Research Project

Influencer culture

Principal Investigator
Dr Julie Walsh
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Investigating the reflexivity of charismatic authority today

This research project argues that ‘influencer culture’ represents a significant redistribution of charismatic authority in the modern age.

In 2021, the UK’s Parliamentary Committee for Digital Culture Media and Sport launched an official inquiry into the operation of ‘influencer culture’ and the power of influencers on social media. Subject to political investigation, influencer culture is also the site of intense social anxiety concerning our image-oriented worlds. Yet influencers have long been central to an understanding of an affective politics, entering the public sphere in ways that are not securely mediated by the state.

This research project builds upon Dr Julie Walsh's previous work on cultural narcissism which contested the melancholia of sociological discourse as it narrates the fragmentation of the public sphere.


To situate the contemporary culture of influence genealogically and to establish the figure of the influencer as a sociological type

Sociological investigations of the operations of charismatic leadership (Weber 1922), the prevalence of ‘automaton conformity’ (Fromm 1941), the rise of the authoritarian personality (Adorno 1950), or of totalitarian persuasion (Arendt 1951), comprise an important intellectual history of influence and influencers in twentieth-century social and political thought.

Investigating the politics of influence today, one might easily track the substantive concerns of these twentieth-century theorists. For example secularism and the rise of fascism, the spread of misinformation, the commodification of selfhood, and explore their new formations.

This research project investigates the figure of the influencer as multifaceted in contemporary culture. Embodying variously the interests of multinational corporations, foreign state agencies as well as minority political movements, the figure of the influencer now demands new descriptive vocabularies and critical approaches.

To re-describe today’s landscape of ‘influencer culture’ with a focus on the redistribution and reflexivity of charismatic authority in contemporary society

Questions concerning our capacity to influence others, influence our life-worlds and better understand the influences to which we are subject are part of our digital-age vernacular.

Moreover, the digital commons facilitate both suspicion and embrace of influencer culture as it operates through computational algorithm (Zuboff 2019) as well as so-called ‘gesture politics’ and cultural identification based on body image.

In a careful exercise of sociological re-description, this research project investigates how the problems and promises of charismatic influence are central to the reflexive project of the self.

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Contact us
Dr Julie Walsh Principal Investigator
University of Essex
Department of Psychosocial and Psychoanalytic Studies University of Essex
Wivenhoe Park, Colchester, CO4 3SQ
Telephone: 01206 873640