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

Alexander, Catherine

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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.


Alexander, C. (2022). The Simple Bare Necessities: Scales and Paradoxes of Thrift on a London Public Housing Estate. Comparative Studies in Society and History, 64(4), 934-965.

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Sep 21, 2021
Online Publication Date Apr 19, 2022
Publication Date 2022-10
Deposit Date Oct 4, 2021
Publicly Available Date Oct 4, 2021
Journal Comparative Studies in Society and History
Print ISSN 0010-4175
Electronic ISSN 1475-2999
Publisher Cambridge University Press
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 64
Issue 4
Pages 934-965


Accepted Journal Article (431 Kb)

Publisher Licence URL

Copyright 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

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