The term “collective consciousness,” which may also be written as “collective conscience,” is a critical concept in sociology. It refers to the collection of shared beliefs, thoughts, attitudes, and understanding typical of a particular social group or society.
The collective consciousness was first conceptualized by Emile Durkheim, who defined it as “the body of beliefs and sentiments common to the average of the members of a society.”
The framework formed by these convictions and sentiments has a soul of its own. It is dispersed over the whole of the societal structure. It possesses unique characteristics which establish its status as a separate world. Collective consciousness exists regardless of the specific circumstances in which individuals are living. It is dispersed over the whole of a society’s area, including its major and minor cities and rural communities. It is something that all jobs or professions have in common. It is the thread that binds together the generations that have come before. Individuals come into and leave a society regularly, yet the collective consciousness continues to exist. Even though it can only be realized via individuals, collective consciousness has a shape that extends beyond a specific person and functions at a level greater than they are.
The breadth and influence of a society’s collective consciousness vary greatly from society to society. In less developed countries, individual awareness is subsumed under the umbrella of the collective conscience more often than not. In these civilizations, the collective consciousness is stronger and more widespread than in other communities. For instance, the social restrictions and prohibitions typical of primitive societies are enforced on individual members in the most detrimental possible manner, and these individuals all comply with the order. The collective conscience decides whether or not an individual will continue to exist. Those who break the rules are subject to harsh penalties because the collective emotions that everyone shares have a powerful impact and are used to justify the severity of the sanctions. If a society’s collective conscience is strong, its members will feel an enormous outrage when a crime is committed or when any other aspect of the social imperative is violated.
The degree of cohesiveness, integration, or solidarity within a society may also be inferred from its collective consciousness. Primitive cultures have a collective consciousness that is at its most powerful and all-encompassing.
On the other hand, modern societies tend to produce more distinct individuals. Everyone has an increasing amount of freedom to believe what they want, how they want and behave, following their personal preferences or group desires in various contexts. This results in a narrowing of the area of impact of the collective consciousness. In addition, the community’s response to transgressions of collective prohibitions and the like is weakening.
Emile Durkheim is credited with being the first person to utilize and develop the idea of collective consciousness. He did so in his major book titled “The Division of Labor in Society,” which was released in 1895. Émile Durkheim argues that social life is impossible without the shared values and moral convictions that make up the “collective conscience.” There would be no social order, control, social solidarity, or collaboration if people did not share the same values or agree about values. To summarize, there would be no such thing as society. Religion, following Durkheim, is shown to strengthen the collective conscience.
The collective conscience does, however, have significant power over society. It does this by upholding social order and sustaining social cohesion through the stringent regulation of individual expectations and individuals. Individualism, personal independence, and anonymity are nonexistent in traditional societies; instead, the individual “is absorbed into the collective.” This results in the person experiencing a powerful sense of social belonging; nevertheless, it also implies that the individual has little flexibility to deviate from the standards and authorities established by society. It is difficult to get away from the watchful eyes of neighbors, and especially as individuals move through their teenage years looking for thrills, individuals might find the community’s “social horizon” too limiting, constraining, and overpowering of their individual desires. This feeling is familiar to anyone who grew up in a small town.
Despite this, the authority of the collective conscience is keenly felt if the individual does not fall in line. The repressive, punishing power of gossip, shame, and ostracism are felt not only by the individual deviant but also by their whole family and friends due to the loss of honor imposed on them.
In a broader sense, a community’s unofficial sanctions and conventions serve to reassure the community’s collective conscience. These functions are accomplished by elaborating on particular expectations and punishing in various ways those who offend against firmly held collective feelings. As a result, individuals can stir up and confirm the societal emotions that have been offended via punishment. The transgression poses a danger to the cohesiveness of society, and the purpose of punishment is to eliminate or mitigate that threat.