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Empire of Scrounge

Inside the Urban Underground of Dumpster Diving, Trash Picking, and Street Scavenging

Jeff Ferrell

Publication Year: 2006

“Patrolling the neighborhoods of central Fort Worth, sorting through trash piles, exploring dumpsters, scanning the streets and the gutters for items lost or discarded, I gathered the city's degraded bounty, then returned home to sort and catalogue the take.”
—From the Introduction

In December of 2001 Jeff Ferrell quit his job as tenured professor, moved back to his hometown of Fort Worth, Texas, and, with a place to live but no real income, began an eight-month odyssey of essentially living off of the street. Empire of Scrounge tells the story of this unusual journey into the often illicit worlds of scrounging, recycling, and second-hand living. Existing as a dumpster diver and trash picker, Ferrell adopted a way of life that was both field research and free-form survival. Riding around on his scrounged BMX bicycle, Ferrell investigated the million-dollar mansions, working-class neighborhoods, middle class suburbs, industrial and commercial strips, and the large downtown area, where he found countless discarded treasures, from unopened presents and new clothes to scrap metal and even food.

Richly illustrated throughout, Empire of Scrounge is both a personal journey and a larger tale about the changing values of American society. Perhaps nowhere else do the fault lines of inequality get reflected so clearly than at the curbside trash can, where one person's garbage often becomes another's bounty. Throughout this engaging narrative, full of a colorful cast of characters, from the mansion living suburbanites to the junk haulers themselves, Ferrell makes a persuasive argument about the dangers of over-consumption. With landfills overflowing, today’s highly disposable culture produces more trash than ever before—and yet the urge to consume seems limitless.

In the end, while picking through the city's trash was often dirty and unpleasant work, unearthing other people's discards proved to be unquestionably illuminating. After all, what we throw away says more about us than what we keep.

Published by: NYU Press


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pp. ix-ix

For ideas, information, and support, my sincere thanks to Marilyn McShane, Trey Williams, Meda Chesney-Lind, Bob Young, Bayless Camp, DanPhillips, JeVRoss, Sara Chetin, Peter Leuner, Jimmy Silcox, Sara Lowry, Gene Lowry, Dick Hawkins, and Fran Hawkins. Thanks also to my colleagues in the Department of Sociology, ...

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1. Sordid Signs

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pp. 1-30

I guess it all started the day I quit. In December 2001, I resigned from a position as a tenured professor at a large Arizona university, and settled back in to my old stomping grounds o fFort Worth, Texas. I knew that, at best, this move would leave me a gap of eight months or so until I might or might not locate the next academic ...

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2. Street Life

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pp. 31-72

As suggested in the previous chapter, the situations and experiences recorded in this chapter emerged out of something closer to survival than to traditional social research. Resigned from a tenured professorship, floating day to day without job, book contract, or professorial prospects, I was outside the academic orbit—...

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3. Street Knowledge

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pp. 73-96

Excavated for their possibilities, the city's streets, trash piles, and Dumpsters yielded items in such assortment that scrounged materials seemed simply to wash over my various needs and desires. Shoes and booze, shelving and bolts and buckets were as easily discarded by others as they were available to me, ...

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4. Salvage Operations

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pp. 97-128

The empire of scrounge is littered with the residues of change. A homeowner’s decision to remodel a kitchen pushes appliances and plumbing fixtures to the curb; a developer’s retrofitting of an old building fills a big roll away with copper wire and aged lumber. As a couple falls apart, the man’s suits and shoes end up in a ...

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5. Scrapped Together

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pp. 129-160

If the empire of scrounge is populated by a ragtag assemblage of cart pushers, scrap haulers, and everyday environmentalists, it's held together by an equally irregular network of mutual aid. In fact, this tattered web of mutual assistance answers, in another way, the question of how scrounger's can survive on eight-dollar loads of ...

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6. Scrunge City

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pp. 161-184

This book’s first chapter argued that urban scrounging is a social activity shaped by ambiguity and uncertainty—that scrounging, both in its historical evolution and contemporary practice, embodies dynamics of meaning constantly in motion. My months and years of daily scrounging confirmed this. Day after day, I and other ...

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7. Scrounging Zen

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pp. 185-202

Empire of Scrounge has, I hope, documented some of the many ways in which urban scavenging undermines the existing order of things. As consumers set out yesterday’s goods on the curb or discard them in the trash bin, and as scroungers explore these marginal accumulations, sorting and saving and reusing what they find there, consumers and scroungers alike cooperate ...

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Coda: Improvisations on the Everyday

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pp. 203-206

Profoundly practical, a place of cast-off clothes and scrap metal and everyday survival, the empire of scrounge nonetheless constitutes an empire of alternative meaning. To live and labor there as I did is to undermine the carefully constructed cultural status of consumption and consumer goods, to muddy certainties of law and crime that ...


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pp. 207-216


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pp. 217-221

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About the Author

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pp. 222-222

Jeff Ferrell is Professor in the Department of Sociology, Criminal Justice, and Anthropology at Texas Christian University. He is the author of the books Crimes of Style and Tearing Down the Streets and the lead coeditor of four books: Cultural Criminology, Ethnography at the Edge, Making Trouble, and Cultural Criminology Unleashed. He is ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780814728734
E-ISBN-10: 0814728731
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814727379
Print-ISBN-10: 0814727379

Page Count: 233
Publication Year: 2006

OCLC Number: 76963954
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Empire of Scrounge

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Subject Headings

  • Marginality, Social -- United States.
  • United States -- Social conditions -- 1980-.
  • Ragpickers -- United States.
  • Salvage (Waste, etc.) -- United States.
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