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The collective conscience: concept and social meaning

The collective conscience is a fundamental sociological concept that refers to the set of beliefs, ideas, moral attitudes and shared knowledge that function as a unifying force within society . This force is distinct from , and generally dominates over , that of individual consciousness . According to this concept, a society, a nation or a social group constitute entities that behave like global individuals.

The collective consciousness shapes our sense of belonging and identity, and also our behavior. The sociologist Émile Durkheim developed this concept to explain how individuals are grouped into collective units, such as social groups and societies.

Durkheim’s approach: mechanical solidarity and organic solidarity

This was the central question that concerned Durkheim as he reflected and wrote about the new industrial societies of the nineteenth century. By considering the documented habits, customs, and beliefs of traditional and primitive societies and comparing them to what he saw around him during his own lifetime, Durkheim elaborated some of the most important theories in sociology. Thus, he concluded that society exists because unique individuals feel solidarity with each other. For this reason, they form collectives and work together to achieve functional and community societies. The collective conscience is the source of this solidarity.

In his book  The Division of Social Labor , Durkheim argues that in “traditional” or “simpler” societies, religion plays an important role in uniting its members by creating a common consciousness. In societies of this type, the contents of an individual’s consciousness are widely shared by the other members of their society, giving rise to a “mechanical solidarity” modeled on mutual resemblance.

On the other hand, Durkheim observed that in the modern and industrialized societies that characterized Western Europe and the United States recently formed after the revolution. He described how they functioned through a division of labor, whereby an “organic solidarity” emerged, based on the mutual trust that individuals and groups had in one another. This organic solidarity allows a society to function and develop.

Collective consciousness is less important in a society where mechanical solidarity predominates than in one fundamentally based on organic solidarity. Always according to Durkheim, modern societies are held together by the division of labor and the need for others to perform certain necessary functions, even more than by the existence of a powerful collective conscience. However, collective consciousness is more important and powerful in societies with organic solidarity than in those where mechanical solidarity predominates.

Social institutions and collective consciousness

Let’s review some social institutions and their effect on society as a whole.

  • The state generally encourages patriotism and nationalism.
  • Classic and contemporary media spread and cover all sorts of ideas and behaviours, from how to dress, who to vote for, how to relate and how to get married.
  • The educational system , law enforcement and the judiciary shape, each with their own means, our notions of right and wrong, and direct our behavior through training, conviction, example and, in certain cases, threat or actual physical force. 

The rituals that serve to reaffirm the collective conscience are very varied: parades, celebrations, sporting events, social events, and even shopping. In any case, whether they are primitive or modern societies, the collective conscience is something common to every society. It is not an individual condition or phenomenon, but a social one. As a social phenomenon, it spreads throughout society as a whole and has a life of its own.

Through the collective consciousness, values, beliefs and traditions can be transmitted from generation to generation. Thus, although individual people live and die, this collection of intangible values ​​and beliefs, including the social norms associated with them, are grounded in our social institutions and therefore exist independently in individual people.

The most important thing to understand is that collective consciousness is the result of social forces that are external to the individual, that run through society, and that shape the social phenomenon of the shared set of beliefs, values, and ideas that compose it. We, as individuals, internalize them and, in doing so, we shape the collective conscience, and we reaffirm and reproduce it by living according to it.

Let us now review two key contributions to the concept of collective consciousness, that of Giddens and that of McDougall.

Giddens contribution

Anthony Giddens points out that the collective consciousness differs in the two types of societies in four dimensions:

  • volume . It refers to the number of people who share the same collective consciousness.
  • intensity . It refers to the degree to which it is felt by members of society.
  • rigidity . It refers to its level of definition.
  • Content . It refers to the form that the collective conscience takes in the two extreme types of society.

In a society characterized by mechanical solidarity, practically all of its members share the same collective conscience; This is perceived with great intensity, it is extremely rigid, and its content is usually of a religious nature. In a society of organic solidarity, the collective consciousness is smaller and is shared by a smaller number of individuals; it is perceived with less intensity, it is not very rigid, and its content is defined by the concept of “moral individualism”.

McDougall contribution

William McDougall wrote:

“The mind may be regarded as an organized system of mental or intentional forces, and every human society may properly be said to possess a collective mind, because the collective actions that constitute the history of such a society are conditioned by an organization describable only in mental terms. , and that nevertheless is not comprised within the mind of any individual”.

Society is constituted by a system of relationships between individual minds, which are the units that compose it. The actions of society are, or can be under certain circumstances, very different from the mere sum of the actions with which its various members could react to the situation in the absence of the system of relations that makes them a society. In other words, as long as he thinks and acts as a member of a society, each man’s thought and action are very different from his thought and action as an isolated individual.

We must first point out that if we recognize the existence of collective minds, the work of social psychology can be classified according to three aspects:

1.- The study of the general principles of collective psychology , that is, the study of the general principles of thought, feeling and collective action, as long as they are carried out by men included in social groups.

2.- Once the general principles of collective psychology have been established, it is necessary to carry out the study of the particularities of collective behavior and thought of certain societies .

3.- In any society whose members are socially and organically related to each other, social psychology has to describe how each new member that joins society is molded according to the traditional patterns of thinking, feeling and doing , until they are apt to play their role as a member of the community and contribute to collective behavior and thinking.


Fredy H. Wompner. The collective consciousness of the planet.

Emile Durkheim . the rules of the sociological method.