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Speaking to Socks: An Anthropologist gets KonMari-ed

Marie Kondo’s 2014 book, which was a #1 New York Times Bestseller, is reaching new fame through a Netflix TV series in 2019.

Three years ago, I (an anthropologist, feminist, mother, and wife) bought a book. The book was The Life Changing Magic of Tidying.  

I read it. I loved it. I sorted my entire house and started folding things for the first time in years. Then I tucked the book into the far corner of a bookshelf and quietly kept folding.

Now suddenly it is cool, and I can come out of the (miraculously tidy) closet as a fan of Marie Kondo.

An image of my husband’s socks and undies drawer, which I ‘Kondo-ed’ last weekend. Am I a bad feminist, or a good wife? No idea, but it sure was satisfying. NB. Marie recommends folding socks and storing upright… ‘balled up’ socks are angsty socks!



On the electric updraft from the Netflix ‘Tidying up with Marie Kondo’ special, there has been a frenzy of decluttering across New Zealand. There are reports of op-shops closing under a flood of donated goods.  Kitchens cupboards across the country have never been so organised. Garages have never seemed so spacious. Folding is at an all-time high. 

Having run out of drawers to tidy myself, I thought it was time to put on my anthropology hat for a moment and ask: Does this craze mean anything? What is it about a small cheerful Japanese woman who speaks to socks, that is also resonating so deeply in the USA, and NZ, at this moment?

Decluttering the context: gender, class, and the ‘spirit’ of things

Let’s be clear, there is a gendered component to this trend: and I’ll admit the amount of thought I give to stratagizing about the organisation and maintenance of my home gives me mixed feelings as a feminist. The burden of both physical and mental labour to do with the house is typically female. There is also a classed component: the ability to buy, the types of things we buy, and how we view material possessions in relation to both identity and security, in socioeconomic categories and inequalities. Not to mention where and how we are housed. It’s fair to view the success of KonMarie as a largely middle-class female phenomena.

It is interesting too though, how a method that in many ways relates to Asian apartment-style living became so successfully exportable to the USA, NZ, and many other western nations. The geographic component seems no obstacle, but is there a something deeper: a cultural component? And how does it translate?

It seems to me that Marie’s method draws on distinctly Japanese (or at very least, non-European) ways of seeing the world. Particularly what could be broadly called ‘animism’, which is a belief in the aliveness, the ‘essence’ of both sentient and non-sentient things. Animism allows that animals, trees, rocks, mountains, rivers… and yes, socks… all have a ‘spirit’.

This approach to paves the way for a holism that sees our material life as entangled with our own physical, spiritual, and social wellbeing and success.

“What I’d like you to remember as you go through this process is that you’re not alone, the house itself and all your belongings are there to support you and go with you”  – Marie to recently-widowed Margie (from ‘Sparking Joy after a loss: episode * in ‘Tidying Up with Marie Kondo’ (Netflix 2019).

So I’m interested to ask now more than ever: in the traditionally dualist or materialist ‘West’, what is drawing us to (or driving us to?) this more animist way of understanding material life?

Joy! (and the dogs of dread on its heels)

Marie Kondo’s central mantra is to surround yourself with only things that ‘spark joy’. Doesn’t that sound delightful? But I think it’s uptake makes most sense when we recognise that material things in many people’s homes, in their amount if not their nature, sparks not joy but shame, anger, dread and exhaustion.

A relatively small pile compared to some of the mountains features in the Netflix show. Image source:

Indeed the ‘pile it all up’ part of Marie’s method is designed to confront, and motivate. It certainly highlights the troubling excesses of capitalist consumer society (though that is hopefully news to no-one). This is where the Netflix show grabs me. Watching the mothers, the widows, the retirees – their struggle, their suffocation. Then eventually, their relief.

Honestly I am myself light-years from being a minimalist, before OR after Marie Kondo upends my home. In fact it  is the persistence and constancy of clutter in my life brings, it’s crushing weight, that most draws me to KonMari.

One of iteration of memes emerging around Marie Kondo. Source:

I believe that the way ‘we’ (middle-class folk in developed countries) experience this material crisis of clutter in our homes is in its own way, as an existential crisis. I think that the frustration and paralysis about stuff, and what to do with it, goes far beyond being a practical concern. Rather it embodies deep uncertainties about moral ways of living and being; of relating between both present and absent family members; of reconciling past, present, and imagined futures, in our homes and our lives. It is in this context that KonMari method appears as such a shining salvation… a gently charted path (with a cheerful guide) through a minefield of shame, uncertainty, and kitchen appliances.

Certainly when I think about it, it’s not the meaningless-ness of the stuff in my home that bothers me, it’s its meaningfulness. In fact it makes me question the taken-for-granted connection between materialism and individualism. So much of the stuff that entangles us is not because of any innate qualities of the things themselves. It’s not only stuff we bought, but stuff we were given. Stuff we inherited, or hope to pass on. Things that represent who we were, or who we want to be. Things we like to show off, things we want to forget are even there. It’s about social relationships, and identities, memories and hopes and connections. It’s not really material at all. Or individual.  

The KonMari method simply lets us acknowledge that. It asks us to feel that, in fact –   intimately, as we hold each item in our hands. It reminds us that our homes and our possessions have a history: a social quality and an experiential one. Why not call it a ‘spirit’? Why not speak to it when we want to make a change? It might just work, and here is why…

Why it works: Ritual, emotion, and behaviour

Ritual is a powerful tool for dealing with emotion, and it is sprinkled all throughout the KonMari method: Greeting a house. Feeling a casserole dish. Waking up piles of books. Thanking a pair of socks.

Rituals by definition are actions that carry shared meaning. But they don’t just solidify existing meanings – they can also change them. Rituals are often used to transition things (and people) between different categories.  So even a small moment of saying ‘thank you’ to used items can make it easier to mentally move them from the category of ‘possession’ to that of ‘donation’ or ‘trash’, which in turns makes it easier to change our behaviour towards it. To let it go. This works for items we keep as well – rituals of holding, feeling joy, and even folding can and do have the ability to change and how those items will be treated and experienced by their owners.

As an avid second-hand shopper, my wardrobe has always been particularly out of control, but I enjoy my clothes more now not only because I have less and can actually see them in the wardrobe, but because I value them more. They don’t just have functional value, but each one is deliberately chosen, treasured. I find I also think twice before I buy more because I know and value what I have. Also when I do farewell an item I can recognise what it has already given me, rather than feeling guilty.

In this way the KonMarie method is not ‘anti-stuff’ at all. Quite the opposite… it teaches a love, connection, and attachment to material life that seems antithetical to goals of decluttering, but isn’t. It opens a space that paradoxically begins to bring an almost hedonism, to minimalism – but one distinct from the excesses of consumerism.

Image result for marie kondo netflix

Marie Kondo. Image source:!/fileImage/httpImage/image.jpg_gen/derivatives/16x9_780/marie-kondo.jpg

When a drawer closes, a window opens…

A summary of these brief anthropological thoughts would be this: Emerging from a Japanese context, the KonMari method is somehow also a timely response to western existential crises of clutter (that are moral, as well as material). Yes it is practical, but it is more than that.

With a persistent cheer and a handful of quiet rituals, Marie is opening a small window in the stuffy room of western rationality. Her methods let us acknowledge our relationship to places and things at the level of affect and being. To both hold on, and let go, with joy.

And with happier socks.  


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