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Tribes of clutter

A new study of contemporary Londoners' possessions and the values they attach to them reveals a shif

The Comfort of Things

Daniel Miller

Polity Press, 300pp, £20

This book sums up how far social anthropology has progressed since Henry Mayhew wrote about the skull shapes of costermongers in the 19th century. Daniel Miller's approach is more in keeping with that of the wild and weird Tom Harrisson and the pioneers of Mass Observation in the 1930s. Having studied cannibalistic tribes in the New Hebrides, Harrisson despatched researchers to Bolton and north London to spy on the British working class at play. They reported on, among other things, the fixation with astrology, the football Pools, and "the cult of the aspidistra". These brief expeditions were undertaken as a tentative consumerism began to lighten the lives of the masses. At the time, George Orwell, having returned from his sojourn in Wigan, suggested that fish and chips, tinned salmon, radio and strong tea might have averted revolution.

Ultimately, if hope lay with the proles it lay with them as consumers. This, at least, was the contention of Dr Gallup, whose market research techniques attempted to understand the British as consumers, just as Mass Observation attempted to understand them as citizens. In The Comfort of Things, Miller investigates the citizens of contemporary London by way of their consumerism - or at least their material possessions, in an era of unprecedented mass consumption.

Initially Miller - currently a professor of anthropology at University College London - took the conventional approach to his craft, using expeditions to India, Trinidad and the Solomon Islands to investigate contemporary humanity "through the material form". In this new book he challenges the assumption that an attachment to things makes us more materialistic and superficial, consequently ruining the true potential of relationships. It is an assumption that environmental fundamentalists and certain psychologists line up behind when blaming the "affluence" of the masses for every earthbound evil. It is these and those of a similar mindset that you hope Miller might be addressing when arguing that such clichés and assumptions are seldom put to the test. "Possessions often remain profound," he says, "and usually the closer our relationships are with objects, the closer our relationships are with people."

But this is only part of the wider question he addresses in The Comfort of Things. It's a question that goes to the root of social science: what rituals and customs do human beings create to bring each other together? He argues that contemporary Londoners do not live their lives according to the cosmology of a religion or a belief in society. In fact, he echoes Margaret Thatcher in suggesting that there may no longer be such a thing as society, simply individuals in relationships with other people and objects. The latter is the impetus for this book, and a year and a half of research spent interviewing the inhabitants of a street in south-east London.

The "Stuart Street" of The Comfort of Things is an arbitrary choice, but its very ordinariness makes it interchangeable with other neighbourhoods in the capital. Diversity rather than homogeneity is what interests Miller, and this is what distinguishes the endeavour from the Britain that Mass Observation investigated. Only 23 per cent of the inhabitants of Stuart Street are London-born, and many of the 30 individuals allocated a "portrait" in this book hold allegiances to foreign localities. The modern London is fragmented, and the loss of identity has become its defining characteristic. In Miller's findings collectivism and community do not have an effective role to play in Stuart Street or elsewhere in the metropolis. "If ever we lived in a post-society, whose primary focus is on diversity rather than shared or systematically ordered culture, the London street is that post-society."

As such, for Miller, the study of material culture is the clue to understanding modern values. However, it is the characters less defined by the objects that surround them which prove to be the biggest finds in this book. There is Malcolm, a man whose email address is more of a "home" than his accommodation on Stuart Street, where his desire to embrace a digital existence has him jettisoning ornaments and accoutrements for a virtual life on the laptop. And the opening chapter of the book, "Empty", is the story of George, a 76-year-old who is more the stuff of fiction - the missing link between Melville's Bartleby and Miss Haversham. "It was after meeting George that we found ourselves in tears," writes Miller. "Because in every other instance there was a sense that at least that person had once lived. This was a man more or less waiting for his time on earth to be over, but who had never seen his life actually begin."

George is someone whose existence has been entirely dependent on the say-so of others, ranging from his parents to the state. Even the business of obtaining objects and decorating his flat requires decisions that are too big for him to deal with. His environment is beyond that self-conscious minimalism, that ethical thrift or that anti-consumerism which becomes its own lifestyle choice. His is a home where nothing survives as a clue to the history, or even the existence of its sole inhabitant: no mementoes, ornaments, photographs.

George is therefore the character who rattles part of Miller's thesis: "People sediment possessions, lay them down as foundations, material walls mortared with memory, strong supports that come into their own when times are difficult and the people who laid them down face experiences of loss."

Each portrait in The Comfort of Things is a chapter that reads like a short story. Miller has a tenderness and an affection for these characters, and his descriptions sometimes soar like passages in a novel, although there are moments when the author's projections tend to hint more at his own limitations than those of his subject. One such is the suggestion that George's lack of identity and passion for royalty make him ideal fodder for fascism.

Between the alienated and dysfunctional figures unearthed by Miller's research are those who find a joy and a passion in the things that help them nest and settle in a fragmented city. There is the cockney Londoner of old here, too, the breed whose bones lie beneath the city's paving stones; those forgotten by the new model "Londoner" who has rebranded the capital by way of a beloved multiculturalism that is as mythical as the "Middle England" he or she loathes. Working-class Marjorie accumulates things that, according to Miller, "never lose their rapport with the present". She is constantly changing the gallery of framed photographs that shroud her living room and watching old videos in an abode stacked with images of her family, as well as those of celebrities from the Beatles to television newsreaders.

Marjorie, perhaps more than any of the other characters in The Comfort of Things, best epitomises the theory that Miller is left with when his work in Stuart Street is done: in modern London, households and individuals alike have themselves to create the values that once defined us as a society. This is the departure that, here in the 21st century, has made social anthropology embark on a rethink. In losing the opportunity to study something known as society, it has been forced to focus solely on the individual and the home.

To the contemporary anthropologist such as Daniel Miller, "This street is New Guinea and every household in this book is a tribe."

Michael Collins is the author of "The Likes of Us: a Biography of the White Working Class", published by Granta Books (£7.99)

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This article first appeared in the 24 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How to get us out of this mess