Monday, 11 October 2010

14: Ferrell: Empire of Scrounge

Once again I find myself writing about the politics of rubbish (see also here). I started reading Jeff Ferrell's Empire of Scrounge: Inside the Urban Underground of Dumpster Diving, Trash Picking, and Street Scavenging (New York University Press: 2006) as a teaching case study to illustrate the variety of ways of doing research and the power of the sociological imagination. I kept reading, however, because it is a genuinely inspiring book - inspiring about the possibilities of sociology and in the way it which it forces the reader to reflect on her/his own habits, priorities and assumptions.

In 2001 Ferrell resigned his post as a Criminology Professor and returned to his home town of Fort Worth in Texas without any work or the prospect of a new academic job for at least eight months:
  " Given my long-standing personal and scholarly interest in the often illicit worlds of scrounging, recycling, and secondhand living, the answer seemed obvious, if risky: I'd try to survive as a Dumpster diver and trash picker. I'd try to adopt a way of life that was at the same time field research and free-form survival." (p1) 
Ferrell has a place to live and a partner with a modest wage. He makes no pretense to be in the same situation as a homeless person scratching a living through other people's rubbish. But Ferrell does spend the eight months touring the city on an adapted bicycle living the life of a scavenger. In doing so he enters a new urban underground. What Ferrell calls 'the Empire of Scrounge' is populated by 'illicit Dumpster divers, homeless trash pickers, independent scrap metal haulers, activist recyclers, alternative home builders, and outsider artists.'

" ... the empire offers all the fun of stealing with none of the jail time, it offers all the benefits of shopping with none of the bills." (p45)
Ferrell's book is firstly interesting methodologically. He conducts an ethnography of lost and found - recording objects he finds, observing what stays and goes from piles of trash. Ferrell's approach 'emerged out of something closer to survival than to traditional social research' and as such is 'autoethnography' grounded in a lived experience of the rhythms of a social activity 'shaped by ambiguity and uncertainty' and that explores 'the pleasure of self-determination'. Ferrell provides a bottom up account of the creative work of scratching a living and the honing of the skills necessary to make such work viable. A Dumpster diver frequently wishes to avoid human contact in contrast to the textbook fieldworker who is always seeking the next interaction. Never-the-less Ferrell is able to build a picture of the varied population of the Empire - encompassing both the homeless and the working poor - and unwritten rules of scrounging and of mutual aid by which that population gets by.

Ferrell's book is also a model of how to write an accessible and engaging account of research and in doing so link mundane experiences to big sociological questions. Getting his hands dirty in other people's rubbish allows Ferell to highlight and make strange a culture and economy of hyperconsumption that runs on waste. Hyperconsumption is driven by the thrill of the purchase but acquisitions must be housed, organised, protected and regularly discarded to make way for new stuff.  Value is not intrinsic to objects but is rapidly gained and lost: yesterday's 'must have' is tomorrow's trash.
"Day after day, I and other scroungers negotiated the porous boundaries between private property and discarded public resource. We read and misread transitory signs that suggested scrounging opportunities, and in doing so wandered back and forth between legality and illegality. As we dug in Dumpsters and accumulated scrap and reinvented what we found, we watched the status of everyday objects drift between wished for possession and forgotten waste, useless castoff and usefully reconstructed tool, trash pile discard and outsider art." (p161)
As this quotation suggests, Empire of Scrounge is also in the criminological traditional that explores the socio-political construction of deviance. Ferrell argues that 'to pick through the city's trash is to engage in all manner of unpleasant questions about cleanliness, propriety, danger, and deviant career.' Dumpster divers work  in the boarder lines between public and private, salvage and theft and as Ferrell shows they risk criminalisation through ordnances that classify kerb side rubbish as city property, restriction of garage sales, and zoning rules that prevent stock-piling of materials ready for recycling.
" ... I began to wonder whether each statute I encountered, each city code, each emerging community standard regarding waste and its reuse wasn't in reality designed to eliminate any form of material acquisition and exchange except, well, shopping at the mall." (p28)
We should instead celebrate and support the heroic work of the scroungers Ferrell characterises as 'everyday environmentalists' and  'the last thin line between consumer waste and the landfill'.

In addition to its academic contribution Empire of Scrounge can lay claim to being an interesting life guide making us think about how we might avoid what Ferrell terms the 'existential vacancy' of consumer culture. During his fieldwork Ferrell rethought the work of an academic scrounging the tools of his trade - paper and pens and also books that he used to make sense of his experience. In doing so he highlights that ways that so many supposed critics of consumerism are preoccupied with the latest 'must have' book, idea, or technology.

" ... if the empire could offer a sort of shambling material self-reliance, could it offer some sort of analytic and aesthetic self-reliance, too?" (p74)
This plea for a serendipitous, patient 'shambling scholarship' fits with a more general conclusion: we need to challenge 'a consumer culture of perpetual panic' with a different attitude to the spending of time.

"As the weeks and months rolled by, needed items were found, little problems solved, to-do lists crossed off, if only I had the patience to let solutions emerge." (p188)
Ferrell's priorities are also evident in the pleasure he gains from sharing his finds with friends and strangers. Exploring trash he also found ample evidence that life is transitory:
"Digging amid the detritus of people's lives, I came away with a disturbing sense of existential rubbish - a sense that we'd best live our lives like they matter, because ultimately, we're all disposable heroes." (p95)
Ferrell is now working again as an academic but still scrounges when he can and blogs about his finds here.

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