Prosumers, Activists, or Simply Hungry? a Qualitative Analysis of Dumpster Diving in Olympia, Washington

Wednesday, 18 July 2018: 17:45
Oral Presentation
Darcy HAUSLIK, Washington State University, USA
It is widely known that consumption and production in late capitalism are increasingly problematic processes from the standpoints of ecological sustainability and social justice. Amidst seemingly intractable flaws in these interlocking systems, one promising trend is the rise of the ‘prosumer’. Prosumption refers to a synthesis of production and consumption and is generating a model of capitalism marked by abundance rather than scarcity. However, few studies have examined prosumption among the food insecure. Research and public protest have drawn attention to two major shortcomings in the food system: food insecurity and food waste. While an apparent contradiction, modern consumer capitalism has produced a system wherein roughly 10% of the U.S. population is food insecure while more than 33% of all food produced annually is wasted. This paper looks at the complex rise of ‘dumpster diver’ as a prosumer identity poised to disrupt the wasteful tendencies of capitalism. Using interviews with 30 homeless or low-income dumpster divers supplemented with ethnographic field work, I analyze the strategies of discourse and boundary work infused with the practice of dumpster diving for food. Dumpster diving as a tool used by the homeless and low-income population to alleviate immediate food insecurity has been infused with anti-capitalist rhetoric. I argue this radical rhetoric is ultimately used to preserve a sense of self-worth and belonging among an economically precarious group. Rather than ideology influencing discourse and, ultimately, practice, for some low-income groups the practice of dumpster diving precedes any strong ideological disposition regarding waste. The policy implications of understanding the alternative valuation needs that dumpster diving satisfies (i.e., self-sufficiency and self-worth), in addition to the supplemental calories provided, should influence our approach to alleviating both food waste and food insecurity while providing one of the simplest and most radical models of a prosumer.