December 16, 2019

Thinking Like a Sociologist: Is Minimalism a Social Movement?

author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

Minimalism” seems to be everywhere, with advice on decluttering, living in tiny houses, or the promise of early retirement through frugal living seemingly endless online. Marie Kondo’s book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up was first published in 2014 and has sold more than 10 million copies worldwide, making the Japanese consultant a one-woman industry with her own Netflix series.

I confess that I have never read Kondo’s book, but am still drawn to the idea of simplifying and decluttering (but not living in a tiny house, although the HGTV series can be fun to watch). I spend less time online or watching television; I try to minimize mental clutter as much as physical clutter. I like going through my closet and donating little-used items, which also reminds me that I can do with less. I rarely go shopping. When I do, I try to be very conscientious about whether this is something I need. I prefer not to exchange gifts during the holiday season, especially because receiving stuff I don’t want or need from family and friends is awkward. My spouse and I decided a few years ago not to mark special occasions with gifts but rather with fun experiences like travel; when we travel I challenge myself to travel light.

I’m not sure if any of this makes me a minimalist, or if minimalism qualifies as a new social movement. The principle is certainly not new, as many religious groups have practiced various forms of asceticism for centuries. Great nineteenth century writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson espoused the joys of living simply in nature.

None of this disqualifies minimalism from being a social movement. How do we know a social movement? And how is a social movement different from a lifestyle trend?

  1. A social movement involves purposeful, collective action
  2. Social movements seek specific social changes
  3. Social movements are often sparked by specific events or social changes

Purposeful, collective action means that people somehow work together towards a common goal. Organizations like New Dream, founded in 1997, focus on encouraging people to rethink consumption habits and how these habits impact the environment. The organization lists several accomplishments on their website, including:

  • Conducting highly effective campaigns that raised public awareness around issues of consumption and educated consumers on ways to change their consumption patterns within their own homes and communities.
  • Creating a national network of government procurement officials dedicated to purchasing environmentally and socially responsible products, including working with Massachusetts to create standards for green cleaning products that were subsequently adopted by dozens of manufacturers, states, and other entities.
  • Engaging our members to convince office supply retailer Staples to increase the percentage of post-consumer waste in its paper products and to stop stocking paper from endangered forests.
  • Convincing the U.S. House of Representatives to shift to 100% post-consumer waste recycled copy paper for all 435 congressional offices.
  • Collecting 70,000 carbon-reduction pledges in only six months from individuals across the U.S. through our Carbon Conscious Consumer (C3) campaign.

While the organization does not explicitly use the term “minimalism,” you could make the case that this is one example of purposeful collective action with similar goals in mind.

The Minimalists, a pair of friends who were motivated after personal events convinced them to change their lives, have a podcast, a Ted talk, books, and do speaking engagements. Likewise, countless bloggers and YouTubers post minimalism tips and share their personal stories, but this does not necessarily make someone part of a social movement. Certainly social movement participants can use these media tools, but one key ingredient in a social movement is that people are actively seeking social change.

While these people might hope for the same outcomes as the New Dream are seeking, they are not clearly part of a specific social movement; perhaps they would be better classified as part of the self-help industry, encouraging personal change but not necessarily social changes like the New Dream organization.

Social movements sometimes take place when triggered by external events and other social changes. Could the coming of age of Millenials be one such event? If you search minimalism and Millennials, you will find over 2 million links to sort through. In 2016, Forbes published a story, claiming:

Millennials have a unique set of values around how they choose to spend their money. They grew up during the recession, entered a struggling job market and must now pay off record amounts of student debt.

While it is unclear what source of information might support the “unique set of values,” the economic backdrop is important in understanding why people might be interested in minimalism now. For young people who struggle with the high cost of housing, health care, and other necessities, getting by with less might be a necessity.

So is minimalism a social movement, or even a trend? While there are social movement organizations that promote rethinking our relationship with consumption, it’s not quite accurate to describe the many people promoting minimalism as part of a social movement.

Is it a trend? Without reliable data, it’s hard to say. We would need to specifically define minimalism and design a survey or poll to get a better idea of how widespread this practice may be. A trend suggests that this is new, emerging, or changing, so we would need long-term data to make this conclusion.

I suspect low-income people might be thinking, “Wait, we’ve been practicing minimalism for years and no one seems to care.” Living with less stuff, in small spaces, and without a car is not new for people at or near the poverty line. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a worthy goal.

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