Insights from Garbage: What Our Stuff Says About Us

The study of material culture is a critical but under-explored area of contemporary anthropology with powerful implications for design research.  Of course, as cultural researchers, we have techniques to elicit insights about how people interact with the objects that fill their world, but it isn’t always enough to ask participants how they interact with the stuff that surrounds them, or even observe them putting their stuff to use.  Sometimes, a researcher has to get dirty. 

In the late seventies, a new practice emerged in the discipline of historical archaeology that brought traditional “midden studies”—analyses of historical (pre-1950) refuse—out of the archaeological site and into the contemporary landfill.  The practice of “garbology” put researchers into the field (the dump) to study what Americans throw away.  Though it may sound like an unsavory approach at first, you can learn quite a bit about the gulf between what people say and what people do by scrutinizing what they toss out.  Garbage illuminates habitus. In other words, trash reveals implicit, tacit, or otherwise obscured behaviors.

Now, my point isn’t necessarily that we should request that participants reserve a week’s worth of garbage for our perusal as a component of their homework (though there are projects where I might consider that approach).  Instead, I want to underscore the value of thinking about cultural artifacts in ways that deconstruct typical value propositions.   A compelling example of this deconstructive process comes out of a Papua New Guinea prison.

In a chapter out of this volume, anthropologist Adam Reed examines how prisoners in Bomana gaol use cigarettes as a currency, a social lubricant, and as means for marking moments and changing their mind state.  The prisoners infuse cigarettes with value, but the cigarettes also exist in a liminal state, ready to be consumed.  Within the social environment of the prison, inmates alter the value schema of cigarettes, and in turn cigarettes act on the social mind of the inmates.

In another, recent example, waiters in a Swedish restaurant use ordinary whiteboard pens to mark their reservation computer’s monitor, because it is easier and less time consuming than interacting directly with the reservation software.  The waiters have adapted their approach to the technology to suit their working style, redefining the value proposition of the whole system.

The point that I hope to underscore with these examples is how things can serve as heuristics for discovering or illuminating phenomena in the world.  Too often, ethnography treats objects as ancillary to behavior, when in fact objects can reveal, mold, or construct entirely new patterns of behavior that would be otherwise invisible to the researcher.  In some cases, it may be valuable to position objects at the fore of an ethnographic study.  I plan on exploring the implications for design research in the future.

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