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Waste and modern societies (session 1 of 2)

June 28, 2021 10:45
June 28, 2021 12:15

Nadine Arnold, University of Lucerne; Christiane Schürkmann, Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz


Elen Riot, University of Reims Champagne-Ardenne

Stefan Laser, Ruhr-University Bochum

Nadine Arnold, University of Lucerne and Christopher Dorn, Trier University

In the light of fundamental socio-ecological transformations waste does not simply refer to leftovers, but rather to an urgent issue that calls for attention and action: Ecosystems, particularly oceans and seas are full of micro-plastic, rising CO2 emissions produce greenhouse effects and global warming, nuclear waste challenges societies to find solutions for disposal of these toxic materials. In this context, modern societies more and more realize that “there is no away” (Morton 2013) for materials, substances and things that have become (ir-)relevant as waste. Waste thus emerges as a phenomenon of material resistance and activity that requires treatment, governance, and ethical frameworks. Therefore, debates on sustainability emphasize the implementation of a ‘Green New Deal’ or alternatively strategies of ‘degrowth’ and waste emerges as a contingent phenomenon, involving processes of interpretation and meaning making.

Although people necessarily produce waste (George 2014), we know that consumer cultures producing trash are a modern phenomenon (Strasser 1999). This means human consumption drives the production and accumulation of wasted goods (Packard 1960), but we must also consider that humans and their lives themselves can become wasted as outcasts (Bauman 2004). The notion of human waste demonstrates the tremendous metaphoric power of waste (Farzin 2017), although referring to Mary Douglas’ (1966: 36) structuralist perspective, waste is often discussed “as a matter out of place”. However, waste appears to be an issue created by ‘the moderns’ (Latour 1993, Descola 2013) and in view of the changing state of the nature and its relationship with people, waste is turning into a globalized ‘stress test’. Considering this societal relevance of waste, we encourage empirical and theoretical contributions from different sub-disciplines that will respond to the following:

  • What is waste in modern times and who defines what has to be treated as waste and in which way? In other words, how are things, materials and artefacts classified as ‘waste’? 
  • Which situated ‘waste practices’ embedded in routines and everyday life are developed by the ‘moderns’? And what are the characterizing structures of waste management and governance and what are their societal effects on waste and society?
  • Which conflicts and controversies emerge in the production, distribution and prevention of waste? How does waste challenge producers, consumers, and disposers and therefore societies at large? And what interventions are chosen to meet these challenges?
  • Which theoretical perspectives are useful to study the materiality of waste as well as the construction of its meaning? And which methods are well-equipped to examine waste empirically? 

Keywords: waste, society, socio-ecological transformation, modernity

Tents in the Streets of a Paris District during a Pandemic: “A Matter out of Place”?

Elen Riot, University of Reims Champagne-Ardenne

In this paper, we describe the fate of the homeless in a Paris district during the two waves of the Covid-19 pandemic. We take Mary Douglas’ definition of waste as “a matter out of place” (1966: 36) as the beginning of our analysis of the framing of people in the streets of the city. 

During the March to December 2020 period, we closely observed three embedded processes taking place concomitantly and causing the homeless to remain in the streets of the 14th district (West of Paris). As large camps North of Paris were dismantled, a series of tents settled in the streets especially along the metro line. The maintenance of the people living in these tents depended on its compatibility with other activities such as restaurants terraces and Covid-19 testing units on the sidewalk. Many of them were migrants and did not speak French (Bakewell, 2014). They did not wear masks and they remained in the same space, a phenomenon we call an encampment process.

The presence of tents in the streets varied as different people took turn. Meanwhile tents became more numerous: many were displaced and relocated a few feet away, some declined and other developed into complex constructions. They became centers for the recycling of resources such as wastes left in the streets. They were also strategic focus points for the more itinerant homeless in the circuit of nearby food distribution, small jobs, public facilities, underground shelters and night refuges (Sassen, 2002). We call this phenomenon a process of occupation.

Finally, local authorities institutionalize the occupation of the streets by tents at close intervals by providing services such as food distribution, cleaning and social care into an everyday routine. We identify a series of silences and justifications from social services and urban planning authorities (namely the City of Paris, the Samu Social, the Red Cross, les enfants de Dom Quichotte) to justify this enduring situation (Reinecke, 2018) as compatible with human rights and hygiene standards during a pandemic. We call this last phenomenon a process of street exposure and invisibilization (Herzog, 2020).

We use photography as a source of information to describe the transformations in time and space. Our corpus of 87 pictures helps us materialize waste as “matter out of place” used by people in an attempt to build a place to live in the streets. We triangulate this material with archival data (official announcements and media coverage of the topic of homelessness, unofficial camps and the pandemic) and the ethnographic investigation of this issue of spatial justice (Soja, 2013). Reflecting on Dutton and Dukerich’s (1991) seminal analysis of the growing assuming of its responsibilities to the homelessness by the New York Port Authorities, we identify a form of habituation to “matter(s) out of place” and a questionable governance (Baghat, 2020) in terms of spatial and social justice. 

Keywords: Homeless, tents, pandemic, visual method, mapping, Paris, habituation  

Wasting the body? On depletion through digitized cycling

Stefan Laser, Ruhr-University Bochum

The so-called "waste" or "discard studies" examine the role of wasting practices in structuring modern societies. With this talk, I look at the "wasting" of body power in popular sports, especially road cycling. In doing so, I discuss a pertinent case on the one hand and extend the conceptual tools of wasting studies on the other.

This contribution rethinks waste as a matter tied to energy systems. What is the relation between waste and energy? What can the field of Waste/Discard Studies learn from the so-called Energy Humanities?

Reflections of waste are at times awkwardly disentangled from matters of energy production and consumption. Main themes of investigations in waste scholarship e.g. are disposability, value orders, toxicity, and the circulation of complex materials. While studying these issues, researchers often stick to seemingly isolated waste materials, hence undermining the goal to investigate flows and circuits, and then lose grip of patterns of disposability, implicit valuation practices or certain mobile by-products. Adding energy to the formula could help sharpen the focus. 

Studies from the Energy Humanities, in turn, investigate how fossil fuels shape environments, culture, sociality, and destructive forms of expenditure. It's more than fuel put into things. It's dependencies enacted in particular places, situations, and relations. The study of energy flows may enlarge the form of materials and bodies being put into motion, and actors are discarded.

To discuss the energy question, I bring my ethnographic material on cycling to the discussion. The research is grounded in a sociomaterial gaze, sharpened by STS methodologies. Cycling has changed radically in the last decade. Digital platforms like Strava – the "social network for athletes" – guide potentials, help with training management. Still, through close engagement with gadgets, it also leads to individuals becoming involved in complex assemblages of bodies-landscapes-local racing cultures-global data centres. 

In the assemblages, certain wasting practices are enabled, while others are blocked. From a social theoretical perspective, the case offers lessons for distributed agency and matters of temporalities. With this paper, however, I also want to point to current developments of societies in general, e.g. looking at trajectories of ecological transformations against digitisation's backdrop and its indeterminate mediation. Finally, based on my analysis, it becomes possible to trace the power of fossil fuels where it is least suspected.

Keywords: Energy, methodology, indeterminacy, excess, cycling 

Waste as observation: towards a better understanding of the waste- organization nexus in modern societies 

Nadine Arnold, University of Lucerne and Christopher Dorn, Trier University 

What counts as waste is the result of social processes of valuation and not an inherent property of the objects (e.g., Greeson, Laser, & Pyyhtinen, 2020; Thompson, 2017). During these processes, entities are evaluated and valorized so that their value is determined (e.g., Lamont, 2012), often resulting in classifications, which includes singling out entities as valueless, that is, waste. Therefore, waste is “the by-product of a systematic ordering and classification of matter, in so far as ordering involves rejecting inappropriate elements” (Douglas, 1996: 36). Current studies dealing with such ordering and valuation processes regarding waste show two limitations. 

First, they do not consider the role of organization, overlooking that waste is fundamentally linked with organization (for a notable exception see Corvellec, 2019). Second, uses of the term ‘waste’ are generally limited to material objects (e.g., food, electric scrap, nuclear waste), although non-material entities may also be evaluated as waste. As a result, we have a limited understanding of waste and its specific relations to organization. We thus address a research gap concerning the relationship between waste and organization by asking: How do organizations produce and deal with waste in a broader sense? 

To answer this question, we take inspiration from the work of the German sociologist Bardmann (1994), who conceptualizes the relationship between waste and organization as both constructed and unavoidable, while simultaneously developing an understanding of waste that goes beyond material waste. Specifically, we argue that waste is the result of an observer distinguishing between value and waste. Thus, value and waste are mutually dependent, and the observer necessarily constructs waste when indicating value. 

To illustrate this perspective, we will direct our attention to the organizational type of hospital and use purposefully sampled empirical examples from the U.S. hospital sector to illustrate what it means when we approach waste as a necessary outcome of contingent observations that refer to value: 

The first example considers organizations’ internal observations of patients. It shows that hat the economic observation of patients leads to the construction of waste, which is not shared from the point of view of medical observation. 

The second example focuses on hospitals as entities being observed. Specifically, this example concerns the observations performed by the U.S. News Hospital Rankings that identify valuable hospitals and waste, i.e., non-value hospitals with negative rankings and valueless hospitals that are completely ignored. 

The third example deals with patients’ counter-observations and disentangles the ways in which their observations of hospitals are in turn observed. Specifically, patients who do not choose providers based on rankings are stigmatized as irrational. 

To conclude we identify the contributions of the waste-as-observation perspective to a better understanding of the role of waste in modern societies. 

Keywords: Waste, organization, observation, hospital, society