Dirt: Where Sociology Fears to Tread?

Image: Alexander Andrews

Tuesday 11th April, 2017

David Evans

I try very hard to keep my mind out of the gutter. This is especially true when I am in the company of fellow sociologists who I imagine are too high-minded and professional to find my double entendres and toilet humor all that amusing. However I recently found myself attending ‘Down the Pan: New Directions in the Sociology of Dirt’ on behalf of The Sociological Review. The conference – organized by Lucy Pickering, Phillippa Wiseman and Sarah Armstrong at the University of Glasgow – attracted a capacity crowd (having been expanded to accommodate widespread interest) as well as a number of chancers who turned up on the day. Faced with a room full of people this enthusiastic about dirt, I was thrilled.

Sociology has had surprisingly little to say about dirt and only recently has there been any systematic effort to bring together disparate threads into a coherent ‘rubbish imagination’ that takes seriously the constitutive role of dirt and waste in social life. Anthropology (and more recently, Cultural Geography) seems better equipped to attend to the dirty, the abject, to absences, and to the negative. It is perhaps not surprising that in her introduction to the day, Lucy Pickering pointed out that ‘all roads lead to Mary Douglas’. Equally unsurprising is The Sociological Review’s willingness to venture into anthropological territory and explore themes that might otherwise escape the attention of mainstream sociological analysis.

When sociology turns its attention to dirt, it thinks and talks about it in a great many ways: as meaning and metaphor; as matter and materiality; as polluting, dangerous, worthless and disgusting; as powerful and a hidden source of value; as the categorization, rejection and (on occasion) valorization of persons and things. I could go on but the important point is that a sociology of dirt can encompass a variety of phenomena from bodily excretions, through processes of waste generation, to global inequalities. Dirt almost certainly gestures back to the bodies, cultures and economies that produce it, providing a lens through which to explore system, organization and exclusion. It can also be seen as playing a generative role in processes of social ordering and social change. One might even go so far as to argue that sociology is defined by its residual categories and that by taking notice of these and turning them into positively defined features of our analysis, there exists the potential to render new phenomena visible to the sociological gaze. These currents and concerns were manifest in the research presented at Down the Pan.

Ben Campbell set the tone for the day by taking a comparative approach – from Katmandu’s pig alleys via shamanic ontology to the Yorkshire privy – to our cultural relationships with poo. In addition to noting the ways in which ‘dirty habits’ reproduce inequalities along the lines of caste, gender and so on; he made a plea for acknowledging shit and speaking its name in order to better think about systemic transformations in both sanitation and renewable energy.

Continuing the spirit of connecting fine-grained anthropological analysis to live policy challenges, Lucy Norris discussed the global flows of cast-off clothing and their implications vis-à-vis the environmental sustainability of the textile industry. She demonstrated what clothing reveals about the people, places, (informal) economies and relationships involved its ridding, purification and recovery before digging in to the materiality and mutilation of fibres. Here she addressed the difficulty of controlling the behavior of discarded materials and their potential to haunt us, thus highlighting the limitations of design and attendant discourses around the so-called ‘circular economy’.

Moving from materiality to the normative, Bill Hughes addressed the role of abjection and rejection in processes of moral ordering via a focus the emotional make up of the non-disabled imaginary. Here he articulated the convergence of pity and disgust in a moral economy of responses to disabled bodies. Focusing on distance, symbolic violence and annihilation he explored the confluence of being ‘good to be good to’ and ‘good to mistreat’.

Following an extended lunch in which the organizers arranged an object handling session in collaboration with the Hunterian Museum, we delved into the leakiness of bodies. Natalie Moffat presented her research (drawing on one of the best undergraduate dissertations I have ever encountered) on the lived experiences of menstrual etiquette and what this tells us about place of women in contemporary Western culture. Focusing on the matter that transcends bodily boundaries (in this case menstrual blood), she demonstrated that women face additional disciplinary burdens that work to privatize menstruation and sustain gender inequalities. She explored the myriad ways in which menstruation is hidden and concealed as well as considering the ways in which bringing it into focus creates opportunities to start tackling certain forms of ‘subtle sexism’, such as the tampon tax.

Picking up on many of these themes, Lucy Pickering stood in to give Clara Greed’s presentation on gender inequalities and the provision of public toilets. This presentation started from the position that despite their invisibility in sociology and planning alike, toilets, their design and ‘the queue’ might be a useful place to begin if one wishes to understand contemporary gender inequalities. Where women have greater needs of toilet facilities than men by virtue of differing bodily functions (menstruation, lactation); they have access to fewer toilets. Further, their design reflects male requirements – for example by having inadequate space for disposal of sanitary protection. Greed’s analysis shows how the very private and personal trouble of negotiating inadequate toilet provision connects to global and public issues such as environmental, developmental and gender equality agendas.

We continued talking shit after a brief coffee break, when Stephanie Terrani Brown traced the connections between toileting practices and conceptions of urban space in Kampala. Drawing on a participatory mapping exercise, she showed that areas with bad sanitation are frequently understood to be unsafe and chaotic whereas areas with better sanitation are associated with wealth, health and respectability. Importantly, she demonstrates that many of the residents in poor sanitation areas make use of ‘flying toilets’ (shitting in a bag) against a backdrop in which they are otherwise house-proud. The issue, then, is one of ‘slum clearance’ and landlords not wishing to install better sanitation in the hope that it might drive them away.

In the final academic paper of the day, Andrew Smith picked up on these themes of dirt and categorizations of place in order to explore racism in two ethnically diverse areas of Glasgow. Drawing on ideas of ‘everyday aesthetics’ he narrates the conjunction of claims about beauty and ugliness, cleanliness and dirtiness, orderliness and disorderliness, as well as the political implications of these judgements in terms of reproducing racialized understandings of particular localities. Against the associations between rubbish and racist claims making, he outlined the potential for an alternative aesthetics with which to celebrate and valorize what Paul Gilroy has termed the feral beauty of postcolonial society.

A comedy performance from Elaine Miller brought the proceedings to a close and it is fair to say that the day was a resounding success. The presentations were of a consistently high standard and the audience remained fully engaged for the duration. I was struck by the degree of coherence, or at least commensurability, across such a diverse range of scholarship and the potential for a ‘rubbish imagination’ (or a dirty mind) to start weaving these threads together. Credit and kudos must go to the organizers for curating such a fine event and establishing a set of conversations that will hopefully take this agenda forward. As chance would have it, that very same day Lauren White won the Economic and Social Research Council’s writing competition for a wonderful piece in which she outlined the sociological imperatives for studying study toilets. It would seem that far from fearing to tread in the dirt, a great many of us are indeed in the gutter and that some of us are looking down the pan.

David Evans is a Professorial Research Fellow in the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Sheffield. He tweets occasionally @profdavidevans

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