‘Lower than a Snake’s Belly’: Discursive Constructions of Dignity and Heroism in Low-Status Garbage Work

Robert McMurray, Hamilton, Peter, Redman, Tom

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In this paper, we consider how dignity is discursively constructed in the context of work dominated by physicality and dirt. Based on semi-structured interviews with garbage workers, our analysis considers how the deprivations they experience are cast through discourses intended to construct their individual and collective worth. We consider the manner in which dignity maybe denied to such workers through popular repudiations of individuality and status. We demonstrate how this positioning arises from contact with physical dirt, and associations with socially dirty work based on ascriptions of servility, abuse and ambivalence. We go on to consider how garbage workers respond to this positioning through discourses of ‘everyday heroism’. Heroism is evoked through three interrelated narratives that speaks to a particular type of masculinity. The first takes the form of a classic process of reframing and recalibration through which workers not only renegotiate their public position and status, but also point to the inherent value to be had in working with dirt as part of that which we identify as a process of ‘affirmation’. The second narrative arises from the imposition of favourable social and occupational comparisons that effectively elevate garbage collectors’ social position. The third discourse—and previously unobserved in respect of garbage work—centres on paternalistic practices of care. Combined, these discourses disrupt the generally held view that dirty work is antithetical to heroism and wounds dignity.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)889-901
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Business Ethics
Issue number4
Early online date1 Jul 2017
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2019

Bibliographical note

© The Author(s) 2017.


  • Dignity
  • Dirty work
  • Esteem
  • Garbage collectors
  • hierarchy
  • Heroism occupation
  • Stratification
  • Hierarchy
  • Autonomy

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