must seek to provide in-depth information about what occupation is, rather than just how people engage with it or what they experience as a result of doing it. She outlines her idea of what the definition of occupation is and how it is context-dependent on the culture it occurs within.

otter reviewing paper
Story checks out.

As a result of increased knowledge she argues it would help OT practitioners to see people as ‘occupational beings’ and provide improved appreciation of the meaning occupation has to people’s lives, together with the demands required to carry them out. Using this knowledge would eclipse personal experience alone, for example you may know from personal experience that cooking a large meal is tiring and time-consuming and so may direct an Asian patient recovering from stroke to withdraw from the seemingly burdensome occupation of preparing dinner for her husband. But armed with research knowledge that meal preparation is seen as a gift to family, you could instead consider ways to adapt the occupation to allow the patient to continue since it holds meaning across this culture. Read more

Article review: “Occupare, to seize: expanding the potential of occupation in contemporary practice” by Robert Pereira (2015)

Article review: “Occupare, to seize: expanding the potential of occupation in contemporary practice” by Robert Pereira (2015)

There is an increasing paradigm shift towards including occupation (and defining it) within the wider professional OT theories, research and philosophies. Pereira looks at how we understand the term occupation in our professional language.

The etymology (origin of the word) is occupatio Latin noun for occupation. However when we talk about occupation it isn’t as a noun, it is as a verb where we describe to occupy, to possess, to take control of, etc. Therefore the Latin verb occupare (to occupy) is more representative of our use of the word occupation, he argues. When we think of occupation as something ‘doing’ rather than a ‘description’, it can influence how we think about it in everyday life; rather than focusing on what is being done in an isolated occupation task, we can think of the purpose of the goals achieved through occupation.

OTs may be unintentionally limiting their practice by misunderstanding the term occupation to mean occupatio and not occupare.

otter dictionary

Basically, try thinking of the term occupation as a verb rather than a noun, and see how it changes your perception of situations for example when applying OT models to practice.



Robert Pereira (2015). Occupare, to seize: expanding the potential of occupation in contemporary practice. Australian Occupational Therapy Journal (2015) 62, 208–209

Article review: “Having and using objects in the western world” by Clare Hocking (2000)

Article review: “Having and using objects in the western world” by Clare Hocking (2000)

According to Riley (2012),  this article uses occupational science to illustrate the meaning of ‘ identity’ in the CMOP-E.

It describes how a sense of self and social identity are represented by the objects someone makes or uses. Using objects in this context includes making, wearing, maintaining or restoring, displaying, collecting and consuming objects, operating or using objects as tools, as well as purchasing things (the focus of consumer research). Hocking used information from sources of psychology, consumer research, sociology, anthropology, disability studies and popular literature to make her conclusion. This aligns with the view that occupational science draws from many different disciplines to create its understanding of occupation.

Western people use objects to create and express a sense of self and an identity, and that the way they use objects to achieve this is placed in a cultural and historical context.

The self is how we view ourselves internally, and our memories/knowledge of experiences that have shaped us.

Identity is how society views us, and assigns us a social identity.

otter seeing mirror of self

Objects are used as mirrors of self, reflecting attitudes, values, relationships & achievements. People selecting objects for themselves choose those that represent their ideal self and not actual self. Objects are used as mirrors of identity, especially clothing, and offer the chance claim or to buy into a desired social identity. They reflect desired social position, status identity, gender identity.

People use objects to transform or develop their identity, to become more successful, exciting, attractive, or socially statused. Westerner culture assumes that that people have an individual rather than collective identity. In other cultures eg India people’s preferred objects are those relating to family or communal prestige, rather than ones with individual meaning.

The more insecure Western people become in relation to the identity they want, the more they want the material symbols of that identity.

For Westerners using objects is on a continuum between Stoicism (practical, puritan,rational decisions about need, spiritual, simple, long term gain over short term reward) and at the other end of the scale, Romanticism (emotional expression, beauty for sake of it, self-expression, freedom of desire, complexity, conspicuous consumption, hedonistic (note; not the same as happy).



Riley J (2012) Occupational science and occupational therapy: a contemporary relationship. Chapter 14 in Boniface G, Seymour A (eds) Using occupational therapy theory in practice. Oxford: Wiley Blackwell.

Hocking, Clare (2000) Having and using objects in the western world. Journal of Occupational Science vol 7 (issue 3), pp148-157.

Abstract: This interpretive study explores how Western people construct self and express identity though the objects they acquire, make and use in their day-to-day occupation. Drawing on literature from psychology, consumer research,sociology, anthropology, disability studies and popular literature, it proposes that people use objects to reflect self and identity, and to transform self and others. Using a history of ideas methodology, the author argues that Western people take for granted that the objects they have and use reflect an individual rather than collective identity, and suggests that the ways people use objects to construct self and identity are informed by the philosophies of both Stoicism, which emphasises self discipline and rational decision making, and romanticism which celebrates people’s emotional depth, creativity and self expression.