Outlaws in the Empire of Scrounge

Jeff Ferrell, Southern Methodist University

By choice or necessity, a gret variety of groups and individuals scrounge the materials of everyday life from the trash piles of contemporary society. Such scrounging functions as a form of ecological direct action, saving countless tons of materials from overburdened landfills. It also generates a steady stream of food, clothing, and building products utilized by individuals and groups on the social margins, and provides the raw materials for a wide range of artistic endeavors. As such scrounging constitutes a secret empire, an informal safety net sown from bits and pieces, and a thriving alternative ulture flowering from the dustbins of soceity. At the same time, through, legal authorities work to criminalize this empire of scrounge, as both the collection and distribution of scavenged goods are outlawed. Based on field research and participant observation with various urban scroungers, this paper attempts to document the richness of scrounging practices. It concludes that scrounging and its criminalization expose something of the contradictory dynamics that drive profligate consumption, material inequality, and political and cultural change.

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Updated 05/20/2006