Collective consciousness, also known as conscience collective, refers to a shared, intersubjective understanding of common norms and values among a group of people. The concept was developed by eminent French sociologist Emile Durkheim (1858-1917). In his magnum opus, The Division of Labor in Society, Durkheim employs the term collective consciousness to describe a determinate social system in which the totality of beliefs and sentiments are common to the average members of a society. According to Durkheim, collective consciousness possesses a distinctive reality because it is a nonmaterial social construction, which is external to, and coercive of, individuals in a particular social order. Therefore, Durkheim distinguishes collective consciousness from the individual consciousness. Collective consciousness of a given society operates as an external force over the group members and autonomously exists outside of the individual’s biological and psychic sphere. Nonetheless, the collective consciousness can only be operationalized through consciousness of the individuals in the community because it is a social construct. Thus, although collective consciousness is something totally different from the consciousness of separate individuals, it can be realized only through individual consciousness.
Collective consciousness is a significant concept for the Durkheimian theory of solidarity because it constitutes the basis of social systems of representation and action. Durkheim believes that an act is considered as unlawful when it offends the collective consciousness. He claims that a certain behavior is not condemned because it is criminal; instead, it is criminal because people condemn it. Thus, it is collective consciousness that regulates all social worlds and defines accordingly what is acceptable and what is deviant within the community. Here, Durkheim’s discussion over social facts is a key text to be considered. According to Durkheim, manners of acting, thinking, and feeling that are external to the individual and exercise control over him or her constitute social facts, which are observable in two forms: “normal” and “pathological.” Normal social facts are simply the social facts that can be found in almost all cases in a social life, whereas pathological forms can be found in a very few cases for brief transient periods. Durkheim regards a certain rate of crime as a normal fact; however, he considers high crime rates in a certain society as a pathological fact that needs sociological explanation. In this sense, Durkheim sees collective consciousness as a cure for a society that suffers from the mass similarity of consciousness, which may give rise to legal rules imposed on everybody by (re)producing uniform beliefs and practices.
Conscience collective is also a key term to grasp Durkheim’s typologies in The Division of Labor in Society, where he argues that the degree of collective consciousness varies in regard to characteristics of the solidarity in a certain collectivity. For Durkheim, mechanical solidarity, in which similarity of individuals who share a uniform way of life is predominant, is distinguished by its high degree of collective consciousness; on the other hand, organic solidarity, which is based on extensive social differentiations and development of autonomous individuals, reflects the reverse characteristics. As Durkheim foresees, as modern societies renounce the mechanical solidarity of their past and transform into societies based on organic solidarity, the collective consciousness declines in strength. As collective consciousness gets weakened in a particular community, the society suffers from a total social disorder, what Durkheim calls anomie, wherein the shared meanings of norms and values become nullified. This particular context enables an individual to act as a free rider agent. Durkheim associates, for example, the weakened collective consciousness with an increased rate of anomic suicide. Thus, when individual consciousness does not reflect the collective consciousness, the individual loses a clear sense of which action is proper and what an improper behavior is. Then, the threat of anomie in a society emerges from a lack of mechanical solidarity and strong collective consciousness.
Durkheim regards every society as a moral society; thus, his concept of collective consciousness is much related to his theoretical analyses of the sociology of religion as well. For Durkheim, the conscience collective manifests itself through totems in a primitive society. Religion plays a remarkable role in the creation and consolidation of the similar consciousness among group members. First, religion provides the necessary link between individual consciousness and the collective consciousness. Second, radical changes in the collective consciousness generally occur during historical moments of transformation in beliefs in the community.
Nevertheless, as Durkheim developed his theory of religion, he began to overwhelmingly emphasize systems of symbols and social representations over collective consciousness. In his subsequent writings during the late 1890s, Durkheim modified the concept of collective consciousness and replaced the concept with a more specific notion: collective representations. Durkheim never rejected the term conscience collective completely, but his reformulated concept of collective consciousness was remarkably different from the original concept developed in his specific theory of solidarity in The Division of Labor in Society. The modification made the individual consciousness relatively less significant and overemphasized the systems of belief. Thus, it may be concluded that Durkheim abandoned the specific theory of collective consciousness but retained the concept of conscience collective as a part of his larger theory of social solidarity.
- Alexander, Jeffrey C., ed. 1988. Durkheimian Sociology: Cultural Studies. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
- Durkheim, Emile.  1984. The Division of Labor in Society. New York: Free Press.
- Jones, Robert A. 2000. “Emile Durkheim.” Pp. 205-50 in The Blackwell Companion to Major Social Theorists, edited by G. Ritzer. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
- Marske, Charles E. 1987. “Durkheim’s ‘Cult of the Individual’ and the Moral Reconstitution of Society.” Sociological Theory 5(1):1-14.
- Nemedi, Denes. 1995. “Collective Consciousness, Morphology, and Collective Representations: Durkheim’s Sociology of Knowledge 1894-1900.” Sociological Perspectives 38(1):41-56.
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