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The Simple Bare Necessities: Scales and Paradoxes of Thrift on a London Public Housing Estate

Alexander, Catherine (2022) 'The Simple Bare Necessities: Scales and Paradoxes of Thrift on a London Public Housing Estate.', Comparative studies in society and history., 64 (4). pp. 934-965.


This article tracks how a trope of middle-class household thrift, grounded on the autarchic Aristotelian oikos, has long fuelled derogatory discourses in Britain aimed at low-income urban residents who practise quite different forms of thrift. Since the 1970s this trope has migrated across scales, proving a potent metaphor for national economic policy and planetary care alike, morally and economically justifying both neoliberal welfare retraction compounded by austerity policies and national responses to excessive resource extraction and waste production. Both austerity and formal recycling schemes shift responsibility onto consumer citizens, regardless of capacity. Further, this model of thrift eclipses the thriftiness of low income urban households, which emerges at the nexus of kin and waged labour, sharing, welfare, debt, conserving material resources through remaking and repair and, crucially, the fundamental need of decency expressed through kin care. Through a historicised ethnography of a London social housing estate and its residents, this paper excavates what happens as these different forms and scales of household thrift co-exist, change over time and clash. Ultimately, neoliberal policy centred on an inimical idiom of thrift delegitimizes and disentitles low-income urban households of their capabilities to enact livelihood practices of sustainability and projects of dignity across generations.

Item Type:Article
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Available under License - Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial No Derivatives 4.0.
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Full text:(VoR) Version of Record
Available under License - Creative Commons Attribution 4.0.
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Publisher statement:This is an Open Access article, distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution licence (, which permits unrestricted re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited. © The Author(s), 2022. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the Society for the Comparative Study of Society and History
Date accepted:21 September 2021
Date deposited:04 October 2021
Date of first online publication:19 April 2022
Date first made open access:04 October 2021

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