Accepted Paper:

Waste and wealth: labour, value and morality in a Vietnamese rural-urban recycling economy  


Minh Nguyen (Max Planck Institute)

Paper short abstract:

This paper develops a theoretical framework for my study of a waste trading network in Vietnam. To explain the development of the network and its linkage to political economic processes, I propose a notion of moral economy underlined by logics of care that are premised on reciprocity and social aspirations.

Paper long abstract:

For people in Spring District of Vietnam's Red River Delta, urban waste has long been a valuable source of livelihoods. Since the socialist country adopted economic reforms in the mid-1980s, they have developed a thriving urban waste trade. Through strategic use of marginal and transient urban spaces, the trade is highly flexible, capitalising on the liminal status of migrants working with waste and the social ambiguity of waste to generate income and wealth. This paper develops a theoretical framework for my ethnographic study of the waste trading network as part of an expansive recycling economy in the country. I propose a conception of moral economy underlined by local logics of care that are premised on reciprocity and social aspirations. Rather an enclosed system that operates on the periphery of or alternatively to political economy, I argue that it is intimately connected with political economic processes in post-reform Vietnam and mutually constituted with a form of market socialist governmentality that cultivates particular notion of moral personhood. This moral person operates based on patron-client ethics, neoliberal ideas of the self, and socialist structures of feelings. These moral elements intermingle and reinvent each others in their practices of care, labour and entrepreneurship, their engagement with the state, the market and other institutions. They produce uncertain value transformations and ambiguous moral evaluations in line with the contested nature of market socialism.

Panel P051
Works that matter (not): valuing productivity through and against the market