The occupation of body snatching was clearly a dodgy one, unwanted and unwelcomed by communities in London who guarded their cemeteries and burial grounds. The exhibition Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men at the Museum of London suggests a more complicated situation. This might seem surprising, for what could be a more socially unacceptable occupation than stealing and selling on dead bodies? The Resurrection men, or burkers, caused great fear, particularly for those who believed that their body should be intact to achieve a happy afterlife. Yet attempts to sell a body which was still warm forced public debate and subsequent legislation to control how bodies could be accessed for educational purposes. The Resurrection men were needed by surgeons, anatomists and art schools for their students and continuing professional development.
This story is inevitably illustrated in gruesome detail in the exhibition, but points to the essentially social aspect of occupation. The dark or dodgy side of an occupation has an inseparable social context, reflected in the valuable discussions by Townsend and colleagues about the relationship between occupational and social justice. I wondered if the social aspect of occupation provides an essential counterbalance to the issue of meaningfulness? The Resurrection men sought to justify their occupation in terms of social need, for an uneducated surgeon is a dangerous one, and at that time surgery was already deadly for many. There was a shared meaning behind the bodysnatchers’ actions. It took the murder of the Italian Boy to expose the social problem behind their justification, resulting in legislation soon after in 1832. In the exhibition, there is reference to the influence of Jeremy Bentham and his concept of the greater good, used to argue for the necessity of finding a better way of providing bodies and body parts for education and research.
The exhibition made me wonder whether the intrinsic relationship between social and occupational perspectives could be more usefully expressed, especially when thinking about occupations which superficially appear to be antisocial. Directing attention to social elements of occupational therapy is not new, yet it raises problems with meaningfulness. The contemporary focus on delivering services or intervening in a meaningful way to the individual has fostered person-centred practice. Antisocial occupations challenge this focus, for what is meaningful to the individual might have harmful social effects. A social perspective is required to put the occupation in context.
This works at a macro level too. Institutional practices such as fast discharge and risk avoidance are seen as barriers to meaningful occupation, especially in settings such as acute and secure hospital care. Yet those practices have important social functions, ensuring scarce resources are shared by limiting hospital stays and keeping people safe in forensic settings. Again, the issue for practice is to find an acceptable balance between what might be considered a meaningful occupation, and the social need or impact. Dodgy occupations could be the surface scum of a murky reality, which has to be understood from a social perspective.