Pathologizing cultural meanings: A perspective on hoarders’ relationships with objects

As part of our third year Independent Study module, students complete a series of popular science articles, addressing topical issues from an anthropological perspective. This week, our featured article is by Cerys Savinkina.

Cerys’s bio: I am a third-year anthropology student with both Welsh and Ukrainian heritage. I have a variety of interests, with dietary studies, osteology, and general human universalities at the forefront. I am keen to explore a variety of anthropological concepts and areas further.

Perhaps you have heard about cases where people place a larger significance on objects than is usual for Western societies, where they may be labelled as hoarders. But what is hoarding? In the fifth Diagnostics and Statistical Manual (DSM-5), it has been characterised as ‘a persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions, regardless of their actual value, as a result of a strong perceived need to save the items and distress from discarding them’ (American Psychiatric Association, 2013: 236). But what is ‘actual’ value? Value is not a universal idea; values differ cross-culturally. This can clearly be seen in an example close to home: the British generation who grew up during World War II were taught to save everything and ‘make and mend’ rather than replace (Orr et al., 2019). This mentality only changed with the rise of neoliberalism and new consumption patterns it engendered (Lepselter, 2011). Therefore, hoarding can be viewed as just a differing perception of value.

Even among your peers, you may value different things differently – for example, if you have ranked your favourite books and put them in a different hierarchy. This does not mean that any of you are wrong; it simply means you see the world differently. So, why can we not do the same with other objects? Through analysing different types of value, I will show that social meanings cannot be disentangled from people regarding their relationships with objects, creating definitional problems for the concept of hoarding as a disorder.

A common idea about hoarders is that they are unable to distinguish between worthy and worthless items. However, in Orr et al.’s study (2019), they found that informants did discern between the value in objects, and there was evidently a hierarchy, even if wider society would see those hierarchies as idiosyncratic. Use value was identified as a key reason some people hoard items. Hoarders do not tend to perceive their hoard as rubbish, as others may (Orr et al., 2019). They believe that their hoard presents some sort of use value, such as useful scrap metal they may need in the future, or items related to hobbies that they may pick back up (Orr et al., 2019). In Orr et al.’s study (2019), participants who were labelled as hoarders tended to argue that they were not hoarding rubbish but collecting useful items.

Another important idea is that of ‘getting your money’s worth’ or not wanting to waste items. The idea of a ‘throwaway society’ came up often, with many hoarders feeling a responsibility to their objects even after they fulfilled their use value (Orr et al., 2019). Lepselter sees this as a product of capitalist over-consumption, where hoarders break the cycle of consumption by not wasting used items (2011). In this ideology, hoarding can therefore also be a product of active social concerns, where a socially conscious impulse is made into a symptom of mental disorder (Orr et al., 2019) (Lepselter, 2011). This shows how social perspectives of value determine the classification of hoarding disorders and people’s relationships with objects.

For hoarders, objects can also be useful in self-representation and identity. Some people overtly view their hoard as an external representation of themselves. For example, one participant in Orr et al.’s study explicitly states that ‘hoarding is my mind’ and ‘my mind is my house’ (2019: 268). Weiner claims that in a society that is constantly facing loss, where there is a constant need to give away valuable objects, it is essential that we retain some objects as a means of measuring our social identities (1985).  Newell observes this in how the objects that people choose to keep are ‘endowed’ with personhood, which is inseparable from the individual self and the collective identity of family (2014). Hence, it would make sense for hoarders to retain these objects that they feel remind them of some form of their self. Objects can also be used as external representations of the self to facilitate self-evaluation. Miller (2010) found that people would reflect on their items to judge how successful they had been in life. Of course, like this point, most of the outlooks discussed here are relevant to many people that have not shown other hoarding characteristics, which just shows how general these ideologies are in a ‘healthy’ population.

Objects can also have a social value to people. Hoarders are usually seen as antisocial, locked in with their hoard; although some may be, others use their possessions to reinforce their social ties. For example, in Orr et al.’s (2019) study, some participants found that their hoards maintained their connection to society. One participant found that her hoard made her feel needed; whenever somebody needed something, they would come to her to borrow that item from the hoard (Orr et al., 2019). Some participants believed that pre-owned objects created social ties between them and the previous owners. This made them reluctant to throw things that had been given to them away (Orr et al., 2019).

Gifts are an interesting thing to study as they are full of social meanings and rituals that vary cross-culturally (Da Col, 2019). Gifts directly symbolise the relationship between the giver and the receiver, where lost objects are irreplaceable and inalienable from the giver (Ertimur and Sandikci, 2014). Similarly, hoarders may collect objects that they initially gave to a loved one who has since departed (Orr et al., 2019). Hoarders show increased collecting behaviours after a loss, for example the death of a loved one (Orr et al., 2019). This can be explained as a way of creating more social links with the departed as these are effectively gifts they have never been able to give. This could create a sense of the deceased still being alive and present (Lepselter, 2011). As well as reinforcing social ties with other people, objects can be part of the relationship. For the Kwakiutl (an indigenous community located in western Canada), objects that live with people become entwined in their lives so much that they become part of their kinship group (Newell in Da Col, 2019). As their possessions are their kin, they teach them about hospitality and care in that bringing them home would be like engaging in a relationship similar to that of a host and guest (Newell in Da Col, 2019). It is in these ways that objects are valuable to build, maintain, and create social ties.

In conclusion, we have seen that the different meanings of objects are so integral to our understanding of the world that it would be impossible to disentangle them in order to create a universal mental disorder. There are so many personally specific meanings, whether they be due to your culture, the time you grew up in, or your personal morals. The value one places on an object is unlikely to be the same as someone else would place on it. There are, of course, many reasons to label behaviours as characteristic of a mental disorder but applying this to hoarding behaviours is likely to be fraught with assumptions that do more harm than good.

REFERENCES

American Psychiatric Association (2013) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.) Arlington: American Psychiatric Publishing.

Da Col, G. (2019) The H-Factor of Anthropology: Hoarding, Hosting, Hospitality. L’Homme. 231/232. pp. 13-40.

Ertimur, B & Sandikci, Ӧ. (2014) Alienable gifts: Uses and meanings of gold in Turkey. Journal of Consumer Behaviour. 13(3). pp. 204-211.

Lepselter, S. (2011) The Disorder of Things: Hoarding Narratives in Popular Media. Anthropological Quarterly. 84(4). pp. 919-947.

Miller, D. (2010) The Comfort of Things. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Newell, S. (2014) The matter of the unfetish: Hoarding and the spirit of possessions. HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory. 4(3). pp. 185-213.

Orr, D.M.R., Preston-Shoot, M. & Braye, S. (2019) Meaning in hoarding: perspectives of people who hoard on clutter, culture and agency. Anthropology & Medicine. 26(3). pp. 263-279.

Weiner, A.B. (1985) inalienable wealth. American Ethnologist. 12(2). pp. 210-227.

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