Collective consciousness, collective conscience, or collective conscious (French: conscience collective) is the set of shared beliefs, ideas, and moral attitudes which operate as a unifying force within society. In general, it does not refer to the specifically moral conscience, but to a shared understanding of social norms. The term was introduced by the French sociologist Émile Durkheim in his The Division of Labour in Society in 1893. The French word conscience generally means "conscience", "consciousness", "awareness", or "perception". Commentators and translators of Durkheim disagree on which is most appropriate, or whether the translation should depend on the context. Some prefer to treat the word 'conscience' as an untranslatable foreign word or technical term, without its normal English meaning. As for "collective", Durkheim makes clear that he is not reifying or hypostasizing this concept; for him, it is "collective" simply in the sense that it is common to many individuals; cf. social fact.
Other uses of the term
Various forms of what might be termed "collective consciousness" in modern societies have been identified by other sociologists, such as Mary Kelsey, going from solidarity attitudes and memes to extreme behaviors like group-think, herd behavior, or collectively shared experiences during collective rituals and dance parties. Mary Kelsey, sociology lecturer in the University of California, Berkeley, used the term in the early 2000s to describe people within a social group, such as mothers, becoming aware of their shared traits and circumstances, and as a result acting as a community and achieving solidarity. Rather than existing as separate individuals, people come together as dynamic groups to share resources and knowledge. It has also developed as a way of describing how an entire community comes together to share similar values. This has also been termed "hive mind", "group mind", "mass mind", and "social mind".
According to a theory the character of collective consciousness depends on the type of mnemonic encoding used within a group (Tsoukalas, 2007). The specific type of encoding used has a predictable influence on the groups behavior and collective ideology. Informal groups, that meet infrequently and spontaneously, have a tendency to represent significant aspects of their community as episodic memories. This usually leads to strong social cohesion and solidarity, an indulgent atmosphere, an exclusive ethos and a restriction of social networks. Formal groups, that have scheduled and anonymous meetings, tend to represent significant aspects of their community as semantic memories which usually leads to weak social cohesion and solidarity, a more moderate atmosphere, an inclusive ethos and an expansion of social networks.
Society is made up of various collective groups, such as the family, community, organizations, regions, nations which as Burns and Egdahl state "can be considered to possess agential capabilities: to think, judge, decide, act, reform; to conceptualize self and others as well as self's actions and interactions; and to reflect."(italics in the original). Burns and Egdahl note that during the Second World War different nations behaved differently towards their Jewish populations. The Jewish populations of Bulgaria and Denmark survived whereas the majority of the Jewish populations in Slovakia and Hungary did not survive the Holocaust. It is suggested that these different national behaviors vary according to the different collective consciousness between nations. This illustrates that differences in collective consciousness can have practical significance.
Edmans, Garcia, and Norlia examined national sporting defeats and correlated them with decreases in the value of stocks. They examined 1,162 football matches in thirty-nine countries and discovered that stock markets of those countries dropped on average forty-nine points after being eliminated from the World Cup, and thirty-one points after being eliminated in other tournaments. Edmans, Garcia, and Norli found similar but smaller effects with international cricket, rugby, ice hockey, and basketball games.
In Durkheimian social theory
Durkheim used the term in his books The Division of Labour in Society (1893), The Rules of the Sociological Method (1895), Suicide (1897), and The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912). In The Division of Labour, Durkheim argued that in traditional/primitive societies (those based around clan, family or tribal relationships), totemic religion played an important role in uniting members through the creation of a common consciousness (conscience collective in the original French). In societies of this type, the contents of an individual's consciousness are largely shared in common with all other members of their society, creating a mechanical solidarity through mutual likeness.
The totality of beliefs and sentiments common to the average members of a society forms a determinate system with a life of its own. It can be termed the collective or common consciousness.
In Suicide, Durkheim developed the concept of anomie to refer to the social rather than individual causes of suicide. This relates to the concept of collective consciousness, as if there is a lack of integration or solidarity in society then suicide rates will be higher.
Gramsci and collective consciousness
According to Michelle Filippini’s book Using Gramsci, on Antonio Gramsci, “A collective consciousness, which is to say a living organism, is formed only after the unification of the multiplicity through friction on the part of the individuals; nor can one say that ‘silence’ is not a multiplicity.” Essentially, a form of collective consciousness can be based on fact that Gramsci’s conception of hegemony vis-à-vis the hegemony of the ruling class played a role in mobilizing the collective consciousness of those who are oppressed by the ruling ideas of society, or the ruling hegemony. Collective consciousness in this sense can refer to a multitude of different individual forms of consciousness coalescing into a greater whole. As to whether this whole is unified, this is up for debate. In Gramsci’s view, a unified whole is composed of solidarity among its different constituent parts, and therefore, this whole cannot be uniformly the same. Rather, it can and should embrace different forms of consciousness (or individual experiences of social reality), which coexist to reflect the different experiences of the marginalized peoples in a given society. This is in accordance with Gramsci’s theory of Marxism and class struggle applied to cultural contexts. Cultural Marxism (as distinguished from the right-wing use of the term) embodies the concept of collective consciousness. It incorporates social movements that are based on some sort of collective identity; these identities can include, for instance, gender, sexual orientation, race, and ability, and can be incorporated by collective-based movements into a broader historical material analysis of class struggle.
Gramsci’s theory of collective consciousness thus departs from conventional stereotypes of Marxism as being a purely deterministic, anti-humanist ‘ideology.’ Marxism is often attacked as being somewhat devoid of the interpersonal experiences of the subaltern. Yet, as Gramsci points out, “Modern politics thus ‘abolishes the state as a federation of classes – but certain forms of the internal life of the subaltern classes are reborn as parties, trade unions, cultural associations.’6 “ Thus, the essential collective consciousness of the subaltern manifests itself in the forms of free associations like the aforementioned as a unifying force of diversity in the realm of society and the state. The state itself is an entity that is made up of civil society, in which different groups compete for political power. Thus, a multiple collective consciousness can exist within the body politic. This collective consciousness is often used to advocate for basic human rights at the national and international level. Collective consciousness in these instances can lead to a greater social consciousness among people and can act as a reinforcing framework for Marxist thought.
According to Filippini, “The nature and workings of collective organisms – not only parties, but also trade unions, associations and intermediate bodies in general – represent a specific sphere of reflection in the Prison Notebooks, particularly in regard to the new relationship between State and society that in Gramsci’s view emerged during the age of mass politics.” Collective organisms can express collective consciousness. Whether this form of expression finds itself in the realm of the state or the realm of society is up to the direction that the subjects take in expressing their collective consciousness. In Gramsci’s famous Prison Notebooks, the ongoing conflict between civil society, the bureaucracy, and the state necessitates the emergence of a collective consciousness that can often act as an intermediary between these different realms. The public organizations of protest, such as labor unions and anti-war organizations, are vehicles that can unite multiple types of collective consciousness. Although identity-based movements are necessary for the progress of democracy and can generate collective consciousness, they cannot completely do so without a unifying framework. This is why anti-war and labor movements provide an avenue that has united various social movements under the banner of a multiple collective consciousness. This is also why future social movements need to have an ethos of collective consciousness if they are to succeed in the long-term.
Cognitive knowledge and collective consciousness
According to Zukerfield, “The different disciplines that have studied knowledge share an understanding of it as a product of human subjects – individual, collective, etc.” Knowledge in a sociological sense is derived from social conditions and social realities. Collective consciousness also reflects social realities, and sociological knowledge can be gained through the adoption of a collective consciousness. Many different disciplines such as philosophy and literature examine collective consciousness from different lenses. These different disciplines reach a similar understanding of a collective consciousness despite their different approaches to the subject. The inherent humanness in the idea of collective consciousness refers to a shared way of thinking among human beings in the pursuit of knowledge. Individual knowledge can be distinguished from collective knowledge by its emphasis on individual people as opposed to groups of people. Collective consciousness is thus group-oriented rather than individualistic.
Collective consciousness, to some degree, can be distinguished from social consciousness. Indeed, according to Zukerfeld, “the problem is the integration of the subject in the web of 'social relations'. These, particularly those of production, are what determine ‘social consciousness.’ “ If social consciousness is determined by social relations, then collective consciousness is determined by collective relations. There is a big difference between the two. Social relations refer to material, historically determined relations, primarily of production and exchange, between people. Collective relations, on the other hand, refers to the co-existence of different groups of people or the 'collective'. Coexistence is what ultimately determines the level of collective consciousness in any given society. Societies with a higher level of collective consciousness are more likely to accept the principle of human cooperation versus the principle of human competition.
Collective consciousness can provide a new understanding of the relationship between self and society. As Zukerfeld states, “Even though it impels us, as a first customary gesture, to analyse the subjective (such as individual consciousness) or intersubjective bearers (such as the values of a given society), in other words those which Marxism and sociology examine, now we can approach them in an entirely different light.” Unlike previous modes of thought, “cognitive materialism” is presented in the work by Zukerfeld as a sort of ‘third way’ between sociological knowledge and Marxism. Cognitive materialism is based on a kind of collective consciousness of the mind. This consciousness in turn can be used, with cognitive materialism as a guiding force, by human beings in order to critically analyze society and social conditions. Critical analysis will then spur collective action to solve these social problems. Once the goals of solving these problems have been achieved, the creation of a new, humane society will involve some degree of collective consciousness. Collective consciousness, in this case, is a mechanism to analyze subjective societal factors and integrate them into the overall framework of social analysis.
Literary/oral tradition and collective consciousness
In a work using a Serbian folk story as a case study on the collective experience of oral and literary traditions, Wolfgang Ernst examines collective consciousness in terms of forms of media. "Current discourse analysis drifts away from the 'culturalist turn' of the last two or three decades and its concern with individual and collective memory as an extended target of historical research". Despite this turn away from questions of individual and collective knowledge, there is still a collective consciousness present in terms of the shared appreciation of folk stories and oral traditions. Folk stories enable the subject and the audiences to come together around a common experience and a shared heritage. In the case of the Serbian folk “gusle”, the Serbian people take pride in this musical instrument of epic poetry and oral tradition and play it at social gatherings. Expressions of art and culture are, ultimately, expressions of a collective consciousness. They can also be expressions of multiple social realities. Regardless, a permeating collective consciousness exists in society and can be expressed through multiple modes of communication.
Collective consciousness has a relationship with collective memory. “Collective memory is thus no longer a reference to a remembered past but a way of analyzing the present as a collection of big (meta-)data in real-time for future prediction.” In other words, the collective consciousness of the people, manifested through forms of literary and cultural media, can be quantified by big data. Big data can be a representation of collective consciousness insofar as it tries to quantify the experiences of the public on the Internet. However, there is a limit to quantifying social experiences. Collective consciousness that is independent of any sort of quantifiable data, namely through oral tradition, has always been a part of human culture and will continue to remain so. In the future, collective consciousness will also remain as a huge part of human society. However, the form it will take will be very different from the form it is taking now.
Finally, it is important to remember the realness involved in creating a collective consciousness. Reality is socially defined, and is based on the social experiences of human beings. Indeed, as Ernst argues, “Phonographic recordings of real voices irritate the historical consciousness of cultural memory.” The emphasis laid here on authenticity is also what makes up the lived experience of collective consciousness. The authenticity of collective consciousness necessitates human participation in order to provide it with a deeper meaning. If reality is not authentic and does not represent the social experiences of the collective, collective consciousness will also cease to have any significant meaning. Rather, it will become submerged in favor of an inauthentic, artificial sense of reality and society. Therefore, the final attribute of collective consciousness is its fundamental essence of reality as opposed to unreality.
- Abilene paradox
- Agenda 21
- Anonymous (group)
- Antonio Gramsci
- Borg Collective
- Collective effervescence
- Collective identity
- Collective intelligence
- Collective memory
- Collective unconscious
- Communal reinforcement
- Crowd psychology
- Deep social mind
- Práńa Dharma
- Global brain
- Global goals
- Group behaviour
- Group mind
- Higher consciousness
- Human spirit
- Paradigm shift
- Peer pressure
- Reality tunnel
- Social rustice
- Social representation
- United Nations
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- Zukerfeld, M. 2017. “How to Know Knowledge? Introducing Cognitive Materialism.” Pp. 31 in Knowledge in the Age of Digital Capitalism: An Introduction to Cognitive Materialism. London: University of Westminster Press. URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv6zd9v0.6. License: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0
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- Works by Durkheim
- The Division of Labour in Society (1893)
- The Rules of the Sociological Method (1895)
- Suicide (1897)
- The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912)
- Works by others
- Gad Barzilai, Communities and Law: Politics and Cultures of Legal Identities University of Michigan Press, 2003. ISBN 978-0-472-03079-8
- Ernst, Wolfgang (2017). Ina Blom, Trond Lundemo, and Eivind Røssaak (eds.). Memory in Motion. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press. pp. 41–59.CS1 maint: uses editors parameter (link)
- Filippini, Michelle (2017). Using Gramsci. London: Pluto Press. pp. 43–64.
- Zukerfeld, Mariano (2017). Knowledge in the Age of Digital Capitalism: An Introduction to Cognitive Materialism. London: University of Westminster Press. pp. 32–51.
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- Lloyd, Annemaree (2007). "Guarding Against Collective Amnesia? Making Significance Problematic: An Exploration of Issues" (Web and Print). Library Trends. Retrieved 2008-04-25.