Problematizing Urban Shit(ting): Representing Human Waste as a Problem


Shit(ting) as a problem is not an a priori position. It is made a problem through socially mediated discursive and non‐discursive practices. Problematizations of human waste promoted by formal governance institutions have dominated the conversation, while the ways in which slum residents experience shit(ting) as a problem receive considerably less attention. This article examines how human waste and its attendant practices are represented as a problem in Agra, India. Using Foucauldian‐based analysis, this research makes visible problematizations of urban shit(ting) and exposes the divergent logics employed by urban actors. Ethnographic interviews and document analysis reveal six ways in which various actors experience shit(ting) as a problem—as: (1) inconvenient; (2) dangerous; (3) contagion; (4) undignified; (5) polluting; (6) primitive. Inconvenience was the problematization invoked most frequently by slum residents, but never by governance groups, meaning that issues of inconvenience were absent from formal planning processes. This absence can, in part, be attributed to the toilet’s ability to address multiple problems simultaneously. Findings from this research support the call to acknowledge the situatedness of urban inquiry through analysis of problematizations. In doing so, scholars and practitioners gain access to a more complete toolkit for developing and evaluating urban sewage initiatives.