Authenticity Essay

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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.


  1. Bourdieu, Pierre. The Field of Cultural New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.
  2. Brekhus, Wayne. Peacocks, Chameleons, Centaurs: Gay Suburbia and the Grammar  of Social Identity. Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 2003.
  3. 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).
  4. Erickson, Rebecca J. “The Importance of Authenticity  for Self and Society.” Symbolic  Interaction, v.18 (1995).
  5. Grazian, David. Blue Chicago: The Search for Authenticity in Urban Blues Clubs. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.
  6. Peterson, Richard Creating Country Music: Fabricating Authenticity. Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1997.
  7. Taylor, Charles. The Ethics of Authenticity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991.
  8. Wherry, Frederick F. “The  Social Sources of Authenticity in Global  Handicraft Markets: Evidence From Northern Thailand.” Journal of Consumer Culture,  6 (2006).

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