A Gregarious Society Collects

This post owes its trigger to a retro series lurking on BBC iplayer about architecture. I’m not even sure how I found it now, but it’s entitled Architecture at a Crossroads. Even though this series was first broadcast way back in 1986 it makes some salient points for today. Aside from that, it is simply fascinating and has made me realise what poor programming we are subjected to today. In an hour spent watching this series, I have Googled far more interesting terms than in a week watching today’s TV.

In my hour’s viewing so far, I have had so many thoughts that are relevant to Minimalism that I wanted to try and collect them before they dissipate. Even architecture has gone through a Minimalist phase, but in the 1980s this was starting to reverse as people realised the minimalistic style was bland and soul-less. Contemporary architecture and design has tended to fuse historical and contemporary elements, to give results that appeal to the human soul and are less prison-like. They moved away from boxy, flat-sided designs constructed from concrete and metal frames, back to brick and more detail in the facade (literally ‘the face’ of the building).

One other comment has really struck a chord with me, the narrator of the programme made the statement that a “gregarious society collects”. How intriguing! I think he was referring to our recent preference to look back, in nostalgia rather than forwards to the future. This applies to all sorts of areas of life, but he was referring to our urge to preserve historic buildings of al types whereas in previous societies, they would only preserve the greatest- such as castles or stately homes.

I again Googled this term to find out more, but came up with surprisingly little information. If a gregarious society collects, then surely a minimalist society is the opposite of this? What is a non-gregarious society, I thought? Again, Google yielded almost nothing in response. There was one sparsely populated website that said that the definition of a non-gregarious society is one that ‘does not belong to a flock’, ‘dislikes socialising’ and ‘prefers solitariness’. I thought the latter two sounded a bit negative and not terribly appealing either!

Then I found an old sociology textbook called ‘Mappers of Society- The Lives, Times and Legacies of Great Sociologists’ on Google Books. In a section on the leisure class, there is some information on ‘the beginning of ownership’ ascribed to somebody called Veblen. The author states that if you are non-gregarious, you live season to season. I clearly need to do some more reading, for Veblen was the person who coined the terms ‘conspicuous consumption’ and ‘conspicuous waste’ which are so much a part of what we talk about in Minimalism and Zero Waste today. Clearly his sociological analysis was sharp and ever relevant.

Veblen suggests that as societies moved towards Barbarism (a predatory way of life), they stopped producing items that emulated a more peaceful way of life (such as items related to health care or food production). We became a society that produced goods to act as trophies, to show off. What a compliment to our age; a society that has been able to produce goods that are inefficient, useless or unnecessary, possibly all three at the same time! We presume these trophies signify success. Veblen was really interested in the link between individual ownership and the creation of a leisure class. Now surely that is something we must seek to understand and unpick, if we are calling ourselves Minimalists and hope to move beyond those social constructs?

Veblen stated that “the motive that lies at the root of ownership is emulation”. Meaning that as humans, we have learnt to compare what we have, with what our friends and neighbours have. We have equated the person with the most belongings to be the winner in the face for the best reputation. However, it is an infinite task since you can always acquire more stuff and hence, hope to out-do your neighbour. Thus, we (as humans) have created this social structure based on the foundation of private ownership, through which social honour is gained. Clearly, there is a wave in our contemporary society that is beginning to fight against this and we term it Minimalism.

And unfortunately there, my free e-book preview is curtailed. I am off to try and purchase a copy of The Theory of the Leisure Class (Oxford World’s Classics) by Thorstein Veblen

and then perhaps I can post more of my musings. In the mean-time, if any of you are sociologists out there and care to enlighten me further, I would love to hear from you!