Accumulation by dispossession and the informal economy – Struggles over knowledge, being and waste at a Soweto garbage dump

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88 Citations (Scopus)


Recent scholarship highlights that accumulation by dispossession creates surplus populations who must sustain themselves outside wage labor, often through informal work. This article theorizes a different aspect of the relationship between the informal economy and accumulation by dispossession by analyzing how the state and capital seek to capture new spheres of accumulation created by informal workers. Drawing on Searle's theorization of social ontology it explores how reclaimers at a Soweto garbage dump reconceptualized trash as holding potential value and transformed the landfill from a commodity cemetery into a resource mine. The attempt to enclose the landfill therefore required appropriating not only the materials at the dump but the very framing of these materials as valuable. Reclaimers' grievance over this “epistemic injustice” fueled their successful opposition to the enclosure, demonstrating the centrality of “epistemic dispossession” to accumulation by dispossession. Highlighting the epistemic and social agency of informal workers considered the epitome of “human waste” establishes the need to recognize all informal workers as producers of knowledge and social reality and facilitates more nuanced understandings of accumulation by dispossession, how and why it is contested, and how alternatives can be forged.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)813-830
Number of pages18
JournalEnvironment and Planning D: Society and Space
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2015
Externally publishedYes


  • Accumulation by dispossession
  • epistemic dispossession
  • epistemic injustice
  • informal economy
  • social ontology
  • waste pickers

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Environmental Science (miscellaneous)


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