Durkheim’s concept of collective consciousness refers to the phenomenon of large groups of people who display remarkable uniformity of opinion.
Sometimes, this collective agreement persists through years, generations, and even ages.
Examples of collective consciousness include nationalism, gender norms, religious values, class consciousness, and groupthink.
Definition of Collective Consciousness
Durkheim defined collective consciousness as “the totality of beliefs and sentiments common to average citizens of the same society” (Durkheim, 1893).
A society in this definition could be a rural community, a tribe, an ethnic group, a nation, a transnational community, and so on.
The concept was developed by the French sociologist Emile Durkheim (1858-1917). Durkheim thought of collective consciousness as a social fact, or to be more specific, a non-material social fact. A social fact is something that is a property not of an individual, but of an entire society. A non-material social fact is something that does not have a physical, tangible existence but exists mostly in the mind or in the consciousness of societies.
Examples of Collective Consciousness
Nationalism is the notion that members of a community sharing a common set of beliefs, a common culture, a common history, a common origin story (i.e. a collective memory), and common aspirations for the future comprise a nation.
Members of a nation may either be located within the boundary of a specific nation-state ( for instance Mexicans, Germans, Iranians), or may be scattered across nation-state boundaries with an aspiration to come together to form a nation ( for example Kurds).
Nationalism, and in particular, the idea that a geographically bounded nation-state is the natural culmination of the process of nationalism, is a relatively recent phenomenon in the history of human societies, often traced back to the treaty of Westphalia signed in 1648.
Types of nationalism include innate (or primordial nationalism) and constructed (often called imagined communities). In either case, its propagation relies on a continued assertion of a collective consciousness that sees the members of the national community as forming one unified society.
As an example, when national anthems are sung, or national flags are hoisted at pubic events, the audience collecively rises up in respect, or sings along, demonstrating a feeling of collectively being conscious of being bound together by the national symbol – the anthem or the song.
2. Gender Norms
For most of human history, conventional gender norms prevailed that assigned men the roles of being providers ( and of the dominant gender) and confined women to the domestic sphere.
This division of gender roles was not written down in any single uber-text that acted as the guidebook for all humanity to follow but was arrived at by individual societies charting their own course through history.
With time these norms were encoded and written down by most societies and their violation was either ridiculed or even punished, in an act of collective consciousness seen across all human societies.
In the last 50 to 100 years, a new wave of collective consciousness swept across human societies, this time centered on women as its primary agents, which challenged the dominance of conventional gender roles and sought to correct the imbalance of power between the genders. This wave of collective consciousness was called the feminist movement.
Read Also: 18 Gender Stereotypes
Almost all human societies have laws. Most modern societies have laws that are written down in the form of codes, and which are enforced through state power.
The laws of a particular society are a window into their collective consciousness.
For instance, several societies have abolished capital punishment. This tells us that collectively, such a society views capital punishment as unjust and unethical. Or several other societies have legalized the use of THC. This tells us that the collective consciousness in these societies does not view its use as an immoral act.
A ritual is a ceremony that consists of a series of actions performed in a prescribed order in accordance with historical precedent or long-established tradition. Rituals are an important part of most religions.
Often, ancient rituals that to a disinterested observer may seem like possess little value. But to the community that performs them, its value stems from a collective consciousness that holds the performance of the ritual an important part of belonging to the community.
For instance, Robert Orsi in his book The Madona of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880 – 1950 describes how the Italian community of a New York neighborhood persists in performing a Catholic ritual that involves taking out a procession carrying a giant Madonna statute, and impassioned public displays of fervent religiosity.
To most people in a modern metropolis like New York, the ritual appears like an anachronistic spectacle. But to the Italian community of the particular neighborhood, the performance of the ritual is an integral part of reaffirming their identities as Italians and Catholics. (Orsi, 2010)
5. LGBTQ Community
The global LGBTQ community is spread out across geographical space and is divided by class, race, nationality, ethnicity, language, and gender.
Despite this, there exists a sense of collective consciousness among the members of the community which brings them together to collectively confront the common challenges before the community.
This collective consciousness finds expression in collective symbols such as the rainbow flag through which the community expresses solidarity with its members.
6. Sports Fans
Fans of sports teams and franchises cut across national borders. For instance the English soccer club Manchester United is one of the most popular sports franchises in the world, with a fanbase spread across the globe.
Fans of such clubs imagine themselves to be part of one global community and express their loyalty by gathering together at spaces such as stadiums, bars, pubs, and online spaces to support their team.
They dress in the jerseys of their favorite teams and sport body paint, tattoos, or other accessories that publicly affirm their support for their favorite team.
They also engage in collective behaviors such as sharing group songs, marches, dances, and even sometimes riots.
7. Political Party Supporters
Supporters of political parties believe in the ideology of the party they support and often transmit their loyalty to a particular party down the generations.
Political parties act as agents of collective consciousness, uniting members across a geographical region for a common cause.
Historically, political party support was aligned with class consciousness. Working-class people would support labour parties (such as the Socialists in France, Labour in the UK, and the New Democrats in Canada). Capitalist-class people would support neoliberal-conservative parties (such as the Republicans in the USA and France, and the Conservatives in the UK and Canada).
These days, the traditional lines of political party support have been undermined by new cultural faultlines, reflecting a divide between nationalists and globalists.
8. Anti-Colonial Struggles
The first half of the 20th century witnessed a near-simultaneous spread of anti-colonial sentiment across much of Asia and Africa.
In countries as far apart and as diverse as Ghana, India, Egypt, and Indonesia, the anti-colonial movement displayed similar ideological contours.
It was as if a wave of collective consciousness swept over the masses of the colonized nations in different continents, instilling in them nationalistic and anti-colonial fervor.
What is remarkable about the anti-colonial movement is that it happened well before the internet, television, and modern mass media.
The only means of mass communication available in the early 20th century were radio and print, and even their reach was severely limited over much of Asia and Africa due to widespread illiteracy and poverty.
9. The Arab Spring
The Arab Spring was a series of pro-democracy protests that erupted in the Arab world between 2010 to 2012.
The protests were directed against authoritarian rulers in several countries of West Asia and North America. Beginning with Tunisia, the protests spread to several other Arab countries including Syria, Libya, Egypt, and Bahrain, leading to the ouster of despotic regimes either through demonstrations or armed uprisings.
The protests were the result of a near-simultaneous blossoming of a collective consciousness among the citizenry of these countries against the abuse of authority and misuse of power by despotic rulers.
10. Class Consciousness
Class consciousness is a fundamental pillar of Marxist theory. It holds that it is imperative for members of the working classes to realize that their oppressed position in society is owing to the fundamental structure of capitalism.
According to this philosophy, the only way to improve the working-class people’s lot in life is to establish a dictatorship of the proletariat, which can be achieved only through class solidarity.
Thus, Marxism advocates a collective consciousness among members of the working classes to come together against a common opponent.
Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, this collective consciousness of class has demonstrated its efficacy in various struggles and revolutions, such as the Russian Revolution and the prolonged worker’s struggles for better wages and improved working conditions in various countries.
11. Global Solidarity Movements
With the global penetration of social media solidarity for a cause in one part of the world soon finds support across national boundaries.
For instance, the global #metoo movement started in America following revelations of sexual harassment against movie producer Harvey Weinstein in 2017 but soon spread across the entire globe, with women everywhere coming out and describing their trauma of facing sexual harassment.
Similarly, the Black Lives Matter movement began in the US to show solidarity against police brutality against African-Americans but found resonance across the world.
In 2022, support for Ukraine in its war against Russia has found supporters in all corners of the world, who have been moved by the unjustness of Russian use of overwhelming force against Ukraninan civilians.
In each case, a large number of people across national boundaries found themselves collectively moved to action by certain values and norms which acted to unify them.
Collective consciousness does not always produce positive, democratic, morally, and ethically right outcomes.
Sometimes it can be a negative force too, as in the case of groupthink. Groupthink is a situation in which the desire for conformity among a group leads to a suppression of criticism, resulting in irrational group behavior.
For instance, the failed American invasion of Cuba in 1961, called the Bay of Pigs invasion was precipitated by groupthink within the Kennedy administration, wherein members of the government were so influenced in favor of the plan that they effectively stifled all criticism of it (Janis, 1971).
Similarly, the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 was premised on the claim that Iraq was in possession of lethal weapons of mass destruction (WMD), which prompted not only the US Congress to sanction the invasion, but even led other countries like Britain to join the coalition.
Eventually, it turned out that Iraq did not possess any WMDs, and the invasion left Iraq politically vulnerable, and arguably, worse off than before. So strong was the collective belief among supporters of the invasion in America and belief that they overlooked all evidence to the contrary.
Collective Conscious vs Collective Unconscious
The collective unconscious works in similar ways to the collective consciousness, except that the former is linked to the unconscious part of the human brain, while the latter relates to the conscious mind.
Jung believed that while what happens in our unconscious mind is intensely personal, there are certain aspects of it that are common to us as humans, and it is these elements that find expression in common mythological themes found across cultures (Corbett, 2012).
Emile Durkheim was born in a deeply religious Jewish family which greatly influenced his outlook towards society. His father and his grandfather had been Rabbis, and Durkheim himself received his early education at a Yeshiva or a school providing Rabbincal education.
As a result Durkheim’s primary interest throughout his career had been the manner in which social groups maintain cohesion and act collectively. His theory of collective consciousness sums up his lifelong work towards this field.
So seminal was Durkheim’s contribution that today the phrase “collective consciousness” has entered everyday language. In Durkheim’s time however, it was a little known concept, and it was only through his work that we have today a lucid understanding of how societies think and act collectively.
Corbett, L. (2012) Psyche and the Sacred: Spirituality beyond Religion. Los Angeles: Spring Journal Books.
Durkheim, E. (1997) The division of labour in society. London: Free Press.
Janis, I. L. (1971) Groupthink. Psychology Today. 5 (6), 43–46.
Orsi, R. A. (2010). The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880-1950. Massachusetts: Yale University Press.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]