A Methodology for Investigating Cityness through Waste

There have been books, articles, presentations and courses on how you can study culture through its waste. It’s one of the methodological premises of Discard Studies. But what about studying cityness through waste? Cityness has been used to describe both “how urban citizens give meaning to the city they live in and how this creation of meaning alters the way the city is represented” and as “an instrument to capture something that otherwise might easily get lost: types of urbanity that are non-Western.” The geographical edges of cities are not the edges of cityness, for the areas outside of urban centers sustain them, as geographers such as Neil Brenner (among others) have pointed out. Thus, cityness is more of a network, an indeterminate set of flows, or a constantly shifting set of relations rather than an incorporated density of architecture.

In a recent article, “Composing Urban Orders from Rubbish Electronics: Cityness and the Site Multiple,” a group of geographers propose a methodology that uses waste flows to describe cityness:

[O]ur point is to offer up a methodological sensibility, which we call the site multiple, to add to these productive interpretive tools available for investigating cityness. Cityness has its more-than-urban geographies (Simone, 2010). Getting at cityness, then, requires analytical tools that might enable analysts to follow action that not only partly generates cityness, but which, when followed, may also exceed it. Rather than a theory of ‘the urban’, the site multiple can be construed as a helpful ‘thinking technology’ (Haraway, 2004: 336) that can be put to work with, rather than against, the interventions of metrocentricity, subaltern urbanism and Roy’s alternatives [to study the urban].

The authors–Josh Lepawsky, Grace Akese, Mostaem Billah, Creighton Conolly and Chris McNabb–follow electronic waste through Dhaka, Accra, Trail, and other cities around the world to see how urban orders come together (or not) through the circulation of waste. The methodological intervention is to argue that cityness is not confined to a single city, but is held together through interactions and flows between urban centers. Thus, they advocate for what they call “the site multiple,” which they distinguish from merely having multiple research sites:

“Multi-sited implies many individual sites that are perhaps connected to one another through some common thread. The site multiple is different. This difference entails that as a phenomenon it is distributed in its enactment through practices and affordances of materials patchily, unevenly and not necessarily coherently (on a key distinction between incoherence and non-coherence, see Law, 2004a, 2004b).”

Through the translational medium of electronic discards, they move from city to city and conclude that they way cityness comes together in the global waste economy is both shifting and perpetually the same:

[U]rban enclaves of finance, insurance and real estate (what is known as the FIRE economy), which in some strands of urban studies stand in for the rise of a new type of city (i.e. world or global cities) and its attendant economy, are also industrial waste producers and thus belie their common representation as flagships of a dematerialized or virtual information or knowledge economy. Subsequently, peri-urban industrial zones—which if they appear at all in the literature on global cities and information economies—will be shown to perform some of the same roles typically assumed to be the purview of those urban enclaves associated with the FIRE economy, such as brand management, legal liability protection and corporate public relations. Thirdly, cities that are ‘off the map’ (Robinson, 2002) will be shown to exhibit characteristics of urban innovation systems often associated with those ‘global’ cities that compose the map of metrocentricity that Bunnell and Maringanti (2010) show to be so problematic.

This is not these authors’ first methodological intervention. They have written previously about “boundaries and edges” and “following the thing” as methodologies that can better illuminate the complex circulations, economies, and materialities of waste. Now, they suggest something similar for studying cityness.


Postcard: Trail, BC, 1955. Recycling facility in the background.

Postcard: Trail, BC, 1955. Recycling facility in the background.

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