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Unjust Profit: Moral Economies of Recycling and Migration in Urban Turkey



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Yildirim, Kevin 


This dissertation examines how the arrival of foreign migrants into Istanbul’s recycling workforce has changed how citizens consider who or what should profit from the city’s waste. Based on twelve months of fieldwork in a peripheral Istanbul district, it proposes that labour encounters between foreign migrants and citizens are key sites where new moral understandings of work, profit, and citizenship are produced. The study aims to introduce new empirical and conceptual understandings of moral economic life, citizenship, and waste labour. As the largest city in a country that hosts nearly four million asylum seekers and irregular migrants— primarily from Syria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan— Istanbul is a prime location for such inquiries.

Within Istanbul’s recycling sector, citizens of Turkey increasingly articulate what is right and wrong in social and political life by invoking the newly arrived figure of the migrant recycling worker. When asserting their own moral virtues, for instance, citizens will often claim that migrant workers lack such qualities in comparison. Expanding on this ethnographic insight, this thesis provides critical analysis of two broad phenomena. First, it contends that competing labour regimes in a precarious urban economy—one comprised of citizens, the other of irregular migrants—relate to each other primarily in moral registers. Second, it demonstrates how these moral registers influence economic action in tangible ways. The thesis understands these phenomena by developing the concept of moral authority. This term refers to a relation that is produced when one person claims their right to assert a vision of how social life ought to be organised, whether on the scale of an individual relationship or society at large. By looking at migrant-citizen relations in Turkey’s recycling sector with the analytic of moral authority, the thesis attempts to improve anthropological understandings of how political hierarchies influence moral economic life, and vice-versa.

It does this by developing the argument that relations between citizens and international migrants in Turkey’s recycling sector are structured by citizens’ efforts to reproduce their moral authority. Doing so, it engages with debates in the anthropology of citizenship, waste labour, moral economy, hospitality, and work. Chapter 1 claims that the introduction of foreign migrants into the recycling sector in the 2010s has led citizen-workers to articulate a right to work in registers that exclude foreign migrants. Chapter 2, in contrast, examines how irregular migrant waste pickers seek a right to work in Istanbul by appeasing and avoiding figures of authority rather than confronting them. Chapter 3 contends that, for citizen-workers in Istanbul’s recycling sector, moral authority is produced through discourse that regards migrant recycling labour as an immoral and asocial form of work. Chapter 4 critically analyses hospitable forms of giving between shopkeeper citizens and irregular migrant waste pickers. Chapter 5 interrogates tense relations between ethnic Turks and Kurds in a recycling depot that imports plastic waste from the United Kingdom. The conclusion suggests that moral authority is central to the exercise of political power within contemporary Turkey.





Sanchez, Andrew


citizenship, labour, migration, morality, recycling, Turkey


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
Cambridge Trust International Scholarship University of Cambridge Fieldwork Fund