Ethnographies of Waste Politics

Convenor: (Middlesex University)

Today the multiple ways in which different kinds of waste (municipal, industrial, hazardous, digital, human, etc.) are produced, circulated, destroyed and transformed constitute an established field of inquiry in the social sciences. Waste is studied both as a topic in itself and as a lens through which to examine broader processes in contemporary capitalist societies, be these emergent forms of neoliberal governmentality or alternative modes of organizing social life. At a generic level, social theorists such as Zygmunt Bauman and Ulrich Beck have adopted waste as a metaconcept to make sense of the dilemmas of late modernity, while at a more specific level, struggles against incinerators and landfills, especially in the United States, have made a fundamental contribution to debates about environmental justice. In recent years major conflicts over waste management around the world, from Naples to Beirut, Guangzhou to Bogotà, have attracted mainstream media and scholarly interest, although the political significance of these controversial cases has frequently been misrepresented and trivialized. At the same time, the politics of waste also plays out at a mundane and unspectacular level, for example in the informal collection strategies deployed by the Zabbaleen garbage recyclers in Cairo in response to the privatization of the city’s refuse system.

Combining a focus on the institutional, agonistic and everyday politics of waste, this panel aims to explore how ethnography can enrich our understanding of the contested material and symbolic place of waste in contemporary societies. Proposals are welcome that draw on original ethnographic research and that engage with the wider political and social dimensions of waste. Possible themes include, but are not limited to the following:

  • the governance and bureaucracy of waste systems
  • the politics of waste ‘crises’ and ‘emergencies
  • urban waste and the right to the city
  • anti-incinerator and anti-landfill campaigns
  • organised labour in the refuse sector
  • counter-strategies to living and working in localities stigmatised by waste
  • the production of professional and popular knowledge about waste cycles and management
  • the disciplinary regimes of alternative waste management (e.g. zero waste)

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