Durkheim's Collective Conscience Research Paper Starter

Durkheim's Collective Conscience

(Research Starters)

The French sociologist Émile Durkheim, a scholar of social order and integration, developed the concept of collective conscience. Collective conscience was defined by Durkheim as beliefs and sentiments universal to people within a society. Durkheim observed that the character and content of collective conscience “varied according to whether society was characterized by mechanical or organic solidarity [and that] collective conscience was extensive and strong, ranging far and wide into people's lives, controlling them in detail through various religious or other traditional means of sanction” (Marshall, 1994). In the latter, the character and content of collective conscience changes to a more abstract form, one that requires a system of law to ensure people comply with established legal codes. In mechanical solidarity, individualism becomes more important and society increasingly specialized and differentiated; thus, the form and content of collective conscience shifts toward the provision of principles and justifications (as a form of civil religion) rather than providing an integrated set of ideas and beliefs to which all members of society subscribe. While Durkheim's work has been criticized for being, with a small number of exceptions, largely theoretical, contemporary scholars have developed his approach to examine the character of contemporary collective conscience and how collective conscience is socially produced.

Keywords Anomie; Civil Religion; Collective Conscience; Division of Labor; Individualism; Mechanical Solidarity; Organic Solidarity; Specialization

Collective Conscience

Overview

The French sociologist Émile Durkheim, a scholar of social order and integration, developed the concept of collective conscience. Collective conscience was defined by Durkheim as beliefs and sentiments universal to people within a society. Durkheim observed that the character and content of collective conscience “varied according to whether society was characterized by mechanical or organic solidarity [and that] collective conscience was extensive and strong, ranging far and wide into people's lives, controlling them in detail through various religious or other traditional means of sanction” (Marshall, 1994). In the latter, the character and content of collective conscience changes to both a more abstract form and one that requires a system of law to ensure people comply with established legal codes.

In mechanical solidarity, individualism becomes more important and society increasingly specialized and differentiated; thus, the form and content of collective conscience shifts toward the provision of principles and justifications (as a form of civil religion) rather than providing an integrated set of ideas and beliefs to which all members of society subscribe. For Durkheim, just as human life is structured around biological processes that force us to eat or sleep, so too is human life structured around social rules that govern our lives as facts (Bilton et al., 1996). These rules constitute the collective conscience, which may be religious or secular in character. What is significant about Durkheim's idea of the collective conscience is that it exists not only in the minds of individuals, but stands apart from them as a distinct and discernible entity. While Durkheim's work has been criticized for being, with a small number of exceptions, largely theoretical, contemporary scholars have developed his approach to examine the character of contemporary collective conscience and how collective conscience is socially produced.

Durkheim's Approach to Social Order

Durkheim was primarily a student of social order and integration who saw sociology as having a role in the "moral reconstitution of society" (Bellah, 1973, p. xiii). He developed a structural-functionalist approach to understanding society that lies at the heart of discussions about the conscience collectif, and which is based on his belief that people flourish and live contentedly and productively when social life is well organized, harmonious, and orderly. Drawing on organic metaphor, and comparing society to the human body, Durkheim argued that social order exists as a reality in its own right, meaning that society exists as an entity that is external to human beings, just as the body exists at a level beyond its constituent components, such as cells (Straus, 2002). Society, in fact, transcends the individual. In defining society as a discrete, independent entity, Durkheim also identified its component parts (e.g., laws, customs, beliefs, and rituals) and argued that they be viewed as social facts that can be explained by social causes. He argued that social phenomena exist because they contribute to the survival and functioning of society in some discernible way.

Constraint, structure, and regulation are critical to Durkheim's understanding of social order and play a defining role in creating and sustaining social integration. In mechanical societies, characterized by a form of integration in which the values and symbols of the tribe or group are privileged, consensus and shared norms and values provide such structure. These shared norms, which have an objective, discernible character, form the basis of social life: for Durkheim, religious beliefs and practices are the source of the collective conscience in mechanical societies. Religious symbols represent the social group and worship of these symbols helps to not only reproduce the existence of the group, but also to remind its members of their debt to one another. That is, the fate of the group is bound to the fate of each member: the members depend on the group for survival and the group depends on members recognizing their membership (Bilton et al., 1996).

Thus, Durkheim sees society as a "religiously ordered system." But while in traditional societies, religion plays an integrative function through beliefs and practices, in more complex societies, the collective conscience becomes more abstract (Waters, 1994) and its moral contents harder to see. Nonetheless, when collective conscience is seen in this way, as a function of group membership and belonging, it can be used to explore not only religiousness, but also potentially any collective practices that have the function of symbolizing and reminding people of their group membership, and sustain social solidarity. Accordingly, collective conscience has been explored in relation to secular forms of ritual and belief, such as national and cultural identity, social and political movements, and association membership.

Social Transformation

However, the spread of Enlightenment thinking in the eighteenth century undermined religiously sustained collective conscience and replaced it with a less extensive, weaker, and secular form supported by the formation of sets of general rules as opposed to specific codes (Marshall et al., 1994). Young (2007) notes that as the unregulated market of advanced capitalist societies advances, restraints on individual desires (such as those placed, for instance, by religious ritual) lose their strength. The growth of cities, population expansion, and more intense social interaction may also undermine social trust. This condition threatens social cohesion because it is accompanied by increasing competitiveness. However, Durkheim observed that one solution to this problem is that the division of labor reduced competition by producing differentiation and interdependence, which contributed to a new version of collective conscience.

In mechanical societies, collective conscience is intense, well defined, and widespread. In organic societies, such as advanced modern societies, collective conscience is dependent on moral density and social volume. That is, in organic societies, the wider the spread of individuality, the stronger the potential for a new form of cohesion between people, because they increasingly rely on each other to meet their needs, which fosters interdependence and responsibility for each other. Contemporary collective conscience then, is developed and sustained not through religious ritual, but through forms of communication to which most people have access (television, cellular phones, the Internet), and travel, which creates, as Giddens (1990) puts it, "time-space distanciation" in which time and space are compressed, bringing people into closer proximity to each other.

There are ways of acting, thinking, and feeling that possess the remarkable property of existing outside the consciousness of the individual. Not only are these types of behavior and thinking external to the individual, but they are endued with a compelling and coercive power by virtue of which, whether he or she wishes it or not, they impose themselves upon the individual (Durkheim, 1982, p. 51).

Collective conscience, then, exists beyond the minds of individuals as a palpable presence of beliefs and ideas, even in secular, mechanical solidarity, which privileges individuality and relies on restitutive law to maintain the normal contact and social intercourse in society.

Further Insights

Individualism

Durkheim was anxious about the shift toward organic solidarity and the expansion of individualism that this shift fostered. He argued that that the moral character of society and the moral constraints that underpin social integration would change as society transitions to a more specialized division of labor. Notably, his concern focused on the growth of the "cult of the individual" on which the collective conscience would come to be based. The individualism he predicted was moral or rational...

(The entire section is 4254 words.)