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Collective Consciousness: Definition, Theory & Examples

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  • 0:02 What Is Collective…
  • 1:01 Theory Of Collective…
  • 3:40 Examples
  • 4:40 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Emily Cummins
In this lesson, we'll review the concept of collective consciousness, developed by French sociologist Emile Durkheim. We'll talk about his ideas about how, exactly, members of societies share beliefs, values, and traditions to a large extent.

What Is Collective Consciousness?

How do your beliefs align with the beliefs of others in society? What unites people within a society, at least to a degree? How do you come to see yourself not just as an individual, but as part of the larger society? One explanation for questions like these comes from the theory of collective consciousness.

In sociology and related social sciences, the idea of collective consciousness comes from the French theorist and sociologist Emile Durkheim. Collective consciousness is all about understanding what makes society work.

For Durkheim, individuals in society - while we all have our own individual consciousness - also share a solidarity with one another. We work together in many ways and our collective consciousness is what allows this to happen.

Basically, collective consciousness is a constellation of ideas, beliefs, and values that a great number of individuals in a given society share.

Theory of Collective Consciousness

The theory of collective consciousness originated in a book Durkheim wrote called The Division of Labor in Society in 1893. A little context: Durkheim was writing about the emergence of industrialized societies, which marked a turn from more simplistic, or to use Durkheim's word, 'primitive,' forms of society to more complex ones.

Durkheim notes that collective consciousness emerges in both primitive and modern societies, but in different ways. Remember at the beginning of the lecture when we mentioned the word solidarity? This is key to collective consciousness, and Durkheim wrote about two different types of solidarity.

He believed that primitive societies operated through 'mechanical solidarity'. Here, because societies were somewhat simple and quite homogenous (i.e, few differences based on race, class, or occupation), they bonded through shared beliefs and values.

To put it another way: These societies were simple enough that it wasn't very difficult to get people to share a system of beliefs. Religion was a particularly important source of solidarity, as most people had this in common.

But the story is a little different for more complex societies. Here, when there are far more divisions in the society, we need something a little more than mechanical solidarity to develop a collective consciousness.

The emergence of a larger division of labor is key here. When we have a great division of labor, or the number, type, and status of occupations, Durkheim suggested the concept of 'organic solidarity'.

Here, solidarity comes less from shared religious beliefs (though they still matter) and more from the fact that in more complex societies, people rely on each other to keep the society functioning. We have a deeper level of solidarity with one another.

In complex societies, a number of different social institutions contribute to maintaining a collective consciousness. This includes religion, but also politics, the media, schools, families, and the economy.

Collective consciousness exists as something larger than the individuals who make up a society. It can span generations and it encapsulates things that most people in society have in common. But this doesn't mean that individuals aren't important. People are key to internalizing shared beliefs and then reproducing them or passing them along.

But, as we know, society doesn't always work smoothly. Durkheim acknowledges this. He writes about a concept he termed anomie. Basically, anomie is what happens when there is a breakdown in society.

There might be confusion, or regulation might be disrupted. This might stem from crises or major changes in society. We experience anomie when our shared beliefs or norms are disrupted.

Examples

Now that we have some theoretical background, let's look at examples of how collective consciousness works.

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