Collective Consciousness Essay

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Two components of French sociologist Emile Durkheim s project are to establish sociology as a discipline in its own right, distinct from psychology, and to understand and demonstrate the dependence of human beings upon their societies. These come together in Durkheim’s L’ame collective [the collective mind]. This concept, commonly referred to by sociologists as the ”collective consciousness or ”conscience collective, exemplifies the crucial role that the social plays in human behavior.

In The Division of Labor in Society, Durkheim (1893) defines the collective consciousness as ”the totality of beliefs and sentiments common to average members of the same society . . . it is an entirely different thing from particular consciences, although it can only be realized through them (1933/1893: 38, 39). To understand how the collective consciousness functions, one must first understand Durkheim s distinction between what he deems mechanical and organic societies.

In The Division of Labor in Society, Durkheim illustrates the different mechanisms of social order through two societal types. The first type, the mechanical society, is a traditional, simpler society composed of economically self-sustaining members who, living in close proximity, are more alike than different. They are unified by language, religious beliefs, values, rituals; and activities common to, and respected by all. Together, these representations comprise the collective consciousness, a real, external, and coercive societal entity that pre-exists, outlives, is found in, and acts upon all people in the same manner. In a mechanical society, the function of the collective consciousness is to enforce social similarity and to discourage individual variation, which, in such a society, could undermine collective unity.

As populations grow, dynamic density increases and people interact more and more intensely. Significantly, it is marked by an increase in occupational specialization: the division of labor. The changed and differentiated division of labor has a paradoxical effect: it creates interdependent individuality. That is, individuals increasingly perform heterogenous tasks, thus increasing their interdependence on each other and society, but they also perform increasingly specialized tasks, thus increasing their individuality. Their individual consciousnesses are increasingly developed and distinctive from the conscience collective. Durkheim deems such a societal arrangment organic. To Giddens (1972), Durkheim s collective consciousness in organic solidarity, now generated by the interdependence brought on by the specialized division of labor, is embodied in the state. Whereas the collective consciousness in mechanical society enforced what was necessary for society, in organic solidarity the state, informed by workers guilds, consciously deliberates and collectively enacts what is best for society.

Bibliography:

  1. Durkheim, E. (1933) [1893] The Division of Labor in Society. Free Press, New York.
  2. Giddens, A. (1972) Emile Durkheim Selected Writings. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

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