EVALUATION AND LEGITIMATION
The spread of brands and branded products within a community requires coordination among its members. This coordination typically happens without the direction of an authoritative figure or a drum major who leads the group. Rather, it happens through collective judgment (people deciding whether something is “good” or “bad”) and shared acceptability (people deciding whether something is “in” or “out”). In sociology, these processes are called evaluation and legitimation, respectively. Harvard sociologist Michèle Lamont asked, “How does an art object, a literary work, or a scientific theory gain value to the point at which it is consecrated and integrated into the canon?” How does a product gain value to the point that it becomes integrated into the cultural zeitgeist? To find out, we need to look at the relationship between evaluation and legitimation and how they, together, help us collectively give something meaning.
Evaluation is exactly what it sounds like—a judgment about the value of something. And every community does it. Whether it’s a physical object, a behavior, an institution, or even other people, we are constantly assessing value to answer a simple question, albeit subconsciously: Does this fit within the cultural characteristics of people like me? Are these sneakers cool? Does this jacket look good? Is this an “old person’s” car? Is this a good school? Does this dance look silly? The answers to these questions, and many more like them, are subjective in nature and based almost entirely on the meaning that the community attributes to them. Though individuals engage in the evaluation process, evaluating an object is a collaborative effort in which the whole community decides whether that product is cool based on the social facts of the community.
Like meaning making, evaluation is socially constructed, as my opinion of a company, product, or movement is biased by the opinions of others, especially other people like me. We all have a desire to fit in and a need to belong. The coordination of opinions helps us do just that. Therefore, my opinion of a brand is influenced by the accumulation of opinions from my tribe—even if someone offers a different opinion as an opportunity to distinguish themselves from others in the community, considering the human paradox of wanting to fit in but also stand out. This person’s judgment is also informed and influenced by the judgment of others. Evaluation is a social process, as is legitimation.
Legitimation happens when we, as community members or members of society more broadly, decide what is okay. For instance, thirty years ago, the idea of having visible tattoos was reserved for the rebellious—rock musicians, biker gangs, and other fringe groups. It was deemed unacceptable by society, so much so that if you had tattoos, you’d likely try to cover them up for a job interview because of what they might mean in the mind of the interviewer. Today, however, people wear visible tattoos freely and are not seen as degenerates for doing so. Over the years, having tattoos went from meaning “outcast” to being “normal,” generally speaking. This is a by-product of legitimation.
Athletic apparel was once suitable only for workouts and yoga classes, never to be worn in public or at social functions. But now we have athleisure, through which yoga pants and tapered joggers have become acceptable in many different settings. The legitimation of athleisure drove this industry to become a $411 billion market in 2021, and it’s expected to grow to over $793 billion by 2028. The companies that were early to capitalize on this phenomenon—like the Canadian based athletic apparel retailer Lululemon—experienced an economic windfall, while the athletic brands that did not move so quickly, like Under Armour, missed out. These late movers, unfortunately, placed their strategic bets elsewhere despite the shifts in cultural consumption, and these brands are still paying the price.
Online dating is another great example. The idea of meeting a potential romantic partner online was considered a sign of desperation twenty years ago. At the time, the conventional wisdom was that meeting someone online meant you were unable to meet someone in the “real world.” But that perception has since changed. By 2020, prepandemic, 30 percent of all initial dating encounters happened through online dating, which was up from 3 percent in 2010. Over the course of ten years, we completely legitimated online dating. What once meant “loser” now means “normal.”
“Do people like me do something like this?” This is the question we ask ourselves as we navigate our day-to-day lives. The theoretical framework for understanding how social structures—like norms and practices—are established as guidelines for social behavior is referred to as institutional theory. According to this theory, the process of legitimation is shaped by imitation. We observe others who we think are like us to decide what is acceptable behavior for us. The world-renowned scholar of social psychology and influence Robert Cialdini referred to this phenomenon as social proof, where we copy the actions of others to fit in. Social proof provides a signal of what is deemed acceptable behavior among our people, and, subsequently, we receive the behavior as acceptable and act in concert to promote social solidarity.
Legitimation is socially constructed and plays a critical role in the process of meaning-making. Every time a community is introduced to something new (an exogenous shock to the system like a new product, new music, or any breaking news that comes through our news feeds and across our screens), members of the community collectively make sense of it (make meaning) and decide whether and how it will be integrated into their culture. Once your brand has been legitimated by the congregation, you’re set!
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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