The Garbage Project

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The Garbage project

The Garbage project


Visual anthropology is typically considered a sub-field of cultural anthropology that developed out of the study and production of ethnographic photography and film. However, there are some anthropologists who disagree and instead place it “squarely within the discipline of anthropology”. Visual anthropology is useful for ethnographic research, media analysis, and studies of material culture. Visual anthropology also encompasses the anthropological study of representation, including areas such as performance, museums, art, and the production and reception of mass media (Ziller, 2001). Anthropology is basically, “digging up people's garbage,” (Griffin 2002). But it's garbage that helps us to further expand our knowledge about the past. One day, thousands, and maybe even millions of years from now there will be people digging up our garbage and learning about us. Anthropology has many different subfields (Griffin 2002).

Inventory of Project

One of the first discoveries was simply that a substance to which the term "slops" was applied congregates at the bottom of every paper or plastic bag into which garbage is dropped. Slops (Garbage Project code number 069) comprise a stew of such things as coffee grounds, fruit parts, rotten vegetable bits, cigarette butts, grit of unknown origin, and the sort of gooey canned mush epitomized by Chef Boyardee ravioli; somehow, in the course of every garbage bag's journey from kitchen to truck, all of these substances find one another and intimately coalesce.

The Project eventually undertook a detailed investigation of the tiny individual constituents of slops, which, based on refuse pickups from sixty-nine households in seven census tracts, were found to consist primarily of bakery products and cereal (28 percent); fresh vegetable matter (24 percent); high-protein vegetables (12 percent); meat, poultry, and seafood parts (8 percent); fruit waste (8 percent); cheese and other milk products (6 percent); and fats and oils (5 percent). Most slops originate in the form of plate scrapings; the reputation of vegetables as prime candidates to become leftovers appears to be well deserved.

Range of Activities

Another phenomenon that quickly became clear was the capacity of garbage to surprise. This was vividly brought home to researchers as a result of the discovery, by an anthropology student named Diane Tucker, of a diamond ring amid a mass of potato peels. (The ring, a relatively inexpensive one, could not be returned, because of Garbage Project procedures to ensure that the identity of the house-holds from which garbage for study is obtained remains unknown; it was accidentally thrown away along with other prospective exhibits for a Garbage Project museum, all of which had been stored in a special dumpster.)

Most of the surprises, however, have not been so immediately obvious. They have not, in other words, tended to be the garbage equivalent of finding the Mask of Agamemnon or the cave paintings at Lascaux. Rather, they have emerged through the careful recording of each and every artifact found in each and every load of garbage, and the statistical evaluation of the ...
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