What is Authenticity?

Authenticity has many definitions. It is often thought of as something inherent in a person or object–your (or its) “true nature” that just needs to be realized. (Dr. Phil loves this idea.) But, sociologically speaking, this is not very helpful. Who gets to decide what your true authentic self is actually like, for instance? You can swear up and down that your recent decision/purchase/claim/etc. is true to you, but unless the people around you concur, it’s basically meaningless.

Authenticity, then, must be agreed-upon. It entails a back-and-forth between individuals and groups. Different folks may have drastically different concepts of what it means for a person or thing to be authentic (or how important authenticity actually is to them). And these groups operate in different fields (or social spheres) which might have their own dominant criteria for authenticity.

I think (and argue here) that authenticity is a tool that different people or groups mobilize to make claims to legitimacy. Depending on the circles they run in (or the people they’re trying to convince), the degree that someone is authentic might depend on different factors, such as race, class, hometown or region, age, gender, style, etc. Vanilla Ice, for example, is typically considered an inauthentic rapper because he doesn’t match (any of) the dominant characteristics of authenticity of the field of rap: a combination of race, class, and place of origin. Others in this same field vary in degree of authenticity based on combinations of this or other factors. (See debates over Iggy Azzalea’s “blaccent” for a somewhat more recent example.)

Not everyone has the ability to evaluate claims to authenticity, either. Different fields have different gatekeepers who might publicly assess the claims of others. To really wield this tool and successfully claim authenticity, then, a person must appeal to the right folks.

I can think of two primary strategies that one might draw on in appealing (directly or indirectly) to these gatekeepers. (1) Learn and accept the dominant norms–the symbols, characteristics, in-jokes, and general “rules of the game”–and demonstrate them in a convincing way. Or (2) challenge some of those rules (but probably not all of them at once) in a way that seems genuine. Option 2 is often common with those lacking in the basic criteria for authenticity, who may compensate with other qualifications (such as an encyclopedic knowledge of the field, for example) to counterbalance their claims.

There is no set standard of authenticity, nor is it inherent in any person or object. It entails a perpetual back-and-forth between tradition and innovation and changes often, depending on whatever is influential with insiders at any given time. This may make it tricky to rely on as an analytical concept in social science research. Still, it remains important to many different spheres, fields, and subcultures. Boiling it down to some of its foundational facets is important for properly understanding these sites.