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The Clutter Culture


By Jack Feuer

Published Jul 1, 2012 8:00 AM

UCLA's Center on Everyday Lives of Families continues its fascinating study of contemporary suburban America with a book titled Life at Home in the 21st Century. Thirty-two Los Angeles families opened their doors to CELF's researchers. What they found: a staggering number of possessions and an array of spaces and furnishings that serve as the stage for multiple family activities—and tell us a lot about who we are as a society.


"For more than 40,000 years," write the authors, "intellectually modern humans have peopled the planet, but never before has any society accumulated so many personal possessions."

Get stuff. Buy stuff. Keep it . Get more of it . Keep that, too. Display it all, and proudly.

Walk into any dual-income, middle-class home in the U.S. and you will come face to face with an awesome array of stuff—toys, trinkets, family photos, furniture, games, DVDs, TVs, digital devices of all kinds, souvenirs, flags, food and more. We put our stuff anywhere in the house, everywhere there's room, or even if there's no room. Park the car on the street so we can store our stuff in the garage. Pile the dirty laundry in the shower because there's nowhere else to store it and no time to wash it.

George Carlin famously observed that "a house is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it."

We are a clutter culture. But all that stuff also serves a serious purpose as source material for scientists and scholars. Today's action figure is tomorrow's historical artifact.

Yet while researchers record our purchases, take surveys, conduct interviews, even sift through our trash, a systematic documentation of the material worlds of contemporary American families has proven elusive, says linguistic anthropologist Elinor Ochs, director of UCLA's Center on Everyday Lives of Families (CELF), a nine-year interdisciplinary research project and one of six Sloan Centers on Working Families. That's because this area of research has heretofore stopped at our front doors.

A Cluttered Life: Middle-Class Abundance (Trailer)

UCLA anthropologists venture into the stuffed-to-capacity homes of dual income, middle-class American families.

Click here to watch full episodes.

Video by UCTV Prime

Now, however, a new book titled Life at Home in the 21st Century: 32 Families Open Their Doors takes the exploration of contemporary material culture inside American homes for the first time. Based on a groundbreaking, four-year, ethnoarchaeological CELF study conducted in 2001-2005, Life at Home is an intimate look at the material worlds of more than 30 busy families in the greater Los Angeles region.

The Life at Home families—dual-income, middle-class households with school-age children—agreed to open their homes and their lives to a week of filming and detailed photography of their houses and possessions. They live in all kinds of neighborhoods, earn varying levels of household incomes, are ethnically diverse and own their homes. And they represent a wide range of occupations: teachers, firefighters, nurses, small-business owners, lawyers, airline pilots and contractors, among others.

Life at Home is co-authored by Ochs; Jeanne Arnold, UCLA professor of anthropology; Anthony P. Graesch '97, M.A. '00, Ph.D. '06, at the time an anthropology graduate student and a postdoctoral scholar in archaeology at UCLA and now an assistant anthropology professor at Connecticut College; and Italian photographer Enzo Ragazzini.

The project generated almost 20,000 photographs, 47 hours of family-narrated video home tours and 1,540 hours of videotaped family interactions and interviews. But Life at Home is not just a scholarly catalog; it also delves deep into the psychological and social meanings of our possession obsession.



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