Ethnic Background and Meanings of Authenticity: A Qualitative Study of University Students

Ramon Menendez Domingo



This paper explores the different meanings that individuals from diverse ethnic backgrounds associate with being authentic. It builds on previous research (Menendez 11) that found quantitative differences in terms of the meanings individuals from Eastern and Western backgrounds tend to associate with being authentic. Using qualitative analysis, it describes in more detail how individuals from these two backgrounds construct their different meanings of authenticity.

Authenticity has become an overriding moral principle in contemporary Western societies and has only recently started to be contested (Feldman). From cultural products to individuals’ discourses, authenticity pervades Western culture (Lindholm; Potter; Vannini and Williams). On an individual level, the ideal of authenticity is reflected in the maxim “be true to yourself.” The social value of authenticity has a relatively recent history in the Western world of approximately 200 years (Trilling). It started to develop alongside the notion of individuality during modernity (Taylor, Sources; Trilling). The Romantic movement consolidated its cultural influence (Taylor, Sources). In the 1960s, the Hippy movement revived authenticity as a countercultural discourse, although it has progressively become mainstream through consumer culture and therapeutic discourses (Binkley).

Most of the studies in the literature on authenticity as a cultural phenomenon are theoretical, conducted from a philosophical perspective (Ferrara; Guignon; Taylor, Ethics), but few of them are empirical, mostly from sociology (Erickson; Franzese, Thine; Turner, Quest; Vannini, Authenticity). Part of this dearth of empirical research on authenticity is due to the difficulties that researchers encounter in attempting to define what it means to be authentic (Franzese, Authenticity 87). Sociologists study the phenomenological experience of being true to oneself, but are less attentive to the metaphysical notion of being a “true self” (Vannini, Dead 236–37). Trying to preserve this open approach, without judging individuals on how “authentic” they are, is what makes defining authenticity difficult. For this reason, sociologists have defined being authentic in a broad sense as “an individual’s subjective sense that their behaviour, appearance, self, reflects their sense of core being. One’s sense of core being is composed of their values, beliefs, feelings, identities, self-meanings, etc.” (Franzese, Authenticity 87); this is the definition of authenticity that I use here. Besides being scarce, the sociological empirical studies on authenticity have been conducted with individuals from Western backgrounds and, thus, have privileged authenticity as a Western cultural construct. This paper tries to contribute to this field of research by: (1) contributing more empirical investigation and (2) providing cross-cultural comparison between individuals from Eastern and Western backgrounds.

The literature on cross-cultural values associates Eastern societies with collective (Hofstede, Hofstede and Mirkov 95–97; 112–17) and material or survival (Inglehart and Welzel 51–57; 61–65) values, while Western societies tend to be linked to the opposite kind of values: individual, post-material or self-expression (WVS). For example, societies that score high in survival values are likely to be African (e.g., Zimbabwe) Middle Eastern (e.g., Morocco and Jordan) or Asian (e.g., Bangladesh) countries, while societies that score high in self-expression values tend to be European (e.g., Sweden) or English speaking (e.g., Australia) countries. Nevertheless, there are some exceptions, the case of Japan, for example, which tends to score high in self-expression values despite being an “Eastern” society (WVS). These differences also tend to be reflected among Eastern minorities living in Western countries (Chua and Rubenfeld). Collective values emphasise harmony in relations and prioritise the needs of the group over the individual; on the other hand, individual values emphasise self-expression. Material or survival values accentuate the satisfaction of “basic” needs, in Abraham Maslow’s terms (21), such as physiological or security needs, and imply practising thrift and delaying immediate gratification; by contrast, post-material or self-expression values stress the satisfaction of “higher” needs, such as freedom of speech, equality, or aesthetic needs.

The sociologist Ralph Turner (Real) created a theoretical framework to organize individuals’ discourses around authenticity: the “impulsive” and “institutional” categories. One of Turner’s assumptions is particularly important in understanding the differences between these two categories: individuals tend to consider the self as an objective entity that, despite only existing in their minds, feels “real” to them. This can have consequences for the meanings they ascribe to certain internal subjective states, such as cognitions or emotions, which can be interpreted as indicators of their authentic selves (990–91).

The institutional and impulsive categories are two different ways of understanding authenticity that present several differences (991–95). Two among them are most relevant to understand the differences that I discuss in this paper. The first one has to do with the individual’s locus of the self, whether the self is conceptualized as located “outside” or “inside” the individual. Impulsive interpretations of authenticity have an internal sense of authenticity as “being,” while institutional conceptualizations have an external sense of authenticity as “becoming.” For “impulsives,” the authentic self is something that must be searched for. Impulsives look within to discover their “true self,” which is often in opposition to society’s roles and its expectations of the individual. On the other hand, for “institutionals” authentic is achieved through external effort (Turner, Quest 155); it is something that individuals achieve through regular practice, often aligned with society’s roles and their expectations of the individual (Turner, Real 992).

The second difference has to do with the management of emotions. For an institutional understanding of authenticity, individuals are true to their own authentic selves when they are in full control of their capacities and emotions. By contrast, from an impulsive point of view, individuals are true to themselves when they are spontaneous, accepting and freely expressing their emotions, often by breaking the internal or external controls that society imposes on them (Turner, Real 993).

Although individuals can experience both types of authenticity, previous research on this topic (Menendez) has shown that institutional experiences tend to happen more frequently among Easterners, and impulsive experiences tend to occur more frequently among Westerners. In this paper, I show how Easterners and Westerners construct institutional and impulsive meanings of authenticity respectively; what kind of authenticity work individuals from these two backgrounds do when they conceptualize their authentic selves; how they interpret internal subjective states as expressions of who they are; and what stories they tell themselves about who they are.

I suggest that these stories, although they may look purely individual, can also be social. Individuals from Western backgrounds tend to interpret impulsive experiences of authenticity as expressing their authentic selves, as they are informed by the individual and post-material values of Western societies. In contrast, individuals from Eastern backgrounds tend to interpret institutional experiences of authenticity as expressing their authentic selves, as they have been socialized in the more collective and material values of Eastern societies.

Finally, and before I proceed to the analysis, I would like to acknowledge a limitation of this study. The dichotomies that I use to explain my argument, such as the Western and Eastern or the impulsive and institutional categories, can constitute a limitation for this paper because they cannot reflect nuances. They can be easily contested. For example, the division between Eastern and Western societies is often seen as ideological and Turner’s distinction between institutional and impulsive experiences of authenticity can create artificial separations between the notions of self and society or reason and passion (Solomon 173). However, these concepts have not been used for ideological or simplifying purposes, but to help explain distinguishable cultural orientations towards authenticity in the data.


I completed 20 interviews (from 50 minutes to 2 hours in length) with 20 students at La Trobe University (Australia), between September 2012 and April 2013. The 20 interviewees (9 females and 11 males), ranged from 18 to 58 years old (the median age was 24 years old). The sample was theoretically designed to cover as many diverse cultural backgrounds as possible. I asked the interviewees questions about: moments they had experienced that felt either authentic and inauthentic, what constitutes a life worth-living, and the impact their cultural backgrounds might have had on their conceptions of their true selves.

The 20 interviewees were born in 13 different countries. According to the extensive dataset on cultural values, the World Values Survey (WVS), these 13 countries have different percentages of post-materialists—individuals who choose post-material instead of material values (Inglehart and Welzel 54–56). Table 1 shows the percentages of post-materialists in each of the interviewees’ countries of birth. 

Table 1: Percentages of post-materialists in the interviewees’ countries of birth


% of post-materialists

WVS Wave

United Kingdom


2005 – 2009



2010 – 2014

United States


2010 – 2014



2000 – 2004



2005 – 2009

Greece (Turkey)


2010 – 2014

South Africa


2005 – 2009



2010 – 2014



2010 – 2014



2005 – 2009



2010 – 2014



2010 – 2014

Note: These data are based on the 4-item post-materialism index question (Y002) of World Values Survey (WVS). I use three different waves of data (2000–2004, 2005–2009, and 2010–2014). Greece did not have any data in World Values Survey, so its data have been estimated considering the results from Turkey, which is the most similar country in geographical and cultural terms that had data available.

In my model, I consider “Western” societies as those that have more than 10% post-materialists, while “Eastern” societies have less than 10% post-materialists. As shown in Table 1 and mentioned earlier, Western countries (English speaking or European) tend to have higher percentages of post-materialists than Eastern societies (African, Asian and Middle Eastern).

Thus, as Table 2 shows, the interviewees who were born in a Western society are ascribed to one group, while individuals born in an Eastern society are ascribed to another group. Although many overseas-born interviewees have lived in Australia for periods that range from 6 months to 10 years, they were ascribed to the “East” and “West” groups solely based on their country of birth. Even though these individuals may have had experiences of socialization in Australia, I assume that they have been primarily socialized in the values of their ethnic backgrounds and the countries where they were born, via their parents’ educational values or through direct experience, during the time that they lived in their countries of birth. According to my definition of authenticity, individuals’ values inform their understanding of authenticity, therefore, the values from their ethnic backgrounds can also influence their understanding of authenticity.

In the first phase of the analysis, I used Grounded Theory (Charmaz), with categories directly emerging from the data, to analyse my interviewees’ stories. In the second stage, I reviewed these categories in combination with Turner’s categories of impulsive and institutional, applying them to classify the stories.

Table 2: Distribution of participants between “East” and “West”

West (n=11)

East (n=9)

Australia (n=5)

China (n=2)

United Kingdom (n=2)

India (n=2)

United States (n=1)

South Korea (n=1)

Greece (n=1)

South Africa (n=1)

Finland (n=1)

Egypt (n=1)

Israel (n=1)

Ghana (n=1)


Malaysia (n=1)


Although I interviewed 20 participants, due to space-constraints, I illustrate my argument with only 4 interview extracts from 4 of the interviewees: 2 interviewees from Western backgrounds and 2 from Eastern backgrounds. However, these stories are representative of the trends found for the whole sample. I show how Easterners and Westerners construct their authentic selves in institutional and impulsive senses respectively through the two key characteristics that I presented in the introduction: locus of the self and management of emotions.

In the first instance, Rachel (from Australia, 24 years old), a Western respondent, shows an impulsive locus of the self as “being.” Authenticity is discovered through self-acceptance of an uncomfortable emotion, like a “bad mood:”

I think the times when I want to say, ‘oh, I wasn’t myself’, I usually was. My bad moods are more ‘me’. My bad moods are almost always the ‘real me’. [So you consider that your authentic self is something that is there, inside you, that you have to discover, or it is something outside yourself, that you can achieve?] I think it is something that you have to discover for yourself. I think it is different for everyone. [But would you say that it is something that is there already or it is something that you become?] No, I think it is something that is there already.

On the other hand, Rani (from China, 24 years old), an Eastern respondent, interprets authenticity as “becoming;” authenticity does not pre-exist—as in the case of Rachel—but is something “external” to her idea of self. Rani becomes herself by convincing herself that she conforms to society’s ideals of physical beauty. Unlike the process of self-acceptance that Rachel described, Rani develops authentic selfhood by “lying” to herself or, as she says, “through some lies”:

I have heard this sentence, like ‘you have to be yourself to others’, but I think it is really hard to do this. I think people still need some ‘acting’ things in their life. You need to act, not to say to act as another person, but sometimes like let’s say to be polite or make other people like you, you need acting. And sometimes if you are doing the ‘acting things’ a lot, you are going to believe this is true (she laughs). [Like others will believe that you are something that you are not?] I think at the beginning, maybe that’s not, but… because some people wake up every morning and say to the mirror, ‘you are very beautiful, you are the most beautiful girl in the world’, then, you will be happy and you will actually become beautiful. I think it is not like lie to yourself, but it is just being confident. Maybe at the beginning you are not going to believe that you are beautiful… like, what is this sentence? ‘Being true to yourself’, but actually doing this everyday, then that’s true, you will become, you will be confident. [So that means you can be yourself also through…] Through some lies. [So you don’t think that there is something inside you that you have to kind of discover?] No.

Eastern and Western respondents also tend to interpret emotions differently. Westerners are more likely to interpret them in more impulsive terms than Easterners, who interpret them in a more institutional light. As we can see in the following extract, Sean, a Western respondent (born in Australia, but raised in England, 41 years old),  feels inauthentic because he could not express his dislike of a co-worker he did not get along with:

In a six months job I had before I came to Australia, I was an occupational therapist in a community. There was a girl in the administration department who was so rude. I wanted to say: ‘look darling you are so rude. It is really unpleasant talking to you. Can you just be nice? It would be just so much better and you will get more done and you will get more from me’. That’s what I should have said, but I didn’t say it. I didn’t, why? Maybe it is that sort of culture of not saying things or maybe it is me not being assertive enough. I don’t think I was being myself. Because my real self wanted to say: ‘look darling, you are not helping matters by being a complete bitch’. But I didn’t say that. I wasn’t assertive enough.

In a similar type of incident, Ben, an Eastern respondent (from Ghana, 32 years old), describes an outburst he had with a co-worker who was annoying him. Unlike Sean, Ben expressed his anger to the co-worker, but he does not consider this to be a manifestation of his authentic self. For Ben, to act authentically one must control their emotions and try help others:

I don’t know if that is myself or if that is not myself, but sometimes I get angry, I get upset, and I am the open type. I am the type that I can’t keep something in me, so sometimes when you make me annoyed, I just response. There is this time about this woman, in a class, that I was in Ghana. She was an older woman, a respected woman, she kept annoying me and there was one day that I couldn’t take it any longer, so I just burst up and I just… I don’t know what I said, I just… said a lot of bad things to her. The woman, she was shocked. I also felt shocked because I thought I could control myself, so that’s me… I don’t want to hide my feelings, I just want to come out with what I think when you make me annoyed, but those times, when I come out, I don’t like them, because I think it contradicts who I really am, someone who is supposed to help or care. I don’t like that aspect. You know somebody could be bossy, so he or she enjoys shouting everybody. I don’t enjoy that, but sometimes it is something that I cannot even control. Someone pushes me to the limit, and I just can’t keep that anger, and it comes out. I won’t say that is ‘me,’ I wouldn’t say that that is me. I don’t think that is a ‘true me’. [Why?] Because the true me would enjoy that experience the way I enjoy helping people instead.

Unlike the two accounts from Rachel and Rani, these two last passages from Sean and Ben describe experiences of inauthenticity, where the authentic self cannot be expressed. What is important in these two passages is not their behaviour, but how they attribute their own emotions to their sense of authentic selfhood. Sean identifies his authentic self with the “impulsive” self who expresses his emotions, while Ben identifies his authentic self with the “institutional” self who is in control of his emotions. Sean feels inauthentic because he could not express his angry feelings to the co-worker, whereas Ben feels inauthentic because he could not control his  outburst. Ben still hesitates about which side of himself can be attributed to his authentic self, for example, he says that he is “the open type” or that he does not want to “hide [his] feelings”, but he eventually identifies his authentic self with his institutional self.

The choices that Sean and Ben make about the emotions that they attribute to their authentic selves could be motivated by their respective ethnic backgrounds. Like Rachel, Sean identifies his authentic self with a socially unacceptable emotion: anger. Consistent with his Western background, Sean’s sense of authenticity emphasizes the needs of the individual over the group and sees suppression of emotions as repressive. On the other hand, Ben reasons that since he does not enjoy being angry as much as he enjoys helping others, expressing anger is not a manifestation of authenticity. His authentic self is linked to his institutional self. Ben’s values are infused with altruism, which reflects the collective values that tend to be associated with his Eastern background. For him, suppression of emotions might not mean repression, but can foster authenticity instead.


Both ways of interpreting authenticity, impulsive and institutional, look for self-consistency and the need to tell a coherent story to ourselves about who we are. The results section of this paper showed how Easterners and Westerners conceptualize authenticity. Easterners understand authenticity differently to Western discourses of the authentic. These alternative understandings offer viable solutions to the self-consistency problem. They present external, rather than internal, ways of conceiving the authentic self, and regulative, rather than expressive, approaches to emotions.

As I mentioned earlier, Eastern societies are associated with collective and material values, while Western ones are related to individual and post-material values. These divisions in terms of values are reflected in individuals’ self-constructs. Individuals in Western societies tend to have a more independent idea of the self, whereas individuals in Eastern societies are more likely to have an interdependent one (Kitayama). An interdependent idea of the self values connectedness and conceptualizes the self in relation to others, so it can generate an institutional approach to authenticity, where the idea of the authentic self is not something that individuals search for inside themselves, but something that individuals become through their participation in social roles. This was evident in the example of Rani, whose idea of being authentic as “becoming” seemed to be an extension of her more interdependent self-construct and the need to fit in society.

A regulative approach to emotions has also been associated with Easterners (Cheung and Park), on the basis of their collective values and interdependent self-constructs. For individuals from a Western background, with a more independent sense of self, as in the case of Sean, suppressing emotions tends to be seen negatively as being inauthentic, a form of repression. However, for individuals with interdependent self-constructs, this can be not only less harmful (feeling less inauthentic), but can even be beneficial because they tend to prioritize the needs of others (Le and Impett). This is evident in the example of Ben, for whom suppressing aanger does not make him feel inauthentic because he identifies his authentic self with the self that is in control of his emotions and helps others. This understanding of authenticity is aligned with the collective values of his ethnic background.

In sum, ideas of authenticity seem to vary culturally according to the repertoires and values systems that inform them. Thus, even what we think might be our most intimate or individual experiences, like our experiences of authenticity and ideas of who we are, can also be socially constructed. This paper has tried to demonstrate the importance of sociology for the study of authenticity as a cultural phenomenon.


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Ethnic backgrounds; Authenticity; Cultural Sociology; Qualitative Methods; Identity

Copyright (c) 2015 Ramon Menendez Domingo

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