An Anthropology of the Uncontainable

By Robin Nagle §

I recently published an ethnography called Picking Up. It’s based on a decade of research with New York City’s Department of Sanitation and it tries to answer a simple question: what’s it like to be a sanitation worker and why should anyone care?

The second part of the question was easy. If we want to recalibrate the way we live on the planet so that both we and the planet might survive, we must understand all the costs of our consumption and discard habits. One of those costs is the labor, formal and informal, that discards always require. I was specifically interested in how such labors were organized around municipal solid waste in my hometown. Sanitation workers have the most important job on city streets, and I was a little incredulous that no one had given them any serious anthropological attention.

I sent a proposal to the DSNY outlining a straightforward participant-observation study to answer the first part of my question. After two years of asking, I was eventually allowed to visit Sanitation garages, walk the routes with the workers, work side-by-side with them, and interview DSNY people in various ranks and titles around the city. It was a rewarding stint of fieldwork, but soon I realized that it wasn’t enough. I couldn’t learn what I needed to know unless I were actually a worker myself. After 15 months of tests, medical clearances, and thickets of paperwork, I was hired into the Department’s uniformed ranks. When people find out that for a little while I was a truck driving, garbage flinging, mechanical broom operating, snow plowing sanitation worker for the City of New York, they are often amazed, but their reaction puzzles me. How else would an anthropologist learn the perspective of a culture not entirely her own?

I’m no longer on the job as a sanitation worker. Now I have a different title. Since 2006, I’ve been the DSNY’s anthropologist-in-residence. It also raises eyebrows (even though I’m careful to make clear that it’s an unsalaried position), but to me it’s just logical. The world of garbage is a fascinating subject for cultural anthropology.

It’s also perpetually challenging. Just as the material stuff of trash is always breaching its containments, so research on trash is always leaking out of whatever boundaries are imposed on it. Cultural anthropologists investigating solid waste will find themselves facing a host of sometimes overlapping, sometimes contradictory considerations about environmental integrity, labor advocacy, public health, urban planning, infrastructure history, political intrigue, and economic brinksmanship (among many other variables). Garbage is endless; once the questions start, they, too, are endless – and endlessly satisfying to explore.

New York Times Book Review
New York Times Book Review of “Picking Up.”

Robin Nagle at TED City 2.0