What type of problem is waste in Egypt?

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This paper attempts to show that while the production of waste may be universal, the threat it poses is not. In order to explain and justify the question ‘what type of problem is waste’, the paper begins by attempting to, first, provincialise the ‘environmental’ framing of waste by examining the category's historically changing problematisations in Western Europe and North America, and, second, through a critique of Mary Douglas's work Purity and danger, to argue that waste should be theorised ethnographically rather than analytically. It then argues that, in Egypt, the materiality of litter and the sociality of waste work are sublimated into a religio-civilisational register based on the central trope of cleanliness rather than environment. It does so by considering various meanings and inflexions of the word ‘cleanliness’ in vernacular usage, the way the terms environment and pollution are used, naming conventions for waste collectors and anti-litter campaigns. © 2017 European Association of Social Anthropologists.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)301-317
JournalSocial Anthropology
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 4 Aug 2017


  • waste
  • Egypt
  • Zabbaleen
  • Islam
  • cleanliness

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