Written by Sophie Woodward


Worldly goods

Don’t feel bad about clutter, says sociologist Sophie Woodward, just call it something else.

Photo by Jonathan-Billinger, shared under Creative Commons Licence.

Photo by Jonathan Billinger, shared under Creative Commons Licence.

I’m willing to wager that somewhere in your home – lurking in a cupboard or drawer – you have a bunch of old keys, a mobile phone you no longer use, a bundle of old electrical cables and an array of audio cassettes or videos with no machine to play them on. You might also have a pasta maker still in its box, or a guitar gathering dust that you one day plan to play.

I am interested in what you have in your drawers not just because I am nosy (maybe just a little bit) but also because as a sociologist I know that things we keep tell us a lot about us, our relationship to others, how we organise our daily lives and about the world we live in today.

I am doing research into dormant things in the home and am fascinated by things we keep but are not using. So far in my research I have done interviews with nearly 30 households and everyone has, lurking in a drawer or cupboard, at least some things they no longer use. I do too.

“The problem with the language of decluttering is that it presumes we need to somehow control our stuff, as if the things are inert.”

I also have two old laptops that I have no idea if they work anymore and clothes that I cannot even fit into. I’m not likely to ever need the keys to a friend’s house in London, given that she moved out five years ago, nor do I need a stash of electrical cables for products that do not work or I no longer own.

So why do I keep this stuff?

This is one of the questions I am asking in my research. The kind of stuff we keep ranges from free plastic gifts from a magazine or given at children’s parties, through to art materials that were once used, to a cherished heirloom.

The reasons we keep this wide range of things are similarly diverse. Several people I talked to had musical instruments lurking in an attic, fabrics and sewing materials stuffed in a drawer or camping equipment for a family that never camps. We can’t get rid of these things, because if we did we would be saying “I will never make clothes again” or “I will never go camping.” While this may be true, we don’t want to give up on the possibility that we might be the person who takes up the guitar again.

old luggageMany things we keep matter; it’s not just clutter that we need to get rid of. This is most evident in items that we keep that remind us of our childhoods, like mixtapes, or of other people who may no longer be there. One woman kept an old fur coat that used to be her mother’s; she would never wear it, but seeing it and touching it reminds her of her mother. These things will never be got rid of, as they are inhabited by other people and other times.

The problem with the language of decluttering is that it presumes we need to somehow control our stuff, as if the things are inert. But objects have a power over us, whether that be to provoke memories of our grandfather or just that we have owned something for a long time so we feel we can’t get rid of it – even if it doesn’t work. Birthday cards are often kept by people for several months in a drawer, even if they are not special ones, as it seems wrong to throw them out straight away.

Of course, lots of things if we had the time (or inclination) we would happily (and maybe ought to) get rid of to help us feel a lot more organised. But it is not true that having lots of things in your home means you are materialistic, or that you desperately need to declutter to free your mind and your life.

Things matter; they are part of our histories, our potential futures and our everyday relationships. So if you have your grandmother’s button tin, old mobile phones or videotapes, then don’t feel bad about it.

Send your story to Sophie via her research website: http://projects.socialsciences.manchester.ac.uk/dormant-things


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Written by Sophie Woodward

Sophie Woodward is a lecturer in sociology at the University of Manchester. She does research into material culture and everyday life, which involves poking around in people's cupboards, wardrobes and attics. She is the author of several books including Why Women Wear What they Wear and Blue Jeans: the art of the Ordinary.