Simply put, occupational science is the formal study of the things people do; making a cup of tea, singing in a choir, working the night shift. In this article, we describe how studying ordinary occupations such as these supports the practice of occupational therapy. To do that we address the basic questions people bring to any new endeavour: What is it? Where did it come from? How is it useful? What happens next? In addressing these questions, we have an unashamed bias towards New Zealand research and literature, believing that ideas from overseas are not integrated into practice until they have been tested in our own context. We also draw on our own scholarship and practice examples of local therapists, demonstrating that New Zealand has a stake in creating and applying this emerging science.
What is occupational science?
The term 'occupational science' has two components. The first, occupation, is conceptualised in the same way occupational therapists around the world understand it, whether framed as work, self-care, leisure, rest and play or more generically as "the ordinary and familiar things that people do every day" (American Occupational Therapy Association, 1995, p. 1015). While there is general acceptance that occupations are named according to the purpose they serve, such as fishing or gardening (Yerxa, 1993), various other characteristics have been proposed. These include ideas such as occupation being self-initiated chunks of activity (Yerxa et al., 1989) that are organised into patterns, routines and roles (Christiansen, 1991; Yerxa, 1998), have practical or symbolic significance (McGlaughlin Gray, 1997) and promote development (Yerxa, 1998). It is acknowledged that individuals engage in occupations in unique ways, depending on their needs, preferences, beliefs and skills (Kielhofner, 2008), and through that engagement, derive a sense of efficacy, discover spiritual meaning (Yerxa et al., 1989), and create their identity (Christiansen, 1999).
In that sense, Wilcock (1991b) declared "We are what we do". The second component of occupational science, the science part, implies both an intention to generate new knowledge and that studies are carried out with due rigour. Whether qualitative, quantitative or critical in nature, occupational science research is systematic and researchers endeavour to ensure their findings accurately represent the data and can be relied on (Zemke & Clark, 1996).
While the general intent of occupational science is to reveal the complexity of human occupations (Clark et al., 1991; Wilcock, 1991a), three ideas are prominent. Firstly, people are viewed as occupational beings, having the capacity and the need to participate in occupation (Yerxa et al., 1989) and to express our humanity through the things we do. That occupational perspective complements the viewpoint of disciplines concerned with biological, psychological, ethical, spiritual, historical, economic and political aspects of human existence. The second important idea is that the relationship between occupation and health is a central concern, because people's occupations sustain or undermine their health and well-being and conversely, their state of health allows or inhibits participation in occupation (Wilcock, 1993; Yerxa, 1998). Thirdly, acknowledging that other people, the weather, cultural and religious beliefs and practices, the economy, space and resources, the natural environment and many other factors shape the things people do, occupation is best considered in context (Yerxa et al., 1989).
Like occupational therapy, occupational science is very broad. It is concerned with, amongst other things, the reasons people do things and their experience of doing them, how occupations are organised and managed, how patterns of occupation relate to well-being, and the consequences of not participating in occupation. It also involves the impact participation in occupation has, not just on individuals but also on communities and the world (Clark & Lawlor, 2009). …