Research Proposal: Trash Day

Abstract:

When I exited the highway at the sprawl preceding the residential area of my hometown this weekend, one thing was immediately apparent. It was “Spring Cleaning Trash Day.” Why else would the citizens of my fair town commence to piling up perfectly good pieces of furniture, tools, clothing, and household miscellanea on the curbs in front of their homes? And why else would otherwise respectable people spend hours careening around town in minivans and pickup trucks, picking up other peoples’ trash? My project seeks to analyze the interactions between social strata in my otherwise homogeneous town, as evidenced in the the performances of tossing and scavenging that take place on Spring Cleaning Trash Day.

Background:

I grew up in a small town in the suburbs of Chicago, IL. It’s a nice place. Really. I wouldn’t ever move back there, nor would I want to raise my [strictly hypothetical, future] children in a place like it, but it was a nice place to grow up.

It’s pretty homogeneous. Or at least, very segregated. Very, very segregated. I think we had maybe three non-white students in the honors classes at my high school. I couldn’t tell you about the other classes, because they kept us pretty well divided from non-honors classes after freshman year (not being snobby, just telling you why I can’t describe the rest of the school).

When my family first moved here, I was 5 years old. Our street had a mix of house sizes and economic classes. Our house was pretty big for our street (four bedrooms, three baths– we had three kids in the family, at least off and on), but by the time I was 10 the other houses had been bought up and torn down. The re-builds were very large, about 5 bedrooms in each house. Mostly young families moved in with kids under the age of 3 and more on the way. Everyone had at least two cars.

In the past 5 years or so, there has been further economic segregation, a reflection of several social processes. Poorer families either moved out or moved up the ladder with rising property taxes (and values). Wealthier, younger families moved in. Sprawl… sprawled. Minimalls abounded, complete with Chipotles, Starbucks, and gourmet grocery shops. On this one hand, you have the homogenization of “the middle class.”

There was also an increase in low-income housing, Hispanic grocery marts, and enrollment in English as a Second Language courses.  Many people are recent arrivals in the United States, both legally and otherwise. On this other hand, you have the arrival of a new, ethnically and culturally different lower economic class. Tension builds.

Spring Cleaning Trash Day is a day when the city (er… Village) allows its fair citizens to throw out an unlimited amount of trash. Anything and everything may be placed on the curb for pickup by the Village’s trash collectors, at no extra cost. Perfectly functioning furniture, games, televisions, kitchen appliances, toilets, and yes, even the kitchen sink gets tossed to the curb. As I type, this paraphernalia of the middle class is sitting in the rain and getting soggy.

Proposal:

I propose to analyze the interactions between the relatively homogeneous middle class trash-tossers, and the “otherized” lower economic class trash-scavengers, as evidenced on Spring Cleaning Trash Day. Who are the people throwing out entire dining room sets? How long have they lived in the town? Why do they choose to place their items on the curb, rather than deliver them to the Salvation Army, hold a garage sale, or give them to a friend? What is their motivation for throwing them out in the first place? Where do they think they will end up?

Who are the trash scavengers? Where do they come from, what languages do they speak, where do they work, live, and go to school? How do they feel about picking up the trash left out by the tossers? What will they do with a single faucet broken off of a kitchen sink? A broken plastic rake?

Keeping in mind that identity as we conceptualize it is a nebulous assemblage (c.f. Puar 2008), through what interactions are the ‘identities’ of the middle-class trash tossers and the lower-class trash scavengers performed? Do the trash tossers become trash scavengers? Do the trash scavengers become trash tossers?

Methods:

In order to study the interactions taking place on Spring Cleaning Trash Day, I will move home. And by move “home” I mean… really. Home. I.e.; my parents’ house. Because there’s no way I could afford to live in this town otherwise. Unless I were able to receive a $150,000-per-year research grant, which I don’t think exists. At least, not in Anthropology. For a graduate student.

I will conduct participant-observation, tossing my own trash and scavenging other peoples’ trash. I will interview other trash tossers and trash scavengers. I will interview village officials and the village’s garbage collectors. I will inventory the trash getting tossed, scavenged, and left behind on the heap.

Maybe after grad school. I would consider doing this project sooner, but I don’t think I could handle living here again just yet. Just not enough distance to feign “objectivity”… though it might make a really interesting native anthropology project 🙂 Any other takers? You could live with my parents while you do research!

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