CCL Event Report: Inequality and the Politics of Cultural Authenticity

Report by Jennifer Dudley

Host: Fiona Greenland

Moderator: Annie Hikido

Panelists: Sarita Gaytán, Fred Wherry, Sharon Zukin

On January 27, 2023 the Culture Section of the American Sociological Association hosted an online event titled “Inequality and the Politics of Cultural Authenticity” as part of its Culture in Contemporary Life (CCL) series. Dr. Annie Hikido (Colby College) moderated the discussion. Dr. Sarita Gaytán (University of Utah), Dr. Fred Wherry (Princeton University), and Dr. Sharon Zukin (Brooklyn College) participated as panelists.

The panel discussed cultural authenticity, its significance, and how it’s used in power struggles over spaces and identities. The panel also discussed methods of inquiry and took questions about the future sociological research on authenticity. Below is a summary of the discussion.

Defining Authenticity

Beginning with the question of how to define authenticity, the panel agreed that context matters. Gaytán noted that definitions are “contingent on time, place, and people” before adding that the question of authenticity circles around accuracy, conformity, sincerity, integrity, credibility, and consistency. Wherry agreed and added that type of authenticity adds a useful distinction (Carroll and Wheaton 2009, The Organizational Construction of Authenticity). He also pointed to reactive authenticity is mobilized in response to a threat. For example, creators in a community may not use the word authenticity until “something is being taken away”; once something from the community is extracted in a disrespectful and violent way.

Wherry and Zukin also discussed how the concept of authenticity is used in marketing. Zukin says that society has broadly applied authenticity to the self and the group, works of creative genius, to the true and good versus false and bad, and as a social construct that’s “artfully arranged by decor and verbal or visual presentations.”

Power Struggles

The panelists pointed to the role authenticity plays in power struggles over physical spaces. As an urbanist, Zukin studies space mediated by authenticity and vice versa. She said these studies often examine “outsiders looking at a space they have not inhabited and defining it as authentic in order to appropriate its uses and benefits.” She gave the example of gentrification and her study of online restraurant reviews as a site where authenticity is contested (Zukin, Linderman, and Hurson 2017, “The Omnivore’s Neighborhood? Online restaurant reviews, race, and gentrification”).

Wherry agreed that the discussion of cuisine as valued or unvalued helps us recognize that the content is less important. We must “go well beyond the contents of place,” he said. Gaytán added that people don’t have to use the term “authenticity” to implicate authenticity politics. Questions of worthiness, normalcy, and naturalness are wrapped up in authenticity politics. She points to the coordinated attack on trans communities. Those who question what a “real” boy/man or girl/woman is are engaging in a battle that is in part about authenticity. However, while these debates aren’t solely related to authenticity, we have reason to understand how authenticity operates in these fights.


Hikido asked about methods of inquiry. Zukin and Wherry agree that immersion and thick description helps researchers understand authenticity. Through thick description, one can see how people express deep concerns about the thing they value being mistreated; how they slow down or stop (i.e., get in the way of) that mistreatment. However, Wherry warns that ethnographic description needs to be paired with a sense of community. This is how he found cultural policies are strong around the idea of distinctions between what’s real and what’s not even when the people he spoke with communicated their concerns about authenticity without using those words (Wherry 2006, The Social Sources of Authenticity in Global Handicraft Markets).

Gaytán urged researchers to keep their eyes and ears open, adding that researchers can find information in unexpected places. She has analyzed music lyrics, dance videos, bottle labels, and by just talking to folks on busses. She said that listening is valuable. If something doesn’t make into the book or article that one is currently working on, it can still pay off in knowledge earned or future projects.

Directions for Future Research

When asked about directions for future research, Gaytán started the discussion by saying sociology needs more critical engagement around authenticity’s significance. She asks, “why is it implied as good or neutral” and “how do meanings of authenticity change over time?” Zukin says that authenticity continues to shape the way she understands her projects in progress and can see it applied to the digital economy, NFTs, and sites of financial speculation.

Wherry believes that more inquiry is needed in spaces where people are often trying to make a claim on solidarity, ritual, joy, exploration not directed by others. He gives the example of small towns that aren’t experiencing a lot of growth. There, authenticity is about preservation as opposed to contestation, so sociology has not focused on it. Wherry also suggests more investigation about communities where people find comfort in the loss of something real that was never great. We think about the authentic and tradition as beautiful. However, that doesn’t mean it’s beautiful for everyone, depending on the body you inhabit or identities that you claim.

Question & Answer Section

The panel concluded by answering questions from the audience. The panel discussed the tension between describing a research population accurately and the community’s disagreement about critique or negative portrayals. Wherry offered that analysis and criticism should be offered, even when a researcher agrees with or supports the people being studied, especially in ethnography. Zukin agreed, saying that is relevant to any study. She says, “describe, explain, and interpret as best you can and of course all research participants will not love everything.”

Finally, the panel agreed that more voices are welcome to conversations about authenticity. Gaytán said that some of the sociology around race and ethnicity is exciting (especially the journal Sociology of Race and Ethnicity). Scholars of color are introducing important work around decolonial projects that talk about questions of authenticity.

Recommendations for further reading includes work by Dwanna McKay, Fiona Greenland, Ann Hikido, Debra Vargas, and Exterminate All the Brutes from Raoul Peck.