Date of Award

Winter 12-22-2021

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Mitchell, Don

Second Advisor

Huber, Matthew T.


alienation, austerity, class, lifestyle, social reproduction, tiny houses

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities | Geography | History | Social and Behavioral Sciences | Sociology | United States History


Tiny houses – stand-alone, fully functional dwellings generally between 100 and 400 square-feet – are increasingly popular in the United States. The degradation of working class life wrought through neoliberal policy and then punctuated by the Great Recession propels this popularity. Next to traditional houses, tiny houses are significantly cheaper. Those among the middle stratum of the working class have sought out tiny houses as a means to ease their financial anxiety. Rather than merely a newer form of cheaper housing, an entire lifestyle movement has emerged around tiny houses. Anti-consumerism is the keystone to this lifestyle movement. For enthusiasts, environmental destruction, their indebtedness and financial precarity, their stress and alienation from work and life, in short, their lack of happiness or sense of purpose, originate in overconsumption. Tiny houses, because so few commodities can fit inside them, become a tool by which dwellers facilitate anti-consumerist lifestyle. Decreased consumer spending not only helps dwellers save money, it also proceeds, through the discourse of minimalism, as a spiritualistic method of practicing and signaling the virtues of prudence and self-restraint. With more savings and fewer expenses, enthusiasts endeavor to avoid alienating work and hasten retirement, leaving more time for hobbies and leisure. Because tiny houses are cheaper, they can be owned more quickly outright, and ownership permits dwellers a sense if economic security and feeling "at home." Homeownership allows dwellers to customize or even build their tiny home, offering an opportunity for un-alienated, self-affirming labor of a bygone era. Given that they typically require less materials and energy to build and maintain than a traditional house, tiny houses, and the anti-consumerism they embody, shrink dwellers ecological footprint.

Drawing from interviews and textual analysis, I argue that the tiny house movement is essentially one of working class retreat as it attempts to navigate several contradictions of the capitalist system. When it comes to these contradictions – capital's need to pay workers as little as possible despite their need for social reproduction, to dehumanize them at work notwithstanding their humanity, to isolate workers through competition no matter their innate sociality, to despoil the environment without thought of future survival – all of them come to rest on the shoulders of the working class itself. Like recurrent movements throughout American history, in the face of economic crises and rising inequality the tiny house movement proposes anti-consumption as protean savior. And just like its historical predecessors, the tiny house movement's anti-consumerism – its call for the working class to embrace thrift as a way of life – has been adorned by and rebranded through the discourse of "simplicity." Financially enforced asceticism is, upon being dragged through liberal (and now neoliberal) ideology, an opportunity for spiritual transcendence, savvy entrepreneurship, rugged self-reliance, and exceptional individuality.

The tiny house movement's call to embrace thrift as virtuous simplicity, then, encapsulates a recurrent if sublimated critique of capitalism. It cries out against capitalism's commercialism, social isolation, environmental destruction, and the overall misery of life due to overwork and insufficient leisure time. All of these symptoms are worthy of critique. But the tiny house movement's critique is altogether superficial and impoverished. Wedded as it is to a lifestyle politics focused on personal consumption, and thus privileging individual consumer decisions above that of collective political actions, it leaves the root causes of alienation, austerity, and abstract domination – the capitalist mode of production itself – unchallenged. The tiny house movement is thus ultimately more interesting in how it reproduces neoliberal ideology than its desire or capacity to combat it – and how such a sad state of social surrender can so easily be rebranded as a countercultural route to material and spiritual salvation.


Open Access