CFP: Dirty business: economies of the used, the used up, and the useless // SES 2015

A panel organized by Ellen Hertz, Alice Sala, Yvan Schulz (University of Neuchâtel) and Luisa Piart (University of Bern) for the 2015 annual meeting of the Swiss Ethnological Society (Bern, November 12-14).

The Great Acceleration.

The Great Acceleration.

Despite the growing prominence of public discourse promoting “downsizing”, “degrowth” and “sobriety”, the early 21st century is characterized by significant increases in the flows of discards, trash and waste of ever more diverse forms. This phenomenon owes much to hegemonic ideas of growth and technological progress that drive industrialization and urbanization, actively promote consumption as a panacea for depressed economies, and associate personal wellbeing with material affluence.

Furthermore, following the transnational production and distribution networks that have intensified with globalization, these remainders, abandoned goods and discharged matter have a strong tendency to circulate. Depending on their physical properties and functionalities, as well as on the emotions or states of mind they induce among humans (desire, fear, indifference, disgust), these material entities end up in closets, rubbish bins, landfills and incinerators; lodge and decompose in soil, water and the atmosphere; are loaded onto cargo ships and sent across the ocean … or are unearthed and placed in museum exhibitions.

This panel stems from the SNF research project “Circuits of value, streams of stuff: living off the global trade and treatment of ‘e-waste’”, that is researching the networks and markets through which used electrical and electronic devices flow, especially those involving China and Nigeria. We explore how these objects circulate, gaining or losing value: some find a second life through refurbishment and re-use, others are crushed or broken down into secondary raw materials; still others are simply dumped or hidden.

In order to challenge and broaden these conceptions of “e-waste” through comparison, we invite contributions that address the social life of all forms of discards, tracking them in space and time, documenting their numerous material transformations and identifying the categories into which humans classify them. Ethnographic studies that focus on the economic dimension of the trade, transposition and transformation of discards are particularly welcome, as one of our central aims is to shed light on the mechanisms by which one person’s trash becomes another person’s treasure. Topics could include, among others, markets and trading networks for industrial by-products, hazardous waste, scrap and recyclables, second-hand goods, ruins and rubbles, digital leftovers, excreta.

Our collective reflection will be structured around three questions:

1) What paths do discards take? Mapping the geographic details of their circulation is crucial to understanding their role and importance. Attention should be paid to questions of scale: local, regional, national, transnational and global. In particular, we want to address the issue of discards exchanged between wealthy and poor areas of the globe, acknowledging that what looks like “dumping” in the global North may represent a livelihood in the global South.

2) What factors and mechanisms account for discards’ fluctuating value? We generally remain oblivious to the processes by which objects are alternately devalorized and revalorized. However, reconstructing them is necessary if we are to understand the economic dynamics that drive the trade in used things. In particular, price formation must be thoroughly analyzed. Objects that have a negative value are an interesting example: as soon as disposal is subject to a tax, practices change and new markets emerge. Addressing discards’ fluctuating value is also a means of highlighting the continuity between the categories of “trash” and “treasure”, as well as the constant boundary-blurring in which social actors engage.

3) What regulatory frameworks impact the trade in discards and how? National and international laws determine what should be considered as waste, prohibit certain categories of objects from crossing borders and set requirements regarding commerce, transport, storage or transformation of material goods and substances. They also hierarchize interests and set priorities, such as public health and environmental protection. Industry standards and certification labels promote certain ways of dealing with discards and impede others. All of these factors affect paths, prices and practices. In other words, they contribute to shaping markets and trading networks. Clearly, regulatory frameworks are not neutral instruments but crystalized power struggles, and need to be approached as such. We must ask, for instance, who participates in their making and who does not; for whom they are tailored and whom do they ignore.

We hope that these three questions will spur critical reflection on claims of morality and responsibility that inevitably surface in connection with the dirty business that the trade in discards, trash and waste represents.

Proposals should consist in abstracts of no more than 300 words and be sent to Yvan Schulz ( before the 15th of August 2015.