Vernacular Vs. Official: Insights from ‘On Dumpster Diving’

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Updated: Sep 02, 2023
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Vernacular vs. Official Order

Vernacular knowledge and official order are both needed to create an overall symbiotic environment. Knowledge of local experiences and lived points of view create vernacular order, whereas abstract understandings are used for a single purpose and rarely, from a local point of view, create an official order.

The Theoretical Landscape: James C. Scott’s Perspective

These concepts are discussed in Two Cheers for Anarchism by James C. Scott. He points out that different problems may call for different levels of organization.

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Scott is fully aware that viewing things “from above” impacts far wider than just the state – the capitalist workplace suffers from the same problems. His discussions on vernacular and official order are particularly of note in this regard. Life is messy, and knowledge is often implicit, experience-based, and cannot be articulated in a manner that can be subject to modification by state or management bureaucracy. So, the attempts by capital and state to gather, monopolize, and control knowledge often end up losing it or impoverishing it to such a degree that it becomes useless. Scott points out that vernacular orders are suited for local conditions for managing land and labor. However, the need for more logical or official systems serves their needs better.

Navigating Retail: Vernacular Techniques at Old Navy

Working at Old Navy, it suddenly became clear to me that there was a clear order of doing things. They were very particular about what to say when you approach customers in the store and how you fold clothing. There was a certain script you had to follow, and you had to make sure you were pushing whatever the sale was for that day. In terms of clothing, everything had to be perfect in order for it to be pleasing to the eyes of the customers. A few times, when I first started, I was held after my shift had ended so I could practice folding until each time was perfect. Not every customer wanted to hear my spiel about sales, so as time went on, I learned to cut the corners a bit. When I noticed that the customers were very focused on a specific item they were looking for, I didn’t mention the sale because I knew I would’ve been cut off or disrespected after I had finished. The switch between how I interact with the customers and being a sales rep is the same as switching from vernacular order to official order. I understand, however, that in order to make larger profits, doing things using the official order is more effective.

Survival Instincts: Eighner’s Guide to Dumpster Diving

Lars Eighner’s On Dumpster Diving is an intriguing essay that details the necessary steps to effectively scavenge through dumpsters based on his own experiences when he was homeless. The obvious official order of society is to be able to pay for your own food, whereas the vernacular order is to know where to go and shop so you get cheaper food. In the society of dumpster divers, the vernacular order is their own code about what is good to eat and what isn’t. They would use common sense to evaluate the conditions of the found materials, knowing the dumpsters of a given area and checking them regularly. One of Eighner’s favorite go-to spots was a dumpster behind a pizza shop. He explained that sometimes they would get orders that turned out to be wrong or “bogus,” so they’d end up throwing them out. This was when he was able to get semi-warm pizzas that hadn’t been contaminated with anything or had gone bad. This order eventually became an official order when the pizza shop realized what was happening. They would keep the pizzas and take the trash inside when they closed up for the night.

Adapting in Academia: Cutting Corners in High School Reading

During my time in high school, I had a particular English class that required us to read one book every week and write a report about it. At the beginning of the year, it wasn’t so bad, but the work piled up halfway through the year, and I couldn’t keep up. This is when I came up with my own vernacular order of getting through it. I would read the first chapter, check out sparknotes for the majority of it, and then read the last chapter. I was able to get through the book in a day and have a long time to write the report. Of course, the official way of reading a book is to actually read the whole book, but I didn’t have time. Since this was so successful for me, I shared my strategy with my friends who were also struggling. My enneagram test showed that I am a natural-born helper. I put the needs of others in front of the needs of my own. This was evident while I worked at Old Navy because instead of pushing for that extra sale, I considered and favored the needs of the customer.

I definitely favor the vernacular way of doing things because of my identity. On the contrary, though, I feel like my enneagram results contradict my actions. In all of the examples I’ve given, I cut corners to get things done faster. This benefits me, not others, so is it really reflective of my personality? Through the Political Compass test, I found out I am categorized as a Libertarian leftist. I believe in the power of each individual; however, the state does need to be somewhat involved. I was working for my uncle, and he asked me to go through his files and get rid of the ones older than seven years.

He demonstrated how to do it by doing one file at a time – looking at the date, filing it away accordingly, and then moving on to the next patient. I found an efficient way of doing it where I went through each file but made piles – one for filing and one for shredding. By doing it my way, I was able to get through more patient files faster.


  1. Scott, J. C. (2012). Two Cheers for Anarchism: Six Easy Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity, and Meaningful Work and Play. Princeton University Press.
  2. Eighner, L. (1992). On Dumpster Diving. In “Travels with Lizbeth: Three Years on the Road and on the Streets”. St. Martin’s Press.
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Vernacular vs. Official: Insights from 'On Dumpster Diving'. (2023, Sep 02). Retrieved from