ASA09: Anthropological and archaeological imaginations: past, present and future
Bristol, UK

Cultural authenticity
Location Great Hall
Date and Time 8th April, 2009 at 11:00


Dimitrios Theodossopoulos (University of Kent)
Mail All Convenors

Short Abstract

Plenary Two examines the elusive concept of cultural authenticity, its visual dimension, its reliance on the awareness of the past, its potential to deny or encourage cultural creativity. We examine the consequences of claiming authentic identities, the ‘pastness’ of heritage, the realisation of authenticity in inauthenticity.

Long Abstract

The pursuit of authenticity has inspired anthropologists and archaeologists to embark on journeys of discovery. In many cases, the cultures discovered were not those imagined, but the journey to authenticity—located at a temporal or spatial distance—has provided the two disciplines with opportunities to confront the discrepancies between appearance and reality. Maybe for this reason, the notion of authenticity (with all its essentialising and discriminating properties) deserves our attention: it has enthused our engagement with the world, encouraged our expectation that a hidden layer of true social life exists beyond the surface level of social interaction. This is knowledge to be uncovered by long-term participant observation, excavation, and carbon dating. In this plenary, we engage with the elusive concept of cultural authenticity, its visual dimension, its reliance on the awareness of the past, its potential to deny or encourage cultural creativity. We examine the consequences of claiming authentic identities (for the self or for others), the timeliness and ‘pastness’ of heritage, the potential for authenticity in inauthenticity. So the journey begins: can authenticity be discovered? experienced? consumed?

Chair: Jacqueline Waldren

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Post-authenticity: dilemmas of identity in the 21st century

Author: Marcus Banks (University of Oxford )


In the commercial markets where fine art and artefacts are traded, matters of authenticity remain paramount, and much is at stake within a late-capitalist context. By contrast, within the academic worlds of history and art history the ‘authenticity’ of art works and objects is a puzzle to be explored, not a bastion to be defended, and little is at stake. From the perspective of generic social theory, the condition of modernity is thought to allow or indeed demand anyone and everyone to make themselves, to determine their own authenticity. Social anthropology however finds itself in a dilemma: on the one hand it may celebrate and defend the right of anyone to define their way of being (neo-Pagans in Britain, for example), on the other hand the discipline has a traditional commitment to the poor, the powerless and the disenfranchised (as enshrined in its ethical codes of practice). There is thus a dilemma when the self-authored claims to authentic identity proclaimed by relatively privileged members of Euro-American society come into conflict with the often unspoken claims of traditional or indigenous society. How should anthropologists respond to demands made by ‘white’ residents of Tasmania for the repatriation of historic human remains identified as ‘Tasmanian’, for example? Should anthropologists defend the rights of contemporary ‘Druids’ to have access to Stonehenge? These questions are explored by way of an historical example – the representation of ‘Indian-ness’ in colonial-period film – and the ramifications of that in the present.

Experiencing ‘pastness’: material culture, heritage and the notion of authenticity

Author: Cornelius Holtorf (Linnaeus University Kalmar)


Authentic heritage is commonly defined as heritage that is genuinely old. I will start my presentation by asking what “genuinely old” actually means in the context of heritage. It turns out that this question is anything but simple. That an archaeological site or artefact is genuinely old and authentic can actually mean very many things, and may refer to the material substance, the design, the function, the location, the technique of manufacture, etc. I will then proceed to ask my second question, whether there can be an alternative definition of authentic heritage. Since age is such a soft target, another definition might focus on the use of heritage in the present rather than its origin in the past. With this in mind, I will propose a definition of authentic heritage as that which allows you to experience what could be called ‘pastness’, the experience of the quality or condition of being past. I will argue that if we want to understand and manage cultural heritage with regard to the important role it fulfills in society, we need to investigate under which circumstances and on which occasions humans experience ‘pastness’.

Inauthenticity as cultural creativity unleashed

Author: Dimitrios Theodossopoulos (University of Kent)


There is an underlying paradox in discussions premised on the perception of inauthenticity: as anthropologists and archaeologists confront inauthenticity they come one step closer to acknowledging innovation and the potential for generating new authenticity. Inauthentic identities and objects can foster an appreciation for hybridity and syncretism, or help us understand social change and cultural adaptation. Very often, and especially in cases that involve representation or performance, inauthenticity entails improvisation and cultural creativity. It is in this respect that anthropologists and archaeologists can reveal the authentic in the inauthentic. Undoubtedly, inauthenticity, when approached from the prism of essentialism, can be denigrating to certain cultural expressions; but, when approached with an analytical spirit, it can direct our attention to the dynamic and fluid qualities of change: the re-invention of tradition as authentic culture experienced and shared. I will briefly explore this possibility by looking at the example an Embera community in Panama, which strives to access modernity in an authentically indigenous manner.