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

Published: Monday, Oct. 8 2012 4:59 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.

James A. Roberts calls the problem an “orgy of consumption.” He is a professor of marketing at Baylor University and author of the book “Shiny Objects: Why We Spend Money We Don’t Have in Search of Happiness We Can’t Buy” — and says he would be happy to put a moral value on the level of consumption in America.

“It’s bad,” he says. “Studies are pretty clear that material possessions to a point bring us some feeling of security and provide some meaning to our lives. But when the pursuit of possessions becomes our primary driving value — if you become materialistic — that becomes counter to your well-being. The more materialistic a person is, the less satisfied they are with their lives.”

Graesch, who worked on the UCLA study, took a photo of a large shelf unit in one girl’s bedroom from “Family 1” in the study. The 32 shelves held 247 dolls — many of which were duplicates (including three large and identical dolls of “Jessie the Yodeling Cowgirl” from “Toy Story 2”). The dolls are densely displayed and orderly showcased as a collection.

“This is a great photograph to meditate on,” he says, “and to think of what we regard as clutter.”

The implications of so much clutter says a lot about people. Consumer research identifies something called the “extended self.”

“What we mean by that, is our possessions become an extension of who we are,” Roberts says. “What we wear. What we drive. Where we vacation. Everything becomes an extension of our self. We are telling the world this is who we are.”

“Family 27” still lives in their 943-square-foot, two-bedroom, one-bath home.

“We lived in the living room and kitchen and that continues to this day,” Repath-Martos says. “I’m happy with that. We live quite comfortably.”

At the time of the study in 2004, the home was filled with toys, Barbies, Tonka trucks. Bins of toys were brought out to the living room, played with, then dragged back to the kids’ bedroom.

“We have a very rich and very full lives and my house reflects that,” Repath-Martos says. “It is a small house and it is full.”

Worshipping objects

Graesch says objects don’t just reflect how people live, they shape it. For example, the study showed 56 percent of homes had three or more television sets.

“TVs are so intricately woven into our lives it is hard to imagine a home without one,” Graesch says. “If you walked into a home and didn’t see a TV, you would think it was odd.”

The television is just an object, but it exerts strong control over how people live.

“When there is a TV in a living room or family room, our furnishings are orientated toward the TV,” Graesch says. “This, in turn, influences how we organize our bodies in the space. And, if you take it a step further, this one object influences how we converse and interact with other family members with whom we are sharing that space. For all its influence in the design and organization of space, the TV has come to assume the symbolic significance of the hearth as it was used over thousands of years of human history.”

This is an example of how objects influence everyday interactions. “But we don’t really think about it,” Graesch says. “They are just part of our daily routine.”

The study found much of that daily routine centered in one room of the house: the kitchen.

Command central

“Kitchens are a really intensely used hub,” Graesch says. “They are command central. They are the New York Penn Station of life.”

In the past, kitchens were designed to be used as backstages to the real living of life. They were separate from the rest of the home and usually very small. The way people use kitchens today, however, is very different — even though the kitchen may have been designed for 1950s living.

In the 24-hour day, the entire family is only together for only about four waking hours, Graesch says. A little bit in the morning and about three and a half hours in the evening.

With so little contact with each other, it isn’t a surprise the study found that even though kids may have a nice desk in their bedroom for doing homework, they still work on it in the kitchen. “So they can stay in connection with their parents,” Graesch says. “They are all cramming into this place.”

Family 27 was no exception. The kids would sit on stools around the small oak table and do their school work or coloring books.

With everybody together, kitchens have become the place where parents socialize and teach their children their values — and, above all, how to coordinate schedules.

Kitchens are like an air traffic control tower. The family coordinates their time with clocks, multiple calendars, whiteboards and bulletin boards. Countertops become staging areas for activity-specific objects. The family synchs up their multiple hyper-busy schedules. They coordinate work, soccer, softball, band, piano lessons, Girl Scouts and more.

Yet the kitchens are still being used for cooking. This is why everything happens there. It is where the food is. “Food is quite central to who we are and how we define ourselves,” Graesch says. “People are congregating where food must be made. There is really no other option in the home.”

Fragmented dinners

How people fill their lives with stuff also affects how they fill their lives with food stuffs.

Elinor Ochs is the head of UCLA’s Center on Everyday Lives of Families and, along with Graesch and others, one of the co-authors of “Life at Home.” She is also a co-author on the next book based on the study coming in January 2013 titled “Fast-Forward Family: Home, Work, and Relationships in Middle Class America.”

Half of families in America say they eat dinner together every day, according to a USA Today survey. In reality, the actual observations of real families showed only one family in six (17 percent) consistently eat dinner together.

Instead, 41 percent of families are eating separate from each other — practicing what Ochs says is a “fragmented” dinner. “It is not all around the table Norman Rockwell style,” she says. “Even when all the family is at home, they are not all together for dinner.”

The observations also showed that people are eating a lot of convenience foods — the food equivalent of clutter. They eat pre-prepared foods they can pop in the oven or microwave — such as frozen mini-pizzas. Ochs says those individually portioned foods are very portable — and people eat them throughout the house. She said kids eat so much on their own that by the time dinner time comes they are not hungry.

The videos of the families told the story of dinner time when families do come together. The ideal collapses at the beginning of the meal when the children start unhappy. They don’t want what was made for dinner, they want what is in the freezer. Often the mom jumps up and pops something else in the microwave to end the complaints. But it doesn’t do much. By the end of dinner, the mood would only get slightly above neutral, Ochs says.

Child-centric clutter

When Graesch started the study, he was a graduate student in anthropology at UCLA. “I started this study ‘before children,’” he says, “and after observing these dual-earner families, I didn’t want children. Why would you want to go down that road? It just looked like an incredible amount of work.”

Graesch says just having a baby leads to a 30 percent increase in household possessions.

“We are a very child-centric culture,” he says. “We’ve allowed children’s toys and objects to infuse every part of our homes.”

But Graesch did have children and now has a 4-year-old and a 2-year-old. “Now I can fully empathize,” he says. “We are in the thick of it.”

Graesch says the study influenced the way he and his wife think about possessions. “We are very discriminating consumers now,” he says. “We try to create processes that require us to think several times and talk about whether we need something. We reflect a lot on consumption.

“There are a lot of rituals and mechanisms by which stuff comes into our homes,” Graesch says. “But we really lack regular or institutionalized ways of getting rid of stuff.”

Clutter rituals

Graesch walks through his house every couple of weeks with his 4-year-old son looking for toys that are not being used. They pick out 10 things the child is not using and put them in a sack and donate the toys to a Salvation Army thrift store. The child comes along on the trip and learns about giving to people who do not have things. As a reward, he also gets to pick out one “new” toy from the store.

“I love this,” Graesch says. “It’s just a hoot every time. You get a sense of satisfaction from cleaning up and helping somebody else. And you set the objects on a new phase of their life history.”

Repath-Martos, however, doesn’t think the study has changed her family very much.

“Am I any neater today?” she says. “No. Are our lives jam-packed? Yes. It’s very, very full and very, very fun.”

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