The Social Construction of Stuff
I am in the process of moving to a new home. The move has been planned for over a year, so I have been preparing to pack and get rid of things for a while. Coincidentally, our department recently moved to a new building and a family member is in the process of moving too, so I have had many chances to pack, unpack, and reflect.
Moving reminds me of the meanings we assign to our stuff. According to sociologists Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, we socially construct meaning of reality. We don’t just construct these meanings individually, but socially as well. These meanings become habitual and part of our social institutions, reinforcing the meanings that we collectively create about our social world and ultimately our realities.
Take my high school letterman jacket, for instance. It had great meaning to me at the time, and wearing it represented my school and my personal accomplishments. As a coat it’s actually kind of warm and comfortable too.
But it has a completely different meaning now years (and years) after graduation. It might signify other meanings, like:
- Wow, she’s really stuck in the past!
- Isn’t she too old to be wearing a high schooler’s coat?
- She graduated a really long time ago.
- Can’t she afford a newer coat?
I recently saw a man many years older than I am wearing his high school letterman jacket in a store. I thought it was kind of a cool thing for him to wear, so I have been going back and forth. Should I keep the coat as a memento, since it once had great meaning, maybe wear it on Halloween sometime as a joke, or just give it away? But it has my name, my school, my accomplishments, and my year of graduation on it. Isn’t it part of my identity? Or is it just something taking up space in a closet?
Other bits of stuff also gave me pause about throwing out. My SAT and ACT scores, once so important to have on file now seem irrelevant. Wouldn’t they be interesting artifacts to keep, milestones of the past? These bits of paper are socially defined as important, but are they really part of who I am—or even who I was? (Something to think about for those of you who might still view your SAT scores as a central defining marker of your ability and worth.)
Then there were piles of papers I wrote in high school, which I often put great care into, even presenting them in special folders. Written in the age before there was easy access to personal computers, they are the sole copies of what once consumed my attention for weeks at a time. They mattered a lot then, symbolic of my passage through the educational system in order to earn credentials to help me advance to the next level. And as I wrote about recently, these papers also had meaning beyond the grades I earned; some are on subjects I still find interesting.
I admit that seeing old graded papers stung a bit if the grades were lower than I’d hoped, reflecting the continued meaning of both the paper itself and the symbolic meaning it represented. Throwing them away felt like getting rid of part of my past, at once liberating but also difficult. I worked hard on those papers, and now they would be gone forever. The only time I looked at the papers was when I moved before, figuring that since they were once important they would be worth saving. But it was time for them to go.
Cleaning and packing gave me a renewed understanding of people who hoard things. As I wrote about a few years ago, hoarding is related to our society’s emphasis on consumption and accumulating things that we might not need. But hoarding is about more than just consuming, it is about meaning-making. Stuff becomes imbued with so much meaning—even stuff that is clearly garbage to others—that it becomes difficult to throw away. It may feel like throwing away part of the past, or even part of the self.
I thought about this as I went through the Hello Kitty stuff I treasured so much as an 8-year-old, the patches I earned swimming and ice-skating, the rubber stamp I found which reminded me how I liked office supplies for some reason as a kid. All of these things triggered memories of the past, but really just took up space in boxes today.
Of course not all will be thrown away. I’ll keep my cap and tassel I wore at my high school graduation. My old tennis racket has made me think about taking up the sport again.
Our stuff serves as physical manifestations of the many socially constructed realities we create in our society. These meanings encourage us to hold on to some things that we might not have emotional meaning for us (like tax-related documents, for instance), but then again the socially ascribed meanings might make it difficult for us to let go.