Signaling Authenticity
April 14, 2011

Kingdom of Northshield court in the Society fo...

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A friend passes along this study (PDF) from The Journal of Contemporary Ethnography on how members of the Society for Creative Anachronism use what the author calls “bridging discourse” to demonstrate to one another that they’re engaging in authentic group behavior — that, in the terminology of the SCA, their clothes and mannerisms are sufficiently “period.”

The author, Stephanie Decker of the University of Kansas, defines bridging discourse like so (emphasis added):

When individuals engage in behavior that might be considered inauthentic by other group members, they, or other members, often engage in bridging discourse to explain why the behavior is congruent with the idea of being period; in doing so, they demonstrate that their behavior is linked to the same ideology to which other group members link their behavior. When group members engage in behavior that others see as incongruent with the group’s ideology, they risk portraying themselves as deviant and indicating that they believe the ideology of the group is unimportant. Other group members may feel that such actions reflect poorly on the group as a whole, and this may change the collective identity of the group. When individuals engage in bridging discourse, they protect themselves, or others, from stigma but also maintain the collective identity of the group. Members accomplish this by reinterpreting the group’s ideology, redefining their behavior, or offering explanations as to why they should be excused from meeting the group’s standards.

And here’s an example of one member of the group, ostensibly dressed as an authentic medieval warrior, justifying his use of period-inappropriate cotton instead of wool:

Well, I know that they wore wool, but they wore wool because that’s what was available to them, and that’s what met their needs. But if they were in North America I’m sure they would have worn cotton, because that’s what would have been available, and it would have been hot as hell. So I think wearing cotton is totally period, because it’s practical.

The paper’s about a pretty specific and eccentric subculture, but it doesn’t exactly overtax the imagination to try and transplant bridging discourse into other contexts. In the political realm, replace “period” with “seriousness” or “belief in American exceptionalism.” Within the Republican caucus, replace it with “Tea Partier,” “conservative,” or “loves Reagan.”

But what’s most interesting to me about this phenomenon in the political realm is the way politicians sometimes need to use bridging discourse to catch up with evolving standards. American exceptionalism, for example, didn’t used to be the hot button issue it is today — but then conservatives realized they could use it as a semi-veiled way to call into question the American-ness of their opponents, most notably President Obama. Now all of a sudden, even people who don’t subscribe to American infallibility are going out of their way to make public statements about aspirational exceptionalism and the like. It makes you think less of a bridge than one of those stair trucks you see at airports.

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