How do I best explain pros & cons re: DIY vs. outsourcing?
December 6, 2017 10:29 AM   Subscribe

My fiancé was upset by an off-hand comment I made about "DIY" sometimes being silly / my personal choices to outsource, and I'm looking for articles/content to best explain what I meant. Read on for Ron Swanson, Portlandia, and other such excitement.

After finishing an episode of Parks & Rec in which Ron Swanson explains how 'easily' he made his own wedding rings and how 'people who buy things are suckers,' I laughed and remarked how well that skewered the haughty-DIYness that I grew so familiar with from white privileged people while living in Portland, Oregon.

My fiancé took it a bit personally, since he cares so much about the DIY ethos and being anti-capitalist, embracing punk rock values, loves woodworking and cooking, etc. And I do, too! I wanted to best explain that I was laughing at the people who go too far for my tastes and hold it above people. Some examples would be making your own cedar flour, judging people for not using cloth diapers, and becoming a farmer while making DIY ramen.

Are there any articles or videos about DIY ethos vs. outsourcing that might best weigh these options and help explain why I think a lot of these issues are complicated, especially re: class, gender, race, time, etc.?

(Assume that fiance is 1000% open-minded and we aren't in a fight or anything; I'd just like to better illustrate this dichotomy that I find complicated through the words of others, and I'm not quite sure how to Google it.)

Thanks in advance!
posted by knownassociate to Society & Culture (27 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Argh, I can't figure out how to Google it either, but this is so a thing. There was one article somewhere that said, it comes down to control and interest. With DIY, in addition to sometimes (not always!) being cheaper, we can 1) control the results, and 2) it is interesting and/or soothing to us. I make my own clothes, because my skin is sensitive and I like having control over the fabric and where it falls on my hips. I knit, because the repetitive task is soothing to me. And both are interesting.

I'm sure this is true of other things besides crafts, like home construction or plumbing or what have you.
posted by Melismata at 10:44 AM on December 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

Why buy it for $7 when you can make it with $X of crafting supplies? is a meme I've seen circulating lately.
posted by BrashTech at 10:51 AM on December 6, 2017 [14 favorites]

Not an article or a video, but Homeward Bound is an awesome book that explores why the turn towards DIY as a moral/ethical choice often ends up being gendered in an unexpected and unanticipated way. It's not anti-DIY by any means, but introduces some welcome complication to the holier-than-thou narrative.
posted by superfluousm at 10:51 AM on December 6, 2017 [6 favorites]

I don't know of any resources to google for this but I do understand what you're getting at.

I'd put it like, everything has a price, whether it's in sweat equity or cold hard cash or opportunity costs, and there are certainly benefits beyond the material results. The personal decision to DIY or not (or really to do anything) comes down to whether the combined benefits are worth the costs.

It is very easy to be holier-than-thou and pass judgement if you don't see or recognize all of the costs going into someone else's equation.
posted by yeahlikethat at 10:58 AM on December 6, 2017 [5 favorites]

Really this also an argument on basic value of time and skill. I can DIY something for less money and more time. But the time inherently has a cost and some people assign more worth to their time and skills rather just buy something - or lack the skill or desire to do it. Therefore I think it fits in the arena of having the privilege to have the spare time and skill to DIY in the way we are talking. (And I LOVE me some DIY.)
posted by Crystalinne at 11:06 AM on December 6, 2017 [4 favorites]

I'm having trouble finding it, but I read a great article on the privilege inherent in DIY stuff. For example, my wife and I have made a bunch of our own furniture, but being able to do that required that we spent several thousand on tools (saws, routers, etc.) and materials - and have a sufficient space to work in.

The skill and willingness to make are something that anyone can do - but the capital costs are harder to overcome.

And once you factor in time, it's a lot like Linux - only free if your time costs nothing. We are privileged in that we have an amount of free time to work on our projects. When we were poorer and worked more and had kids in the house, we simply didn't have time even if all the other things fell into place.

It's funny, because it's sort of an inversion of the "maker ethos" that my depression surviving grandmother taught me - where you had to make and make do or do without. It was privilege then to not have to make things - to buy soup stock, to buy not raise meat and eggs, to have to repair worn clothes. Now, those are the markers of privilege. Anyway, I can't seem to find that article on it, and it covered all of this, and was really eye opening for me to have read it.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 11:06 AM on December 6, 2017 [14 favorites]

Well, this is also why, as a society, we let people specialize in things. I can’t knit. I also am not qualified to DIY my own appendectomy, I go to a doctor, I buy hats at the store. If I had to learn to knit, be a Doctor etc I wouldn’t get around to doing all the things I had to do otherwise. Our society works better than it would otherwise because we don’t all DIY all the things for ourselves. We specialize and then trade the outputs of our specialization.

I’ve been watching the show “Last Man on Earth” lately and thinking about this a lot, as many of the world’s specialists are, in that fictional universe, dead.
posted by slateyness at 11:08 AM on December 6, 2017 [2 favorites]

It's funny, because it's sort of an inversion of the "maker ethos" that my depression surviving grandmother taught me

I'm also into colonial crafts, and sometimes make my own butter. When I was 25, I bragged to everyone how much better it tasted than the commercial stuff. When I bragged to my friend's 90-year-old grandmother, she looked at me stonily and said "when they came out with store-bought butter, we were THRILLED to have one less thing to do."
posted by Melismata at 11:12 AM on December 6, 2017 [58 favorites]

Time you spend grinding your own flour is time you can't spend baking enough cookies to share.
posted by amtho at 11:18 AM on December 6, 2017 [9 favorites]

This thread has a few of these stories and one of them is mine.
posted by phunniemee at 11:21 AM on December 6, 2017 [4 favorites]

I don't think Googling this is going to help you with your boyfriend.

The truth is almost certainly that his brand of small scale DIY is significantly less efficient, and requires - as discussed above - enormously privileged levels of time, spare energy, capital, space etc than purchasing something mass produced would. But he gets something out of the DIY experience that is worth more to him than the savings. Probably he enjoys the work and he likes the outcome. Maybe he has other value-adds too.

I think his feelings were probably hurt because he interpreted what you were saying as "the result of all your DIY stuff is no better than what you could have bought, so you are foolish to DIY." Like if you'd cooked a nice dinner and he was like "yeah but McD's is cheaper and tastier so this was dumb."

To my way of thinking, you can't truthfully, honestly say that DIY is efficient or punk rock. But you can say that the outcome is beautiful and that there's a value-add of it being the product of his own work and love.

Oh and there are a million articles online about what to buy vs what to make from scratch, in terms of quality and efficiency. So many that I feel foolish providing just one but here's an example.
posted by fingersandtoes at 11:22 AM on December 6, 2017 [17 favorites]

Totally agree with slateyness on the specialization aspect. I grew up in a very DIY household, where my dad was a hobby handyman and good at doing all sorts of home improvement things. He instilled in me the value that I can do anything I put my mind to, and I have long taken that to heart.

And can I? Certainly. Should I? In a lot of cases, no.

That was a hard lesson for me to learn. I left projects undone that I knew I COULD do myself, but that it really turned out I didn't have the time to actually do, from altering clothing that didn't quite fit right to small home improvement projects.

I also had this approach to my love of making things, picking up new hobbies like the time and money invested in them was nothing, until I barely had any time for any of them at all, let alone getting to be any good at them. So all that to say that DIY has its limits. I still do way too many hobbies, but I have also learned to not take up some new ones that I know I don't really have the bandwidth to learn to do.
posted by urbanlenny at 11:31 AM on December 6, 2017 [6 favorites]

My instinct/ethic is to discuss/ask where someone draws the line.

After all, Ian MacKaye plays a Gibson SG through a Marshall amp.
posted by rhizome at 11:41 AM on December 6, 2017 [4 favorites]

The Onion talked about this years ago.
posted by cyndigo at 11:45 AM on December 6, 2017 [4 favorites]

You could ask your fiance - gently, not all sarcastic-like - why they don't DIY their own aspirin, antibiotics, needles and hiking boots. After all, given enough commitment, time, tools and practice, we could make all those things at home. We don't, because for almost everyone the start-up costs, time involved and learning curve don't make sense - a professionally produced product is much, much better than what we would produce ourselves, even if we had the time and money to devote to the purpose. And we couldn't specialize enough - even if we decided that we were going to make our own little home lab and create our own medications, our own little shop for making needles and small metal parts and our own cobbler's bench for making our own hiking shoes, it would be very, very difficult to achieve proficiency in all those things. We could DIY all that stuff, and have quasi-pure aspirin, blunt needles and fall-apart shoes with no arch support. It is reasonable to prefer a product made by an industrial process or an expert over a product made at home.

In short, everyone is going to outsource something. It's just a question of how much time and money you have and how you want to allocate them. DIY is not a grounding value - no one actually believes that DIY is ipso facto the best way to do things. Pretending that DIY is always-already the best way to do everything is mostly about making yourself feel good about your choices or making someone else feel bad about theirs.
posted by Frowner at 11:48 AM on December 6, 2017 [4 favorites]

Who Even DOES That?: DIY, privilege and taste performance

Stop It, Smug DIYers (linked from the above article, both found through a "DIY privilege" Google search, which also turns up a variety of possibly-relevant books you might look into.)

Quoting the "Smug DIYers" essay: "Saying that diy is always easy and is the best thing for everyone to be doing is a demonstration of a woeful ignorance about the lived realities of other people."

This pdf of a PowerPoint from 2016 (found at the Washington Library Association's site) notes:

Maker Faire Bay Area 2015 145,000+ Attendees
Survey sample of 568:
 100% attended/graduated college or better; 84% graduated college and 41% have postgraduate degrees.
 Affluent: Median household income is $124,500.
 Two-thirds 68% of attendees are white, 17% are Asian.


New York Maker Faire 2015 90,000 Attendees
Survey sample of 974:
 Primarily male 62%
 Half 49% attended Maker Faire with children
 Virtually all 96% attended/graduated college or better;
86% graduated college and 42% have postgraduate
 The vast majority of attendees are white 67% Asian and Hispanic/Latino’s represent the next largest groups.

Which certainly paints a picture of Maker enthusiasts being largely a fairly privileged group.
posted by soundguy99 at 12:07 PM on December 6, 2017 [10 favorites]

Yeah, as others have mentioned, in order to DIY things you need to be rich in time, sometimes skill, and depending on the project, even disposable income.

But you also need to be rich in confidence (I'm smart, I learn quickly, I'm good at solving problems) which is another resource that is not distributed equally across racial/gender/socioeconomic lines.

And you need to have a certain amount of capital in physical/emotional/mental energy. Some people are using all their "spoons" just holding down a job (or two jobs, or three jobs). Some are using them all on getting out of bed, bathing, and taking their medications. And you can't always tell that about someone by looking at them.

Which isn't to say DIY stuff isn't cool stuff to do. It's just not morally superior stuff to do.
posted by mrmurbles at 12:28 PM on December 6, 2017 [11 favorites]

To be fair, there are a lot of DIYers who don't go to the cons. Vocal DIYers, on the other hand...
posted by rhizome at 12:28 PM on December 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

You like to DIY stuff? That’s great.

You like to judge other people for not DIYing things? Or you feel guilty about not DIYing something? Not so great.

You like to criticize other people for DIYing something they could have bought? Not cool, unless you’re somehow directly negatively affected (shoddy home repairs, spouse spends all his time DIYing and no time doing stuff you want or need them to do, that sort of thing).

You don’t get to tell other adults how they should be spending their time, unless you’re paying them for that time or they have asked you for help with time management. Yes, this includes your spouse and your adult children.
posted by Anne Neville at 12:37 PM on December 6, 2017 [10 favorites]

Even if you believe that DIYing IS morally superior to buying things, you don’t get to tell other adults how to live their lives, unless you’re paying them, grading them, or they’ve asked for your advice. Yes, this includes spouses and adult children. If someone is trying to tell you how to live your life and you don’t like it, feel free to tell them to knock it off or ignore their advice.
posted by Anne Neville at 12:42 PM on December 6, 2017 [3 favorites]

There's a lot of intellectual suspicion lurking around the politics of DIY these days. Some terms you might be interested in googling include: precarity, creative economy, creative class, post-Fordism, neoliberalism.
posted by pinkacademic at 1:04 PM on December 6, 2017 [2 favorites]

I think you have a lot of resources to explain that you're talking about the people who are haughty and pretentious about it, but in communicating that you really need to also validate his feelings. Especially if you're framing it as "people who go too far"--at that point you're just insinuating that if you put too much work into something then you're dumb. Knitting a sweater by hand takes an enormous amount of time and yarn and compared to buying a sweater it can absolutely be seen as "going too far." But sometimes people aren't doing it to reduce time or money, but because they enjoy the work. That's a benefit too, and it's a lot harder to calculate the value of that. Being able to do that is a privilege, sure, but doing something for the joy of it isn't inherently bad.

I don't think you're going to get anywhere by showing him examples of people putting "too much" effort into things (re: cedar flour), because he's only going to interpret that as "well, if I spend hours and hours and hours on an intricate carving/recipe/whatever, you're just going to laugh at me because I could've bought something like that at the store for much cheaper and quicker." But he's probably not doing it solely because DIYing is cheaper or quicker, but because he enjoys the act of creating something.

You can talk about people who are pretentious and lord it over other people, which is definitely a thing that happens that's super annoying, but I don't think you should conflate it with doing "going too far." Often those two things overlap, but just as often "excessive and inefficient effort" and "doing it solely for my own enjoyment" overlap. I think that your fiancee is probably hurt because you're conflating "putting excessive effort into DIY" with "being pretentious and moralizing" even if that's not your intent. So I think your best bet is to delineate between those two. I think if you do, you probably won't even need a bunch of articles to convince him that pretentious and moralizing DIYers are a Real Thing and are Bad. Given your description of him, he probably already agrees with you there. He just doesn't agree that simply putting an excessive amount of effort into something is bad (though he may agree, as I do, that being able to do that is a matter of privilege re: class, gender, race, etc.).
posted by brook horse at 1:36 PM on December 6, 2017 [8 favorites]

I would also like to mention that DIY judgement comes with a hefty dose of ableism. I am disabled and chronically ill. I would love to use cloth period pads but cannot keep up with the required laundry. I would love to build my own headboard but am not physically capable of doing so.

Therefore I agree, everyone can DIY if they want. But a judgement on someone's capitalism versus DIY assumes they have time, money, access, skill, and physical ability which is simply not the case.
posted by Crystalinne at 4:06 PM on December 6, 2017 [4 favorites]

Is your husband an obnoxious, pretentious, and moralizing DIYer? If he isn’t, then I wouldn’t talk to him about that kind of DIYer, unless you’re talking about a specific example you encountered recently. I can kind of see how a DIYer might feel criticized if you bring up those people when he talks about DIY. And people who feel criticized often get defensive.

I play computer games. If my husband told me about obnoxious gamers, I would wonder if he was bringing it up to say I’m like those gamers. If he brought it up regularly when I talked about gaming, I might think he had a negative opinion of me because I’m a gamer. Substitute your hobby for gaming here, and think about how you might feel.

If he IS that kind of DIYer, call him on the bad behavior, but know that people can do DIY without being like that. Criticize the specific behavior you don’t like, not his hobby in general.
posted by Anne Neville at 4:12 PM on December 6, 2017 [2 favorites]

I would only be interested in talking about the problems in the world of my hobby if whoever I was talking with made it clear that there was no personal criticism intended. This kind of thing is one reason why members of a group can say stuff about a group that they’d take offense to an outsider saying.
posted by Anne Neville at 4:20 PM on December 6, 2017 [2 favorites]

When I think about DIY gone haywire, I think of this mad thing.
Who the hell *makes* American cheese? It calls for whole milk powder, which is a specialty product, and has you run it through a food processor *twice*, all in order to make something that's barely cheese. It's a good example of "your store-bought is inferior to my artisanal handcrafted one" bullshit when what it's replacing is something that comes in giant shelf stable blocks or completely wrapped in plastic.
posted by fiercekitten at 9:33 PM on December 6, 2017 [3 favorites]

Good DIY vs Bad DIY is not exactly what you're after, but might add a little humour to your discussion.
posted by harriet vane at 4:37 AM on December 7, 2017 [2 favorites]

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