THE BOUNDARIES OF WASTE, WANT, AND REUSE: A QUALITATIVE ANALYSIS OF THRIFT STORE SHOPPING AND DUMPSTER DIVING IN WASHINGTON STATE
Hauslik, Darcy R
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Being a consumer in the contemporary United States is a complicated endeavor. As consumption choices have been linked with issues from declining stocks of natural resources to grievous harm to workers and resource-based communities, an increasing proportion of Americans seek to make “ethical” consumer choices. These ethical consumers buy or avoid specific products to promote social or environmental goals, and perceive these choices as reflecting morality. Yet many ethical consumption choices (e.g., solar panels, organic food) are financially out-of-reach for many, particularly working-class households. How do lower-status people use consumer choices to navigate the complex terrain that maligns mainstream consumption and values socially and environmentally reflective consumption? This dissertation examines thrift store shopping and dumpster diving as two cases of consumption that are both environmentally significant and stigmatized. These cases are theoretically significant because they widen the gaze of studies of consumption to consider the intersection of consumption and waste, allowing me to shed light on how identity and social-inequality are processes related as much to waste as to consumption. Further, because these practices reach beyond the realm of elite ethical consumption (i.e., buying organic produce), I am able to discuss how the process of creating distinction is related more to discourse and practice than to any particular item. Specifically, using the case of thrift shopping, I demonstrate how people in different social strata convey distinction within a marginalized consumption space. In the case of dumpster diving, I discuss the process of meaning-making undertaken by a marginalized group. First, I show how economically-constrained dumpster divers, despite adopting a politicized worldview, are hesitant to adopt a political explanation for their consumption habits. From this observation I argue that mainstream political imaginaries rooted in a neo-liberal logic might not resonate with marginalized groups. Next, I show how the stigma of dumpster diving is mitigated not by making appeals to dominant moral frameworks, but by rejecting familiar cultural narratives of what is decent or acceptable behavior. I advance the concept of “active defiance” to capture this pattern. This dissertation has important implications for understanding identity, distinction, and the political imaginaries of marginalized groups.