The Way We Live: Drowning in Stuff

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From 2001 to 2005, a team of social scientists studied 32 middle-class families in Los Angeles, a project documenting every wiggle of life at home. The study was generated by the U.C.L.A. Center on the Everyday Lives of Families to understand how people handled what anthropologists call material culture -- what we call stuff. These were dual-earner households in a range of ethnic groups, neighborhoods, incomes and occupations, with at least two children between the ages of 7 and 12 -- in other words, households smack in the weeds of family life.

What the researchers gleaned was an unflinching view of the American family, with all its stresses and joys on display. They've organized their findings into a book, scheduled to be available next week, called "Life at Home in the 21st Century." It's full of intriguing data points about the number of possessions the families owned (literally, thousands), much of it children's toys. Women's stress-hormone levels spiked when confronted with family clutter; the men's, not so much. Finally, there was a direct relationship between the amount of magnets on refrigerators and the amount of stuff in a household.

One of the authors, Anthony P. Graesch, 38, an assistant professor of anthropology at Connecticut College, was a newly married, childless graduate student when the study was conducted (his co-authors are Jeanne E. Arnold, Enzo Ragazzini and Elinor Ochs). What Dr. Graesch witnessed as a lead researcher deeply imprinted his behavior as a husband and father, he said, in a recent interview.

I understand you once jumped out a family's window to remove yourself from spousal combat? Also, you told a colleague, Benedict Carey, that the study was "the very purest form of birth control ever devised." Discuss.

The study was an opportunity to see how families are doing it, working and raising children, every day, all the while trying to do that other job, maintaining a relationship with your spouse. In many ways that's the job that suffered most. Parents are stretched the thinnest. Watching this unfold, I'd think: Why do I want to do this? It's so much work. There are so many challenges. But there was also so much warmth and closeness, as much positive stuff as the tenseness, which was me jumping out the window.

Why do you think families are unable to manage the influx of material culture?

We can see how families are trying to cut down on the sheer number of trips to the store by buying bulk goods. How they can come to purchase more, and then not remember, and end up double purchasing. We can see how an increasingly nucleated family structure contributes to this.

Can you explain?

It means we don't have extended family households. We don't live next to grandparents. And we are further away from our relatives. We go to work, we come home, and there is only four hours of time we spend together. We feel guilty about this, and oftentimes buy gifts as a result. Grandparents contribute to possessions in no small way. Here comes Christmas, here come the birthdays. The inflow of objects is relentless. The outflow is not. We don't have rituals, mechanisms, for getting rid of stuff.

In the book you note how upgrading technology is also responsible for the glut of stuff.

We know how much we spent on those objects. But we're confused about value: even though we've upgraded to a new fan, say, we don't want to part with the old one because we don't know how to recoup that value. Maybe we think we'll sell it on eBay or have a garage sale. So it goes into the garage and there it stays because we're so busy, we're hyper-busy.

I was interested in the stress-hormone measuring. What can you tell me about that?

It was the clinical psychologists who did that. We, the anthropologists, had family members talk about their homes as they walked through them. How the mothers talked about their homes was qualitatively different from how the fathers did. It was clear that mothers are experiencing greater amounts of stress.

Don't I know it. I was also struck by the fact that mothers in the study felt less stress when they talked their day over with their husbands, though the husbands didn't experience the same lessening. Since the study, how do you and your wife divide your household responsibilities?

We definitely discuss things more, we share the cooking and the driving, but she is still doing more in the house -- like the laundry. I do the outside things, the lawn mowing, the pets.

O.K., refrigerator magnets: how many are on your fridge? 

The three vertical surfaces on our fridge boast a combined 66 magnets (43 of which are letters and numbers that our toddlers play with), 3 calendars, 8 photos and 6 bills-slash-memos. Since this study, I can't stop enumerating the contents of fridge surfaces.

The 32 Los Angeles families featured an average of 55 objects on their fridge surfaces. Nevertheless, the relationship between clutter and fridge density is suggestive, at best. We did not find statistical significance. Our sample of 32 families is a bit too small, and there are many variables that can affect density of household objects at any given time. We are hopeful that someone else will go out and test this potential relationship.

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times. First Published June 29, 2012 1:00 PM


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