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Sep 172012

What do you get when a team of archaeologists, anthropologists, photographers, and ethnographers team up to study the stuff found in the houses of 32 U.S. families over the course of 4 years? You get an colorful, even graphic look at Life at Home in the American consumer culture. While this insightful book deserves a full read, let me highlight just a few gems that the authors discover while visiting these homes from 2001 to 2005.

First a bit of context: as the authors note, Americans have the most possessions in all of human history. To the extent that we now even rent self-storage units because our giant homes no longer will fit our stuff. While that’s been normalized in this culture, it certainly isn’t normal.

Is a garage still a garage if there is no car in it? Or is it a closet? (Courtesy of J. Arnold and UCLA's Center on Everyday Lives of Families)

But, as the crew observes, we have difficulty getting rid of stuff even when we get new stuff to replace it. Hence the outdated TV or computer in the basement, the stack of casette tapes even though you’ve moved onto CDs, or pile of CDs even though you’ve moved onto MP3s. The crew found that even the stuff that people have committed to get rid of accumulates in “liminal spaces” and can linger there for weeks, months, even years–something the box of old CDs and books sitting in the corner of my office reveals that I’m not immune to either. But this goes much further than an errant box. Of the homes the group studied, there were no cars in three-quarters of the garages—as they were too full with junk.

One interesting discovery of the anthropologists: “The number of objects families place on their refrigerators appear to signal something about the possessions they have in the rest of the house. Specifically, the look of the refrigerator door hints at the sheer quantities of possessions a family has and how they are organized or arranged in the home.” In other words, “a family’s tolerance for a crowded, artifact-laden refrigerator surface often corresponds to the densities of possessions in the main rooms of the house (living/family room, dining room, office, kitchen).” The average number of things on the refrigerator in the 32 homes they studied—including magnets, photos, schedules, postcards, take-out menus—hit 52, with the busiest refrigerator having 166 items on it.

A picture of one of the families' refrigerators (courtesy of J. Arnold and UCLA's Center on Everyday Lives of Families)

After I read that, I purged half of the junk off my refrigerator (going from about 30 to 15 things, mostly magnets, plus a few pictures and reminders). As the authors note: “The iconic place in the American home—the refrigerator panel—may function as a measuring stick for how intensively families are participating in consumer purchasing and how many household goods they retain over their lifetimes.” I’ll keep that in mind next time I think about putting something on my fridge.

There is so much more described in the book—from the ugly side-effects of bulk buying (thanks Costco), and the food in our pantries, to the messiness that come with the hyper-stimulation of consumerism in children (you should see the pictures of kids’ rooms), and how common the displaying of trophies is (who would’ve known that trophy selling and engraving is a multibillion dollar industry in the United States)?  And then there’s the section on video games (with kids spending 7% of their time on these, compared to 3% of their time on chores), the discussion of how many photographs line Americans’ walls, even a section on how deeply people identify with their cultures, religions and yes, their sports teams, prominently showing the icons of all of these in their homes.

Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century is a treasure trove of information about how deeply Americans have internalized the consumer culture and propagate it as they raise the next generation of Americans. Let’s hope more cultural reformers than ad men pick up this book, as, like with all information, this book can be used both for good or ill.

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