June 17, 2024

Rural Living and the Decluttering Movement

Michelle janning author photo Michelle janning author photoBy Michelle Janning, Professor of Sociology and co-designer of Human-Centered Design at Whitman College, and Elena Harris, professional declutterer based in Walla Walla, Washington

Does living in a rural area impact someone’s likelihood to declutter a home? Or even their desire to do so? The short answer is yes, and people have already written thoughtfully about this.

The longer—and more sociologically interesting—answer requires diving into ways that rural living may not fit into the typical categories of experiences related to how people deal with household stuff. And it also requires thinking about how a universal approach to decluttering can be limiting. In other words, it is useful to think about how decluttering is not just a project for an individual household; it calls to mind patterns that show differences between large groups of people. Decluttering is thus sociologically interesting.

We are interested in how different kinds of people manage their household clutter, and we each have our own personal and professional interest in the subject. One of us is a practitioner (Elena), and one of us is a sociological researcher (Michelle). We both spent the better part of our childhoods in rural areas, and currently reside in a place that has around 40,000 people but is geographically distant from large cities (many people would regard where we live as more rural than urban or suburban). We have noticed that decluttering may not easily fit into the lives of people we see in and surrounding our community, or in the lives of people in communities where we grew up.

Below we present our conversation about how rural living may impact decluttering. We share our conversation about three issues that may impact rural folks differently than people living in urban or suburban areas: access, values, and space. 

Elena: I think people’s relationship to clutter has a lot to do with access to decluttering resources. I started my small business four and a half years ago. When I did, I had no competition. I recently found out that another professional organizer has been in business here for a year. For the over 40,000 people who live in our valley and all surrounding rural areas and smaller towns, there are only two people who help with residential organizing and decluttering. Meanwhile in Seattle, a quick online search reveals dozens of businesses whose names include “declutter” or “organize.” There are simply more people offering home organizing services in larger cities, so more people can get the help they need in those areas.

Michelle: Your story highlights that for rural individuals, access to resources that accompany decluttering projects may be limited. In small towns and neighboring farms as compared to more densely populated areas, it’s hard to find donation options, building and remodeling professionals, storage facilities, reuse and recycle shop options, and—as your story illustrates—professional organizers and decluttering experts. In smaller towns and rural areas, the resources may be more likely to be friends and family outside of the realm of formal economic transactions.

Elena: I also think rural folks may espouse different values that relate to household possessions. In my experience, clients who live in town are more willing to spend money on my services long term than those who live outside of town. Anecdotally, I have heard my in-town clients say they’d be willing to work longer hours to pay for my services. In contrast, out-of-town clients seem to prioritize saving sentimental items and being frugal over working more to hire someone to help them figure out what to do with their possessions.

They would rather live with clutter than pay to get rid of it quickly. I saw this when I was growing up in a rural area. People didn’t spend money on plumbers and electricians, in part because they couldn’t always afford it, and in part because to do so would go against the strong desire to “do it ourselves.” With these sentiments in place, it’s hard to justify spending money on something like decluttering services.

Michelle: Your observations suggest that reluctance or propensity to declutter touches on social values which, as we know from research on professional organizing by scholars such as Carrie Lane, may vary by social class, race, immigrant status, age, and other factors. But the disproportionate likelihood for clients who do not live in town to value saving and frugality is striking.

For farmers especially, sustainability, the capacity to be self-reliant, and control over property and belongings may play a role in the desire to save possessions rather than get rid of them. “You never know when you’ll need it” may matter more for people who live farther away from the nearest hardware and furniture stores. This means that someone who has a hard time getting rid of possessions because they value frugality and saving things “just in case” may have reasons that go beyond personal preference. Keeping possessions may relate to closely held beliefs that come with living far away from the nearest stores and a desire to provide for oneself.

Elena: Living far away indeed matters. These patterns may also relate to how much space people have, which connects to the types of possessions they may be able to keep. Clients in town who have homeowner associations (HOAs) are not allowed to keep their stuff where people can see it outside. And there is simply less acreage for homeowners who live in town. But those who live out of town with more acreage can store things on their front porch, back porch, and everywhere else. I have one client who even has a metal storage container (the massive metal train car style) full of things they don't use, mostly because they have the space and freedom to have it.

Michelle: Clearly a third topic that may impact people’s likelihood to hire a professional organizer or decluttering coach has to do with space. Space is sociologically interesting! I remember visiting my grandparents’ farm and finding old farm tools in one of the outbuildings on the property. As far as I could tell, my grandpa would use them from time to time, and he seemed to know where everything was located.

But I knew he didn’t use most of the tools in those buildings. When the farm was sold, the tools came with the property. My grandparents did not have time to figure out what to do with this stuff, and there was no pressing need to do so, in part because a lot of it was out of sight in their daily living (it was about 100 yards to the barn from the house), and in part because there was plenty of room to store it. 

Decluttering is certainly a personal issue, with our individual preferences and practices guiding our desire to get rid of stuff or seek help from a decluttering professional. And feeling overwhelmed with too much stuff can certainly be alienating, lonely, and embarrassing. It’s hard to admit to others that we are having trouble.

But thinking about all of our stuff (and how hard it is to deal with it) is also a deeply social issue, where groups of people who have similar experiences or geographic ties may show shared patterns in their approach to the subject of “too much stuff.” Perhaps then, people who are more likely to pay for decluttering and organizing services are not only those who have more economic resources, but are also those who live in areas where the resources, values, and spatial constraints encourage them to practice a more minimalist lifestyle. These patterns would be missed if all we looked at was individual stories. By focusing on social patterns, we can highlight how people who may feel isolated and overwhelmed by clutter are not alone. Their experience may simply not fit into a cookie-cutter approach to decluttering.


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