Commoditization of emotion, and the search for authenticity in the middle class

2 minute read

As part of my course in socialization and everyday life, I’ve had Arlie Hochschild’s Emotion Work, Feeling Rules, and Social Structure1 assigned. As a near aside, close to the conclusion, she notes:

It may well be that, especially among the middle class, a corresponding value is now placed on “authenticity,” on things as they “truly are” or “once were”.

The whole article resonated with me - I am a firmly middle-class individual, with a middle-class upbringing. That upbringing, in turn, prepared me well for my current employment, where I place my emotions on the market — just as my parents do.

But the above quote struck even closer to home. A lot of my conscious consumption can be understood as a yearning for authenticity. I place value in items with an (arguable) price premium re: function: (moderately) expensive jeans (1900kr), shoes (1300 kr), boots (3000 kr). All of these things have some ideal of ‘authenticity’ in common. They tell a story, a myth, of different times. Maybe not simpler, exactly. But more ordered and orderly, maybe? These are items for a civilized age, it seems.

My jeans are hand sewn, from denim made on old looms (granted, in a contemporary slim tapered cut). My boots are handmade by a dude in his garage, with design inspiration from traditional Norwegian boots. My other boots have a storied British workboot heritage. I even had my Mom knit me a sweater inspired by traditional old Norwegian fisherman’s gear. Nevermind that I hardly know how to row, or clean a fish, even if my ancestors did.

This yearning for authenticity also extends to other areas of my life. I enjoy cooking (certain things) from the ground up (a bearnaise sauce is ‘merely’ mayonnaise, with warm, cleared butter instead of oil), we have a certain amount of vintage furniture (in which really, they did make some things better ~40-50 years ago). I use a safety razor, just like old times. I write with fountain pens and lead holders. I enjoy the patina my leather wallet achieves. My wife (often) knits with hand-dyed, artisanal yarns.

A cursory web search for ‘Hochschild Authenticity’ indicates, as suspected, that she had ‘authenticity of emotion’ in mind, achieving greater value as the middle class perform emotional labor in the workforce. A concern for the loss of authenticity in feeling in general seems to extend naturally from her argument regarding the commoditization of emotion.

Not to manufacture an existential crisis for myself (and many of my peers, if my loosely gathered anecdata is anything to go by), but this line of thought raises a related question:

Do Millennials (hi!) artificially construct a sense of authenticity through conspicuous consumption and other ways of (to borrow from Goffmann) constructing a face and a role? With the world apparently gone to hell in a handbasket (thanks, babyboomers! now we get to clean up), and meaning and purpose hard to come by, at least the way we construct our identities can refer to something ‘real’. ish. Except now I’ve popped that bubble too.

The struggle disillusionment is real.

That smells of dissertation level stuff, after some amount of refinement (operationalization of terms could be a bear to tackle), but I found it interesting enough for a blog post at least.

  1. Hochschild, A. R. (1979). Emotion Work, Feeling Rules, and Social Structure. American Journal of Sociology, 85(3), 551–575. https://doi.org/10.1086/227049