“Understanding the General Dynamics of Early Modern Urban Societies” – 5in10 with Franziska Neumann

Franziska Neumann studied history, art history and philosophy and received her PhD degree in Early Modern and Modern History from the Technische Universität in Dresden with a thesis on the formalisation of the Saxon mining administration in the 16th century. Since 2017, she has worked as a research assistant and lecturer at the University of Rostock. She is currently a Joint Junior Research Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Studies and the German Historical Institute London for 2019-20. Franziska’s research so far has focused on the dynamics between economic and environmental questions, in her new project, she examines the dynamics of pre-modern waste regimes.

How do you explain your current research projects to your students?

When people live together, there is inevitably a certain amount of rejected matter involved. Waste is ubiquitous and has a measurable impact on human wellbeing as well as on ecosystems. It is a ‘total social phenomenon’ (Marcel Mauss) that touches on every aspect of social life. Yet, on the other hand, waste is ‘matter out of place’, to quote Mary Douglas’ infamous phrase. So while waste has something to do with materiality, it can hardly be described by any kind of intrinsic quality of matter: Nothing is waste, but everything can become waste. Understanding waste means to understand practices that transform matter into waste as well as different structures and concepts connected to unwanted matter. And that makes it a very interesting research object for historians: while waste itself is more or less a timeless phenomenon, the structures, practices and contexts connected to waste vary in time and space. My research is highly inspired by Zsusza Gille’s study of 20th century Hungarian ‘waste regimes’, which gives a marvellous insight into the dynamics of the production, representation and politics of waste in a socialist context. I would love to transfer this kind of research into the Early Modern period. Currently I am working on a case study which focuses on London in the long 18th century. A study of London waste regimes can be used as a lens to offer insights into the dynamics of politics, economics and cohabitation in a metropolis. It means to uncover the different representations, debates and practices connected to waste, and by doing so, understanding some of the general dynamics of Early Modern urban societies.

What were academic or personal inspirations that led to your current research?

To answer this question, one can choose between two narratives. On the one hand, the topic of waste is undoubtedly entertaining and exotic. During my studies, I was once wandering through the library  and came across a book with the title ‘Toilets once and now’. While searching for a new topic after finishing my doctoral thesis, I remembered this and started joking about toilets as a new research topic. What began as a joke has led to more and more open questions and a certain curiosity: Who was responsible for waste disposal in the Early Modern era? What was actually considered as waste? Was there waste at all? From there, the wide field of the Discard Studies opened up; from the classics by Mary Douglas and Susan Strasser to Zsuzsa Gille’s Waste Regime. Another narrative is that the subject ‘waste’ obviously has a certain relevance. Understanding waste from a historical perspective allows me to establish a sensitivity for contemporary debates on waste and, above all, to have inspiring conversations about current problems with very different people both within academia and beyond. Both narratives are equally legitimate and important for my topic.

How are you ‘doing’ research? What are your most important research methods (interviews, archives, excavations…?)

As a historian, there is a variety of methods that have distinctive meanings in the different phases of a project. As I am at the early stage of ‘collecting’, the archive is my most important place of work. At the moment, I am mainly working at the London Metropolitan Archive, gathering as much records on urban waste infrastructures as possible. In addition, an expansion of the material base is essential for my subject, so I am particularly interested in conversations with archaeologists who, through excavations of Early Modern dumping sites and latrines, can contribute essential insights into the process of throwing away and the materiality of waste.

Which publications or academic events (workshops, conferences, lecture series…) did inspire you recently?

This question is difficult to answer as there are simply too many. My recent inspirations come more from the informal field of academic exchange and personal experience, though: I was quite blown away by a presentation of the Polish artist Diana Lelonek and her “Center for Living things”. Lelonek collects hybrid waste-nature objects from illegal urban waste dumping sites, classifies them and presents them in an abandoned greenhouse in a botanical garden. On so many levels, her work is a playful basis for reflection on more fundamental questions of practices of discarding, nature-culture boundaries and, last but not least, classification systems. On the other hand, a delightful conversation over coffee with Nigel Jeffries was highly inspiring. Jeffries is an archaeologist of the Museum of London who has conducted excavations of 18th century dumping sites in suburban areas of London. He gave me a better understanding of the limits and possibilities of archaeological findings for a history of urban waste. Finally, Mudlarking must be mentioned here! When you walk along the embankment of the river Thames at low tide, you literally walk across centuries-old waste: broken china, broken clay pipes and bricks tell their very own, and above all sensual, story of urban waste and past consumer societies.

Do you think that academic mobility changes the way in which research projects are conceptualized? What are your personal experiences in this regard?

In a certain sense, this question is easy to answer. Academic mobility and exchange are great without restrictions and equally intellectually and personally stimulating. Stepping out of one’s own comfort zone and getting to know other academic cultures are experiences that have had and continue to have a decisive influence on me. I would not want to miss that. Somewhat more difficult is the question of whether this exchange leads to a conceptual sharpening of my project. Here I would say, rather indirectly. The exchange with scholars from very different disciplines and from different countries leads to a certain alienation effect, which can be quite helpful. By breaking out of the disciplinary and linguistic comfort zone, too, one is forced to think and express oneself slightly different. Sometimes this leads to a clearer conceptual idea of the possible directions in which the project could be developed.


Citation: “’Understanding the General Dynamics of Early Modern Urban Societies’ – 5in10 with Franziska Neumann”, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 06.02.2020, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/21900.


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