Drawing on a relational approach and based on an ethnographic study of street cleaners and refuse collectors, we redress a tendency towards an overemphasis on the discursive by exploring the co-constitution of the material and symbolic dynamics of dirt. We show how esteem-enhancing strategies that draw on the symbolic can be both supported and undermined by the physicality of dirt, and how relations of power are rooted in subordinating material conditions. Through employing Hardy and Thomas’s taxonomy of objects, practice, bodies and space, we develop a fuller understanding of how the symbolic and material are fundamentally entwined within dirty work, and suggest that a neglect of the latter might foster a false optimism regarding worker experiences.
- dirty work
- relational ontology