Transplants claiming to be New Yorkers. Whites trying to pass themselves off as blacks. Men who insist that they're really women. And denizens of the 21st century who dress up as though they belonged to the fedora-sporting Forties.
These and many other related phenomena have been noticed and detailed on their own, but as far as I'm aware, there has been no unified treatment of them, for either description or explanation.
What the phenomena have in common is a shift toward all forms of group membership being determined by deliberate choices to "identify" or affiliate with the group, rather than having belonged to that group for reasons beyond your control, say by being born into it.
Sociologists refer to "ascribed" status, which you are born into, raised in, or otherwise given involuntarily, vs. "achieved" status that you gain through your own doing. Membership in a race is ascribed, while membership in a fraternity is achieved. Being a child of divorce is ascribed, being a divorced adult is achieved.
Some forms of status could hypothetically go either way. Does membership in a regional culture stem from your birth, upbringing, and extended family roots? Or can you choose to identify with a region that you did not spend your formative years in, but have moved into as an adult?
When regional membership is ascribed, all that matters is birth, upbringing, and family roots — even if you have spent most of your adult life in a region that you were not raised in, you are still a guest within a host or adoptive culture. When membership is achieved, you're perfectly allowed to claim the regional identity of your adoptive place, after a suitable series of rites of passage, which may be tacit or explicit.
For example, when you first move to New York City, how long of a residence does it take until you're "really" a New Yorker? How numbed to the odor of piss does your nose have to become (in the old days), or how long do you have to use a monthly subway card rather than touristy tokens (in the new days), before you have gone through the trials and rituals that earn you admission into the club of "real" New Yorkers?
Notice that when status is achieved, the aspiring joiners will appeal to as many criteria as they can think of rationalizations for in their favor. Ascribed status constrains the debate. Sure, folks may still bicker about how many generations back the person's roots need to go, or how many kin they must have who are also New Yorkers, but that is still limited to just two criteria.
Thus, ascribed status largely speaks for itself, while achieved status encourages rattling off one after another qualification on the self-promoter's endless list. Status contests are limited in scope when status is ascribed — were you born here or not? — but turn into ever escalating games of one-ups-manship when it is achieved.
This suggests that in status-striving times, group membership will shift toward being more and more achieved, while in accommodating and egalitarian times it will shift toward being ascribed.
The prevailing norms in status-striving times are me-first and laissez-faire — who's to stop me from claiming a New Yorker identity if I work hard enough at it? If you work hard enough for it, you've earned it. Rags-to-riches and rugged individualism are other staples of the zeitgeist in status-striving times.
In accommodating times, the norms favor regulating interactions so that conflict is minimized. If we let one guy pursue New Yorker status as though it could be an accomplishment, then we open the floodgates to thousands of other combatants in a spiraling status war. Instead, individuals will attribute their various group memberships to the circumstances of their birth and upbringing — beyond their own control, and therefore pointless to change, and change, and change, according to whatever fashion battle they're engaged in at the moment.
In fact, you might as well make do with those circumstances and take a little pride in them. Upstate New York, the Ohio River Valley, Michigan — all these places used to carry a certain level of regional pride, no matter whether the person stayed or moved somewhere else. Now they are more likely to identify with the metro area that they have chosen to move into, probably embarrassed about where they came from.
Returning to the examples at the beginning of this post, let's spell out just how extreme our status contests have become. They have moved far beyond groups whose membership could be either ascribed or achieved, to the point where ascribed status should be indisputable, but where strivers are waging wars to make it achieved. They do not have to make up a majority of the status contests of our age — the fact that they are even happening at all proves how psychotic the climate has gotten.
Sex is entirely ascribed, yet the tranny movement asserts that men can identify as women or vice versa, and that the rest of society ought to assign them the sex status that the trannies insist on, rather than it being ascribed at birth. Tranny psychos are so status-striving that they whore for attention more than the others in the feminist and women's groups, and are always ready to start rattling off the top 100 reasons why I'm just as much of a woman as you (or more). They also viciously compete against each other to see who's unlocked the most achievements in the sim game of pretending to be a woman.
Generational membership is also determined by birth, yet we see more and more people cosplaying and LARP-ing as though they belonged to another generation. And not one that's just on the other side of their own, where honest disagreements might be made, but a generation whose formative years unfolded long before the person was even born.
Gen X-ers pretending to hail from the Midcentury, Millennials pretending to belong to the Boho vintage-y Seventies, not to mention legions of geeks placing themselves in the old timey Victorian era — steampunk conventions, going to night clubs wearing black corsets or black tailcoats, and so on. These are not occasional costumes worn as a fun break from routine, but part of their ongoing identity which they take (and craft) very seriously.
Similar widespread movements involve members of one race pretending to belong to another. OK, so they don't actually have the DNA test to back it up — but are we seriously going to rely only on bloodlines? The wigger is not an "honorary black," but someone who acts as though they were black, merely by aping real blacks. In the '90s, this term used to be a portmanteau word of "white nigger," alluding to the lily-white suburban area that this dork actually came from. Now that other races than whites pretend to be black, it now means "wannabe nigger," including East Asians and Indians who act that way.
Blacks have tried to push back against this attempt to make membership in the black race (or ethnic group) achieved rather than ascribed, but that hasn't stopped the wigger phenomenon from growing. It's just like women feminists trying to push back against mentally ill trannies trying to make membership in the female sex achieved rather than ascribed. Such efforts are ultimately doomed in a laissez-faire climate because they are seen as pleas for special or unfair treatment — to carve out race, or sex, as a domain where status is ascribed. But if status is to be achieved in so many other areas, it will play out that way for race and sex too, no matter how ridiculous it feels to normal people.
What were the counterparts of these extreme forms during the previous period of rising competitiveness and inequality, the Victorian era and turning of the 20th century?
Fin-de-siecle England was not only plagued by out-of-the-closet faggots (search Google Images for "gay Victorian photographs" — safe for work, they just show couples sitting together embracing). Trannies also had their own subculture and nightlife haunts that were raided by police.
Then there were Orientalists who LARP-ed as members of an exotic race or ethnic group, one that they were not rooted in one bit. As with today's wiggers, they did not merely dress up every once in awhile for fun, or borrow certain design elements to spice up their otherwise native style. They were constantly leveling up their identity as The Other, as close to 100% max stats as they could manage. They always dressed in the exotic style, and tried to re-create a foreign architectural style on English soil.
Finally there were various strains of anti-modernists who affiliated not with somewhat earlier generations or zeitgeists, but all the way back to the Gothic and Medieval periods from their nation's history. The most well known group was the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of painters. They were not merely seeking contact with the past, or Luddites who hated where all this new-fangled technology was taking society. They chose to base their very identity on affiliation with the Medieval period.
In our second Gilded Age, everything old is new again.