AirTalk

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The ethnoarchaeology of the American home

by AirTalk

Image from UCLA's study of American homes. Only 25 percent of garages could be used to store cars because they were so packed with household overflow. Family members said they were parking their stuff while deciding what to do with it. Plans to recoup the cost of unused items by selling them on eBay or Craigslist or at a garage sale rarely materialized. J. Arnold and CELF

What does the number of magnets on your refrigerator say about the clutter in your home? What’s the most common, the most costly, yet the most underused home renovation? How many American garages actually house a car?

What we buy, where we store it and how much we use it inform the way we live, and our houses tell the story all too well. In a four-year study, UCLA researchers invaded the homes of 32 middle-class, dual-income Los Angeles families, videotaping their interactions, photographing their rooms and yards, and tracking their comings and goings.

What did they find?

Stacks of clutter, from bathrooms to kitchens to hallways. Freezers, closets and garages stockpiled with Gatorade, frozen pizzas, Ziplock bags. Desks drowning in papers; kids’ rooms knee-deep in toys, precarious piles of laundry, magazines and CDs around every corner.

What emerges is a fascinating snapshot of America’s material culture — a culture of acquiring, but not experiencing; of filling up space instead of using it; of hours spent shifting the messes we’ve created from corner to corner, instead of enjoying our leisure time. If you revel in the well-ordered worlds imagined in Martha Stewart Living and Dwell, this book is sure to give you a scare — yet it’s hard to look away.

What’s your clutter quotient? Do you bring more stuff into your house than you take out? To what extent does managing your possessions interfere with actually living your life?

GUESTS

Jeanne Arnold, lead author of “Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century: 32 Families Open Their Doors”; professor of anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles

Anthony Graesch, co-author of “Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century: 32 Families Open Their Doors”; assistant professor of anthropology at Connecticut College

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