Collective Consciousness Defined
What It IS and How IT Holds Society Together
by Nicki Lisa Cole, Ph.D.
Updated June 07, 2017
Collective consciousness (sometimes collective conscience or conscious) is a fundamental sociological concept that refers to the set of shared beliefs, ideas, attitudes, and knowledge that are common to a social group or society. The collective consciousness informs our sense of belonging and identity, and our behavior. Founding sociologist Émile Durkheim developed this concept to explain how unique individuals are bound together into collective units like social groups and societies.
HOW COLLECTIVE CONSCIOUSNESS HOLDS SOCIETY TOGETHER
What is it that holds society together? This was the central question that preoccupied Durkheim as he wrote about the new industrial societies of the 19th century. By considering the documented habits, customs, and beliefs of traditional and primitive societies, and comparing those to what he saw around him in his own life, Durkheim crafted some of the most important theories in sociology. He concluded that society exists because unique individuals feel a sense of solidarity with each other. This is why we can form collectives and work together to achieve community and functional societies. The collective consciousness, or conscience collective as he wrote it in French, is the source of this solidarity.
Durkheim first introduced his theory of the collective consciousness in his 1893 book The Division of Labor in Society. (Later, he would also rely on the concept in other books, including Rules of the Sociological Method, Suicide, and The Elementary Forms of Religious Life.)
In this text, he explains that the phenomenon is "the totality of beliefs and sentiments common to the average members of a society." Durkheim observed that in traditional or primitive societies, religious symbols, discourse, beliefs, and rituals fostered the collective consciousness. In such cases, where social groups were quite homogenous (not distinct by race or class, for example), the collective consciousness resulted in what Durkheim termed a "mechanical solidarity"—in effect an automatic binding together of people into a collective through their shared values, beliefs, and practices.
Durkheim observed that in the modern, industrialized societies that characterized Western Europe and the young United States when he wrote, which functioned via a division of labor, an "organic solidarity" emerged based on the mutual reliance individuals and groups had on others in order to allow for a society to function. In cases such as these, religion still played an important role in producing collective consciousness among groups of people affiliated with various religions, but other social institutions and structures would also work to produce the collective consciousness necessary for this more complex form of solidarity, and rituals outside of religion would play important roles in reaffirming it.
SOCIAL INSTITUTIONS PRODUCE COLLECTIVE CONSCIOUSNESS
These other institutions include the state (which fosters patriotism and nationalism), news and popular media (which spreads all kinds of ideas and practices, from how to dress, to who to vote for, to how to date and be married), education (which molds us into compliant citizens and workers), and the police and judiciary (which shape our notions of right and wrong, and direct our behavior through threat of or actual physical force), among others.
Rituals that serve to reaffirm the collective conscious range from parades and holiday celebrations to sporting events, weddings, grooming ourselves according to gender norms, and even shopping (think Black Friday).
In either case—primitive or modern societies—collective consciousness is something "common to the whole of society," as Durkheim put it. It is not an individual condition or phenomenon, but a social one. As a social phenomenon, it is "diffused across society as a whole," and "has a life of its own." It is through collective consciousness that values, beliefs, and traditions can be passed down through generations. Though individual people live and die, this collection of intangible things, including the social norms connected to them, are cemented in our social institutions and thus exist independent of individual people.
Most important to understand is that collective consciousness is the result of social forces that are external to the individual, that course through society, and that work together to create the social phenomenon of the shared set of beliefs, values, and ideas that compose it. We, as individuals, internalize these and make the collective consciousness a reality by doing so, and we reaffirm and reproduce it by living in ways that reflect it.
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