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Authenticity has no objective standard, nor is it inherent in any object or individual. Rather, authenticity is a social construct whose meaning is historically and culturally variable and, commonly, relationally defined in contradistinction to some social process (e.g., increasing the use of industrial procedures in farming, or commercialization in rap music). Used in common parlance, the concept of authenticity has highly affective, positive connotations. Authenticity, accordingly, may be considered a context-specific measure of legitimacy. Qualities that frequently induce the perception of authenticity include sincerity of sentiment (rather than utilitarian cost-benefit reasoning), natural origins (in opposition to industrial origins), local origins (rather than origins within a global market of commodities), and original self-expression (rather than expression that is coerced via external, normative, or commercial pressures to conform). Social scientists have studied authenticity in both production and consumption contexts.
Authenticity has historically been a concern within social science; many of the anxieties of classical sociological theorists can be interpreted as having their roots in authenticity. This has led social theorists such as Charles Taylor to characterize the contemporary concern for authenticity as rooted in modernity. Among sociologists, Max Weber focused on how rationalizing and intellectualizing processes ushered in the disenchantment of the world, the retreat of transcendental values from public life. Karl Marx concentrated on commodity fetishism, whereby a good’s exchange value comes to conceal other significant social values connected to the product. Finally, Émile Durkheim became concerned about the loss of mechanical solidarity and collectively shared sacred values in modern societies.
As a measure of legitimacy, authenticity possesses a symbolic and social value that is distinct from (and often defined in opposition to) economic value. Consequently, authenticity becomes a symbolic status marker and a means of distinction in many arenas of social life. Befitting its socially arbitrary character and because of its utility as a status marker, the concept of authenticity is often hotly contested; individuals often engage in discursive, narrative, and practical “authenticity work” to alter the definition of the authentic to suit their own purposes and skills. This contested construction of the authentic occurs locally (e.g., within groups). As definitions of the authentic are negotiated and eventually established at this local level, participants are stratified within and outsiders excluded from what the sociologist David Grazian called the “symbolic economy of authenticity.” As such, social scientists often understand authenticity as a value not merely guiding modern social life but also generating new dimensions of social stratification.
Authenticity And Consumption
In the early 20th century, Georg Simmel predicted that the maturing capitalist money economy would increasingly quantify everyday life. Subjective distinctions between objects and experiences, he believed, would be deprived of meaning as achievement became framed in exclusively monetary terms. In contrast to these expectations, however, various consumer movements have attempted to attach (or reattach) symbolic value to objects and experiences. The individual’s quest for authentic consumer goods represents a resistance to the quantifying and rationalizing forces that theorists of modernity identified and an assertion of autonomy in the face of mass markets. By adhering to locally significant standards for consumption practice as well as collecting and displaying locally agreed-on signifiers of authenticity in interaction, consumers signal their legitimate position within the symbolic economy of authenticity. At a more phenomenological level, by accumulating and displaying signifiers of authenticity in the form of goods and experiences, they construct their own identities and lifestyles as unique, authentic, and personally meaningful.
As aesthetic and utilitarian goods alike are increasingly produced and marketed at a global level, ever more consumers seek authentic lives to distinguish themselves from mass commerce and culture. For example, in a nation flooded with mainstream music options, many flock instead to the rough edges of blues and jazz bars or the discordant defiance of punk rock. Or in the face of factory farming and the ubiquity of processed food, many families retreat to the farmer’s market to purchase locally grown produce whose methods of production are more readily apparent and whose producers may be personally known. This trend is apparent in research across many different markets—the oriental carpet is deemed authentic over the rug from Target, the microbrew over the domestic bottle produced in large-scale breweries, the boutique blouse over the department-store shirt—and each market is governed by a contextspecific logic that is in part structured by the market’s own history and contemporary organization. Depending on the norms of a group or market, authenticity may be attributed to the traditional, the cutting-edge, or even the conventional.
Authenticity And Production
As consumers seek to maintain distinction from the mainstream, many producers frame their services and products as authentic alternatives to contemporary commercial norms. Because authenticity is not ontologically inherent in the items themselves, suppliers must construct narratives of legitimacy around them. Products, and often producers themselves, must meet the standards of authenticity to which consumers adhere. Typically, these standards are constructed and negotiated dually between producers and consumers. However, as the sociologist Richard Peterson has demonstrated, firms may actively seek to control these standards and manipulate the signifiers by which consumers assess the authenticity of producers or products.
Though standards of authenticity vary by field or market, authentic producers often rely on more traditional means of production, despite an economic incentive to maximize efficiency and output through contemporary procedures. These actors draw on collective memories of the past to construct their products as distinct from mass-produced alternatives. Frequently, the authentic producer exhibits (or performs) economic “disinterestedness,” or a disregard for potential short-term economic gain; instead, the producer emphasizes displays of purity and skill, reverence for the craft, or other relevant qualities. Distancing themselves from conventional commercial districts, many authentic producers are located outside the mainstream not merely symbolically but also physically. By necessity or to enact symbolic resistance, these firms or individuals situate themselves on the outskirts of cities or in niche markets, ethnic enclaves, or undeveloped regions. As Pierre Bourdieu illustrates, the geographic separation of “cultural” (in this case, symbolically relevant or authentic) from “commercial” producers is common. Relocation of this sort is often integral to distinction in competitive markets. Indeed, Frederick Wherry demonstrates how the production of authenticity can happen by accident as a group reacts to outside threats or affirms collective, transcendental values. In short, producers may fabricate authenticity based on the history of their physical location in addition to the history and local relevance of their products.
Forms Of Authenticity
The organization scholars Glenn Carroll and Dennis Wheaton identify two classical interpretations of authenticity: type and moral authenticity. Type authenticity refers to when a person or object adheres to a particular set of expectations about how that type of person or object should appear, feel, or behave. According to this model of authenticity, evaluations of authenticity are essentially evaluations of a person’s or an object’s categorical fit. Within a group or a market context, people will negotiate and contest the criteria by which membership in a particular category is achieved. The sociologist Wayne Brekhus refers to these criteria as auxiliary characteristics. For individuals, whether members of a particular gender, race, sexuality, or other social group are perceived as authentic is often conditional on the externally visible performance of such auxiliary characteristics. One common criterion by which performances are evaluated is the individual’s visible consumption of goods associated with that identity. For example, to be identified as an authentic punk, an individual must assemble and wear a particular ensemble of signifiers—tattered leather jacket, boots, Mohawk, safety pins, eyeliner—and must demonstrate competent knowledge of the musical genre. Objects such as musical genres or ethnic cuisines can be evaluated according to the type model of authenticity, because these too possess a negotiated set of standards for their production or performance.
In contrast, the model of moral authenticity concerns moral choices and values and whether these meanings are a “true” reflection of the individual’s self. This form of authenticity essentially refers to the self-selection and expression of a set of values that convey the originality and uniqueness of the individual. Symbolic interactionists, such as Rebecca Erickson, understand this authentic self as a “perspective from which to act,” and consequently conceptualize feelings of moral authenticity as a major contemporary motivation for action. Objects, especially aesthetic objects, may also be evaluated with this model of authenticity, as when individuals judge a good based on whether it is an accurate representation of its creator’s values and intentions.
- Bourdieu, Pierre. The Field of Cultural New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.
- Brekhus, Wayne. Peacocks, Chameleons, Centaurs: Gay Suburbia and the Grammar of Social Identity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.
- Carroll, Glenn R. and Dennis Ray Wheaton. “The Organizational Construction of Authenticity: An Examination of Contemporary Food and Dining in the U.S.” Research in Organizational Behavior, 29 (2009).
- Erickson, Rebecca J. “The Importance of Authenticity for Self and Society.” Symbolic Interaction, v.18 (1995).
- Grazian, David. Blue Chicago: The Search for Authenticity in Urban Blues Clubs. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.
- Peterson, Richard Creating Country Music: Fabricating Authenticity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.
- Taylor, Charles. The Ethics of Authenticity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991.
- Wherry, Frederick F. “The Social Sources of Authenticity in Global Handicraft Markets: Evidence From Northern Thailand.” Journal of Consumer Culture, 6 (2006).