Jan 13 2009

Hoarders All Over the Globe?

Charles's Baltimore apartment. Level III Baltimore apartment.

The international community of hoarders is constituted disproportionately by Americans and other western folks. Additionally, 1st World countries with less effective social safety nets are far more inclined to produce a more extremely acquisitive brand of citizen. It is in the societies which over-emphasize material possessions and capital accumulation that clutter becomes most problematic and pathological. Thus, from initial attempts at gauging the hoarder proportion in countries like Sweden and Netherlands, it seems that many fewer citizens of those places have heard about hoarding. This is probably a result of the fact that hoarding is simply less common in societies that have more engaging mental health care and social counseling programs for all citizens. But, to be clear, much of these observations are speculative and certainly do not stem from any complex statistical survey of hoarding around the world.

As with many other psychosocial problems, the libertarian U.S. seems more likely that Western European nations to allow hoarders free reign to practice their odd craft without interference from government officials or health care workers. Many Europeans whom I have met seem rather surprised at my tales of American hoarding because they see such extremely deviant psychological cases as shocking. This derives not from the mere psychological deviance but from the fact that the appropriate public and private sector safety nets simply are not effective in addressing so many hoarding situations. The ‘live and let live’ creed reinforces a ruggedly individualistic social order accompanied by weak social protections in the U.S.

Beyond the welfare states in which hoarding seems less likely to fester, 3rd world societies perhaps contain much less compulsive clutter. In discussing the topic with lots of contacts in the subcontinent, I have not managed to discover any examples of hoarding in India. Perhaps the problem has not much been popularized or perhaps it takes on other forms. But, either way, hoarding is not recognized the same way there. It is very unlikely that anywhere close to 1-2% of the population suffers from the condition – as in the U.S.

The question that behooves asking is whether poorer, less developed societies are as prone as the U.S. to the same type of misdirected urges to accumulate junk and non-junk alike. The same goes for eating disorders and a number of other psychosocial disorders that occur with much more frequency in the urban, industrialized West. Deviant use of space and of stuff is less of a possibility in countries where there is much less space and stuff is afforded per capita. Is it wrong to assume that folks in underdeveloped countries have neither the time nor the sensibilities to engage in compulsive clutter?

There is a fellow Columbia Graduate School of Journalism student who had originally intended to do a print masters project on hoarding. She hails from Lebanon, where she said hoarding is not terribly common. However, she said that the one hoarder who she’d met in Beirut was completely unashamed of her behavior, in contradistinction to many American hoarders whose shame has no bounds.

Another international difference that I have heard about was involved the story of a Dutch family that had appeared on a popular TV show called Clean House. According to the person who told me about the episode, the father was such a hoarder that the rest of the family was forced to sleep together in one bedroom. This sort of situation seems fairly uncommon amongst American hoarders. The vast majority of hoarding cases that we have come across domestically are older folks who live alone. While I have heard about some American hoarder-couples who contribute equally to their household’s clutter, this Dutch example seems to confirm that there are some differences between American hoarding and hoarding abroad.

While the United States appears to be far more of a hoarder nation than most others, it remains difficult to determine whether hoarding simply takes on different forms in other societies. Are there more advanced forms of hoarding in highly evolved societies? Is there increased growth in clutterers who hoard information rather than physical possessions? Could this reality alter the established norms of hoarding? Moreover, do less developed societies simply have many more people who hoard food, water, and medicine rather than goods that are considered worthless or extraneous? These questions and more will be among the issues addressed in this blog during the coming weeks and months.