Seeking to promote rich cross-disciplinary dialogue on a subject of perennial interest, the McIntire School of Commerce hosted some 28 outstanding scholars and practitioners for a wide-ranging, deep-diving, two-day examination of authenticity. Featuring discussions and presentations on topics ranging from authenticity in contemporary dance, to the riddle of the seemingly inauthentic—but wildly popular—paintings of Thomas Kinkade, to how customers perceive firms’ authenticity, the May 6-7 event was designed to help scholars gain fresh insights into authenticity, inspire new research, generate cross-disciplinary collaborations, and encourage community and communication among scholars and practitioners interested in the subject.
“There are groups of scholars within a number of disciplines—including sociology, psychology, philosophy, art, architecture, and, of course, business—who are working on issues related to authenticity, but they’re often not really talking across disciplines,” says McIntire Management Professor Kieran O’Connor, who, along with McIntire Management Professor David Lehman, played a lead role in organizing the conference. “Our hope was to help enrich everyone’s work not only by promoting dialogue, but by exposing workshop attendees to different perspectives on and definitions of authenticity, as well as different research methods and measures.” O’Connor notes that the workshop’s dialogue was further enriched by the diverse international backgrounds of its participants, who came from as far away as Australia, Israel, and the UK.
Diversity of Perspectives
Lehman says the subject of authenticity lends itself to cross-disciplinary examination. “What’s so interesting about authenticity is that it’s socially constructed,” he says, noting the difference between subjective notions of authenticity (e.g., “authentic” country music) versus nominal, or fact-based authenticity (e.g., a letter actually written by Thomas Jefferson). “Why would we say that one restaurant serves “authentic” ethnic food, but another restaurant doesn’t? And why is something deemed ‘authentic’ perceived as more valuable, or of higher quality, than something deemed inauthentic?” Indeed, Lehman points out, supporters of presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump cite Trump’s “authenticity” as a key element of his appeal.
Interestingly, Lehman and O’Connor say, public fascination with authenticity, as measured by its mention in newspapers, has risen steadily for the past 50 years—perhaps, some scholars of the subject posit, as a result of the staggering increase in the automation, manufacture, and commercialization of goods and services. “The challenge and fun of studying it—and the benefit of bringing together so many people who are interested in it—are that there are so many different ways it can be examined, defined, measured, and applied,” O’Connor says.
Authenticity in Practice
The conference closed with a delicious, real-world sample of authenticity in practice at Albemarle CiderWorks, where participants learned from CEO Charlotte Shelton about the preservation of vintage local apple varieties and cider production methods; heard from old-time fiddle, banjo, and song preservationist Alex Caton; and enjoyed a locally sourced and inspired meal provided by Brookville Restaurant owners Harrison and Jennifer Keevil.
“Unlike many other topics of academic interest, authenticity lends itself to the inclusion of practitioners,” Lehman says, noting that conference participants also had a chance to hear from Brian Hogg, UVA’s Senior Historic Preservation Planner, about the fascinating challenges of maintaining both the authenticity and utility, in the modern world, of a UNESCO World Heritage site. “We were really pleased to have hosted a conference that so successfully brought together such a diversity of perspectives, and that generated so much excitement across disciplines.”
By Mary Summers Whittle