You are here

DIY: Decolonizing Our Lives

Although its theoretical and philosophical roots are much older, DIY is an up-and-coming issue of the twenty-first century.

by Kevin Wehr

What does it mean to do it yourself (DIY)? While it may seem flippant, this is actually a non-trivial question. There is a broad range of human behaviors that could qualify as DIY. From the driveway mechanic to the backyard gardener or the home-schooling parents, many diverse people are “doing it themselves.” There are also people who have made a conscious decision to lead a life out of the mainstream: workers who band together into a coöperative, or punks living in collectively-governed urban “squats,” or crafters who now make a living via Etsy. DIY is both varied in character and broad in scope. But at its core is a simple idea: The tasks that many are ready and willing to have others do for them can (and perhaps should) be done by one’s self.

DIY at its most basic means that ordinary people build or repair the stuff of their daily lives without the aid of experts. This could be a home improvement project, maintaining a blog, or crafting, knitting, or creating gifts for others—perhaps you consult a guidebook, but the project is done independently. DIY can be bigger than the home though. DIY endeavors also include running a pirate radio station, publishing your own magazine (known as a “’zine”), or even creating your own record label.

In short, DIY means people are taking control of their lives and becoming more self-reliant. Almost 170 years ago, the transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote his famous essay “Self Reliance.” Emerson’s essay is a meditation on an individual’s place within society as well as the virtue of relying on one’s self. Emerson regretted people’s lack of self-reliance and our dependence instead on experts: “I am ashamed to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions.”

Emerson’s desire for us to be free of control by professionals is in many ways a philosophical foundation for doing it yourself. Emerson called on Americans to free themselves of reliance on social institutions and discover our own motivations within. In short: do your own thing. Since Emerson, DIY in the U.S. has a long history with diverse examples and offshoots.

Categorizing DIYers

There are at least three ways to situate the DIY movement, and do-it-yourselfers (DIYers). First, we can understand DIYers as individuals acting on their own inclinations. But there are also folks who embrace a DIY mentality and actively share this with others. If we call the first group individualists, the second might be called coördinators. Lastly, there are people entirely caught up in the idea of DIY, and follow it almost like a philosophy. They live a lifestyle devoted to the idea, so we might call them lifestylers.

Individualists: Many DIYers are acting as individuals in isolation. They grow their own food for personal reasons—it makes them happy, they find the produce to be of higher quality, or maybe they do it to save money. Individualists may not think of themselves as the DIY-type of person, or as engaging in DIY behavior. They may instead think of woodworking, painting, or knitting as simply a hobby. But importantly, such DIYers rely on the coördination of the market for their weekend chores or hobbies. Most backyard gardeners would be lost without the nursery down the street to sell fertilizer and seeds. Without the auto parts store, the driveway mechanic couldn’t buy the fan-belt she wants to install. Thus, DIY individualists are enmeshed in the larger capitalist system, even if they desire to break away from relying on professionals. Reliance on others, then, is a continuum—from paying someone to do it, to buying a “do-it-yourself kit,” to following detailed step-by-step instructions. This can verge towards a “DIY-lite” where a project is done in a “color-by-numbers” manner. They are doing it themselves, but with a lot of help from distant experts.

Coördinators: The people who consciously embrace a DIY mentality and coördinate with a larger group are the core of what might be called the DIY movement today. Perhaps they subscribe to Readymade magazine, follow a blog about their favorite DIY topics, or watch the DIY network on cable. They think about the DIY approach, and engage in DIY behaviors intentionally. Doing things themselves is a large part of who they are: They are DIY and proud of it.

Lifestylers: Beyond taking on the DIY label, there are those who live and breathe the DIY lifestyle. They believe in the philosophy, and their first reaction to a problem is “how can I fix this myself?” This is when DIY becomes political: lifestylers might make a major purchase (a car or a home) because it can be fixed, rather than one that is only able to be repaired by experts. They might take their DIY message public through writing a blog or a ‘zine, and they think others should act more like them. They may reject products, situations, or even people because they do not conform to the DIY perspective. And most importantly, they devote a serious amount of time to their projects. These people are not the average weekend mechanic or gardener. As well as growing an extensive vegetable garden and home—schooling their kids, they might keep bees or brew their own beer—processes that require time, commitment, and continued attention.

Theorizing DIY

Why is DIY an up-and-coming issue of the 21st century? In some ways, home-flippers or crafters are not so different from the back-to-the-landers of the last century. But in other ways the differences are significant. The philosophy of DIY helps to navigate the vagaries of modern life. For some, DIY becomes a way of life, a sense of community, and an identity that we attach to. More than 150 years ago, Karl Marx commented on how the labor process produced isolation and detachment among workers, and described both alienation and mystification. Marx noticed that it seemed like people were missing something in their lives—there was a gap to be filled between our everyday experience and what we hope for.

For Marx, alienation and mystification were products of capitalism. Under a wage-labor system people are paid to produce a commodity. On an assembly line many workers make small additions to the overall production process, resulting in a product sold on the market. The worker walks away with a wage, and the capitalist who directs the process earns profit by selling the commodity. We are taught that this is fair and just: the capitalist buys machinery and raw materials up front and manages the overall process. Her profits are payment for the risk of investing. The laborers are simply paid a wage that is pegged to the prevailing market rate.

What Marx noticed about this was that the worker became separated from her labor in this process. Before factory production, a worker might make an individual item and sell it herself. The buyer knew who made the commodity, and the worker could take pride in the quality of what she produced. This is lost under capitalism, as most consumers have no idea who made a product, or how. This is alienation: the worker puts her time and energy—her very life force—into the commodity, which is then sold anonymously. For Marx this was a problem because it leaves a hole in the laborer’s life, a lack of fulfillment. Alienation, for Marx, means a daily frustration at being detached from other workers and consumers. Social relationships of the past—where producers were united with consumers—has been replaced by wages and purchase prices: money now mediates the social relationship. Many DIYers seek to remove this mediation of social relationships and return to a system where people interact directly. 

Detachment from social relationships also produces mystification: the origins of goods we consume remain obscure to us. Most people today have no real knowledge of how the things they use on a daily basis actually work. From the electricity that lights our houses and powers our gadgets, to the water that flows from our taps, to where our waste goes when we flush the toilet—we live a life of blissful ignorance. All of these are products of the system, and remain mysterious to most of us. Many people who like to do it themselves notice these dual processes of alienation and mystification and make an attempt to solve the lack of fulfillment by learning how things work and doing the labor themselves. In other words, they want to put social relationships back into primacy in an attempt to combat the sense of loss in our modern world.

Jurgen Habermas, a contemporary German social theorist had a term for the ways that capitalism takes over social relationships, such as inserting money between producer and consumer: the colonization of the lifeworld. Habermas argued that our social lives can be understood as involving two different worlds: There is the world of economic production and politics (which he called “system”), and the world of home, play, and sexual reproduction (which he called “lifeworld”). System is characterized by bureaucracy, rationality, and instrumental means-ends calculations. Lifeworld, on the other hand, is characterized by shared values, norms based in morals or traditions, and personal relationships. Of course these two realms are not completely separate, for example intimate relationships are regulated by the government (marriage, domestic partnerships, divorce, alimony, etc.). Habermas calls this the “colonization of the lifeworld.” The forces of capitalism and government insert themselves into our daily lives beyond the workplace: we buy things on the market (gasoline, groceries, clothes), and our private behaviors are governed (federally-mandated health insurance, homosexuals cannot marry in most states). Money and power are the currency of the system, and wherever we see them in our daily lives it is likely that colonization has occurred. But, as with many processes, the colonization of the lifeworld has its reverse: decolonization.

The decolonization of the lifeworld comes as a result of politicized responses to the state or market—people come together to demand that the state reform racist, sexist, or homophobic policy. To the extent we can collect the varieties of do-it-yourself action into a social movement, DIY is an attempt to decolonize the lifeworld. In this sense, DIY is a “take back.” Instead of relying on experts, or the market, or the state, DIYers take back the personal matters of their lives from capitalism and bureaucracy.

But many of us much of the time are simply overwhelmed by forces that seem out of our control. Many people feel as if something new and different is going on, something that involves a loss of tradition and authentic identity or a diminution of culture. This sometimes takes the form of a collective nostalgia. We might feel that things were simpler in days gone by, and we yearn for less complexity and more control. Yet most of us certainly wouldn’t want to give up our mobile phones, Internet, or cable TV. Nonetheless, there are strong forces within us that make us re-imagine history through a nostalgic lens. Whether it is Paris Hilton on The Simple Life or the imagined ideal community of the film Pleasantville, nostalgia for another time when things were less chaotic has a seductive hold on us. DIY is a response to this: DIYers take pride and pleasure in doing things the old way, the slow way, the way of our grandparents.

The Entrepreneurial Twist

Doing it yourself can sometimes become a full-time job. The entrepreneurial twist to DIY comes when people realize that they can make money from doing it themselves. There are many entrepreneurial offshoots of the DIY movement: a weekly bazaar of handmade goods in Eugene Oregon called the Saturday Market, the arts and crafts website Etsy, and DIY conferences like Maker Faire.

Eugene, Oregon is home to a vibrant arts and crafts community, perhaps born from the vestiges of the hippie scene of the 1960s. In conjunction with a large farmers’ market, every weekend more than 300 crafters, knitters, silk-screeners, and jewelry makers converge on downtown Eugene for the Saturday Market. A wide variety of goods are for sale, from original artwork to tie-dyed shirts. Food carts fulfill shopper’s cravings, and a small stage features local musicians. Begun in 1970, the Market is now a non-profit with an annual budget of $450,000 per year. The artisans of the Saturday Market adhere to standards created by a volunteer community, which reflect demystification in that the maker must be the seller and artwork must be original. The Eugene Saturday Market is a place where entrepreneurial local artists can sell their crafts and unite in a community of like-minded lifestyle DIYers.

On a broader scale, the website Etsy is a clearinghouse for handcrafted goods. With everything from hand-knit scarves to hand-sewn organic chew toys for dogs, the artisans of Etsy sell DIY products. The mission of Etsy is “to enable people to make a living making things, and to reconnect makers with buyers.” Like the Saturday Market, connecting “makers with buyers” means that Etsy helps de-mystify where commodities come from, and removes the alienation of the mediated social relationship by bringing producers and consumers together. This is a decolonization of the lifeworld, and yet it is not without its own tension: Etsy is a for-profit corporation. The lifestyler artisans of Etsy sell their goods online, and the corporation takes a share of the transaction. Here we can see the simultaneous decolonization of the lifeworld and immediate coöptation by enterprising capitalists. It is a double-edged sword: artists need a marketplace to sell their products, but not everyone has access to a resource like Eugene’s Saturday Market. For a price, the entrepreneurs at Etsy provide a solution.

Unlike its online sister, Maker Faire is a face-to-face gathering of crafters. Started near San Francisco in 2006 as an offshoot of MAKE magazine (published by O’Reilly Media), every year several Maker Faires are held in cities across the U.S. The Faire is designed to “celebrate arts, crafts, engineering, science projects and the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) mindset.” Similar to Etsy, the Maker Faire is a product of entrepreneurs who want to help DIY lifestylers recognize themselves as a community. Like Etsy, it represents a re-colonization of the lifeworld by capitalist forces.

There are many other contemporary examples of DIY—the modern arts and crafts movement includes quilters, knitters, and other individualist and coördinator crafters. A wide array of businesses cater to such DIY crafters, from JoAnne Fabrics and Michael’s craft stores to authors like Amy Sedaris who recently published Simple Times: Crafts for Poor People. In the book, Sedaris discusses ways to make crafts and redecorate on a budget that doesn’t quite reach that of Martha Stewart. Entrepreneurs within our capitalist economy continually seek a way to exploit niche markets. Whether it is a magazine, a retail supply store, or an online clearinghouse, capitalism continually finds ways to coöpt movements that on their face threaten the profit of traditional corporations. In this respect, DIY is not so different from the coöptation of the punk rock image by mall retailers like Hot Topic, or the use of the rebel image of bike messengers to sell bicycle bags to commuters.

The Search for Control

Control eludes many of us in the modern moment. We rely on others for much in our lives: the bosses and assistants at work, elected officials and their staff in our government, farmers and the clerks in the supermarket for our food, and teachers for our education. We are all searching for control in some way, and some of us find fulfillment in the many realms of social behavior that fall under the category of DIY. Finding a niche of authenticity and fulfillment has perhaps always been a struggle. Some embrace the information flow and dive headlong into blogs and YouTube. Others are less comfortable with a life lived in ones and zeros and instead retreat from the grid to grow their own food and govern their own conduct. Even in these opposing responses people are doing it themselves. At its best, DIY means that people are connecting the micro and macro levels of their lives to find a solution to alienation, mystification, and loss of control. They are moving back to the land, schooling their own children, and governing themselves. In short, people are taking back their daily lives from systems that are otherwise beyond their individual control. They are freeing themselves from the abstract and impersonal forces of money, power, and bureaucracy.

The DIY movement represents a shift away from relying on experts and professionals towards self-reliance and independence from the larger systems of governance and capitalism—what Habermas called the decolonization of the lifeworld. This is a take back, whether politically or financially motivated. But the adversary is strong: capitalists and bureaucrats have found ways to coöpt or stall the DIY movement, offering DIY-lite goods and services or putting up barriers like building or health codes. Re-colonization of that which DIY seeks to decolonize is always at hand, and we can see it for sale at Home Depot, we can watch it on the DIY network, and no doubt there is a blog about it somewhere.

In 1929 Antonio Gramsci, imprisoned by Mussolini’s fascist government, wrote in a letter from prison that we must have “pessimism of the intellect, but optimism of the will.” If we examine the world with our intellect we may come to disheartening conclusions. But these conclusions don’t sit well with us because we desire a better future, we have an optimism that spurs us on to take action in the world and in our daily lives even though it may feel intellectually hopeless at times. This can involve many little actions and behavioral changes that might make a difference—if only to us and those in our immediate circle of influence. The optimism that we hew towards, this will for something better, is what can change the world. Sometimes social change happens through big revolutions and grand historical events. But social change also happens through the aggregated millions of little alterations at the individual level. When we do it ourselves—when we reject reliance on others and take control of our own lives—we are enacting radical social change. In DIY we can find the seeds of change, but of course we also see the re-colonization by the forces of money and power. It is up to us all to wage this struggle for control and self-reliance in decolonizing our lives.

Kevin Wehr is Associate Professor of Sociology at the California State University Sacramento, where he specializes in environmental, political, and cultural sociology. His books include DIY: The Search for Control and Self-Reliance and Hermes on Two Wheels: The Sociology of Bicycle Messengers.

Emerson stamp image from Wikipedia. Scissors image © Tamara Watkins 2013.

Copyright © Kevin Wehr. All rights reserved.