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Discard Studies and the social science of garbage: Some preliminary reflections

useless waste basketsFor the longest time, I have been fascinated with waste, although for some reason that is not 100% clear to me, I haven’t devoted much time to studying the scholarship around sustainable consumption. I’m currently engaged in a number of projects around the socio-political dynamics of informal recycling (waste picking) and as a result, I have been writing a summary, overview piece on the social science of garbage. The goal of this piece is to integrate what we know about how waste is perceived, analyzed and understood, from a social science (and humanities) perspective. While I have found many studies that touch on various aspects of discarded materials, I have just recently begun to think about them from the perspective posed by Robin Nagle, Eric Friedman and Max Liboiron on their blog, Discard Studies.

The new multidisciplinary field of discard studies considers definitions of, attitudes toward, behaviors around, and materialities of waste, broadly defined. This blog is meant as an online gathering place for scholars, activists, environmentalists, students, artists, planners, and anyone else whose work touches on themes relevant to the study of discard.

From the perspective of an interdisciplinary scholar like myself, discard studies as an all-encompassing field of research has, as the authors propose, great potential. As I have written before, I approach problems from an interdisciplinary perspective, using analytical frameworks that borrow from a variety of social sciences (anthropology, geography, sociology and of course, political science and policy studies). My research interests are centered around networked governance, but I study governing from an integrative, multidisciplinary perspective.

Discard studies as a field in its own right has rich potential, drawing upon but going beyond approaches to waste undertaken in disciplines of cultural anthropology, economics, sociology, archaeology, geography, history, and environmental studies, to name a few.

A growing number of researchers from all of these disciplines are asking questions about waste, not just as an ecological problem, but as a process, as a category of rejected material goods, as a mentality, as a judgment, as an infrastructural and economic challenge, as a political risk, a site for power struggles and as a source of creativity.

useless waste baskets (2)My first degree was in chemical engineering, and I started working in waste management (solid, hazardous and liquid waste) even before I completed my undergraduate degree. I remember reading George Tchobanoglous’ books and the Metcalf and Eddy masterpiece of wastewater engineering but what I noticed in both sets of books was a distinct lack of exploration of the human dimensions of garbage governance. We still know very little about attitudinal change, policy instruments to reduce pollution control (my first scholarly love, I should admit!), political dynamics of interaction between informal recyclers and their governments (a topic I’m currently studying). However, there are numerous studies on the anthropology of garbage, particularly as it relates to the archaeology of garbage. Archaeologists find the study of previous generations’ material waste particularly informative in describing previous civilizations/eras.

Discard Studies offers a substantially large selection of articles, journals and book suggestions, many of which I have ordered for acquisition by our CIDE Region Centro library. I have also looked at Academia.Edu’s groups on Anthropology of Waste, Sociology of Waste,

In the human geography literature, I’m very familiar with Anna Davies’ work on the geographies of garbage governance. And Carl Zimring’s edited Encyclopedia of Consumption and Waste (one I should have contributed to, and missed out on!) is a great resource.

At the end of the day, I’m interested in examining waste governance from a multidisciplinary perspective (I’ve done extensive research on wastewater governance), particularly focused on explaining divergences in governance structures (I am a comparativist, after all!) and waste policy outcomes. In my preliminary research I have found substantial variation in how solid waste is governed at the sub-national levels and I’m currently seeking to expand this work across Latin American countries. It will be very interesting to try and compare how each country’s populations behaves when faced with increasingly packed landfills and growing amounts of garbage to be dealt with. I remain fascinated with the social science of garbage.

Posted in geography, governance, public policy theories, waste.

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