Dissertation Abstracts

Stigma management in waste management: An investigation into the interactions of ‘waste pickers’ on the streets of Cape Town and the consequences for agency

Author: Perez, Teresa S, tpz031@googlemail.com
Department: Sociology
University: University of Cape Town, South Africa
Supervisor: Dr Johann Graaff
Year of completion: In progress
Language of dissertation: English

Keywords: Waste management , Stigma management , Discourses , Urban inequality
Areas of Research: Environment and Society , Stratification , Language and Society


Unlike the more comprehensive and organised support for informal waste workers that exists in other countries, the approach of institutional structures in South Africa varies enormously. Street waste pickers provide a free separation at source service, yet their role continues to be devalued. This is despite waste minimisation legislation that imposes targets on local government to reduce waste to landfill. Although quantitative studies into waste picking operations at landfill begin to capture the discrimination towards waste pickers, they fail to provide insight into the lived reality of these people.

Goffman’s theory of impression management was combined with Gidden’s structuration theory in order to explore how waste pickers are both enabled and constrained by the strategies that they employ in interactions, to improve their status. Using a combination of ethnographic techniques, this qualitative study reveals the everyday experiences of waste pickers working in the suburbs of Cape Town. Field note transcripts were analysed using a combination of thematic and discourse analysis.

My analysis shows that references to negative stereotypes of waste pickers featured relatively rarely in their conversations. Instead the group tended to focus their attention on constructing a front that presented them as intelligent, skilled and resourceful. The use of impression management was part of an agential process that aimed to define the group as socially mobile. This was achieved with limited success due to the discrediting information that participants revealed during fieldwork. Thus waste pickers use of impression management strategies simultaneously enabled and constrained their capacity to change public perceptions.

I argue that waste pickers successfully build and manage relationships with a range of people in order to maintain a sustainable livelihood from waste picking. However dominant discourses about dirt and informality continue to position waste pickers as the lowest of the low. Waste pickers’ performances are too inconsistent to successfully re-position themselves through impression management. As such waste pickers and their work continues to be under valued and stigmatised.

I conclude by suggesting that the philosophical underpinnings of waste pickers’ front somewhat limits the potential of impression management to function as an agential process. Instead, environmentalism could provide a more robust approach to rationalizing the need for a shift in attitudes towards waste. This won’t mitigate the discreditable parts of waste pickers behaviour, but might go some way to bolster their status.