Flickr Creative Commons, Rowena Waack
Flickr Creative Commons, Brendan Wood
Flickr Creative Commons, Mark O’Rourke
Flickr Creative Commons, JaulaDeArdillo
In the classic book, Purity and Danger (1966), Mary Douglas points to the social construction of dirt. She writes:
There is no such thing as absolute dirt: it exists in the eye of the beholder.
If dirt and dirtiness is socially constructed, what do things we identify as dirt, filth, rubbish, and refuse have in common?
Douglas suggests that dirt is really a matter of disorganization. Literally, that a thing becomes dirt or garbage when it is out-of-place. “Dirt,” she writes, “offends against order.”
Eliminating it is not a negative movement, but a positive effort to organise the environment.
I chose the images above to try and illustrate this idea. Hair in the drain, like dirt on our hands, is out-of-place. It doesn’t belong there. In both cases, our reaction is disgust. Hair on the head, in contrast, is beautiful and becoming, while dirt outside is life-giving soil and part of the beauty of nature.
Images royalty free from Getty. Originally posted in 2009.
Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.