The Job is in the Field: Notes from Municipal Anthropology


  • Robin Nagle New York University



Bureaucracy, organizations, solid waste management, public institutions, urban studies


The Department of Sanitation in New York City is a mayoral agency with a key role in municipal government, but it also has the attributes of a powerful corporation. With an annual budget in excess of a billion dollars, it hires, monitors, and replaces private vendors and contractors for a host of essential services, balances the often conflicting demands of several unions, and answers to a watchful but perpetually critical public. As the Department's anthropologist-in-residence since 2006, my work has included consulting, advocacy, collaboration, education, and organizing various projects focused on the interface between Sanitation and that larger public. These efforts have helped me understand the urban environment from the perspective of those who keep it clean, while also letting me become intimately acquainted with the complex dynamics of a workforce that is generally scorned even while it is fundamental to the well-being of the metropolis it serves. This paper considers the model of anthropologist-in-residence as I've structured it within the DSNY, discusses contributions to an anthropology of organizations, and explores the possibility of similar relationships between anthropologists and other public and private institutions.

Author Biography

Robin Nagle, New York University

Robin Nagle is the author of Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014), an ethnography of the DSNY. She teaches anthropology and environmental studies at New York University and is anthropologist-in-residence for New York City’s Department of Sanitation.