June 11, 2010

Hoarding and the Sociology of Consumption

KS_2010a By Karen Sternheimer

If you ever want to be sure you don’t snack while watching television, tune into a show like Hoarders on A&E or one of the several other shows about compulsive hoarders and the unbelievable messes they live with. The team that comes to clean their homes will invariably discover some really gross stuff—particularly if the resident has pets—that aren’t conducive to eating while watching.

At the same time, the people profiled are typically in immense emotional pain, which can be hard to watch. I know people who hoard and have seen up close how difficult it can be for them to try and go through their stuff. I also know the frustration of spending hours helping them clean up only to see the piles return within days or weeks.

Hoarders tends to focus a lot on the psychological problems of its participants, as the American Psychiatric Association lists compulsive hoarding as a symptom of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and is considering classifying compulsive hoarding as a separate diagnosis. While it’s unclear exactly how many Americans are compulsive hoarders, estimates suggest that somewhere between 1.3 million to 3 million people collect too many items, have difficulty in disposing of and organizing things to the point that stuff takes over their living spaces and interferes with their quality of life.

It’s easy to watch Hoarders in judgment, see the piles of trash and think the subjects should just get over it and clean up. Watching the cluttered lives they lead make it tempting to see the hoarders as oddballs who are totally different from “normal” people.

Watching this show got me thinking about what sociological factors likely play a role in hoarding in addition to psychological disorders. After all, in a society where we are all encouraged to consume our way towards happiness and acceptance, it’s not a big surprise that many people are afraid to let go of their things, even things others might see as garbage.

The proliferation of self-storage businesses attests to how much stuff many of us collect. One in ten American households rented a storage unit in 2007, and the United States is home to about 86% of the world’s self-storage facilities. As you can see from the ad below, accumulating stuff appears totally normal, and only a problem if not stored properly. We have also built bigger houses to hold more stuff; as this National Public Radio (NPR) report details, the average square footage in American homes doubled between the 1950s and 2000s despite families getting smaller (home sizes actually decline for the first time in decades in 2009, likely due to the recession).

Consumption is critical to our economy as well. You might hear news analysts talk about consumer confidence—essentially how good we feel about the economy—and how it may impact consumer spending. Since more than two-thirds of economic growth is driven by spending, our economy is very dependent on people doing lots of shopping. If you recall the days after September 11, 2001, one of the things the president asked citizens to do was to go to the mall and to Disneyland. In large part our economic structure is based on us buying more, whether we have space for it or not.

Our consumer-based culture suggests that our possessions define us, that brands identify our social position and social status. Giving things is also the way we are encouraged to show others we love them on their birthday and special holidays. On some level it shouldn’t be surprising that those experiencing psychological problems have taken these values to extremes.

On one episode of Hoarders, a young man explained why he could not throw out an empty water battle or a soda can. His mother bought those for him, he said, and throwing them out would be just like rejecting her. Clearly very depressed, he knew that all of the clutter around him was interfering with his life, and yet he felt paralyzed to do anything about it.

While most people would not think of empty bottles in quite the same way, how many people store old gifts that they no longer use because of some sentimental value attached to the giver? I confess to this one. I have an item in my closet my grandmother gave to me a few years before her death—in 1986. So there is a very fine line between someone like me—sentimental yet orderly—and someone who assigns sentimental value to objects that clutter their living space.

Hoarding may fall on the extreme end of the consumption scale, but it is a spectrum most of us are on ourselves. In some ways, shows like Hoarders may help us see compulsive hoarders as completely separate from us, and help us avoid looking critically at our own consumption habits. Most of us might not live among piles of garbage…or do we?


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In my opinion majority of us have problem throwing away stuff that is not needed including myself. I moved into a new apartment 6 months ago. My apartment was very clean and simple because I didn’t have a lot of stuff. However, after 6 months, I can barely walk around my 720 sq-ft apartment because I bought too much stuff. I know a co-worker who moved into a smaller apartment has to rent out a storage to store her things because she couldn’t fit all of them into her smaller apartment. I agree with the article that we hoarding is a mental illness if you can’t control it. Although consumption is critical to our economy, we need to be able to be able to control what we buy and throw away things that we no long need.
As we learned in chapter 6, Mass Media, Americans are exposed to over 3000 advertisements per day and the exaggerated advertisement makes people to keep buying unnecessary stuff. From a conflict view, the media exposure has to be limited for those that hoards and are suffering from a mental illness.

I actually watch the show Hoarders and find it fascinating. I have a hard time wrapping my mind around the mindset of those afflicted with this disease. While it seems that the majority of the time there is a connection to a personal tragedy that has triggered the behavior, the clutter and caos seems like it would only make the mental state worsen.
I am a closet stuffer. Drawers, cupboards and closets are to be opened with caution at my house, but I feel anxious if there is clutter and mess around my home. If things begin to spill out then its time to reduce and condense.
There is a line that is crossed from being conservative or thinking green to hoarding.

It is fascinating to see that a condition of reality or someone's private pain made public as packaged as entertainment. I watched the show for the first time after my husband watched "Clean House", the messiest house in America show. I find reality shows repugnant as a rule and avoid them. However, I was curious about the condition as I am a recovering spendaholic.
As we were watching the show, my husband kept the comments coming much like the ones quoted in the article. The truth is these people are suffering from real trauma. Addiction is the balm for this pain. Curiously, some addictions are socially acceptable and others not. Attainment of goods is one of those socially acceptable addictions and alcohol, tobbacco, or drugs are not. The pathology for both is the same with shared characteristics. Believe it or not my spendaholic support group operates on a 12-step program. Consumerism became the new acceptable addiction and now we are aware that food addiction is now rearing it's ugly head. Our society feeds these addictions and naysays with the other hand. Turn off the T.V. and put away the chip bag. Maybe if we can turn off this addiction then there is hope for all of us.

The american system of consumtion setup in the way that they work hard, come home watching advertise and go to mall by stuff that they dont need.That the culture that is better tobe change to solve this problem.According to chapter 5 of sociology book (startification and global inequality)American comany spent 200 bilion ayear for advertising.All this tell american to feel need this product.As a resullt of shoping things that they dont need they need storage and again they have to spend money to store their stuff. I think at least insted of paying for storage they can donate to other peple. For sure there are alot people out side they need those stuff.

Americans are so encouraged that they "need" this and that no wonder so many people have come to hoarding! People conform to the world being convinced they absolutely cannot live with out the latest things yet don't they still need all that other stuff too? Advertisers spend billions of dollars a year to tell people they need need stuff. With our postintudtrial society people don't have close ties with people so they fill the void with attaching themselves to objects.

I have watched the show Hoarders and I honestly was surprised to find how families are so affected by this issue. I think this article was very interesting and it was very informative. I had never considered the sociological perspective when dealing with this issue I had always considered the psychological. It was interesting to see how society can have the power to influence its members. Also how society has alot to do with the reason why some people are hoarders.

its good that people are not doing other people wrong

It is so sad to see all these people so desperate for help but are literally unable to help themselves. My father is a hoarder, although not to the extreme that you see on this show. He does not throw anything away, he collects things that he thinks "might be worth money someday", when in fact they are junk. I was surprised to read that hoarding is a symptom of OCD, although I don't know much about the condition, I only know my dad has it. My grandmother had it as well. She would collect spray can tops in and old baby wipe container in the event that a spray can lost its nozzle, she had extras. That is one example of hundreds of things that she kept. Could it be hereditary? I know that they both suffer from depression. Does that have anything to do with it? Recently I tried to help him "clean up" and I threw some things in the trash that he didnt see. It was nothing of value, sentimentel or otherwise, but when he saw what I had tossed, he told my husband that it made him want to cry. He didnt take it out because he knew I was trying to help him. But that is definitely not a normal response to trash being put in the trash!

I saw several episodes of the show, and honestly, I wasn't surprised by how some of Americans keep their things and let them pile up their houses. Living in an apartment, there are janitorial services (St. Paul) which help me clean out my place every once in a while. To some people, hoarding maybe psychological. But I think, if people would clean their room or their house on scheduled time, then they would realize how much things they have been keeping for the past months or years. Then, decide which stuffs are for-keeps and to-go.

- Gail Connick

My mother-in-law is a hoarder, and it saddens my husband terribly. Its been like this for 12years now. I have told my husband that he and his brother should try to help her or get her help. Its so sad that we can't visit her because you can't step into her house, my daughter always asks why we can't stay at grandmas house when we head to GA. When she stays with us she showers my kids with all this stuff that is not needed and spends hours creating these gift bags for them, she doesn't travel with luggage she travels with bags full of stuff, one time she lined my whole staircase full of her stuff!!! She's a very lonely and depressed person, but she holds a job and travels with her sisters and loves to spend money..It sickens me...She is supposed to move to NC one day, my husband said he will not be the one to help her move, she will have to hire someone:(

It is impossible that you cannot have your snacks whenever you are watching a television. When the family or friends are there with you, it is more impossible to resist from snacks.

Can't let go and hoarding are two different things. I wonder why they really have a hard time letting go of their stuff.

I agree with Timothy that can't let go and hording are two different things. Hoarding simply won't throw anything away, but not letting go is only apply to something that have some sort of value to the person

This is an interesting perspective on hoarding from a sociological standpoint.

thanks for sharing such nice information

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