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Journal ArticleDOI

Working out Douglas’s aphorism: Discarded objects, categorisation practices, and moral inquiries:

12 Jul 2019-The Sociological Review (SAGE Publications)-Vol. 67, Iss: 4, pp 866-885

AbstractThis article aims to reconsider Mary Douglas’ well-known aphorism – that, ‘where there is dirt there is system’ – through the work of street cleaning in and the handling of detritus in the Upper Town district of Gibraltar. In ‘working out’ the aphorism, we adopt an ethnomethodological approach and focus upon the description of situated categorisation practices in the treatment of waste and dirt. The article is thus concerned with the methods in and through which objects are handled in the everyday work of street cleaning. We describe these practices across three sections concerned with: the seeing of waste as a situated accomplishment; the practical distinction between objects to be removed and those to be left in situ; and the seeing of categories through discarded objects. In this way, rather than explaining the practices of street cleaners via recourse to a notion of ‘system’, we recover the ways in which objects come to be treated, in a situated sense, as a potential ‘inference-rich’ resource for moral reasoning relating to residual categories and predicates of people and places. Keywords: public space, street cleaning, urban maintenance, ethnomethodology, categorisation practices, ethnography

Topics: Public space (53%), Situated (51%)

Summary (2 min read)

Remarks on field site, data and method

  • The remainder of the article draws on ethnographic fieldwork conducted in the Upper Town district of Gibraltar; the old cultural hub of the city, built on the lower slopes of its famous Rock.
  • The dense architecture casts a semi-permanent shadow over the space, making the streets dark as well as quiet.
  • The gaps between themalong streets too narrow for mechanised sweepers and vehiclesare regularly maintained by a team of street-cleaners.
  • The tape recorder is important, but a lot of this can be done without a tape recorder.

The categorisational troubles of seeing waste

  • 4 The decision to anonymise was taken in consultation with the informant, although he was happy enough for his real name to be used.
  • Whilst the encounter of dog and monkey faeces by Stephen occasions cleaning in a relatively straightforward manner, the encounter of other natural objects that do not elo g o the pa e e t poses different questions for the public in terms of the responsibility for their removal.
  • Blossom is, apparently, viewed as an expectable and tolerated element of the street scene, where other natural deposits are not.
  • The apparent public acceptance of, or lack of concern for, the presence of blossoms can be juxtaposed with an event in which Stephen received several reports of a dead seagull further along the route.
  • Residents expressed revulsion at the decaying body, punctuated with surface melancholia for the dead animal, and identified Stephen as the kind of agent who might expectedly deal with it.

Possessitives and possessables, obstacles and disposables

  • If you have a possessitive you can be much more casual about itdrop it in the street, leave it in front of your houseand people will not thereby take it that if they want it they can just pick it up.
  • Or if they do, then you can well claim that they are thieves.
  • Stephen bends down and moves to dispose of it in the bin liner that he is carrying, only for the owner of the pet salon (smoking outside her premises) to interrupt him by shouting across the street to him that the cans belong to the street performer.
  • Again, objects are viewed and constituted differently in and through different course of action.
  • Residential buildings in Upper Town, particularly those occupied by older local (and largely Catholic) residents, are occasionally decorated with religious statues and shrines.

(Insert Fig.3 here) Fig. : A pri ate 'o a Catholi shri e i pu li space

  • Stephen is aware of the technical illegality of these objects, which obstruct the public highway (sometimes in a very real sense, protruding far enough into the narrow thoroughfares to restrict movement, particularly of pushchairs and wheelchairs), but will simply work around them.
  • The first way of the viewing the phenomenon is a cultural understanding, in which the viewing of the statues as belonging is explainable through reference to a perceived permanence and durability and what they represent, religiously and in terms community identity.
  • A historical and cultural permanence, rather than a material permanencethe statues and planters will have suffered chips, scuffs, and damage, and will have been replaced throughout the passage of time by other similar objects.
  • This issue is further developed in their next, and final, empirical section.

Seeing categories through discarded objects

  • We, now, arrive at what was offered as the main contribution of the article.
  • The appearance of the woman as Stephen makes his round occasions category work relating to the wider neighbourhood in which the encounter takes place.
  • Again, actionswhether seen or reportedcan be bound to population categories not only as something that was done by that category of person, but as a thing that that category of person does.
  • It would have originally been propped up in nook between two perpendicular walls and a fire hydrant, but it has since been knocked over and torn into by either seagulls or monkeys.
  • "tephe e lai s, isi l irate, as he moves towards the bag with malice aforethought, ripping it further along one of the pre-existing tears.

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1
Working out Douglas’ aphorism: discarded objects,
categorisation practices, and moral inquiries
Jonathan Ablitt and Robin James Smith
School of Social Sciences
Cardiff University
This article aims to reconsider Mary Douglas’ (1984[1966]) well-known aphorism that,
‘where there is dirt there is system’ through the work of street-cleaning in and the
handling of detritus in the Upper Town district of Gibraltar. In ‘working out’ the aphorism,
we do not theorise urban detritus as waste and dirt, as ‘matter out of place’ indexing a
wider cultural system or cosmology. Instead, we adopt an ethnomethodological sensibility
(Garfinkel and Sacks, 1970), in recovering the practical work of seeing and categorising
objects as an occasioned activity and members’ concern
1
. The article is, then, interested in
the ‘practical objectivity’ of objects as they are handled in the everyday work of street-
cleaning. In addition to concerns with the categorisation of objects as disposable or not, the
analysis also describes how this work includes treating objects as a resource for doing moral
judgements and the allocation of blame. So, rather than explaining the practices of street-
cleaners via recourse to a notion of ‘system’, we, instead, describe the methods through
which objects come to be treated, in a situated sense, as a potential ‘inference-rich’
resource for moral reasoning relating to residual categorisations and predicates of people
and places.
There has, of course, been much academic research devoted to matters of dirt, waste, and
pollution. Recent work has understood ‘dirt’ and ‘waste’ as relational constructs, and
develops Mary Douglas’ discussion of dirt as ‘matter out of place’ (see for example,
Pickering, 2010, 2019 (this collection); Hughes, et al. 2017). We briefly review some of this
work before describing our study and the ways in which it differs from this existing
literature. The bulk of the article describes the work of a single street-cleaner, Stephen,
across three substantive sections. These sections are concerned with describing overlooked
local practices, in: 1) encounters with objects as occasioning street-cleaning work; 2) the
categorisation of objects as ‘disposables’ or not; and 3) the availability of membership
categories through these objects. We conclude by outlining a sociological treatment of
waste, dirt, litter, and other debris, that finds such detritus less ‘matter out of place’, than
socially and practically accomplished in and through the way that matter and objects are
handled methodically by members.
Working out Douglas’ aphorism: waste theory and waste practice
An immediate touchstone for considerations of dirt is the work of Mary Douglas and,
specifically, her discussion of the ritual order of pollution and taboo. In introducing her
analysis, Douglas (1984[1966], p. 36–37) notes that in ‘our own’ notions of what constitutes
‘dirt’ we operate with an “omnibus compendium which includes all the rejected elements of
ordered systems.” Here, then, dirt and pollution are the remnants of ordering practices and
1
We use ‘member’ and ‘membership’ in the ethnomethodological sense. Not simply meaning ‘belonging’, ‘membership’ refers to the
“natural mastery” of language and practical reasoning displayed and used in the accomplishment of local autochthonous social order by
‘members’ of that setting (see Garfinkel and Sacks, 1970; Garfinkel, 2002). The import is that that which is seemingly trivial and handled
through the ‘natural attitude’ of members can, through careful description, be shown to be an ongoing ‘no time-out’ accomplishment.

2
“confuse and contradict cherished classifications”. Dirt, writes Douglas, is “a relative idea”.
In this way, the very same physical substance, moved from one location to another, can
radically change in meaning: profane in one setting, polluting in another. Dirt, then, is
‘matter out of place’
2
and is produced as such through the existence of a cultural,
psychological, grid that provides for responses such as disgust and repulsion. The perception
of ‘dirt’ is “schematically determined from the start. As perceivers, we select from all the
stimuli falling on our senses only those which interest us, and our interests are governed by
a pattern-making tendency, sometimes called schema (Bartlett, 1932)” (Douglas
(1984[1966], p. 37). The teachings of Leviticus are taken as instructive in the regard that
they are organised, structurally, in relational pairings through which each category or class is
made sense of in relation to and through another. Each object has its correct place within a
taxonomic order, a cosmology, of material, action, and experience that is seen to ‘reinforce
a social and moral order through a whole series of teachings that have to do with purity and
hygiene, danger and contamination, order and disorder. Such ‘rules’, and associated rule-
governed behaviours, are seen to be concerned with translocation and the sensibility of
matter in different ways, in different contexts. The resultant position is the suggestion that
we can learn a good deal about a whole society’s way of understanding and ordering the
world through attending to these relations. As Douglas (1984[1966], p. 36) writes: “Dirt,
then, is never a unique isolated event. Where there is dirt, there is system. Dirt is the by-
product of a systematic ordering and classification of matter.”
So, for Douglas and those that follow, dirt is a by-product of the negotiation of order, as
anomalous or ambiguous matter that must be dealt with, either by exclusion or by
resolution in relation to the taxonomic system. Douglas (1984[1966], p. 39) refers to
‘ambiguity’ and ‘anomaly’ as categorial problems resolved through certain ideals and rituals
of culturalism. ‘Culture’ rigidifies and structuralises categories which, in turn, are ‘public
matters’ insofar as they form the foundations of a shared moral and social system and are
thus stubborn in their resistance to revision (p. 41). In this sense, ‘culture’ maintains order.
Indeed, “…if uncleanness is matter out of place, we must approach it through order.
Uncleanness or dirt is that which must not be included if a pattern is to be maintained” (p.
42). And, so, the ‘maintenance’ of social patterning is understood in terms of the provision
for the objective order of the world, as well as for the values of a community and the
experience of individuals; against which, ambiguity, anomaly and, thus, ‘dirt’ appear.
To be clear, we are not saying that Douglas simplistically offers a rigid
conceptualisation of what is or is not dirt. It is, as we have already noted, a relational
approach in which such understandings of categorisation and boundary are recognised to
be fluid, negotiated, and contested in locally and culturally specific ways. This relational
approach has been fruitful for a range of work discussing different forms of waste and
disposal. Indeed, as noted by Evans (2014; see also, Munro, 2013) the social sciences have
long been concerned with various kinds of residual categories and identities and, indeed,
‘rubbish theory’ (Thompson, 1979). Humans, too have, been considered as ‘waste’ in
various contexts (e.g. Latimer, 1999). Pickering (2010), for example, develops the relational
approach to dirt in and through a discussion of defecation and toilet practices in which, she
suggests, we might consider dirt not as ‘matter out of place’ but as relations out of place. In
a convincing analysis, she suggests that toilet practices and the technologies thereof (for
2
This quote is sometimes attributed to Douglas herself. Douglas attributes it to Lord Chesterfield but this is also contested (see Fardon,
2013)

3
example, those described in Oakley’s (1983) study of Gypsies) are best understood not as
bounded cultural systems but as producing boundary relations in and through which toilets
can produce ‘wrong’ connections between people and State or their more immediate
surroundings (p. 52).
Moving from the general discussion of dirt and waste, to the treatment and presence of
‘waste’ in public space, ‘waste’, although not necessarily ‘dirt’, is similarly conceived of as
leftover or unwanted or discarded matter from a whole range of practices and consumptive
activities. For example, waste in public has been theorised as indicative of systems of status,
of power, and stable categories of private and public space (e.g. Lagae, Çelik, Cuyvers, 2006,
p. 34, Campkin, 2013; Bearman, 2005). Such work has also considered other forms of urban
‘pollution’; for example, ‘sound out of place’ discussed and developed further into a ‘theory
of noise’ (Pickering and Rice, 2017). In regard to street-cleaning, we note that ‘dirt’ in
Douglas’ sense does not straightforwardly translate to a consideration of the whole range of
objects encountered in street-cleaning all waste is not dirty, and all objects encountered
are not ‘out of place’ but our concern is not with conceptual definition in the usual sense.
In a way that runs counter to this literature and, indeed, the recent work of Hughes, et al.
(2017) who employ the (formal analytic) taxonomy of Hardy and Thomas (2005) in
discussing ‘dirty work’ what we are concerned with is categorisation-practices-in-action
(Hester and Eglin, 1997).
The analysis thus describes what might be called the situated practical and occasioned
taxonomy of street-cleaners. As described above, it is also concerned with the occasioned
availability of categories through encounters with objects. There exists a small body of
literature concerned with the categorisation of detritus as making available ‘residual
categories’, for example in crime scene investigation (Williams, 2003). A recent example
that overlaps, at least in substance, with our case is the discussion of the residual
categorisation of departed hotel guests through the state of the room and the objects left
behind (Schneider and Turner, 2017). Unfortunately and in a way that is indicative of the
kinds of ways of studying waste and doing sociology that we propose to move away from
here the analysis results in the construction of an ideal typical taxonomy that provides for
the ‘types’ of individual that leave their hotel rooms in particular ways. This gets done quite
without consideration of how said rooms and guests are categorised in action by the
cleaning staff of the hotel.
To re-emphasise our aims, we do not offer the case of street-cleaning as a means through
which the theoretical framing of dirt and waste might be challenged, amended, or
corrected. Our intentions are not remedial in that sense. We are, however, critical of a more
general attitude in the social sciences that leaves a good deal of the heavy analytic lifting to
concepts like ‘system’ and ‘culture’ and ‘norms’ in explaining, rather than describing, how it
is that people come to be doing the things they observably do. As Harvey Sacks (1995[I], p.
260) had it:
in the sociological and anthropological literature the focus on norms is on the
conditions under which, and the extent to which, they govern or can be
seen by social scientists to govern the relevant actions of those Members
whose actions they ought to control.

4
In leaving behind the notion of ‘norms’ as controlling action in, insteading, recovering them
as local occasioned resources for ‘doing’ order in context (see also Housley and Fitzgerald,
2009), we aim to respecify the perception of dirt and waste and detritus. In particular, we
‘work out’ how, in just any context, the categorisation of and categorisation through
‘waste’, ‘dirt’ and ‘disposables’ is a local, contingent, emergent, practical accomplishment of
members’ methodical means of producing and participating in social order.
Working out the aphorism
As promised by the title of the article, we aim to (begin to) work out Douglas’ aphorism.
Some readers will recognise the adaptation of the subtitle of Harold Garfinkel’s (2002)
Ethnomethodology’s Programme; a book in which Garfinkel describes ethnomethodology as
concerned with working out Durkheim’s aphorism. The aphorism (as stated by Garfinkel) is
“the objective reality of social facts is sociology’s most fundamental principle” (later,
‘principle’ is substituted with ‘phenomenon’). In other words, sociology proceeds by treating
social facts as things. The ethnomethodological working out of this aphorism is to treat
social facts as the continual, no-time-out, local, practical, situated accomplishment of
members; as the ‘vulgar work of the streets’ (Garfinkel, 2002). To return to Douglas’ words
and her sense that ‘dirt is never an isolated event’, we might begin to work out the
aphorism by asking what if we were to treat ‘dirt’ as an event? Not isolated, perhaps, but as
occasioned. This reorientation returns us to the ‘practical objectivity’ of dirt and waste, and
to members’ methods for the handling of objects more generally. The words of Garfinkel
and Sacks (1970, p. 347)
3
are useful here;
If, whenever housewives were let into a room, each one on
her own went to the same spot and started to clean it, one
might conclude that the spot surely needed cleaning. On the
other hand, one might conclude that there is something about
the spot and about the housewives that makes the encounter
of one by the other an occasion for cleaning, in which case the
fact of the cleaning, instead of being evidence of dirt would
itself be a phenomenon.
In our case, we ask what it is about a particular spot or object, and what it is about street-
cleaners, that provides for an occasion for street-cleaning?
Not all discarded objects are categorisable as ‘waste’ or, indeed, ‘dirt’. Not all objects found
in the street will be removed and disposed of. The ambiguity in the handling of ‘waste’ is
produced and resolved in activities that provide for an object’s ‘practical objectivity’ as
waste. Something of this issue is at stake in “Sacks’ gloss” (Garfinkel, 2002, p. 182). Sacks
became interested in the distinction between ‘possessables’ and ‘possessitives’; the former
being things that one could have if one wanted, and the latter being things that were
witnessably the possession of someone else. Sacks, however, did not want to settle the
matter theoretically by deciding the conditions in which objects would fall into one category
or the other. Instead, he headed out to find some work crew whose daily work was
concerned with that distinction in practice: a team attached to the LAPD whose job it was to
3
The language and example is, of course, dated. But it is also carefully chosen in the sense ‘housewife’ is a category for which ‘cleaning’
can be heard as a ‘category-bound activity’ (Sacks, 1995[I]: 169-174).

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Abstract: Decluttering discourses position clutter as meaningless things as well as, seemingly paradoxically, morally problematic – as signs of laziness or an individual failure to organise the house. This a...

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Cites background from "Working out Douglas’s aphorism: Dis..."

  • ...Things being in the proper place creates social order (Edensor, 2005) – a perspective mirrored in discussions of dirt (Ablitt & Smith, 2019) to which I will now turn....

    [...]


Journal ArticleDOI
24 Jul 2020
Abstract: ‘Waste’ is everywhere, a common aspect of daily life in both the West and the Global South. However, the ways in which we as individuals understand it as a problem is far from universal. It does not exist independently from the people it affects, rather, waste, as a problem, is continually made and remade through human practice. The purpose of this article is to explore how and why certain ‘waste’ items are and become understood as problems. We adopt Foucault’s (1984) notion of ‘problematisa-tion’, as an analytical lens for conceptualising processes of problem formation through the eyes of two different groups working within and on the margins of Mzedi Dump Site in Blantyre, Malawi: subsistence maize growers and informal waste pickers. Drawing on extensive qualitative and ethnographic fieldwork, our findings suggests that for those working at Mzedi, waste problematisations are shaped by the tangible: the visible, and often painful impacts that Mzedi’s hazards have on their lives and livelihoods. However, the ultimate problematisation of waste lies in its utility, i.e. ‘good’ waste, is internalised based on its value. ‘Bad’ trash however, is problematised because it has no value, and is therefore considered useless, a problem taking up time and space that could be utilised more profit-ably. Understanding these processes of problem formation, and the degree to which waste problematisations are personal and/or socially constructed, has important ramifications for the adoption of appropriate waste management strategies and should inform a more nuanced and inclusive waste management studies discourse.

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Abstract: This article makes the case for the situated orderliness of social discomfort as a cultural resource for social actors in mundane public interaction. It does this by describing instances in which Urban Park Rangers ‘walk in on’ incumbent interlopers partaking in expectedly private activities in public park space. While social discomfort is often conceptualised as internal, personal, and ‘belonging’ to individuals, in attending to its orderly features in interaction, it is produced and realised as a public phenomenon available to be seen, managed, navigated, and contested in an orderly (and ordinary) way. The balance of discomfort in interaction becomes a situated resource for the management of urban territories, and the ability to ‘walk in on’ people in public park space speaks to the interactional accomplishment of privacy in such spaces. The unequal right to public space is shown to be contingent on categorisations of people and practice, complicated by the seeing of incongruity and the use of subtle interactional tactics to realise the balance of territorial power in situ. Territory is seen to be made and remade, and discursively ‘won’ and ‘lost’ in these brief encounters.

3 citations



References
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"Working out Douglas’s aphorism: Dis..." refers background in this paper

  • ...Objects found in the street are viewed through the ‘professional vision’ (Goodwin, 1994) of street-cleaning, or rather, through their situated and practical observations....

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  • ...Not simply meaning ‘belonging’, ‘membership’ refers to the “natural mastery” of language and practical reasoning displayed and used in the accomplishment of local autochthonous social order by ‘members’ of that setting (see Garfinkel and Sacks, 1970; Garfinkel, 2002)....

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  • ...That is to say – to return to the instructive proposed phenomenology of the cleaning practices of ‘housewives’ – that, for street-cleaners, the removal of objects that do not ‘belong’ in the street, or are ‘polluting’ of public space can be considered a categorybound activity (Sacks, 1995[I])....

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Abstract: Prologue 1. Darwin's Disgust 2. Disgust and Its Neighbors 3. Thick, Greasy Life 4. The Senses 5. Orifices and Bodily Wastes 6. Fair Is Foul, and Foul Is Fair 7. Warriors, Saints, and Delicacy 8. The Moral Life of Disgust 9. Mutual Contempt and Democracy 10. Orwell's Sense of Smell Notes Works Cited Index

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