Looking Back on Undergraduate Research: Dumpster Diving with Alex V. Barnard ’09

This semester, each PCUR will interview a Princeton alumnus from their home department about his/her experience writing a senior thesis. In Looking Back on Undergraduate Research: Alumni Perspectives, the alumni reveal how conducting independent research at Princeton influenced them academically, professionally and personally. Here, Taylor shares her interview.


Alex V. Barnard, Class of 2009

Alex V. Barnard ‘09 was a Sociology Major during his time at Princeton. Now a graduate student in Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, he studies the comparative politics of mental health in Europe and the U.S. In addition to attending graduate school, Alex continued to work on his thesis after completing his undergraduate education. He recently published all of his hard work in his new book, Freegans: Diving into the Wealth of Food Waste in America.What is a “freegan,” you may ask? Luckily, I had the opportunity to speak with the author himself. Here’s what Alex had to say in his interview with PCUR about how his thesis impacted his life: 

What was your thesis (and your new book) about?

Alex Barnard, a senior at Princeton University, looking through one of the many dumpsters on and near the P.U. Campus that he survived off of for his Freegan movement project (Monday, Dec. 15, 2008)

I was focused on a very specific group of radical environmental activists called Freegans, who recover, redistribute, and consume wasted food from commercial establishments. It’s their way of protesting the waste and excess of capitalism. My project started as an interest in ethical consumption, so I researched the extremes of green consumption by looking at this particular subculture and learning what it was about. Then, over time, the project morphed into a study of, what does the fact that Freegans are able to survive and live off of garbage tell us about how our food system operates? My book is an exposé of food waste in America through the eyes of this small group of activists in New York City.

How did your thesis change as it underwent the process of becoming a published book?

I had to add on a lot of work to my thesis before I published it. I did most of the field research, the ethnography, while I was a junior at Princeton. At first, I convinced the one friend I knew to help me navigate New York City’s subway system. But once I got really hooked, I started going into the city pretty regularly and I spent the summer between my junior and senior year there with an internship and continuing my research. After I finished my thesis my senior year, I thought, like most people, that was the end of it. But with the encouragement of my adviser at Princeton and when I went to graduate school, I thought, there’s something here and maybe I can turn it into a book.

The real work was figuring out what the big story was. My senior thesis was, here’s this random group of people and here’s what I’ve been reading this week in my sociology classes, and I’m going to try to put them together. What took me a really long time was figuring out, what is the one big sociological takeaway from this? What is interesting about freegans if you’re not interested in freegans? So, that took a lot of work and a lot of graduate seminars for me to really understand what my work was about.

How do you think writing a thesis influenced you academically, professionally, and/or personally?

It’s interesting because in some ways, graduate school crushes creativity out of you in a way that being in undergrad doesn’t. In undergrad, I felt free because I didn’t know any better than to just take the sociological theory I was reading and apply it to freeganism. And it was really fun. Some of it, looking back, was ridiculous, but some of it let me see that undergrad gave me the capacity to be a lot more interesting and creative than professors and graduate students. That, to me, I think is the great value of doing a thesis. It’s not some lesser version of graduate research; it’s something that allows you to be more free and to experiment with ideas.

And there was absolutely a huge personal element of this research. Here I was, a student at Princeton, going into New York to hang out with these activists eating garbage. The contrast was pretty ridiculous. I remember this one time, I was going to throw this party for all of my friends at Princeton where we would only dumpster dive for food. So yes, my research had a huge impact on my personal practices and my politics. It was a level of radicalism that, back then, you couldn’t find on Princeton’s campus.

What was the most challenging part of doing independent work at Princeton?

I think it was physically really demanding in terms of going into New York 2-3 times a week. That’s a particular challenge that people in the social sciences who want to do independent work face. If you want to observe people, you have to do it on their time, and the dumpster divers in New York City went dumpster diving at 9pm. So, that meant I was taking New Jersey transit into the city and coming back late. Sometimes, I would miss the last dinky and would have to walk back to campus. Luckily, I was really passionate about my topic, and the fact that it was a lot of work didn’t bother me.

If you could go back to your senior year and give yourself one piece of thesis-related advice, what would it be?

I would tell myself to realize that this is a once in a lifetime opportunity in the sense that, even if you decide you’re going to go through a PhD, there’s a level of intellectual freedom that you have doing a senior thesis. Because after that, you’re going to be pounded into thinking in a particular discipline and you’re going to have pressures of professionalization. So, I would tell myself to be as free and creative as my adviser would possibly let me, because you won’t get the opportunity to do it again.


Don’t forget to learn more about Freegans and Alex’s work in his new book! It will certainly be worth diving into.

— Taylor Griffith, Social Sciences Correspondent