I wonder while I wander

…musings about this wild and wonderful world

Authentic culture?

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I’ve recently been writing about the theme of Otherness and in a couple of previous posts I mentioned the work of photographer Jimmy Nelson and his beautiful and thought-provoking Before They Pass Away photo documentation of the world’s last indigenous tribes.

As I’d hoped, my own reflections have sparked the beginnings of some interesting conversation on Otherness! I hope it continues because it is a fascinating topic and one that is incredibly relevant in our increasingly inter-connected and globalized world.

One idea I’ve seen crop up a couple of times now is that of authenticity. Both Jimmy Nelson, in his TED talk and other writings, as well as a friend of mine, have commented on the fact that tribal societies have an authenticity that we in the developed world have lost. Their cultures are more authentic than ours, and consequently their lives seem to be more meaningful.

I find this to be an interesting concept – one worth discussing and defining further.

First of all, what do we mean by ‘authentic’ in the context of cultures?

I, for one, take it to mean something that is ‘real’, ‘not a copy,’ ‘genuine’, perhaps also the opposite of ‘fake’.

So, is it accurate to say that tribal cultures are more ‘real’ than developed, first-world cultures? For example, is US culture or British culture or Japanese culture less ‘authentic’, meaning ‘less real’, ‘less genuine’, ‘more fake’?

I am coming from a Western perspective myself, and I think may of us in the West look to cultures around the world – particularly in developing countries, and perhaps most especially in tribal cultures – as being more authentic and a sort of remnant of an idealized past that we can no longer access in modern North America and Western Europe. But if that is the case, then when did North American and Western European cultures cease to be ‘real’ and ‘authentic’? How could we define the shift from authentic to inauthentic when discussing the history and culture of the West?

Maasai family - authentic culture?

Maasai family – authentic culture?

tv family

1950s American family – inauthentic culture?

My first thought in response to these questions is that we may consider Western culture as being less authentic because we see so much of our culture being heavily influenced by modern materialism, advertising and marketing, by machines, industry, and all sorts of advanced technology. Most of us watch TV, we drive cars, we eat processed food, we might not spend much time in nature, probably don’t grow our own food or raise farm animals. There are chemicals and preservatives in much of what we eat. Because of these characteristics of our Western modern culture, we may feel we live in a more ‘artificial’ and ‘less authentic’ way.

A friend of mine wrote an interesting comment to some of my previous questions about why we are attracted to images and information about Others, particularly those who live in tribal societies. Here she mentions the view that tribal cultures are more authentic as a reason why we are interested in Others. Now I’ll let her speak for herself and quote her in full here:

Personally I think [we are interested in learning about Others because of] the desire for meaning and seeing worlds where things are made by hands. We have destroyed our connection to every aspect of living. We don’t make things, our tools, our food… even the milk westerners feed their babies is a powdered manufactured chemical. We don’t go on hikes, we watch strangers hiking on TV. To see people who have meaning and authenticity in the things they do, the way they dress… it’s become the stuff of legend in the west. It’s loved and loathed equally. If I knit a hat from fiber I spun myself people are either amazed or they laugh and say ‘why? Go to Walmart and buy a hat for a dollar!” We live in a manufactured meaningless world, we look at these cultures with a desperate longing like an orphan sees a complete family (functional or not).

I have so much more to say on this topic, but it certainly won’t fit all into one blog post. So, I’ll leave you with some questions to consider instead.

How do we define what is ‘authentic’ in human culture? What do we consider to be the essential elements of a true and meaningful culture?

Is it true and fair to say that modern Western cultures are no longer authentic?

Is it true that tribal cultures are essentially different from developed world cultures, or are all humans everywhere just doing the same sorts of things, albeit in different ways, and with different materials, in both tribal and developed-world cultures?

Have modern cultures irreparably lost something essential, or are the elements of tribal cultures that we value still available to us in our modern lifestyle?

Is it possible to fully live in the modern, technologically advanced, increasingly urbanized world and still have an ‘authentic’ culture?

If you’d like to join in the conversation, please leave a comment below. I’d love to hear from you!


*NOTE: I find it difficult to chose terminology to use when discussing a topic like this. How do we chose between terms like ‘indigenous’, ‘tribal’, ‘traditional’ to describe cultures? I feel like all are a bit inadequate, and also are loaded with stereotypes, value judgement and assumptions – and they probably also have different meanings for different people. The problem is the same with trying to write about the ‘opposite’ of tribal cultures – we can use terms like ‘developed” or ‘first-world’ (as opposed to ‘developing’ or ‘third world’), or we can talk about ‘modern’ cultures (although in reality, any tribal society in existence today is also ‘modern’ and has been evolving just as long as any other non-tribal culture!). And here I also talk about Western culture as being sort of synonymous with ‘modern’ or ‘developed’, but obviously, there are many other countries that are modern and developed but not Western, such as Japan and South Korea, just to name a few. So, I’d just like to point out the flaws in my own use of terminology and bring up the fact that all the terms we use to discuss cultures in this way are loaded with biases, generalizations and assumptions. I’m just trying to do the best I can to be understood while discussing an incredibly complex topic, so please forgive my shortcomings!

Author: Kim

Originally from Midwestern USA, now living in Istanbul, Turkey, with my husband and two boys, and soon to be moving to Ireland. Living simply, continually learning more about the world, and enjoying an amazing life!

One thought on “Authentic culture?

  1. Ok… I’m FINALLY getting around to responding to this! My first thought when I read this is not what “authentic” means, but what does “culture” mean? And we can’t define what’s “authentic” until we define what we are actually labeling as such. When I think about a culture, I think of a group of people who act in a certain way, have specific ways of communicating to each other, gestures they use with each other that everyone understands, common phrases, things they hold important, things they could care less about, a shared history, etc. Then there’s also appearance and what’s acceptable/unacceptable. I think that the US has all of these… we speak English, as do many other countries, but we speak it in a different way than any other country does. We have hand gestures we use that other cultures don’t (a simple handshake – in the US, it’s acceptable to have a firm hold. In Kenya, people reach out their hands and lightly touch their hands together). We have traditions that we uphold as a culture (not necessarily everyone, but as a culture we do. You go to a baseball game and see other people eating chili dogs and drinking beer – that’s a tradition and it’s widely accepted even if I myself don’t eat hotdogs. I expect it because it’s my culture. And… not even Ireland paints the rivers green for St Patty’s Day! Just sayin. Merica. July 4th. Thanksgiving.) We have certain ways of communicating with each other that are acceptable and unacceptable in our culture. (Asking “Can you please pass me the salt?” vs stating “I want the salt.” Both are used in different English-speaking cultures, but in the US, the second one would seem very rude. It’s not rude to say that in certain other cultures. It’s expected.) In the US, we value diversity and innovation. We all share our American history – the good, bad and ugly. We identify with that.
    Yes, we share a language, some traditions, media and other things with other countries, and we are influenced and influencing. But as soon as you’re in the US, you can tell by the feel of it that it’s the US, and I think that’s because of the culture surrounding it. (I won’t get into subcultures here).
    I don’t think that we are less authentic of a culture because we are more modern. Maybe our traditions don’t go as far back as tribal cultures, but I wouldn’t say that makes it less authentic. I’d say that tribal cultures are continuing to do what’s worked for them since the beginning of their history, and, well… if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!
    Because the west is so connected, I’d say it’s impossible for us all to stay away from influencing each other. And because the US is so young as a culture, we may still be building it up. But whether we’ve “lost” something in that is up to each individual living within the culture to decide. Some may say it’s a gain. We expect diversity and change in Western cultures, whereas tribal cultures are born and bred to live life by the book and nobody changes it. And since you asked… what is it about a tribal culture that we value that you feel like we’ve lost in our Western culture?
    I dunno… this is definitely a tough question. I probably could’ve made an argument for the other side too 🙂

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