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Throwing Out Ideas, The Culture of ‘Urban Pollution’

The celebrated volume of anthropologist Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger (1966), broke ground with its discussion of cleanliness, dirtiness, and sacred ritual. Editors Rivke Jaffe and Eveline Dürr took this up in their 2010-published Urban Pollution: Cultural Meanings, Social Practices. The volume, which was published as a paperback earlier this month, dusts off the concepts of clean and dirty, and looks at modern intersections of pollution and culture. Jaffe and Dürr revisit the origins and makings of the volume, below.




Berghahn Books: What is the idea behind the collection, and how did the book come about?


Rivke Jaffe and Eveline Dürr: We wanted put together a collection that could help bridge the divide between environmental anthropology and urban anthropology. The bulk of work in environmental anthropology has neglected cities and specifically urban pollution. Meanwhile, urban anthropologists rarely incorporate an environmental dimension in their work.

Studies on environmental injustice (for instance Melissa Checker’s work in U.S. cities) are an important exception, although this research is often more oriented towards social movement studies than towards environmental or urban studies debates.


Photo by Rivke Jaffe

Photo by Rivke Jaffe


BB: How does the topic of urban pollution connect to your own research backgrounds and current interests?


RJ & ED: Eveline had done a lot of work on urban identities and migration, while Rivke had been studying solid waste management and professional environmentalism. Our focus on urban pollution emerged from a shared interest in understanding what qualifies as dirt in urban settings, and how this connects to processes of social differentiation. What is the social life of garbage – in what contexts do we see it as a problem, when is it seen as normal, or even authentic and attractive? We’re currently starting on a joint research project, together with the British geographer Gareth Jones, that explores some of these questions in the context of slum tourism, studying how urban squalor becomes a tourist attraction.


Photo by Eveline Dürr

Photo by Eveline Dürr

Photo by Eveline Dürr.

Photo by Eveline Dürr.


BB: How did you select the contributions to the book, and what was important to you in the process?


RJ & ED: We wanted the book to include case studies that present a contemporary take on “traditional” anthropological approaches to pollution, but we also wanted to use dirt as a lens to understand contemporary urban processes of neoliberalization, conflict and insecurity, and political mobilization. So for instance, Damaris Lüthi’s chapter connects classic work on Hindu concepts of pollution to urban waste management, while Eveline’s own chapter on multicultural Auckland shows how more recent anthropological themes of migration and transnationalism articulate with discourses of urban cleanliness.



BB: How do you see the relationship between urban anthropology and environmental anthropology developing in the future?


RJ & ED: One way in which environmental anthropologists might engage with the urban is by conceiving of cities as socio-natural assemblages. Broader urban studies research – and especially geographers working on urban political ecology – already engages with the interwovenness of the urban and the natural. Related to these approaches, we think recent work on “matter” and “materials” (e.g. new materialisms) offers exciting empirical and analytical possibilities for environmental and urban anthropologists.




Eveline Dürr is Professor at the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, Ludwig- Maximilians-University, Munich. She has conducted fieldwork in Mexico, the USA and Germany, and also in New Zealand while she was Associate Professor at the Auckland University of Technology. Her research focuses on urban anthropology, cultural identities and representations.


Rivke Jaffe is Associate Professor at the Centre for Urban Studies, University of Amsterdam. She previously held teaching and research positions at Leiden University, the University of the West Indies and the KITLV. She has conducted fieldwork in Jamaica, Curaçao and Suriname on topics ranging from the urban environment to public-private security assemblages.


Volume 15, Environmental Anthropology and Ethnobiology