Researching dirt and dirty work

Researching dirt and dirty work

Lotika Singha

One fine summer evening, a friend and I were walking by a farm. My friend held her breath to avoid the ‘stink’, while I thought the smell fitted in with the place and season. Disgust is triggered differently by different people in different social contexts. I see slime as dirt, whereas my husband sees it as just a bit of mucus. But, he sees my hair scattered on the bathroom floor as dirt and I see it as just hair …

In recent years, there has been much interest among researchers in exploring how people who deal with dirt really understand their work. Some have cautioned against relying too much on symbolic meanings of dirt, (1) for example, Hughes et al, 2017, since it muddies the waters in which the researcher and researched are wading at the same time as the researcher is grappling with what the researched is telling them about their experience of working with real, physical dirt. In other words utilizing higher-level explanations and theoretical conceptualisations of occupations, considered to involve ‘dirty’ work, risks trivialising the material realities of working with real, physical dirt.(2)

Is an ‘objective’ analysis of human experiences of dealing with real dirt possible without reference to dirt’s moral meanings for the researched as well as the researcher? I will attempt to answer this question by drawing on my own experience of researching the work of outsourced domestic cleaning. The data was collected through semi-structured interviews with White and Indian women working as private cleaners in the UK and India, respectively, as well as with White and Indian female academics with an interest in feminism/gender outsourcing domestic cleaning in the same research sites.

I found considerable variation in women’s notions of cleaning, both among the cleaning service-users and the service-providers: some were obsessive about it and others more relaxed – these behaviours varied with life course stage and with living arrangements. Some partnered women had done much less cleaning when they had lived alone. Indeed, there are women who, like some men, are likely not to see the dirt. But still, many UK academics noted how nice it was to come home to a clean house on the day of the week their cleaning service-provider had been. In this, small transgressions, a task here and there left undone, could be often tolerated. In contrast, in India where cleaning of the whole house happens almost daily, this kind of feeling was not expressed. Rather, the Indian cleaning service-users were more likely to notice when the cleaning was not ‘properly’ done, the ‘matter out of place’.

While interviewing the cleaning service-providers, I specifically asked about toilet cleaning, and no-one said they particularly liked it. But the UK service-providers said it was part of a domestic cleaning job and you did it as part of the job. A few stopped working for customers who left the toilet visibly dirty. Yet others said it did not bother them. Wearing gloves and armed with bleach, the task was done. Almost half of these 26 White British women had been through further education such as A-levels a few had been through higher education and the rest had left school at 15 or16. However, the job histories of the women with further education commonly included prior experience of two to three jobs in various industries and according to them, every job had good and bad aspects. At the time of the interview, for most women, the advantages of being a cleaning service-provider outweighed the returns offered by other jobs and the disadvantages of cleaning work.

In India, practices of caste and purity-pollution ideologies endure and continue to define occupation so some residential areas are serviced by designated toilet cleaners and a few of the cleaning service-providers I interviewed did not do this work. Most women had not done any other paid work, so those who did clean toilets argued it was honest service work – stealing and prostitution were dirty work, as were some higher status jobs (such as politics). Many had migrated from villages where they had done back-breaking physical work in the fields, often in harsh weather conditions. They had routinely handled cow-dung as part of their housework. The material conditions of working in a modern urban household could be perceived as better than those under which they did their own housework.

However, as have other researcher, (3) I also found that for many service-providers the task of tidying, of ‘picking up after others’, was overwhelmingly considered demeaning (dirty) work: worn socks and underwear placed in a laundry basket is not dirt but when left strewn on the ground for a paid domestic worker to pick it up it is dirt. In fact, tidying up before the cleaning service-provider is due is a major housework task in some households.

Sociologically, it could be argued that all the service-providers, British and Indian, were making the above justifications in an attempt to maintain their self-esteem while talking about doing ‘dirty’ work. However, ‘objective’analysis of such data requires at least one epistemological assumption: that all researchers understand physical dirt and the associated disgust in a similar way, and that this is the ‘right’ perception. How valid is this assumption? For instance, given the theorisation of housework as a site of power, in the sociological literature on unpaid housework, labelling it as drudgery seems almost obligatory. Finding a piece of literature where this isn’t the case is a challenge. But then, in the literature on paid domestic work, the label changes to dirty work, since as an extensive body of research clearly shows that both the work and the worker become infused with institutionalised symbolic understandings of dirt, so the same work can be presented as just drudgery or dirty drudgery, depending on the context.

Barbara Ehrenreich, an investigative journalist and feminist researcher, wrote she found cleaning dirty toilets and removing pubic hair from baths repugnant during her undercover work as a cleaner employed by a cleaning agency. However, she mentions that the cleaning agency had a Taylorised work-flow and the Taylorisation of work is well known to instil a sense of inauthenticity and disgust in workers.(4) Another highly educated middle-class White American is Louise Rafkin,(5) whose parents employed a cleaner, and who herself worked as a private cleaner while waiting for her writing career to take off. She had no issues with hair in sinks, soap scum in tubs or toilets as long as they were clean. She disliked clearing up nail clippings and never changed beds – that was ‘very personal’. Indeed, what counts as personal work, that should not be outsourced, varied considerably in my own research as well as in published accounts. Many of my sample of service-providers also did not count changing beds as personal work.

As regards toilets, a third of the world’s human population still defecate in the open. In some areas, private toilets are dry toilets that may be emptied by night soil collectors. In 2002, an ethnographer, Sjaak van der Geest, wrote of his difficulty in using dry communal toilets in Ghana and how he felt uneasy when asking a night soil-collector about his work experience and then being surprised by Mr Atia’s response. Mr Atia, he noted, ‘took pride in his work and had no inhibitions telling us about it … he saw his work as clean work and was aware of the fact that people needed him. He knew his value and “he had his price”.’ Mr Atia worked as a private entrepreneur and he earned more than other manual labourers in the region. Still van der Geest struggled with analysing Mr Atia’s experience, given his own contemporary Western notions of the practices of ablution.

More recently, in another ethnographic study, of street cleaning and refuse collection in the UK, the participant researchers ‘squeamishly’ put on gloves before setting to work. The refuse collectors they were working alongside, however, often did not wear (the cumbersome) protective gear as it slowed them down, and their accounts revealed a material and symbolic ‘co-constitution’ of dirt: ‘While waste and debris frequently took viscerally repugnant forms, such matter was not always seen by workers as inherently “dirty”. “Dirtiness” was typically attributed to misplaced or unacceptable waste, as well as to the (orderly or disruptive) manner of its return. Refuse and waste that lay within the boundaries of what could be accepted as normal could be integrated into notions of an essential service and the necessities of work routines, and were rarely a source of disgust’ (p. 113).

As researchers, we still belong to the same social world we are analysing, even as we imagine observing it from an external location. Thus, while analysing dirty work, researchers’ need to bear in mind our own slippery relations with physical dirt: is it stink or is it smell? Is it slime or is it mucus? Is it excrement or is it manure? Is it just hair or is it dirt?


(1) Douglas, M. (1966/2002). Purity and Danger: an Analysis of Concept of Pollution and Taboo. With a new preface. London: Routledge.

(2) Wolkowitz, C. (2007/2012). Leakiness or really dirty? Dirt in social theory. In B. Campkin and R. Cox, (Eds.). Dirt: New Geographies of Cleanliness and Contamination. London: I.B. Taurus, pp. 15–24.

(3) Romero, M. (2002). M.A.I.D. in the USA. 10th Anniversary Edition. London: Routledge.

(4) Goerdeler, K.J., Wegge, J., Schrod, N., Bilinska, P., and Rudolf, M. (2015). ‘Yuck that’s disgusting!’ – ‘No not to me’: antecedents of disgust in geriatric care and its relation to emotional exhaustion and intention to leave. Motivation and Emotion, 39, 247–259.

(5) Rafkin, L. (1998). Other People’s Dirt. A Housecleaner’s Curious Adventures. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 

Lotika Singha is currently a PhD student in the Centre for Women’s Studies at the University of York. Her research explores the ‘problem with a name’ in feminism and paid domestic work, through the lens of outsourced domestic cleaning in the UK and India and is supported by the Economic and Social Research Council [grant number ES/J500215/1].

Picture credit: Lotika Singha