Collective Representation: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Karin Gonzalez

Karin has taught middle and high school Health and has a master's degree in social work.

Can a small symbol or image be so meaningful to a group of people that it shapes their view of the world or the way that they relate to others? In this lesson you'll learn the definition of 'collective representation' and review a few examples of this concept.

What Is a Collective Representation?

Among Christians, the cross is a symbol that represents selfless sacrifice, the love of God and Jesus Christ, triumph despite an unrighteous death, and forgiveness of sins. The cross is one example of a collective representation.

Collective representations are symbols or images that have a common significance amongst members of a group in that they convey ideas, values, or ideologies. Collective representations give meaning to the world and social interactions and help humans make sense of their existence. The cross is an example of a collective representation because it is a symbol that has a common significance and meaning for Christians.

Émile Durkheim, a famous French sociologist, is credited with defining and developing the concept of collective representations. Durkheim, one of the founders of the field of sociology, was highly interested in social solidarity, or how societies would survive and remain functional with an increasing relinquishment of religion. Religion was, after all, the glue that held many societies together and provided the structure for division of labor and social interactions. To Durkheim, collective representations were symbols that provided some solidarity in a society.

Collective representations are called 'collective' because their meaning and importance have been decided by a communal entity. These symbols, ideas, values, or ideologies have not been decided by one person; they have been established by a large group of people over the course of time.

Examples of Collective Representations

Example 1: Wedding rings

If you see a wedding band on the ring finger of a person's left hand, you would probably assume that the person was married. Just this symbol of marriage can change the way that you would interact with this person. Maybe you would engage in conversation about marriage, family, or kids more than you would if you saw someone without a ring. Maybe a man approaches a woman he's romantically interested in, but stops in his tracks when he sees the ring. A wedding band is a collective representation of marriage that has a shared meaning amongst a group of people. It helps people make sense and draw conclusions about other people in a social context.

The origins of the wedding ring are believed to date all the way back to the Egyptians, 4,800 years ago. It was later seen as a symbol of marriage for the Romans, and then with the Christians in the year 860. The point is that the symbolism behind the ring (indicating unity and never-ending love) was decided upon by a whole group of people -- a collective entity -- as opposed to one individual.

Wedding rings are collective representations of marriage in many societies.
wedding rings

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