We need to talk about dirt

Nathan Warren

Our society would benefit greatly if more people were willing to reconsider the things and behaviors others have deemed as dirty.

Have you ever dropped food on the floor and then picked it up and ate it, maybe after telling yourself it was on the ground for less than five seconds? Or helped yourself to a few handfuls of free samples when you were only supposed to take one? Or, in a more extreme example, told your family that you were skipping a holiday to go to a cosplay convention?

Each of these questions suggests ways that people make use of things that society considers dirty and inappropriate, which is the topic of my research with Professor Linda Price of the University of Wyoming. More specifically, we examine the ways people reinterpret and then effortfully make use of dirt, a process we call consumer dirtwork.

The renowned social anthropologist Mary Douglas described dirt as things that society says are inappropriate — they are morally, socially, or physically out of place. A shoe on a table is dirty because it is out of place, but the same shoe is not dirty when it is on the ground. A more depressing example is that immigrants and other groups of so-called outsiders are often considered dirty. In general, people try to prevent, avoid, and clean up dirt.

Through our research, we have looked at the variety of ways that people redefine what it means to be dirty, the value they get from it, and the surprising amount of effort that goes into converting dirt into a resource.

Work less, play more

We are forced to confront dirt when our circumstances or values conflict with what society says we should do. A common example is how most of us would feel like cleaning ourselves after cleaning a toilet, because society considers a toilet to be dirty.

However, imagine how your own life circumstances or personal values may lead you to change what you previously considered as dirty, for example if you desired to spend more time climbing rocks. As an active climber, you might engage in dirtwork by sleeping in places where most people would not, such as under a bridge or in the back seat of your car. You might even abandon indoor plumbing, along with the money, energy, and timely purification rituals that go along with it.

At an individual level, rethinking the potential value of dirt suggests that people may be able to live very different lives, and be far less reliant on traditional sources of income, if they are willing to get physically, morally, or socially dirty. For example, many of the people we interviewed who engaged in dirtwork were able to work very little. Instead, they devoted many years of their lives to passions like skiing, rock climbing, and whitewater kayaking.

A bounty of resources

Everyone knows that cleaning requires effort. We were surprised to find that dirtwork also requires a surprising amount of effort.

For example, consider people who find and eat food out of trash bins. These self-described ‘dumpster divers’ need to locate trash bins that have edible food, figure out ways to sneak past the store managers, homeowners, and police who try to prevent dumpster diving, then take the food somewhere to organize, store, and eat it. Dumpster divers who are interested in making the world a more sustainable place may even become activists who try to change the way that leftover food is disposed of.

The single most important lesson we have learned from this research is that if people are able to reconsider the things and behaviors which most of us consider dirty, taboo, or otherwise inappropriate, then those dirty things and behaviors can provide a bounty of resources.

Rethinking dirt

At a broader level, rethinking material dirt, cleaning practices, and how we are ‘supposed’ to live has significant implications for sustainability.

It is far more sustainable to wear the same dirty clothes than to wear new and always-cleaned clothes. Similarly, convincing people that keeping a pile of food scraps (i.e., compost) on their kitchen counter can significantly reduce carbon emissions, but many people still think composting is dirty.

Finally, reconsidering moral and social dirt may help to reduce biases against immigrants and other stigmatized groups, allowing these people to flourish in, and better contribute to, society.


Douglas, M. (2002), Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. New York: Routledge.

Gollnhofer, J.F., H.A. Weijo, and J.W. Schouten (2019), "Consumer Movements and Value Regimes: Fighting Food Waste in Germany by Building Alternative Object Pathways," Journal of Consumer Research, 46(3), 460-82.

Published 26. August 2022

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