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Waste and Wealth

An Ethnography of Labor, Value, and Morality in a Vietnamese Recycling Economy

Minh T. N. Nguyen

Publication Date - 14 September 2018

ISBN: 9780190692605

232 pages
5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches

In Stock

Winner of the 2019 Society for the Anthropology of Work annual book prize An ethnography exploring how migrant laborers in Vietnam remake their lives within the global waste economy


Waste and Wealth examines questions of value, labor, and morality underlining the translocal waste trading networks originating from a rural district in Vietnam. Considering waste as an economic category of global significance, this book shows migrant laborers' complex negotiations with political economic forces to remake their social and moral lives. It also illuminates how the waste traders seek to construct viable identities in the face of stigmatization, insecurity, and precarity. Waste and Wealth makes an important contribution to global studies of human economies and post-socialist transformations, demonstrating how the forces of globalization blend with local historical-cultural dynamics to shape the valuation of people and things.

Waste and Wealth is a volume in the series ISSUES OF GLOBALIZATION: CASE STUDIES IN CONTEMPORARY ANTHROPOLOGY, which examines the experiences of individual communities in our contemporary world. Each volume offers a brief and engaging exploration of a particular issue arising from globalization and its cultural, political, and economic effects on certain peoples or groups.

About the Author(s)

Minh T. N. Nguyen is Professor of Social Anthropology at Bielefeld University in Germany. She is also Visiting Professor at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Vietnam National University, Hanoi, and an Associate of the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle (Saale), Germany.


"Waste and Wealth is a fascinating ethnography, which provides detailed accounts of the lives of migrant waste traders in postsocialist Vietnam. Against the backdrop of Vietnam's transition from a centrally planned to a market economy, Minh T. N. Nguyen seeks to illustrate how the entanglement of global market forces and Vietnamese sociocultural norms shapes the moral lives of waste traders." -- Justin Lau, Exertions

"Waste and Wealth is an outstanding ethnography brimming with vivid details and insights about the lives of Vietnamese waste traders. Tracing the livelihood strategies, hopes, dreams, and struggles of Spring Village traders, Minh Nguyen takes readers on a riveting series of journeys throughout the nation's capital city, Hanoi, and surrounding areas. It is a story of hard, dirty labor, but also of resilience, social mobility, and economic uplift. The waste traders in this book are not only turning waste into gold, but literally remaking themselves, their village, and Vietnam's new rural economy."--Erik Lind Harms, Yale University

"With this compellingly written and highly original ethnography, Nguyen shows how informal recyclers remake themselves, their relationships, and their circumstances, laying to rest the assumptions that waste is inherently worthless and that those who work with it are doomed to abject poverty. The book is clearly written, demonstrating complex entanglements of dirty work, class aspirations, and gender politics in a post-socialist context."--Joshua Reno, Binghamton University

"The ethnography is skillfully crafted, drawing readers into people's lives with a keen appreciation of how they juggle competing moralities and demands on their lives. Nguyen's theoretical contribution is deft, efficient, and--as with the best ethnography--lightly and dexterously woven through her material."--Catherine Alexander, Durham University

Table of Contents

    Field Research
    Researching People on the Move
    Credits and Acknowledgements

    Migrant Labor under Market Socialism: The Rise of the Peasant Entrepreneur
    Waste Global: Geographies of Recycling and Human Economies
    The Political Economy of Remaking
    Morality and Political Economy
    Waste, Labor and the Politics of Value
    --Revaluing Waste
    --The Labor of Waste: Gender, Class, and Performance
    Exemplary Society and the Politics of Morality
    Desires, Aspirations, and Fictional Expectations

    Overview of the Chapters


    Chapter 1. Mobility, Networks, and Gendered Householding

    Householding, Networks, and Reciprocity
    Cities as the New Economic Zone
    Waste Networks:
    Money, Reciprocity, and Distance
    Staying at Home and Going Outside: Choice, Decision and Power
    Inside and Outside: The Gender of Space
    "Going Outside" and Remaking Gendered Spaces
    Negotiating Boundaries and Remaking Gendered Ideals

    Gendered Mobility and Generation
    Sons, Daughters and the Limits of Mobility
    Waste as a Frontier of Patrilineal Family

    Conclusion: Translocality, Networks, and the Remaking of Gendered Spaces

    Chapter 2. Labor, Economy and Urban Space
    The Itinerant Junk Trader and Changing Urban Waste Production
    The Waste Hierarchy and the Promiscuity of Waste
    Waste, Migrant Labor, and the Spatialization of Class in Hanoi
    Gendered Performance of Class as Access to Urban Spaces
    The "Miserable Migrant": Stereotype as Bargaining Chip
    Appliances versus Junk: Technology, Gendered Spaces, and Value

    The Waste Depot: Place Making, Gender, and Class
    Place Making in Ambiguous Spaces
    Inside and Outside, Again
    Moving Up: Matters of Dirt and Labor

    Conclusion: Class, Gender and Urban Space Remaking

    Chapter 3. Uncertainty, Ambiguity and the Ethic of Risk-Taking
    Economy of Uncertainty: Pricing, Tenure and Geography of Urban Waste
    Dangers in the Zones of Ambiguity
    Fake Waste
    State Agents
    Stolen Goods and Thugs

    Men on the Highway and the Art of Making Law
    Conclusion: Ambiguity, Risk Taking, and Remaking the Urban Order


    Chapter 4. Mobility, Moral Discourses, and the Anxiety of Care

    Is It Better to be Uneducated and Rich? Mutually Exclusionary Discourses
    Caring and Being Cared For in Translocal Households
    Who Cares for the Kids? Grandparenting, Gender, and Never-Ending Worries
    When Grandparents Need Care

    "Social Evils" and the Disruption of Care
    Conclusion: Care, Anxiety and the Remaking of Moral Obligations

    Chapter 5. Rural Entrepreneurship, Local Development and Social Aspirations
    A Shifting Approach to Local Development
    Building the New Countryside from Urban Waste
    Story of Thu and Ngoan: The Poetry of Rabbit Meat
    Story of Xuân and Dai Love of the Land
    Conclusion: Value, Entrepreneurship, and the Remaking of the Countryside

    Chapter 6. Money and Consumption: Gendered Desires, Class Matters
    Money, the Gods, and the Anxiety of Mobility
    "Civilized" Living and Vacant Houses
    Consuming the City and the Gender of Desire
    Becoming Urban? Class Matters
    Conclusion: Fictional Expectations and the Remaking of Gendered Desires

    Chapter 7. An Exemplary Person, the Poor and the Limits of Remaking
    Socialization and the Ethic of Striving
    Vignette 1: The Queen of Waste and the Spirit of Giving
    Vignette 2: In Support of the Poor Households
    Ten Signatures and One Candidate for a Housing Grant
    Who Deserves to Be Poor?

    Conclusion: The Production of Success and Failure and the Limits of Remaking

    Conclusion: The Political Economy of Remaking
    The Waste Economy, Mobility and Globalization
    Labor, Gender, and Class
    Value and Morality
    The Moral Personhood of Market Socialism


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