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The use of ethnography to explore meanings that refuse collectors attach to their work

Alexander Simpson (Department of Sociology, University of York, York, UK)
Natasha Slutskaya (Brunel Business School, Brunel, University, Uxbridge, UK)
Jason Hughes (Brunel University, Uxbridge, UK)
Ruth Simpson (Brunel Business School, Brunel University, Uxbridge, UK)

Qualitative Research in Organizations and Management

ISSN: 1746-5648

Article publication date: 8 September 2014




The purpose of this paper is to detail how the ethnographic approach can be usefully adopted in the context of researching dirty or undesirable work. Drawing on a study of refuse collectors, it shows how ethnography can enable a fuller social articulation of the experiences and meanings of a social group where conventional narrative disclosure and linguistic expression may be insufficient.


Viewing ethnography as no one particular method, but rather a style of research that is distinguished by its objectives to understand the social meanings and activities of people in a given “field” or setting, this paper highlights aspects of reproductive and “dirty” work which may be hidden or difficult to reveal. Combining the methods of participant observation, photographic representation and interviews, we add to an understanding of dirty work and how it is encountered. We draw on Willis and Trondman's (2002) three distinguishing characteristics namely, recognition of theory, centrality of culture and critical focus to highlight some meanings men give to their work.


By incorporating these issues of theory, culture and reflexivity throughout the research process, this paper highlights how Willis and Trondman's (2002) approach aids the ethnographic objective and is crucial to the understanding of representation and experience.


As such, the value of this paper can be understood in terms of developing a further understanding of dirty work, which incorporates an ethnographic process and interpretation, to achieve “rich data” on the dirty work experience.



Simpson, A., Slutskaya, N., Hughes, J. and Simpson, R. (2014), "The use of ethnography to explore meanings that refuse collectors attach to their work", Qualitative Research in Organizations and Management, Vol. 9 No. 3, pp. 183-200.



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