Overstuffed: Clutter, consumption and the study that shows how possessions shape us

Published: Monday, Oct. 8 2012 4:00 p.m. MDT

Countless studies look at how people buy stuff. We know why they buy. We know how often they buy and how much money they spend. But we know almost nothing about what happens after people take those bags of stuff into their homes and close the doors.

Nobody really had quantified how people really live in their homes with their stuff.

Until now.

A massive project took place from 2001 to 2005 involving social archaeologists, anthropologists, consumer experts, sociologists and economists. These experts with UCLA’s Center on Everyday Lives of Families examined 32 modern middle-class families in Los Angeles with the same exacting detail that Jane Goodall used to examine the social habits of wild chimpanzees.

Although the data extraction and compiling ended in 2010, the results are just now beginning to come out — such as the new book “Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century: 32 Families Open Their Doors.” It provides both a snapshot of how people live and a somewhat uncomfortable mirror on the values of the contemporary American society.

Apparently, people love clutter.

Anthony P. Graesch is an assistant professor in the department of anthropology at Connecticut College and is an archaeologist and a co-author of the book.

Archaeologists usually study the material culture left behind by people and try to determine the human behavior that created that material culture.

“This was an opportunity to look at material culture and a household with people interacting with their stuff,” he says.

Graesch meticulously mapped every square inch of the homes — making a blueprint marking every object’s location.

“This is a really fascinating period of human history,” Graesch says. “This is the age of capitalism. We’ve just never been here before. Human society … we’ve never had as much stuff in a single family’s home as we do now. In part it is related to this most intense consumer society in which we live.”

Reality TV

A major component of the study was to videotape middle-class, dual-income families with kids from sunup to sundown. One of those homes was “Family 27.”

“This was before reality TV,” Family 27’s mother, Lyn Repath-Martos, says. “Nowadays we are used to ‘Big Brother,’ ‘Amazing Race’ and ‘Survivor,’ but … it was quite novel and different back then.”

The team of experts spent a week in 2004 studying Lyn Repath-Martos (then age 41), her husband, Antonio Martos (then age 43), and their children, Isabel (then age 8) and Lucas (then age 5).

Repath-Martos admits she slightly cleaned up her home before the team from UCLA arrived. She stuffed things into cabinets and closets. “I didn’t realize they were going to open the cabinets and closets to take pictures,” she says with a laugh.

The two videographers came into the home on a Sunday and recorded everything from getting up to eating dinner and the kids going to bed. Everyone in the family had a microphone. Spit samples were taken to measure stress hormones.

Hundreds of photographs peeked into every nook and cranny.

The study found that families are drowning in stuff.

Consumption sickness

“I don’t think we are hoarders,” Repath-Martos says, “but if you ask our friends they’d say we have a lot of stuff.”

And she is not alone.

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