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Hanging up our coat, tidying our desk, classifying our books: What meanings do these mundane practices convey? Extending Mary Douglas’s work, this article investigates tidiness from the angle of symbolic pollution. Based on photo-elicitation, it shows that, similarly to symbolic pollution described at a macro-social level, tidiness depends on two conditions, namely, a set of classifications and the dangerous transgression of these classifications. However, at a micro-social level, individuals negotiate boundaries between classifications in order to cope with symbolic pollution. Consumers define their domestic classifications through a juxtaposition of micro-practices, which does not necessarily create a hierarchically ordered system but which enables these consumers to avoid anomalies and transgressions. Furthermore, respondents are willing to break tidiness rules on specific occasions because the danger-beliefs associated with transgression are context-dependent. This analysis of tidiness gives new insights into materiality, emphasizing the cultural meaning of ordering one’s possessions.
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! 2014 by JOURNAL OF CONSUMER RESEARCH, Inc. Vol. 41 October 2014
All rights reserved. 0093-5301/2014/4103-0001$10.00. DOI: 10.1086/676922
Home Sweet Messy Home: Managing
Symbolic Pollution
Hanging up our coat, tidying our desk, classifying our books, what meanings do
these mundane practices convey? Extending Mary Douglas’s work, this article
investigates tidiness from the angle of symbolic pollution. Based on photo-elici-
tation, it shows that, similarly to symbolic pollution described at a macro-social
level, tidiness depends on two conditions, namely, a set of classifications and the
dangerous transgression of these classifications. However, at a micro-social level,
individuals negotiate boundaries between classifications in order to cope with sym-
bolic pollution. Consumers define their domestic classifications through a juxta-
position of micro-practices, which does not necessarily create a hierarchically or-
dered system but which enables these consumers to avoid anomalies and
transgressions. Furthermore, respondents are willing to break tidiness rules on
specific occasions because the danger-beliefs associated with transgression are
context-dependent. This analysis of tidiness gives new insights into materiality,
emphasizing the cultural meaning of ordering one’s possessions.
anging up our coat, sorting out papers on our desk,
classifying our books, storing our groceries in the
kitchen, why are these ever yday and apparently normal
practices so important to study? What specific meanings
do these mundane daily activities convey? According to
Mary Douglas (1967), these ordinary practices deploy our
system of symbolic classification, that is, the social as-
signment of things to their place. Putting things in their
place is more than placing them in a specific physical
Delphine Dion ( is associate professor of mar-
keting, Sorbonne Business School, Paris. Ouidade Sabri (ouidade.sabri is professor of marketing, Paris-Est University, UPEC, Cre´teil,
France. Vale´rie Guillard ( is associate pro-
fessor of marketing, University of Paris Dauphine, Paris. The authors thank
the JCR editorial team for their very helpful and insightful comments and
particularly the associate editor for his remarkable involvement and sug-
gestions. They would also like to thank Eric Arnould, Søren Askegaard,
and Barry Babin for their helpful feedback on earlier drafts of this article.
The authors wish to express their gratitude to the informants for sharing
their time and aspects of their home and of their domestic lives. They are
grateful for support provided by the Sorbonne Business School and the
DRM research center at Paris Dauphine University. Direct correspondence
to Delphine Dion.
Laura Peracchio served as editor and Kent Grayson served as associate
editor for this article.
Electronically published June 4, 2014
location (Bergesen 1978; Filiod 2003; Miller 2008). Ti-
dying substantiates cultural categories; it makes the concrete
cultural meaning that organizes the world visible. It is a
vital, tangible record of cultural meaning that is otherwise
intangible. “In chasing dirt, in papering, decorating, tidying,
we are not governed by anxiety to escape disease, but are
positively re-ordering our environment, making it conform
to an idea” (Douglas 1967, 24). Leaving aside questions of
hygiene, Douglas focuses on the symbolic and expressive
dimension of pollution (De Heusch 2007). Symbolic pol-
lution is whatever, within a given society, eludes or threatens
order. It emerges when things are “out of place,” violating
systems of classification. What is “out of place” depends on
the nature of the social order inscribed in the scheme of
cultural categories and reflected in the way meaning is cre-
ated (Campkin and Cox 2007; Du¨rr and Jaffe 2010).
Focusing exclusively on macro-social dimensions, Doug-
las disregards the negotiation of culture at the micro level
(Du¨rr and Jaffe 2010). Her level of analysis leads her to
focus exclusively on the logic of groups, and she neglects
the role of individual practices. However, structures iden-
tified at a macro level are always in dialogue with the prac-
tices and improvisations identified at a micro level (Sewell
1992). Transferring Douglas’s analysis to a micro-social
level, the idea of “the right place for things” raises many
questions. What is the right place for things? Does every-
thing have a precise place? What happens when things are
out of place? Our aim is to extend the theory of symbolic
pollution, advanced by Douglas and explored by many oth-
ers, by studying expressions of symbolic pollution at a mi-
cro-social level. We want to get a deeper understanding of
the cultural meaning of symbolic pollution by analyzing the
role of mundane and everyday tidying practices. We inves-
tigate the meaning of the place of things and the way we
understand tidiness (in the right place) and untidiness (out
of place).
Based on photo-elicitation, we study how individuals ne-
gotiate the definition and transgression of tidiness rules at
home. We show that, similar to the symbolic pollution in
traditional societies described by Douglas, untidiness de-
pends on two conditions, classification and the dangerous
transgression of classification. However, our results show
that at a micro-social level, individuals negotiate the defi-
nition and transgression of classification through daily and
mundane actions that have many impacts on the perception
and management of pollution. First, we show that most do-
mestic classifications are not organized into a sequence of
hierarchically ordered and mutually exclusive categories.
Consumers negotiate boundaries between categories in order
to manage anomalies and the transgression of classification
and consequently to cope with symbolic pollution. Second,
our study demonstrates that consumers tolerate many trans-
gressions because perceptions of danger are context-depen-
dent: thus, having many things out of place does not generate
pollution. It is not a question of contradicting classification,
or things being out of their place, but of the meaning of
these transgressions.
This micro-social analysis of tidiness also provides new
insights into materiality, emphasizing the cultural meaning
of ordering one’s possessions. In studying materiality, we
argue that the focus should be not only on possessions but
also on the way consumers order their material environment
to create a meaningful and symbolically unpolluted envi-
ronment. Understanding these everyday practices helps us
to understand how consumers adapt the cultural rules to fit
with their daily constraints and opportunities.
We begin by describing the context of our study, high-
lighting how the tidiness norm has emerged and been dif-
fused. Then we present the literature on tidiness and focus
on the theory of symbolic pollution on which we base our
Emergence and Diffusion of the T idiness Norm
The nineteenth century, a period of industrialization and
urbanization in the Western world, led to the emergence of
a new social norm of cleanliness (Ashenburg 2008; Laer-
mans and Meulders 1999; Shove 2003; Woersdorfer 2010)
and tidiness (Cieraad 1999; Crook 2008; Edensor 2005).
Institutional power structures imposed dominant social and
cultural norms of cleanliness and tidiness on the private and
public physical spaces people occupied (Dibie 2000; Ger
and Yenicioglu 2004; Neves 2004; Saugeres 2000; Sjo¨din
2006). Cleanliness and tidiness were used as standards of
worth, separating the bourgeoisie from the working classes
(Laermans and Meulders 1999). Having a neat and tidy
home was perceived as a norm and yielded social recog-
nition (Baudrillard 1968; Munro and Madigan 1999). This
norm was transmitted through educational programs dedi-
cated to bourgeois young women, where they learned basic
female skills and good manners, and by means of books on
household management. For instance, the introduction to a
French book on household management published in 1861
specifies that order is central to running a home:
This new manual of domestic management is destined for
young women who understand how incomplete this important
part of their education is. When a young woman takes account
of the varied and numerous attributions that are part of her
domestic domain, she will easily recognize that the only basis
for running a comfortable or even modest home well is order,
which is as necessary within a family as it is in society [la
seule base de la bonne administration d’un me´nage opulent
ou modeste c’est l’ordre, aussi ne´cessaire au sein d’une fam-
ille que d’une socie´te´]. (Beleze 1861/2011; for the full French
text, see sec. 1 of the online appendix)
Since that period, home decoration publications, TV pro-
grams, in-store furniture displays, and more recently websites
have proliferated, all conveying to consumers a vision of ideal
homes. In doing so they diffuse the normative vision of ti-
diness, showing the appropriate way to use, present, and order
household possessions (Arsel and Bean 2013; Cheung and
Ma 2005). One obvious example is the development of TV
shows such as Changing Rooms or the How Clean Is Your
House? broadcast in the United Kingdom from 2003 to 2009
and subsequently adapted and broadcast in 20 other countries.
The IKEA Catalog is another striking illustration, since more
than 220 million copies have been distributed worldwide.
Experts estimate that approximately a billion people get the
opportunity to look at the catalog, that is, more than one in
six of the Earth’s population (
In addition, the social norm of tidiness has been associated
with certain requisite visual effects, rooted in the standard
of furnishing and decoration of the bourgeois home interior
(Baudrillard 1968; Clarke 2001; Filiod 2003). Bourgeois
household decoration is guided by a set of rules and a rigid
aesthetic vision that is conveyed through manuals expressing
the art of good taste (Assouly 2008) and through home
decoration publications (Martens and Scott 2005). Through
these media and manuals, consumers learn how to combine
objects aesthetically to create a specific atmosphere and per-
sonality (Baudrillard 1968). This process of aesthetic nor-
malization has extended to the working and lower-middle
classes through magazines and popular exhibitions such as
the Ideal Home Exhibition featuring normative working-
class home furniture and decoration (Clarke 2001). Thus,
the proliferation of home decoration media has created a
vision of the ideal home that, among other things, promotes
tidiness, and most of us accept unquestioningly that living
in a tidy house is desirable in itself (CrimethInc. 2000).
These media offer resources for the acquisition of everyday
practices for people by providing them with a recognizable
ordering of objects in space, by justifying preferences for
particular arrangements and types of objects, and by turning
these preferences and activities into rituals and habits (Arsel
and Bean 2013).
The tidiness norm has given rise to a vast array of services
and products. The number of home-organizers, closet-or-
ganizing systems, and home-organizing products like ac-
cordion files, label-makers, and plastic tubs increases each
year. This growth reflects and caters to the need to live in
Ma 2005). We tidy because an ever-increasing range of tech-
nologies and products make us believe that mess is dan-
gerous, and they promise us distance from it, playing upon
our individual and collective desires and anxieties (Forlizzi
2007; Shove 2003). For instance, IKEA reinforces the dan-
gers of living in messy places through humorous advertising
campaigns (see the 2013 “Living Together” video campaign
or the 2007 “Tidy Up” campaign. For instance, one video
features a women rummaging about in a washing basket
and eventually extracting her baby from it). In addition Ikea
proposes many solutions for rendering a home perfectly
organized and tidy. In its 2013 catalog, it dedicates over 32
pages to tidying solutions and insists on the benefits of living
in a tidy house:
To us, being organized means feeling good. Knowing where you
left your keys, or where to find that vital bit of paperwork,
quickly . Imagine not having to stress about things like that? In
look lovelier. Beautiful objects can take center stage in a glass-
door cabinet, with not-so-beautiful objects stowed behind solid
doors. So why not wave goodbye to chaos, and say hello to the
new order of things? (IKEA 2013, 23)
As IKEA expresses it, living in a tidy and well-organized
house is important for efficiency and for feeling good. It is
associated with a better quality of life. The focus is not on
the perception of moral danger, which presents untidiness
as socially threatening, but on perceptions of personal dan-
ger that link untidiness to a poor quality of life, to stress,
and to inefficiency.
In sum, marketing practices, combined with the devel-
opment of new businesses, products, and brands promoting
tidiness as a value, have reinforced the tidiness norm and
contributed to increasingly higher standards of household
cleanliness and tidiness (Martens and Scott 2005). As a
consequence, untidiness is associated with many social and
personal perceptions of danger. Many consumers accept
without dissent or doubt the vision of the ideal home pro-
moted by the media and marketing that makes us believe
that mess is dangerous (Campkin and Cox 2007; CrimethInc.
An initial stream of research on tidiness has attempted to
draw profiles of tidy and untidy people and the way others
perceive them. Researchers have investigated hoarding ob-
sessions (Bloch et al. 2008; Leckman et al. 1997) and per-
sonality judgments based on the way people tidy their desks
(Gosling et al. 2002; Morrow and McElroy 1981; Sitton
1984). They have also analyzed the need for order, trying
to understand differences between those who need order and
those who do not (Costa and McCrae 1992). They have
shown that when personal control is threatened, individuals
who need to control their environment set up boundaries in
their environment to regain control (Cutright 2012; Strube
and Werner 1984). Theses studies provide insight into un-
derstanding disposition and hoarding behavior (Guillard and
Pinson 2012; Maycroft 2009).
tices in commercial settings, showing how untidiness im-
pacts buying behavior (Castro, Morales, and Nowlis 2013),
and in domestic settings such as the kitchen (Martens and
Scott 2005), children’s rooms (Stevenson and Prout 2013),
and the garage (Hirschman, Ruvio, and Belk 2012). They
have analyzed conflicts over space within a family or with
roommates and have shown how tidying practices are em-
bedded in collective and individual identity negotiation and
construction processes (Dowling 2008; Filiod 2003; Ste-
venson and Prout 2013; Welzer-Lang and Filiod 1992). Fol-
lowing de Certeau (1980); these authors have analyzed re-
sistance and submission strategies and tactics within a group
(families or domestic partners) through tidying practices.
Spatial arrangement is the result of a collective “bricolage”
that expresses personal and collective selves symbolically
(Filiod 2003). (Un)tidiness is used to mark and appropriate
one’s territory and express one’s identity (Nippert-Eng
1996; Tian and Belk 2005). Discourses and practices of
storage and clutter are also related to the social significance
of the order (Baudrillard 1998) and the social construction
of the home (Cwerner and Metcalfe 2003). Untidiness makes
the expression of otherness or difference possible (Cwerner
and Metcalfe 2003; Filiod 2003; Mallett 2004). Untidiness
is accepted as an aesthetic standard but also as part of an
iterative spatiotemporal ordering of home and identity. It is
no longer opposed to tidiness and is a form of experience
in itself (Abrahamson and Freedman 2013; Filiod 2003).
In these two different streams of research, untidiness is
linked to personality and identity. Thus, the focus is on self-
expression, emphasizing how untidiness expresses an in-
dividual’s characteristics and mode of existence. Our goal
is to achieve a deeper understanding of the cultural meaning
of (un)tidiness by analyzing the place of things and the way
we understand the categories of tidy and untidy. We consider
untidiness from the angle of symbolic pollution, and we
base our analysis on Douglas’s Purity and Danger (1967).
According to Douglas, tidiness practices deploy our system
of symbolic classification, that is, the social assignment of
things to their place. Tidying substantiates cultural catego-
ries; it makes the concrete cultural meaning that organizes
the world visible. It is a vital, tangible record of cultural
meaning that is otherwise intangible. We elaborate on her
theory in the following section.
Symbolic Pollution
Douglas’s Purity and Danger (1967) is the foremost
contribution to the anthropological understanding of pol-
lution. Douglas refuses functionalist analysis based on hy-
gienic or medical grounds. She shows that pollution is not
so much a question of hygiene or health but essentially a
question of symbolic disorder. Its meaning is latent rather
than apparent and is not immediately present (Gusfield and
Michalowicz 1984). Drawing on Durkheim and Mauss’s
(1903) classifications theory and their description of the
classification process, which consists of arranging things
in groups that are distinct from each other and separated
by clearly determined lines of demarcation, Douglas’s
analysis of pollution involves classifying, drawing, and
transgressing boundaries and margins (Du¨rr and Jaffe
2010). “Pollution is a violation of each society’s designated
boundaries” (Douglas 1967, 28), “it is a matter of out of
place” (36), and it is “likely to confuse or contradict cher-
ished classifications” (37).
Symbolic pollution develops when things that are “out of
place” violate cultural classifications (Neves 2004). Cultural
classifications play an essential role in the creation and per-
petuation of cultures and social units. They are the funda-
mental coordinates of meaning, representing how the world
is segmented into discrete, intelligible parcels and how these
parcels are organized into a larger coherent system (Cooper
and Oldenziel 1999; McCracken 1986). Therefore, symbolic
pollution is a cultural construct, existing in “the eye of the
beholder,” rather than a universal category (Douglas 1967,
24). Pollution is never a unique, isolated event; it implies
“two conditions: a set of ordered relations and a contraven-
tion of that order” (Douglas 1967, 48).
Even if Douglas emphasizes the nonuniversality of pol-
lution, she assumes the universality of the idea of order.
Basil Bernstein (1977) challenged Douglas’s analysis, ar-
guing that she overemphasized the universality of the idea
of order, and he made a plea for those who thrive in disorder
and feel no anxiety about mess. Taking the example of an
artist’s studio, where mess does not matter, Bernstein high-
lighted that people are not all equally orderly (Douglas
1970a). In the artist’s studio, many things are out of place,
but this does not arouse the revulsion response associated
with symbolic pollution (Meigs 1978). How can we account
for the fact that things out of their place do not create pol-
lution? To answer these critics, Douglas introduced the idea
of a typology of cultures: the grid-group model (Borneman
2010). The aim of her model was to check how differences
in social organization relate to differences in beliefs and values
(Douglas 1970b). In her later books, Douglas turned to the
study of cultural variation and social organizations (Douglas
1986, 1992).
To answer Bernsteins critique, we propose to change the
level of analysis and to move from the macro-social level
to the micro-social level. Because we focus on practices at
a higher level of granularity, we assume that we will get a
deeper understanding. Micro-social analyses generate un-
derstanding of social activities through daily and mundane
practices, which are essential for understanding the structure
and dynamics of societies (Askegaard and Linnet 2011; Des-
jeux 1999). Studying symbolic pollution in relation to local
contexts and practices is key to understanding the meaning
attributed to symbolic pollution (Ger and Yenicioglu 2004).
Focusing exclusively on macro-social dimensions, Douglas
fails to take into account the dynamic nature of culture as
of culture at the micro level (Du¨rr and Jaffe 2010; Edensor
2005). We argue that, at a micro-social level, individuals
negotiate the definition and transgression of classification
through daily and mundane actions. This impacts on sym-
bolic pollution in numerous ways because it affects the struc-
ture of classification and the significance of its transgression.
First, taxonomies, as described by Douglas, are exhaustive
and hierarchically ordered (Babadzan 1976; Chauvin 2006;
Neves 2004). Categories are organized into a hierarchically
ordered sequence and are also mutually exclusive; that is to
say, no object belongs to two classes at a time (Sperber
1975). Anomalies are symbolically separated from “normal”
elements through a different process in order to reinforce
the structure of the classification system and the subsequent
social order (Douglas 1967). However, since classifications
are not taken for granted at a micro-social level but are built
through action, several logics may be juxtaposed. We argue
that classifications defined through action are not mutually
exhaustive, so elements can fit in several categories at the
same time without being considered anomalies and without
objects may not be precisely defined or may not follow a
hierarchical logic, which raises many questions about the
right place for things.
Second, Douglas (1967) specifies that cultural classifi-
cations are preserved by the implementation of danger-
beliefs, prohibitions, and taboos. They prevent the social
proliferation of pollution and help to maintain social co-
hesion (Sabri, Manc eau, and Pras 2011). Departure from
classification threatens the stability provided by the social
order, and transgression is therefore regarded as wrong and
immoral (Du¨rr and Jaffe 2010). For instance, Douglas stud-
ies many moral danger-beliefs about food in the Lele com-
munity in Zaire. They protect the symbolic classifications
established in the animal world because they prevent indi-
viduals from transgressing them and consequently reinforce
the structure of the social community (Goodman, Douglas,
and Hull 1992). Studying pollution at a micro-social level,
we assert that danger-beliefs are linked not only to moral
and normative pressure but also to personal constraints and
issues. In a domestic setting, danger-beliefs are context-
dependent and so, in contrast with moral rules, t idiness
rules are not univocal. We argue that pollution is not only
of designating transgressions as pollution and the danger-
beliefs associated with them. Many things are out of place
but only some elicit a response and are labeled as pollution.
It is not things being objectively out of place but our reaction
to their being out of place that generates their designation
as pollution.
Studying untidiness at home, we want to investigate these
two issues by analyzing how consumers define tidiness rules
that assign objects to specific places and what happens when
consumers transgress these rules. After a discussion of our
method, we turn to our findings.
Photo-Elicitation: Data Collection and Analysis
In order to study untidiness, we used a photo-elicitation
technique that combines pictures taken by the respondents
themselves and nondirective interviews based on those pic-
tures (Dion 2007; Heisley and Levy 1991; Holbrook 2005).
Following Beilin’s method (2005), we first asked 25 infor-
mants to take 10 photographs of their home: five pictures
of messy places and five of tidy places. We asked the in-
formants to take the photographs themselves, because they
were likely to photograph things that were meaningful for
them, while the researcher might focus on things that were
not necessarily significant to the informants (Beilin 2005;
Dion, Sitz, and Re´my 2011; Wallendorf and Arnould 1991).
It seems key to ask informants to take the pictures them-
selves because symbolic pollution does not exist intrinsically
but in “the eye of the beholder” (Douglas 1967). For in-
stance, some informants gave us a picture of a general view
of the kitchen, while others focused on specific locations:
inside the fridge or specific drawers, in a tin, or behind the
kitchen door. This technique excludes information on culture
generated by external observers (records about culture) and
prefers recordings of the culture made by the informants
themselves (records of culture; Worth 1981).
We restricted the scope of the pictures to the home because
(1) domestic pollution is a specific type of disorder at the
micro-social level of analysis (Abrahamson 2002; Douglas
1991), (2) home is the most important site for material culture
studies (Miller 2001), and (3) home is a mix of social and
private places. In order to capture various experiences, re-
spondents were given 2 weeks to take their photographs.
Thanks to this generous time period, they were able to collect
pictures in different situations, and most took pictures on
different days. We collected a great variety of images: all
around the home (bedrooms, kitchen, garage, dining room,
corridors, garden, bathroom, etc.), on weekends and on week-
days, in everyday situations and on special occasions, in spe-
cific conditions (working, cooking, etc.), and including other
family members (partner, parents, children, pets, etc.). We
collected a variety of pictures taken in the same room. A few
respondents even photographed the same room tidy and un-
tidy , which allowed us to study dynamics. This spatial, tem-
poral, and experiential diversity was central to our under-
standing of the experiences and practices of domestic tidiness
and untidiness.
Later, we conducted in-depth interviews with each infor-
mant in order to understand the places pictured and the
informant’s tidying practices (Collier and Collier 1986; Dion
2007). Interviews were organized on a categorization pro-
cess (Beilin 2005; Heisley and Levy 1991): first, informants
had to label the place (as tidy or untidy), and then they had
to explain why they had labeled it that way. This process
rooted the interviews in concrete experiences and gave in-
formants a frame for narration of their experiences and feel-
ings (Heisley and Levy 1991; Holbrook 2005). By embed-
ding interviews into concrete experiences, we generated
“cultural talk,” that is, we got people to talk about cultural
practices through which meaning is produced, contested, and
negotiated (Moisander, Valtonen, and Hirsto 2009). Com-
pared to interviews in live situations, these focus the dis-
cussion on specific elements that are visible in the image.
It thus allows us to concentrate on specific elements, but it
could lead us to miss other elements not featured in the
pictures. The researcher is dependent on elements he can
see in the images and thus has limited opportunities to lead
the discussion. We ended the interview by asking a few
general questions about tidying and the way in which in-
formants could define themselves according to tidiness prac-
tices. Based on the informant’s answers, we categorized him/
her as messy, tidy, or moderate. We did this at the end of
the interview because we wanted the interview itself to focus
on the image, eliciting respondents’ perceptions of their ti-
dying practices. We wanted to avoid people labeling them-
selves (tidy/messy) at the beginning of the interview and
then rationalizing their behavior in relation to this self-
labeling (Becker 1985). The interviews lasted 1 –2 hours.
This two-step data collection (field image taken by the
informants followed by interviews about their own photos)
enabled us to obtain descriptions of practices, experiences,
and beliefs that were meaningful for respondents from their
own perspective (Hirsch 2007). That way we moved away
from an etic perspective (an essentially external point of
view) toward an emic perspective (internal viewpoint; Agar
2011). This data collection process was also important for
managing social desirability, which is a key issue when
dealing with untidiness. Talking about untidiness is not a
socially neutral experience because it is embedded in dom-
inant value systems and social boundaries (Shove 2003).
However, it would seem that the effect of social desirability
is limited insofar as we asked respondents to take five photos
of tidy and untidy places, that is, of both socially desirable
and undesirable situations. Besides this, when we examined
the photos, we noticed that respondents sent us photos of
places that were extremely messy. They also gave us photos
of private and personal places and of objects that are not
usually accessible to visitors, such as inside bedside tables
or in underwear closets.
The sample was constructed progressively. Twenty-five
respondents were selected on the basis of our theoretical
concerns (Yin 1990). Our objective was to recruit respon-
dents with varied positions on untidiness, allowing us to
access different perceptions and experiences. The inclusion
Name Occupation Age Marital status Location
Self-defined level of
Ame´ lie Management assistant 39 Married, two children
(5, 3)
60 m
flat, Paris
Arthur Retired 65 Widower, with a part-
ner living in Italy
200 m
house, Paris
Be´ atrice Product manager 38 Married, two children
(9, 5)
97 m
flat, Paris Moderate
Bertille Retired 56 Married, three kids (not
living at home)
250 m
house, Paris
Charles Unemployed 26 Single, a roommate
50 m
flat, Paris Messy
Christine Product manager 33 Married, two children
(7, 4)
210 m
house, Paris
Claudine Professor 32 Married 80 m
flat, Paris Moderate
De´ borah Associate professor 38 Partner, four children
(17, 12, 12, 10)
138 m
flat, Paris Moderate
Elise Assistant 39 Married, one child (2) 80 m
flat, Paris Moderate
Esther Student 26 Single, a partner living
in another flat
42 m
flat, Paris Moderate
Etienne Teacher 43 Married, one child (13) 130 m
flat, Paris Moderate
Georges Farmer 62 Married 400 m
Gislaine Professor 42 Married, three children
(10, 8, 4)
125 m
flat, Paris Tidy
Hassna Student 26 Single 20 m
flat, Paris Moderate
He´ le` na RH manager 28 Single, a partner living
in another flat
30 m
flat, Paris Messy
Laura Student 19 Single, living in her fa-
ther’s house
200 m
Marcel Retired 64 Married, two children
not living at home
300 m
Maria Associate professor 33 Partner, no children 60 m
flat, Paris Messy
Marie CEO 62 Married, two children
not living at home
300 m
Martin Marketing consultant 55 Married, two children
(19, 19)
180 m
house, Paris
Nathalie Product manager 34 Married, three children
(10, 5, 3)
200 m
flat, Paris
Nicole Associate director 33 Married, two children
(6, 2)
105 m
flat, Paris
Noe¨ l Engineer 42 Married 90 m
flat, Paris Messy
Pauline Secretary 50 Married 120 m
flat, Paris
Sonia Technical sales
38 Married, two children
(5, 3)
105 m
house, Paris
of extreme cases (very messy and verytidyinformants)
helped us to establish the boundaries of our findings and
provided a more nuanced understanding of the mechanisms
at work (Creswell 1998). We also introduced sociodemo-
graphic diversity in terms of age, occupation, gender, marital
status (single, childless couple, and couple with children),
and living environment (from a 20 square meter flat to a
300 square meter house in Paris, Paris suburbs, and the
countryside; see table 1 for descriptions of the informants).
We restricted our data collection to French respondents in
order to keep the cultural environment homogeneous. We
interviewed only one person from each home because it was
not our goal to study familial relationships and identity is-
sues linked to tidiness, such as has been done in previous
research (see, e.g., Filiod 2003; Munro and Madigan 1999;
Pastinelli 2005; Welzer-Lang and Filiod 1992).
To start with, we did not analyze the pictures per se because
they represented the respondents’ personal and subjective vi-
sion of tidiness, and so the informants themselves necessarily
had to interpret them (Worth 1981). This allowed us to un-
derstand the meaning of situations and practices from the point
of view of the informants (Schroeder 2002). Therefore, we
analyzed the narrative accounts collected during the inter-
views about the pictures, using an inductive coding. The codes
were not defined from the literature but determined during
our analysis according to the meaning of the verbatim ac-
counts (Arnould and Wallendorf 1994). This coding meant
that we could respect the emic dimension. Narratives were
analyzed on a comparative basis (Bertaux 2010) and sub-
mitted to triangulation among the researchers (Belk, Wallen-
dorf, and Sherry 1989). The comparative analysis started by
tracking the main themes tackled in each narrative. Each re-
searcher carried out categorizations, grouping the indexed
themes within a common set of categories. Cross validation
then enabled us to compare the narratives in order to identify
recurrent situations and similar logics of behavior (Hirschman
and Holbrook 1992). We progressively elaborated an accurate
and rich understanding. Each researcher’s analysis was com-
pared with the others’ to obtain a shared understanding
(Goulding 1999).
Unlike classic observation, methodologies based on photos
allow researchers to analyze images as often as they wish
(Dion 2007). Thus, after analyzing the narratives, we went
back to the images and analyzed them ourselves using the
interpretative frames provided by our informants (Schroeder
2002) and our theoretical lens. We tried to identify elements
that were inconsistent with our first analysis, elements that
we could not understand from our first analysis, and elements
that needed further investigation. We identified six intriguing
pictures and contacted the informants involved to ask them
specific questions about their pictures. For instance, we came
back to Marcel with the photo of his wine cellar (fig. 5) and
asked him questions about the gaps we could see in his wine
racks, something that he had not mentioned in the first in-
terview but that we found interesting to investigate further.
This second set of interviews, which lasted 30–45 minutes,
helped us gain a deeper understanding of tidying practices.
This second round of data collection, combined with a fresh
literature review, allowed us to propose a refined theoretical
Representation across Languages: Translating
Narratives into English
As the interviews were conducted in French, we faced the
issue of translating the narratives into English. This was an
important challenge because the two languages do not have
precise equivalents for each other’s idiomatic expressions
(Churchill 2005). This was especially significant when dealing
with subtle distinctions between concepts like pollution or
untidiness (Glasse 1969; Liberski 1989). The vocabulary
about untidiness is very rich in both language and uses lots
of synonyms with different etymological roots and meanings.
For instance, our informants used the following French words
to account for domestic untidiness: de´sordre, de´rangement,
non range´, de´sorganise´, non organise´, chamboulement, ba-
zar, souk, foutoir, bordel, fatras, fouillis, chantier, pagaille,
chaos, capharnau¨m, binz, tohu-bohu. All these words can be
translated in English by the word “mess,” which does not
account for the subtle differences in meaning of the French
idiomatic expressions. As an illustration, the word bordel
referred originally to brothels, and it became a pejorative
and popular word to describe a very messy place; the word
chantier means a building site; the words souk and bazar
refer to the commercial district of Arabic cities where there
is a profusion of mixed elements, and so forth. Words have
also different levels in describing a messy situation: words
such as de´rangement or de´sordre are not particularly strong,
whereas words such as fatras or foutoir indicate dreadful
To deal with these difculties, we rst asked a profes-
sional translator to translate the narratives, and we then for-
eignized translations (Temple 2006; Venuti 1995). Profes-
sional translators are unaware of the situational context and
tend to present a domesticated translation, that is, a trans-
lation shaped to fit the reader better (Agar 2011; Sturge
1997). Domesticated translations present the reader with a
translation that reads well but does not accurately represent
meaning and intent (Churchill 2005; Mu¨ller 2007). There-
fore, we foreignized translations, that is, we shaped the trans-
lation to fit the informants’ meaning better using our un-
derstanding of the informants and the contexts (Temple
2006; Venuti 1995). These foreignized translations are in a
less Anglo-Saxon style and are closer to the original French
Furthermore, we kept several native terms as markers of
difference in the target language text (Liberski 1989; Temple
2006). This technique, called holus-bolus, is used to deal
with the untranslatability of a certain expression (Mu¨ller
2007). It avoids the all-too-easy identification of expressions
in the target language with preformed concepts and resists
premature categorization (Temple 2006). For instance, when
describing a mess hidden behind a door or a curtain, several
informants used the expression un cache mise`re, which one
professional translator rendered in as apresentableouter
of hiding something terrible, the English version stresses
the idea of making something look presentable. Therefore,
we preferred to keep the French expression followed by a
literal translation such as un cache mise`re [a hiding misery].
We decided to extend this practice to include the original
French transcription of phrases or sentences that we felt
could not be completely captured by the English translation.
We post in an online appendix the full verbatims used in
the article in both English and French.
Douglas holds firm to the view that pollution practices
in modern and traditional societies serve the same functions:
“Our ideas of dirt also express symbolic systems and the
difference between pollution behavior is only a matter of
detail” (Douglas 1967, 57). However, because Douglas fo-
cuses mostly on data collected in nonmodernized cultures,
she does not provide a convincing defense of this view.
Consequently, in the first section, we demonstrate that do-
mestic untidiness is a form of symbolic pollution. We show
that, similarly to the symbolic pollution in traditional so-
cieties that Douglas described, untidiness follows two con-
ditions, classification and dangerous transgression of clas-
sification. After demonstrating that untidiness, as defined by
our informants, follows the same general principles as sym-
bolic pollution, as defined by Douglas, we look more deeply
at the two key conditions of the symbolic pollution theory
in order to investigate symbolic pollution at a micro-social
Untidiness as a Form of Symbolic Pollution
When they talk about tidiness and untidiness, all our in-
formants evoke categories of objects and boundaries be-
tween categories that they have created. For instance, com-
menting on the photo of her fridge (fig. 1), informant Elise
explains the way she tidies it. She stresses the importance
of categories and borders:
That there, that’s the fridge. For me, the fridge is tidy because
there are . . . because things are in their place. The vegetables
are in the vegetable rack. It’s organized. In fact the older
vegetables are on one side and the fresher vegetables are on
the other. All the cheeses are also in the cheese drawer. Oth-
erwise there’s nothing lying around, or open. . . . Things
are tidied away in boxes, the grated carrots are in a Tupper-
ware, the chocolate mousse is in a bowl but it’s covered with
plastic film. You don’t have the impression . . . well, when
you’re looking for something, you spot it immediately: the
yogurts are all in the same place. It’s relatively very tidy
[C’est relativement bien range´]. (See the online appendix,
sec. 2.)
In accordance with Douglas’s analysis, Elise insists on the
fact that objects are assigned to classes of similar products.
These categories are based on different logics that form Elise’s
cherished classification system: type of product (e.g., yogurts,
cheese, vegetables) and characteristics of products (e.g., fresh-
ness). Elise also highlights the importance of borders that
allow her to make clear distinctions between categories of
objects. She uses several kinds of elements to delineate clas-
sifications and to create physical borders between classes of
objects. She delineates physical borders between products to
substantiate categories, for example, to make them visible and
concrete. She also sets up invisible borders between classes
of objects, placing them in specific locations (e.g., old veg-
etables on one side and fresh vegetables on the other). There-
fore, she assigns her possessions to specific categories, which
are delineated by physical or virtual borders. All our infor-
mants evoke categories and borders in the same way when
they talk about tidiness. Their tidying practices express their
symbolic systems and make visible and concrete the meaning
that organizes their environment.
Further, informants define mess as a contradiction of their
classification system, when categories are not clear-cut and
objects are in their wrong category. For instance, Elise com-
menting on a messy kitchen drawer (fig. 2), emphasizes the
transgression of categories and the lack of classifications
and borders between elements:
That, that’s a part of the kitchen. It’s a cupboard with three
shelves: at the bottom is the oil, in the middle there’s kitchen
foil and bags, . . . and there, that’s the middle drawer. You
can see that it’s disorganized. I know what’s in there: dried
fruits, biscuits. . . . But, well, OK you can see that stuff has
been opened: a packet of chewing gum, apacketofsweets,
a packet of biscuits while biscuits are in another place. At
first sight there’s no logic to it, and it’s not easy to find what
you’re looking for. So, for me, it’s not tidy. [A premie`re vue,
on ne voit pas de logique et ce n’est pas e´vident de trouver
ce qu’on cherche. Donc pour moi, ce n’est pas range´.] (See
the online appendix, sec. 3.)
Elise highlights that products are mixed with no apparent logic
and they contradict her sense of order. Whereas other drawers
are well identified (e.g., the oil drawer), in the middle drawer
products belonging to different categories are mixed (e.g.,
chewing-gum, biscuits, dried fruits, sweets). She also specifies
that products are open and that some of them (biscuits) should
be in another drawer. Therefore, unlike her fridge, where
classifications are logically defined and borders are clear-cut,
Elise highlights the lack of classification and precise borders
between elements in the drawer. In accordance with Douglas’s
analysis of symbolic pollution, things are “out of place,” con-
tradicting Elise’s sense of order. All our informants evoke
these ideas of transgressing boundaries between categories of
objects and objects in the wrong categories.
In addition, many informants view untidiness as trans-
mitting danger, as in Douglas’s analysis of pollution. Ame´lie
stresses how untidiness threatens her. She was ashamed be-
cause the disorder in her kitchen revealed by her sister-in-
law affects her identity as a wife:
Once my sister-in-law came to stay for a few days. I left her
on her own at home one morning. When I came back, I
noticed she had tidied my kitchen cupboards, and washed
them. I was ashamed because she’d really made me face up
to reality: that my tidying-up is superficial [mon rangement
est superficiel] and therefore, I’m a superficial person. I can
tell you I felt pathetic. Obviously, I thanked her, but without
letting it show that I was hurt that someone had told me
implicitly that my home was untidy. I think that’s why I
don’t like people coming around unexpectedly. I don’t want
anyone to say that I’m a disorganized person [une personne
de´sorganise´e] and that I can’t run my own home. I always
want to be the best, to be irreproachable, especially in front
of my in-laws. I want to show my mother-in-law that her son
has made a good choice: that he has a loving wife who knows
how to reconcile work and running a home. I want to project
a faultless image, and that’s reflected in the running of the
house. I can see very well how my mother or my brothers
judge women who are slatternly and who don’t know how
to keep house. I wouldn’t like to be like them. [Je vois tre`s
bien comment ma me`re ou mes fre`res jugent les femmes qui
sont sales et ne savent pas tenir leur foyer. Je ne voudrais
pas eˆtre de celles-la`.] (See the online appendix, sec. 4.)
Like Ame´lie, other informants emphasize the social dan-
gers linked to untidiness. They stress the negative image
they give of themselves when their house is untidy (e.g.,
being a bad wife, badly organized, a nonloving wife and
mother). Doing so, they conform to the vision of the ideal
home promoted by media and marketing that makes us be-
lieve that mess is dangerous (CrimethInc. 2000; Shove
2003). Untidiness threatens our identity and in particular a
wife’s identity. This threat becomes salient when the person
feels shame, as it is a key affective response to social eval-
uative threat (Dickerson, Gruenewald, and Kemeny 2004).
The experience of shame denotes the situation that has nur-
tured it and questions the sustainability of the self’s social
inclusion and acceptance (Dickerson et al. 2004). This ech-
oes Douglas’s analysis of symbolic pollution in traditional
societies in which transgression is regarded as wrong and
immoral and associated with many danger-beliefs (Du¨rr and
Jaffe 2010; Ger and Yenicioglu 2004; Martens and Scott
2005). The danger-beliefs attached to pollution act as a
means of enforcing conformity (Douglas 1999).
In sum, our results confirm that domestic untidiness shares
the same characteristics as symbolic pollution. They cor-
roborate the importance of symbolic classification systems
that set up places for objects and define borders between
categories of objects. Tidying substantiates symbolic cate-
gories; for example, it makes the cultural meaning that or-
ganizes the domestic environment visible and concrete. In
accordance with Douglas’s analysis, we show that symbolic
pollution emerges when objects are out of place and trans-
gress symbolic categories. Our results also highlight social
danger-beliefs associated with untidiness. Therefore, it
seems that both the macro-social and the micro-social sys-
tems are based on the same conditions—classification and
dangerous transgressions of classification. Tidying rein-
forces both the structure of social reality and the subsequent
moral order that is infused into our structuring of reality by
categories and classifications. However, because we focus
on practices at a higher level of granularity, we have the
opportunity to analyze how individuals navigate socially
constructed views of tidiness (Collignon and Staszak 2004;
Filiod 2003). Our results show that, at a micro-social level,
individuals negotiate the definition of classification and
transgression through daily, mundane actions and this has
a great deal of impact on the perception and management
of symbolic pollution.
Logics of Classification
Following Durkheim and Mauss (1903), Douglas refers
to well-structured and hierarchical classification systems
based on univocal rules (Babadzan 1976; Chauvin 2006).
However, our data on pollution at a micro-social level show
that informants base their classifications on multiple logics
that might overlap and create incoherent classifications at a
general level. Further, consumers define categories with in-
consistent precision, taking into account single, small groups
or larger groups of objects. These two characteristics, mul-
tiplicity and precision of classification rules, have several
impacts on symbolic pollution.
The Multiplicity and Juxtaposition of Classification Rules.
Douglas focuses on the cultural grounds for classification.
The determination of places for things depends on the nature
of the social order as inscribed in the scheme of cultural
categories (Douglas 1967; Hetherington 2004; Woersdorfer
2010). Similarly, cultural classifications are prominent when
informants talk about tidiness and untidiness. For instance,
informant Sonia explains that mess undermines the estab-
lished and internalized cultural classification of where things
have to be:
It’s not very tidy when objects, things are where they
shouldn’t be, for instance, a drill in the kitchen, piles of papers
or books, paperwork that piles up. After a week or two, it
makes for a huge pile of stuff. People don’t live on their
own. Things in their right place allow someone who isn’t
part of the family to find them, because it’s logical. It’s logical
to have knives in the kitchen, towels in the bathroom. (See
the online appendix, sec. 5.)
Informant Sonia reproduces the appropriate cultural con-
struction of the home that assigns specific home-space func-
tions (Dibie 2000; Mallett 2004; Munro and Madigan 1999).
This vision echoes Bourdieu’s (1971) analysis of the Kabyle
house, in which he described the cultural oppositions that
structure Kabyle houses: the distinctions between indoor and
outdoor spaces, genders, and humans and animals. These
cultural classifications help to structure the home and to
order domestic objects (Filiod 2003; McCracken 1986).
They define general rules concerning the places for things:
washing products in the bathroom, cooking utensils in the
kitchen, and so on. These rules are univocal, unambiguous,
and shared by all, like other cultural phenomena (Wallendorf
and Arnould 1991). As Sonia explains, it is logical to have
knives in the kitchen and towels in the bathroom. In addition
to these univocal rules, informants integrate their personal
considerations with the cultural taxonomy. Consequently, an
overlap of cultural logics is acquired through socialization
and a personal sense gained through experience.
As informant Marie explains in her comments on the
photo of her hallway (fig. 3), these personal classification
logics may seem arbitrary and may be contingent on the
outside observer:
This is a photo of the hallway. There are lots of things on
the hall table. It might seem disorganized, but it isn’t, because
the objects have been intentionally arranged that way. [C¸a
peut paraıˆtre de´sordonne´, mais cela ne l’est pas car les objets
sont volontairement dispose´s de cette fac¸on.] Each grandchild
has two photos. We have two photos of each grandchild and
one photo of our children when they were small. There’s
always a note pad and a pencil near the telephone, for taking
messages. What could seem to be an orderless accumulation
of stuff isn’t for me. In a way, it’s organized. . . . [Ce qui
pourrait apparaıˆtre comme une accumulation de´sordonne´e de
choses ne l’est pas pour moi. C’est d’une certaine fac¸on de
l’organise´.] You know, I was just saying to myself that I have
only taken examples from inside the house. And in fact I
could also have talked about the inside of my handbag. In
my bag I have a sort of huge bag in which there are lots of
things which might well be useless: the instruction booklet
for my telephone, a map of Paris . . . photos. . . . [erm]
. . . envelopes, visiting cards, telephone numbers for the
office. What else have I got? I’ve got . . . What’s in there?
Pencils, highlighters, . . . [erm] . . . my fountain pen, ink
cartridges, stamps. . . . What else have I got? All my loyalty
cards for different shops, my checkbook, luncheon vouchers.
It’s huge, wow! It’s really large and heavy. And besides that
I’ve also got a very big diary. This pocket inside my handbag,
it seems to be full of disorder and full of useless stuff. . . .
[Cette poche dans mon sac, elle parait pleine de de´sordre et
pleine de choses inutiles. . . . .] Oh yes, I’ve also got a make-
up bag, medicines, and a sewing kit. . . . Well, as far as I’m
concerned, it’s tidy. But I think if anyone else opened my
bag they would never lay their hands on anything. [Et bien,
pour moi, c’est range´. Mais je pense que si quelqu’un d’autre
devrait ouvrir mon sac a` main, il ne trouverait pas grand-
chose.] (See the online appendix, sec. 6.)
Marie is aware that people could think that her hallway table
or her handbag is untidy, but she explains that, according
to her standards, it is not. She explains the logic of her
tidying in her hallway. There are precise rules for objects,
that is, the number of objects that strike a balance or a sense
of justice (two pictures of each grandchild and one of each
of their children) and their use (the pen and the note paper
near the telephone). Setting up these rules and respecting
them makes her console perfectly tidy according to Marie’s
classification logics. Similarly, she emphasizes that her
handbag could look messy because there are many objects
that could be seen as useless and superfluous. However, it
is tidy for her because it is their place, and she knows how
to find them. It shows the contingent and reflexive nature
of classification systems. Since classification logics are per-
sonalized, classification systems differ from one person to
another, and some see pollution where others do not.
In our data, we have highlighted many different logics to
classify objects. Most of the time, informants define simi-
larity between objects according to their nature (e.g., cookies
with cookies, hammers with hammers, lipsticks with lip-
sticks). Consumers also classify their objects by their size,
their color, their shape, their use, their owner, and so forth.
These multiple logics, which are not necessarily coherent,
juxtapose and create complex classification systems that may
not have a logic at the global level. This is the situation
informant De´borah faces when tiding her books (fig. 4):
De´borah: This is my library. I say “my” because they are
my novels. They are well arranged. . . . . [Ils sont bien
range´s.] Before I used to arrange them in alphabetical order.
I used to love looking at my books and remembering the
stories and the characters. The problem is that arrangement
by alphabetical order is unsightly, there’s a mixture of colors,
heights, depths. . . . So I changed the organization. [Le prob-
le`me, c’est qu’un rangement par ordre alphabe´tique, c’est tre`s
moche: me´lange de couleurs, de hauteurs, de profondeurs.
. . . Alors, j’ai change´ le mode de rangement.] Now the
books are generally arranged according to color and within
each color they’re done according to the collection and within
each collection they’re done by author. OK . . . it seems an
illiterate thing to sort your books by color, but I find it more
pleasing, more harmonious . . . from the point of view of
shapes and colors. The problem is that it’s not easy to find
a book. When I’m looking for a book I have to remember
its color. . . . But, well, I don’t look that often. . . . OK,
from another point of view, I really like this completely un-
usual organization [Bon, d’un autre coˆte´, j’aime bien ce ran-
gement comple`tement insolite] which brings together authors
that otherwise would never find themselves side by side. In
the photo you can see that it makes a very nice line.
Interviewer (second interview): Last time, you showed me
this picture [fig. 4], and you explained that you classify your
books by color. In this picture, I see only white books. I guess
you have other kinds of books. How do you tidy them?
De´borah: Ah . . . yes, of course . . . when I tidy away a
book it’s not always easy to put it away because I never know
whether to give precedence to the color or the size. [Quand
je range un livre, c’est pas toujours tre`s simple de le ranger
car je ne sais jamais si je dois privile´gier la couleur ou la
taille.] In fact, on the top row it’s easy because all the books
are Folio paperbacks . . . same color, same size, even though
age has turned some of them yellow. That’s great, that is!
That lovely white line. . . . Afterward, underneath it’s not
so important. Sometimes I mix them up because I don’t know
what to do. [Des fois, je fais des me´langes parce que je ne
sais pas comment faire.] The problem is, when there’s a big
red one and all the other red ones are small. That’s ugly . . .
that really looks awful. I put it with other books that are big
but not red. And then there are books with lots of colors . . .
pfff! Right, that, that’s really complicated. Generally speak-
ing, I look for the dominant color, and I make sure it doesn’t
look too bad with the others. (See the online appendix, sec.
To order her books De´borah has prioritized aesthetics over
functionality. Her book classification system mixes four
classification rules (by author, size, color, and collection).
This echoes Perec’s (2013) analysis in which he identifies
11 ways of classifying books: by author, language, color,
reading priorities, acquisition date, publication date, style,
country, size, binding, and collection. De´borah manages her
system perfectly with Folio books, which have the same
format and color and thus match perfectly her aesthetic logic.
In this situation, she sets up a hierarchically ordered system,
such as is described in scientific classifications, with well-
structured categories and subcategories (Bergesen 1978):
first a classification by collection (Folio books) that share
the same format and color and then within this category a
classification by author. This creates a well-ordered and es-
thetic bookshelf. Conversely, De´borah faces difculties with
other books because many have a unique format and color
that makes them difficult to fit with other categories, such
as the multicolored book or the big red book. This situation
echoes Douglas’s analysis of the pangolin, an animal be-
longing to three classifications (birds, fish, and mammals).
Douglas shows that these anomalies challenge the taxonomic
system and therefore threaten the social order. Similarly to
the pangolin in Lele society, the multicolored book and the
big red book fit into several categories at the same time.
Douglas identifies different ways to tackle anomalies in or-
der to reduce their dangerous and destructing power. She
insists on the importance of rituals to substantiate cultural
categories, for example, to make visible and concrete clas-
sifications that organize the world. These rituals reinforce
both the structure of social reality and the subsequent moral
order that is infused into our structuring of reality with
categories and classifications (Nippert-Eng 1996). At a mi-
cro level, we find similar practices to manage anomalies.
Our informants like De´borah highlight another way to man-
age them. They avoid anomalies by changing classification
rules. They play with the boundaries of their categories,
expanding, changing, and suppressing them. For instance,
De´borah introduces in one category a book that does not fit
perfectly into the initial category definition but that is similar
in terms of color. She also changes the priorities of the
system, favoring size over color in order to better match her
aesthetic goal. This evolution in classification logic allows
her to avoid anomalies and to tidy all her books on her
bookshelves. Even if it is not as well organized as on the
first shelf, it is still tidy. At the general level, this change
in classification logic creates a complex classification system
with a multiplicity of accumulative and juxtaposed rules that
are not necessarily coherent. For instance, De´borah tidies
her books by color, but because the red book is bigger than
other books, she puts it with books with the same format
but not the same color. Consequently, at the general level,
De´borah’s system of classification does not follow a logic
based on mutually exclusive hierarchical categories. It has
many incoherencies that are explained by the necessity to
adapt rules during the tidying process in order to manage
Further, De´borah highlights the contradictions between
the functions of tidiness and its aesthetics. She specifies the
trade-off she has to make between easily finding her books
and having her books nicely arranged. The functions of
tidiness, that is, being able to find objects, minimizing the
time spent on tidying, making dangerous products inacces-
sible for children, or limiting tidying efforts, are personal
and subjective, whereas the aesthetic ascribes to cultural
discourses of tidiness and taste (Arsel and Bean 2013; Baud-
rillard 1968). Other informants refer to these contradictions
and stress the difficulties of combining them. Some explain
that they prioritize one over the other, such as De´borah, who
prefers aesthetics over functionality. Other consumers de-
scribe the tactics they use to manage these contradictions,
such as hiding things in such a way that they look nice and
are easy to tidy. For instance, Sonia explains that she has
in her kitchen un meuble a` jalousies [a furniture with jal-
ousie] that allows her to hide her Nespresso machine, her
kettle, and many other things. Thus, the kitchen looks nicer
because there is nothing lying around and it is easier to tidy
and to clean.
In sum, informants use a multiplicity of classification
rules to tidy their homes: by the nature, size, color, use,
shape, user, and so forth, of an object. In context, they
prioritize functionality (finding objects easily, minimizing
the time spent on tidying, making dangerous products in-
accessible for children, limiting tidying efforts) or aesthetics
(organizing objects in an aesthetic way), or they try to com-
bine both. This diversity of goals and tidying rules has two
impacts on symbolic pollution. First, some might not un-
derstand others’ rules and thus see pollution where others
do not. This echoes Douglas’s idea that pollution is in “the
eye of the beholder.” Second, domestic classification sys-
tems might not be well organized and logically structured
because they are the result of an accumulation of rules that
overlap and succeed one another. These multiple logics,
which are not necessarily coherent, create complex classifi-
cation systems that may not have a logic at the global level.
Whereas each rule taken independently makes sense when
informants set them up because it helps them to manage
anomalies, it might create an accumulation of rules that are
mutually incoherent.
The Precision of Classification Rules. Some informants
define broad classifications and others narrow ones. They
take into account single objects (e.g., a piece of Playmobil),
small groups of objects (e.g., Playmobil items, Barbies, Le-
gos) or even larger groups of objects (e.g., toys). These
differences have several impacts on the experience of tidi-
ness. For instance, informants Be´atrice and Nathalie have
opposing views about the classification of their children’s
toys. They do not individuate objects in the same way, and
thus they are more and less sensitive to symbolic pollution.
Be´atrice reveals her view:
It’s tidy when there are no toys visible because normally
there are cupboards with boxes and that sort of thing. . . .
No more toys to be seen, no more socks and toys not mixed
up inside the boxes [Plus de jouets, de chaussures visibles
et que les jouets ne soient pas me´lange´s a` l’inte´rieur des
boıˆtes] because often, and that annoys me too, because . . .
he, my son, especially, since he’s the oldest . . . so you tell
him to tidy away his toys, and you open the boxes, and you
find Playmobil items with dinosaurs, and at that point . . .
pfff, well, I just feel beaten. Playmobil items and dinosaurs
in the dinosaurs! Because that’s really hard to tidy. . . . in
fact when things are on the floor, for example, Playmobil
items and dinosaurs, well that’s OK because you sort the
Playmobil item into the Playmobil box and the dinosaurs into
the dinosaur box, but when you take the crate, and there are
really tiny objects all mixed up, well that’s a nightmare vi-
sion, it’s a horror story, you look at the box and scream,
“No! He can’t have done that!” [laughs] (See the online
appendix, sec. 8.)
Nathalie describes a picture of her child’s room:
There, that’s a picture of tidiness. That’s just about acceptable
for me, it’s Valentine’s room. . . . It’s tidy because there’s
nothing lying around on the floor. . . . Those big white pieces
of furniture, there are no drawers or divisions inside, they’re
like huge sliding boxes, so it’s really easy for the games
because they can put everything inside easily, but afterward
it’s a total mess inside [apre`s l’inte´rieur, c’est le bazar]. They
need to be able to put the games away easily because they
keep taking them out and putting them away, you see. I want
the girls to play in their room, I want them to use it, I don’t
want to constrain them. . . . I don’t want them not to play
with their toys just because I like to see their room tidy, and
so they don’t get to make use of their room; they’re only
little girls. I find it a bit silly to say, “That castle goes there,
the pink boxes are for Playmobil items, the ones that are in
a line go over there, the board games go in that cupboard
there.” You know, everything in its place. No! . . . It’s sim-
ple, the organization is simple. There are just four large draw-
ers, and it only takes seconds in fact to make it look a little
bit tidy, but I’m not over-fussy, it’s tolerable, you know. . . .
[c¸a prend deux secondes en fait pour que c¸a a` l’air un peu
pre`s range´c¸a a` l’air un peu pre`s range´, mais je ne suis pas
maniaque je trouve que c’est tole´rable quoi]. In the drawers,
it’s a joyous dump, everything just chucked in there anyhow,
Barbie dolls, Playmobil items . . . everything on top of ev-
erything. But nobody’s bothered. [Dans les tiroirs, c’est un
joyeux foutoir il y a tout empile´ n’importe comment, les
barbies, les playmobils, les . . . tout se superpose. Mais, c¸a
ne de´range personne.] (See the online appendix, sec. 8).
Nathalie and Be´atrice differ in the precision of their clas-
sification systems. Be´atrices classication is very precise
and meticulous. Dinosaurs and Playmobil items belong to
the same category (her son’s toys), which is divided into
subcategories (e.g., dinosaurs vs. Playmobil items), and
therefore they cannot be mixed. This echoes De´borahs book
classification with categories (color) and subcategories (size
and alphabetical order). Nathalie doesn’t make such object
individuation and subclassifications. Therefore, Playmobil
items do not have to be put in specific boxes and separated
from Barbies. In the drawers, toys are mixed; they are stock-
piled “dans un joyeux foutoir” [in a joyous dump]. The
difference in terms of individuation leads to different per-
ceptions of pollution. Informants like Be´atrice, who organ-
izes her home according to a narrow classification system
that defines a precise place for objects, face more symbolic
pollution. Informants like Nathalie, who do not individuate
objects and does not assign them to specific places, face
less symbolic pollution. Toys and games can be in any of
the four drawers in the bedroom. As long as they are in
those drawers, it does not affect her at all. Because Be´atrice
and Nathalie do not set similar boundaries between toys,
the former sees pollution where the latter does not. The more
we segment, the more we show evidence of transgression
(Nippert-Eng 1996).
Classification precision also impacts anomalies because,
when classifications are getting too narrow, it might be more
difficult to assign objects to categories. For instance, com-
menting on a photo of the inside of a large cupboard, De´-
borah relates her attempt to tidy a box full of school ma-
terials (pens, rules, scissors, etc.):
Let’s begin straight away with the total horror: the inside of
the cupboard that belonged to Pierre’s great-grandmother. It’s
a nice cupboard. But inside it’s terrible. It’s always an ab-
solute mess. No matter how often I tidy it, it quickly reverts
to a mess. [C’est toujours en bazar. J’ai beau ranger mais le
bazar revient aussitoˆt.] I don’t know how many hours I’ve
spent tidying the inside of this cupboard. The problem is that
every time I find something lying around the house, I stuff
it in the cupboard. The worst is when I’m working at home.
. . . Because I work on the table in the dining room, when
we eat, I chuck everything in the cupboard any old how.
Well, you may not realize, it but there is a certain logic behind
this mess. [Mais bon, on ne dirait pas mais il y a une certaine
logique derrie`re ce bazar.] To start with, there are boxes with
precise functions. The red one there, that’s for paper. The
other red one, on the right, is for pens. The problem is that
they are full to bursting. The other day my daughter was
bored. So I suggested that she tidy the pencil box. We call
it the pencil box because basically we put pencils in it, but
there are also lots of associated items. . . . It’s a bit like a
big school pencil case. There is other stuff. . . . So, OK, we
managed to throw out about 15 old pens that had stopped
working. We made a pencil case for paints and another for
crayons and felt tips. But afterward we didn’t know what to
do with the rest. There are so many items: a stapler, a pair
of compasses, sticky tape, erasers, highlighters, scissors, and
all that . . . all that. . . . How do you tidy away all that?
Children’s scissors, do you put them with the scissors or with
the children’s stuff or on their own? And then we didn’t have
any spare pencil cases or places to stick the stuff. So we
lumped everything together and threw it all back into the
box. [Alors on a tout remis en vrac dans la caisse.] Pff . . .
Total failure! (See the online appendix, sec. 9.)
The pencil box story highlights the difficulty of identifying
subclassifications among objects. Contrary to De´borahs
previous narrative, in which she explains how she plays with
classification rules to avoid anomalies, she does not find
appropriate logics to subclassify her pens. She excludes non-
working pens and identifies two easy categories (painting
materials and coloring pens) and separates them from others
by putting them into two different pencil cases. Then she
finds it too difficult to classify other pens because there are
so many different kinds of objects and because she lacks
the appropriate boxes to separate the categories. Thus, the
change in the classification of objects from broad (e.g., a
large pencil case with all the material) to individuated (e.g.,
the children’s scissors, the felt-tip pens) becomes too dif-
ficult to manage and multiplies the risk of anomalies, such
as the children’s scissors.
In sum, informants consider single objects, small groups
of objects, and/or large groups of objects and thus define
more or less precise classification systems. When classifi-
cations are broad, objects do not have a well-defined place
and so can mix with others without transgressing symbolic
boundaries and without generating symbolic pollution.
Therefore, because people refer to different classification
systems with various degrees of precision and levels of in-
dividuation, what is symbolic pollution for one informant
might not be for another. Further, some individuals opt for
less complex rules to protect themselves from pollution,
while others get bogged down in their own rules. Informants
who use precise domestic classifications are more exposed
to pollution and to anomalies because there is a higher risk
of classification transgression and a higher risk of anomalies.
Now that we have highlighted two key issues in the clas-
sification process, in the next section we will look at trans-
gressions of classification.
Classification Transgressions
Following Douglas (1967), departure from classification
threatens the stability provided by the social order, and so
transgression is regarded as wrong and immoral (Du¨rr and
Jaffe 2010; Woersdorfer 2010). As Douglas explains, “Pol-
lution rules, by contrast with moral rules, are unequivocal.
They do not depend on intention or a nice balancing of
rights and duties. The only material question is whether a
forbidden contact has taken place or not” (1967, 162). How-
ever, there are usually many things out of place in a house,
but only some elicit a response and generate symbolic pol-
lution. Thus, in this section, we will study tolerated trans-
gressions and danger-beliefs.
Tolerated Transgressions. Because new objects are con-
tinuously coming in, going out, and moving around the
house, consumers cannot comply perfectly with their clas-
sification system; doing so would demand too great an effort.
These continual movements create disruptions in the clas-
sification system, and informants try to accommodate them
by tolerating transgressions. For instance, informant Marcel
has a wine cellar, which contains about 200 bottles stored
on wine racks (fig. 5).
Marcel: OK, there, that’s tidy . . . you see . . . in fact it’s
classic organization. Bottles of wine stacked on a wine-rack.
. . . In principle, a white is with the whites, a red is with
the reds, a Burgundy is with the Burgundies, a Bordeaux with
the Bordeaux, and so forth. But, well, it’s not perfect because
you really need a system for classification by year in order
to have the bottles to hand. But that takes a lot of time and
would require permanent arranging. So anyway, that suits
me. It’s fine like that. It’s tidy. [Donc voila`, c¸a me va. C’est
bien comme c¸a. C’est range´.]
Interviewer (second interview): Last time, you showed me
this picture [fig. 5], and you explained how you classify your
wine bottles. In this picture, I see a few gaps in your wine
racks . . .
Marcel: Yes, well, there are gaps. . . . When there’s a gap,
it’s because we’ve drunk the bottle that was there . . . and
when there’s a gap . . . when there’s a gap that’s big enough
to take a case, I bring up a case [Marcel also stores wine in
his garage where he has about 150 bottles in their original
cases]. I open it, and I take the bottles from the case, and I
put them on the rack, in the wine rack. OK, there, the years
might be mixed up . . . in fact, yes. . . . [Bon la`, il peut y
avoir du me´lange d’anne´es . . . effectivement oui. . . .] Oth-
erwise, it’d have to be done differently . . . but we do that
when we’ve got time to spare. We do it once or twice a year,
we reorganize, we restore order if it’s really disorganized.
But in fact, rather than undo the whole thing, we just fill in
the gaps. In fact, we try to respect the category, but there
might be one bottle that is older than the ones around it. But,
well . . . it’s not ideal, but we can work round it. That’s the
way it is. [Mais c¸a on le fait une ou deux fois par an, on
restructure, on remet de l’ordre s’il y a vraiment des de´r-
angements. Mais bon plutoˆt que tout de´faire, on bouche le
trou. Alors on essaie de garder la meˆme cate´gorie mais il
peut y avoir une bouteille qui peut eˆtre plus vieille par rapport
aux autres qui l’entourent. Mais bon. . . cest peut-eˆtre pas
l’ide´al mais on s’y retrouve. C’est comme c¸a.] (See the online
appendix, sec. 10.)
Marcel tries to manage the order in his wine cellar by re-
specting broad categories (white and red wine) and subcat-
egories (Bordeaux, Burgundy). He wishes he could also
respect narrower subclassifications (by year), but this would
be too demanding. He would have to reorder his wine cellar
every time he adds or drinks a bottle. Therefore, to keep it
manageable, Marcel accommodates almost perfect order. He
knows it is not perfect, but he accepts it because it is the
only way to manage the in-and-out flux that creates disorder
in the ideal order. Even if he would like to get his cellar
perfectly tidy, he accepts a few transgressions in his clas-
sifications. Similarly, many other informants stress minor
transgressions in their classifications that they accept to keep
it manageable. Therefore, to manage domestic dynamics,
almost all our informants specify that they tolerate classi-
fication transgressions. They know that they transgress their
classification system, but they allow themselves these trans-
Tolerated transgressions do not generate any symbolic
pollution until a crisis occurs. The crisis transforms tolerated
transgression into symbolic pollution. Like informant He-
lena in the following narrative, many informants relate spe-
cific events that suddenly make tolerated transgressions in-
tolerable. Helena comments on a picture of her bathroom:
That, that’s not tidy. These are things I use every day, which
I pick up and put down, pick up and put down. And so it
isn’t tidy, the contact lenses shouldn’t be there, they’ve got
a little box. There, there are jars missing, so that means
they’re lying about somewhere else. There, the brush and the
comb, they’re not put away in the little box. And they’re
going to fall. It’s not very . . . Usually, that jar there is
further forward because I use it a lot, and so it’s likely to
fall. Everything is going to fall! I’m a bit, I don’t take any
notice when I take something. Those two there are also going
to fall. . . . [Tout va tomber! Je suis un peu brouillon, je ne
fais pas attention donc si je prends un produit, ces deux la`
vont tomber. . . .] So I tidy, as soon as something topples,
I tidy. It’s going to get on my nerves to set up a system that
doesn’t work, so I tidy, it’s going to get on my nerves to do
the same thing all the time, so. . . . There, that’s about to
fall. I’m going to make a bit of space here . . . and so on.
Things pile up, and once a crisis situation develops, the basin
overflows or something falls over, then you have to introduce
a bit of order . . . fast. [C¸ a s’accumule et a` partir du moment
ou` il a une situation de crise, un de´bordement dans l’e´vier
ou un truc qui tombe, la` il faut une remise en ordre . . .
rapidement.] (See the online appendix, sec. 11.)
Helena gives a detailed description of a pollution crisis. She
emphasizes how transgressions multiply and how this ac-
cumulation suddenly generates a crisis. In her case, a specific
event creates the crisis (e.g., something falls down or is
about to do so). However, most of the time, informants do
not cite any specific event. They just decide that they cannot
accept the situation any longer. As Marcel explains when
talking about his wine cellar, when the situation becomes
too messy, it is important to reorder things to get back to
a well-organized situation. Thus, pollution is not only a
question of classification contradiction but also of how these
transgressions are designated. There are many tolerated
transgressions that do not elicit a response. A place may not
be acknowledged as messy until a crisis occurs. The crisis
resembles a tipping point that makes transgressions no
longer tolerable. Therefore it is not things being objectively
out of place but our reaction to their being out of place that
generates their designation as polluted (Bergesen 1978).
In short, most informants do not follow their classification
system meticulously, and they tolerate many classification
flows. Not respecting their classification system helps them
to manage pollution. They tolerate these transgressions until
a crisis occurs that transforms tolerated transgression into
pollution. Conversely, if a crisis does not occur, transgres-
sions remain and can even transform into normal situations.
These findings highlight the importance of pollution label-
ing. It is not things being objectively out of place but our
reaction to them that generates their designation as pollution
(Bergesen 1978). These practices raise questions about dan-
ger-beliefs, upon which we elaborate next.
Danger-Beliefs. As we have already highlighted, con-
sumers worry that untidiness might create a bad impression.
However, most of them emphasize difficulties in keeping
their home tidy, which implicates a clash between personal
preferences and social norms and points to a fear that fol-
lowing personal preferences may carry a social cost. The
clash between personal preferences and social norms is a
particularly special case of the more general point that peo-
ple’s tidiness practices are internally inconsistent but inten-
tionally so. This inconsistency is not just driven by fear of
being seen as untidy. People are willing, even privately and
without the actual or imagined watchful eye of others, to
break tidiness rules. Informants emphasize that they can
transgress the classification rules in specific situations but
not in others. For instance, informant Hassna gave us a
picture of each room of her flat taken on a weekday and on
weekends. On weekdays, she tolerates a high level of un-
tidiness, whereas during the weekend she likes her flat to
be properly tidy (figs. 6 and 7):
In the bathroom everything is on the floor. When I have a
shower, I take off my clothes, and I leave them in a heap.
[Dans ma salle de bain, il y a tout par terre. Quand je prends
ma douche, je retire mes affaires, et je les laisse en tas.] I
don’t tidy up every day. The bath towel is also on the floor.
There’s also the face cloth hanging near the washbasin, al-
though it’s got its own place. Basically, it doesn’t worry me
too much to leave things lying around and not tidying up
every day. [Au fond, c¸a ne me de´range pas trop de laisser
trainer des choses et de ne pas ranger tous les jours.] I tidy
up more on the weekend. But it’s true, if I’ve got people
coming around during the week, then I tidy up during the
week. But generally speaking, it’s the weekend. Already, I
tidy up during the weekend just for me. It’s much nicer to
live in a clean space than in a mess. Afterward, what with
work and tiredness in the evening, even if it’s not tidy, you
can’t be bothered, you don’t really want to. On the other
hand, on the weekend, you take the time because you feel
better in your home once it’s tidy. I like Sundays, when it’s
tidy. I couldn’t spend a whole weekend at home if it wasn’t
tidy. It affects your mood. Untidiness makes you even more
tired. When it’s clean, when it’s tidy, then it motivates you
to get up. You enjoy it even more when you’re enjoying a
drink when watching TV because it’s tidy. [Par contre le
week-end, tu prends le temps car tu te sens mieux chez toi
quand c’est range´. J’aime bien le dimanche quand c’est range´.
Je ne pourrais pas passer un week-end entier chez moi sans
que ce soit range´. Ca joue sur l’humeur. Ca te rend encore
plus fatigue´ le bordel.] (See the online appendix, sec. 12.)
Hassna accommodates untidiness in specific situations (e.g.,
on weekdays and when there are no visitors to the home).
In these situations, she deviates from her defined classifi-
cation system without any consequences. She leaves every-
thing where she uses it: bath towels on the ground, washing
products on the living room table, shoes in the middle of
the hallway, bed unmade, and so forth. She knows it is
messy, but she is fine with that, and it is usually that way
on weekdays. However, she tidies her place on the weekend.
As she stresses, she tidies for her sake and not just because
visitors are coming. She needs her place to be tidy in order
to enjoy it during the weekend and not feel distress. Thus,
danger-beliefs are not only due to social pressure but also
dependent upon personal beliefs. Hassna evokes many per-
sonal danger-beliefs linked to untidiness, such as a low qual-
ity of life and stress. She reflects marketed ideals, often
springing almost directly from advertising that focuses on
neat, tidy, well-organized living spaces. As IKEA expresses
it, living in a tidy and well-organized house is important to
feeling good and relaxed.
Further, tidiness rules do not always match everyday prac-
tices because, as Douglas emphasizes, each situation has its
specific risks and issues. For instance, informants Claudine
and Gislaine, who are fanatically tidy and have perfectly
tidy homes, tolerate mess on their desks. For both of them
the desk is the only untidy place in their home because work
generates specific constraints and risks that justify untidi-
ness. Claudine notes:
My desk is the only place that is never very tidy. Because I
need to see the things I have to do, so I don’t forget them.
So, if I’ve got letters to send, I leave them out where I can
see them, because that reminds me that I need to send them.
And . . . that gives me the impression that I’m working. But,
a tidy desk, that means that I’ve got nothing to do. That’s
not normal because there’s always something to do. [C¸ a me
donne l’impression que je bosse. Alors qu’un bureau range´,
c¸a signifie que je n’ai rien a` faire. Ce n’est pas normal car
on a toujours quelque chose a` faire].
And Gislaine describes her desk (fig. 8):
That’s my desk, there, it’s not tidy at all, it’s only when I’m
working, when I work that it gets untidy, . . . there’s a diary,
a camera. It doesn’t worry me when I’m working, but when
I go back to it, then everything has to be tidy. Each time I
finish up, I tidy up. Tidying means making piles. [C¸ a ne me
de´range pas quand je travaille mais quand je reviens il faut
que ce soit range´. A chaque fois que c’est termine´, je range.
Ranger c’est faire des tas.] There, you can see an open drawer.
I can’t abide open drawers or cupboards. On the desk there’s
a padlock, a camera, that’s got no business being there . . .
untidy desk, papers everywhere, drawer open . . . there’s a
lot of activity. I need to tidy my desk at least once a week
in order to straighten out my ideas. When I work, the desk
can be untidy, but when I’m no longer working, I can’t bear
to see my desk like that. [Quand je travaille le bureau peut
eˆtre en de´sordre mais de`s que je ne travaille pas je ne supporte
pas de voir mon bureau comme c¸a.] (See the online appendix,
sec. 13.)
Claudine and Gislaine describe messy environments while
they work: things accumulating on their desks (even objects
not linked to their work), open drawers, documents out of
order lying about, and so on. Interestingly, the desk is the
only place in their home where they tolerate mess. They
explain that working has its specific risks and issues, such
as forgetting to do things or looking as if they have no work.
It symbolically represents activity. This is in line with re-
search on tidiness at work that shows that colleagues are
judged more positively if their desks are slightly messy
(Morrow and McElroy 1981; Sitton 1984). Further, when
Gislaine needs clear ideas, she needs to tidy her office. It
helps her to relax and get things clear in her mind. Other
informants also highlighted the benefits of untidiness when
performing creative activities and how it helps them to be
more creative. Pollution, which is normally threatening,
sometimes becomes creative and can be used as a positive
resource (Mody 2011). Therefore, people tolerate mess in
specific situations that are related to danger-beliefs and sym-
bolism. Each situation has its specific risks and issues.
Therefore, a behavior can be judged as dangerous and in-
appropriate in one specific context and not in another.
In short, people are willing, even privately and without
the actual or imagined watchful eye of others, to break ti-
diness rules. These findings contradict one of Douglas’s
important cornerstones—that pollution rules are unequivo-
cal. In a domestic context, rules are not unequivocal because
danger-beliefs are context-dependent, changing upon activ-
ity, time, and place.
In this analysis, we investigated untidiness from the angle
of symbolic pollution taking Douglas’s seminal work Purity
and Danger (1967) as a central reference point. Douglas
defines pollution as the departure from classifications. She
highlights the cultural construction of pollution, stating that
it is based on a symbolic and culturally constituted system
of classification, which is constructed, transmitted, and
shared. Symbolic pollution disturbs rules and classifications;
it threatens the social order established by science, religion,
or ideology (Campkin and Cox 2007; Du¨rr and Jaffe 2010;
Meylakhs 2009).
In consumer research, symbolic pollution is mainly as-
sociated with dirt (Beall 2006; Campkin and Cox 2007; Ger
and Yenicioglu 2004; Neves 2004). These authors analyze
the ways in which consumers create, eliminate, or shift sym-
bolic boundaries through cleanliness and washing practices.
However, consumers confound hygiene with symbolic pol-
lution by tending to focus on the sanitary dimensions of
disorder (Bedin and Fournier 2009). In contrast with pre-
vious studies, we focus on symbolic pollution that is not
concerned with sanitary issues. This enables us to avoid
potential confusion induced by sanitary dimensions.
Extending Douglas’s work, we take a different angle on
symbolic pollution, shifting from the macro-social to the
micro-social level, with an emphasis on everyday and mun-
dane domestic practices. Studying untidiness at home, we
investigated the place of things and the way we understand
tidiness (things in the right place) and untidiness (things out
of place). In doing so, we focused on the negotiation of
cultural norms at a micro level (Askegaard and Linnet 2011;
Desjeux 1999) because the structures identified at a macro
level are in dialogue with the practices and dialectical in-
teraction identified at a micro level leading to a negotiation
of the structure of tidiness/untidiness and its evolution (Sew-
ell 1992). This micro-social analysis of tidiness gives new
insights on symbolic pollution and on materiality.
Symbolic Pollution
Our findings corroborate Douglas’s work emphasizing
symbolic classification systems that prescribe “proper”
(shares an etymological root with cleanliness) places for
objects and define symbolic boundaries between categories
of objects. In line with Douglas’s analysis, we demonstrate
that tidying practice substantiates the symbolic classification
system, that is to say, it makes the cultural meaning that
organizes the domestic environment visible and concrete.
Both macro-social and the micro-social systems are based
on the same conditions, that is, classifications and dangerous
transgressions of classification. Tidying reinforces both the
structure of social reality and the moral order that subse-
quently infuses our structuring of reality by categories and
However, our results show that at a micro-social level,
individuals negotiate the definition of classification and
transgression through daily, mundane actions that have
many impacts on the perception and management of sym-
bolic pollution. Studying symbolic pollution generated by
untidiness, we emphasize the central role of boundary work
and beliefs about personal danger that give people the flex-
ibility to manage symbolic pollution that emerges when
transgressing boundaries.
Boundary Work. From Douglas’s perspective, objects
are classified into a number of mutually exclusive conceptual
categories; that is to say, no object belongs to two classes
at the same time. Elements that do not fit into the classifi-
cation, called anomalies, are symbolically separated from
other elements through a different process in order to re-
inforce the structure of the classification system and the
subsequent social order (Douglas 1967). Further, categories
are organized into a hierarchically ordered and mutually
exclusive sequence. In other words, all first-level categories
can be classified along a second level, and so on, and at a
given level of the hierarchy all categories are mutually ex-
clusive (Sperber 1975). At a micro-social level, our results
show that classifications might not follow such hierarchical
First, some consumers use one-level classifications with-
out subclassifications. Our results show that some consumers
do not individuate objects but consider a general group of
objects without making differences between objects within
second level (e.g. Barbies, Playmobil items, dinosaurs) or
boy). Using one-level classifications avoids anomalies and
category transgressions and consequently symbolic pollu-
tion. Since there is no second-order classification, the place
of things is defined very broadly and objects can mix without
generating any symbolic pollution. Conversely, individuals
who use multiple-level classifications are more exposed to
pollution, because the place of things is defined precisely
and there is a higher risk of classification transgressions and
anomalies. Therefore, the more people try to order their
home by defining multiple-level classifications, the more
exposed they are to pollution.
Second, at the micro-social level, classifications are con-
structed through a multitude of micro actions that succeed
one another. Consequently, several logics are juxtaposed,
and the addition of all these rules defined at the local level
might generate a complex and incoherent classification sys-
tem at the general level, which might not be mutually ex-
haustive and hierarchically ordered. Our results show that
individuals manipulate their classification rules to manage
pollution and anomalies: they modify rules about priorities
during the tidying process, revise borders, change the mode
of objects’ individuation using broader or narrower classi-
fication rules, and so forth. This boundary work gives them
the flexibility to manage anomalies and transgressions and
consequently to avoid symbolic pollution. It also allows
people to integrate objects easily into their classification
system and thus avoid anomalies and pollution. They define
their domestic classifications step by step, juxtaposing dif-
ferent logics, changing their classification rules in action
when they face specific situations and difficulties. For ex-
ample, consider Deborah’s difficulties in tidying books that
do not fit with her initial tidying rules and that made her
change her classifications rules. Thus, the place of an object
could be judged differently if we consider the local logic
(e.g., the individual micro-tidying practice) or the global
logic (e.g., the entire home). From which perspective do we
say that an object is in its right place? Should we consider
it from the practice perspective, taking into account indi-
vidual micro-practice logic, or should we consider it from
the global perspective, taking into account the cultural logic
governing the whole? Defining the level of analysis is im-
portant for understanding the concept of the place of things
because an object could be seen in its right place according
to micro-practice logic but out of place according to global
logic, because micro-practices succeed one another without
necessarily being coherent.
In conclusion, individuals continually play out categorical
distinctions, so that the symbolic world they create is made
consistent with their daily constraints (McCracken 1986;
Nippert-Eng 1996). Our results show that people create
boundaries, ignore some of them (definitively or temporar-
ily), and change them to manage symbolic pollution. These
findings highlight the key role of “boundary work,” the
strategies, principles, and practices that individuals use to
create, maintain, and modify categories (Nippert-Eng 1996).
It allows categories and classification to exist, to be mean-
ingful, and to change over time depending on situations and
contexts. People manipulate classification systems to avoid
transgressions and anomalies. This boundary work gives
them flexibility to manage anomalies and transgressions and
consequently to avoid symbolic pollution. Therefore, clas-
sifications do not only have a cognitive function, by facil-
itating meaning (Durkheim and Mauss 1903), or a social
function, by preserving symbolic and social order (Douglas
1967); they also have a practice function, by facilitating
action and coping with symbolic pollution.
Personal Danger-Beliefs. Douglas assumes that classi-
fication systems are preserved by the implementation of
prohibitions, taboos, and danger-beliefs to preserve their sta-
bility and visibility over time (Du¨rr and Jaffe 2010). Con-
sequently, any transgression is regarded as wrong and im-
moral, and anomalies are avoided and eradicated to maintain
the classification rules unchanged. However, at the micro-
social level, our findings show that disorder does not sys-
tematically trigger pollution. Consumers are willing to break
tidiness rules in specific situations. For example, consider
Hassna’s flat on weekdays: shoes and clothes lying every-
where on the ground, washing and make-up products strewn
on the living-room table, the sink full of dirty dishes, and
so forth. This is a classic Douglas situation, with things
clearly out of place. However, this mess does not bother
Hassna on week days. Thus, symbolic pollution is not only
of place but also of the labeling of these transgressions. Our
findings show that many things can be out of place but only
some elicit symbolic pollution. People tolerate some flaws
in classification and transgression of boundaries. Therefore,
it is not things being out of place but our reaction to their
being out of place that generates their designation as polluted
(Bergesen 1978). Our results also show that transgressions
have different meanings, depending on context, and that
respondents are willing to break tidiness rules because dan-
ger-beliefs associated with transgressions are context-de-
pendent. For instance, our results show that a messy desk
is appreciated because it symbolizes creativity, activity, and
work in progress.
Further, at the micro-social level, rules are not unequiv-
ocal because danger-beliefs change depending on the con-
text. Danger-beliefs are not only linked to normative pres-
sures but also to personal constraints and situations. There
is a shift from moral beliefs that present untidiness as so-
cially threatening to personal danger-beliefs that link unti-
diness to quality of life, personal efficiency, and so forth.
This is in line with a trend toward demoralization in modern
societies (Meylakhs 2009). The danger-beliefs that receive
the most attention are not connected with legitimating moral
principles but with personal danger. Risky behavior is only
risky because it can cause harm, not because it is a symbol
of moral decline (Douglas 1992). This is, for instance, what
IKEA stresses to convince consumers to buy home-orga-
nizing products. Rather than using moral arguments based
on the idea that it is socially unacceptable to have an untidy
house, IKEA highlights the personal dangers associated with
untidiness: stress, inefficiency, poor quality of life, and so
In conclusion, we show that, like the symbolic pollution
in traditional societies described by Douglas, untidiness fol-
lows two conditions—classification and dangerous trans-
gression of classification. However, our results show that,
at a micro-social level, individuals negotiate the definition
and transgression of classifications through daily mundane
actions, which have many impacts on pollution perception
and management. This micro-social analysis of tidiness
gives also new insights on materiality.
In consumer research, most studies on materiality have
focused on relationships with possessions. They have ana-
lyzed “the central role of possessions in understanding con-
sumer self, identities, and communities, as well as the con-
struction of narratives of belonging, personal and family
identity , and collective memory” (Bardhi, Eckhardt, and Ar -
nould 2012, 523). One of the main focuses is on the cultural
meaning of possessions, showing how possessions express
individual and collective characteristics and modes of exis-
tence (Askegaard and Linnet 2011). In this perspective, stud-
ies on tidiness have mainly focused on self-expression un-
derlying how untidiness expresses personality and identity
(Abrahamson and Freedman 2013; Belk et al. 2007; Filiod
2003). In contrast to this research on tidiness and on mate-
riality , we show that understanding materiality also requires
studying how consumers structure their material environment.
We show that it is not only the possessions and objects that
carry symbolic and cultural meaning but also the ordering
practices of possessions that embody cultural meaning. This
echoes Miller’s analysis of the order of things,thatis,the
way social and cultural meaning infuse material order (Miller
2005, 2008). Miller shows how consumers bring together the
dispersed elements of their lives, from religion to work to
family , and create an overall social cosmology based on the
complementary among them (Miller 2008). The foundation
of these ideas came from Bourdieu (1971), who analyzed the
orders in everyday life and showed how the practices that
emerge from these orders stored up the power of social re-
production. However, while Miller focuses on the order of
things, describing the way social and cultural meaning infuse
material order (Borgerson 2009), we focus on disorder. We
analyze contradictions within the order of things and introduce
the concept of symbolic pollution to understand dynamics
within the order of things.
Research on materiality needs to analyze how consumers
manage contradictions within their overall social cosmology
that emerge through everyday practices. Studying these ev-
eryday life practices is essential for understanding the struc-
ture and dynamics of consumption culture, because these
practices enable us to analyze how consumers navigate cul-
tural views on materiality. Because social and cultural rules
are always abstract and because they never prescribe spe-
cifically the conduct that will lead to a desired outcome in
any social situation, consumers never face a completely pre-
dictable outcome of the social symbolic exchanges in which
they engage (Askegaard and Linnet 2011). They thus have
to improvise and to adapt the cultural rules to fit with their
daily constraints and opportunities (de Certeau 1980). For
instance, consumers could encounter difficulties in conform-
ing to the tidiness norm because objects are continuously
coming in, going out, and moving around the house; con-
sumers cannot comply perfectly with their classification sys-
tem since doing so would demand too great an effort. These
continual movements create disruptions and contractions in
the classification system. To avoid symbolic pollution that
could emerge in such situations, consumers experiment with
several tactics. We have identified two main tactics: (1)
boundary work,thatis,consumerscontinuallymodifyclas-
sifications, so that their domestic classifications fit with their
everyday constraints and specific contexts. They alter the
boundaries of their categories, expanding, changing, and
suppressing them to avoid anomalies and transgressions and
consequently to avoid symbolic pollution; (2) transgression
transgressions, and thus many things that are out of place
do not generate symbolic pollution. Through these practices,
consumers both comply with the cultural norm of tidiness
and manage symbolic pollution. Therefore, in studying ma-
teriality, we argue that the focus should not only be on
possessions but also on the way consumers order their ma-
terial environment to create a meaningful and symbolically
unpolluted environment. Understanding these everyday
practices helps us to understand how consumers adapt the
cultural rules to fit with their daily constraints and oppor-
Avenues for Future Research
We have focused our research on understanding the cultural
meaning of (un)tidiness by analyzing the concept of “the place
of things” and the way we understand the categories of tidy
and untidy. One obvious extension is to investigate further
familial relationships around the question of “the place of
things.” Following previous research on individual and collec-
tive identities in domestic space linked to untidiness (Dowling
2008; Filiod 2003; Stevenson and Prout 2013; Welzer -Lang
and Filiod 1992), longitudinal studies of tidying practices cou-
pled with interviews with each family member could investigate
the following points further: how families negotiate the home
classification system that defines the place of things (conflicts,
legitimatization, appropriation, resistance, protection, etc.); how
each person tolerates out of place things that belong to others;
how children learn the place of things; and how danger-beliefs
are enacted, shared, and transmitted within the family . These
findings on familial tidiness practices would deepen the liter-
ature on symbolic pollution, familial conflicts (Martens and
Scott 2006), familial practices (Epp and Price 2010), and gender
(Welzer -Lang and Filiod 1992). One other possible extension
is to analyze how life events, such as a birth or a house move,
disrupt home classifications, impose the development of new
classifications, and change danger-beliefs. Studying the impact
of life events on tidiness would deepen the work on life events
(Young 1991), familial decisions and organization (Epp and
Price 2008, 2010; Stevenson and Prout 2013), and the process
of appropriation and renunciation of objects (Roster 2001).
Moreover, our research has highlighted an interesting par-<