Émile Durkheim - Durkheim's Thought - Society, Collective Consciousness and Culture

Society, Collective Consciousness and Culture

Regarding the society itself, like social institutions in general, Durkheim saw it as a set of social facts. Even more than "what society is", Durkheim was interested in answering "how is a society created" and "what holds a society together". In his Division of Labor in Society, Durkheim attempted to answer the question of what holds the society together. He assumes that humans are inherently egoistic, but norms, beliefs and values (collective consciousness) form the moral basis of the society, resulting in social integration. Collective consciousness is of key importance to the society, its requisite function without which the society cannot survive. Collective consciousness produces the society and holds it together, and at the same time individuals produce collective consciousness through their interactions. Through collective consciousness human beings become aware of one another as social beings, not just animals.

The totality of beliefs and sentiments common to the average members of a society forms a determinate system with a life of its own. It can be termed the collective or common consciousness. —Emile Durkheim

In particular, the emotional part of the collective consciousness overrides our egoism: as we are emotionally bound to culture, we act socially because we recognize it is the responsible, moral way to act. A key to forming society is social interaction, and Durkheim believes that human beings, when in a group, will inevitably act in such a way that a society is formed.

In this argument, Durkheim acknowledges the importance of another key social fact - the culture. Groups, when interacting, create their own culture and attach powerful emotions to it. He was one of the first scholars to consider the question of culture so intensely. Durkheim was interested in cultural diversity, and how the existence of diversity nonetheless fails to destroy a society. To that, Durkheim answered that any apparent cultural diversity is overridden by a larger, common, and more generalized cultural system, and the law.

In a socioevolutionary approach, Durkheim described the evolution of societies from mechanical solidarity to organic solidarity (one rising from mutual need). As the societies become more complex, evolving from mechanical to organic solidarity, the division of labor is counteracting and replacing collective consciousness. In the simpler societies, people are connected to others due to personal ties and traditions; in the larger, modern society they are connected due to increased reliance on others with regard to them performing their specialized tasks needed for the modern, highly complex society to survive. In mechanical solidarity, people are self-sufficient, there is little integration and thus there is the need for use of force and repression to keep society together. Also, in such societies, people have much fewer options in life. In organic solidarity, people are much more integrated and interdependent and specialisation and cooperation is extensive. Progress from mechanical to organic solidarity is based first on population growth and increasing population density, second on increasing "morality density" (development of more complex social interactions) and thirdly, on the increasing specialisation in workplace. One of the ways mechanical and organic societies differ is the function of law: in mechanical society the law is focused on its punitive aspect, and aims to reinforce the cohesion of the community, often by making the punishment public and extreme; whereas in the organic society the law focuses on repairing the damage done and is more focused on individuals than the community.

One of the main features of the modern, organic society is the importance, sacredness even, given to the concept - social fact - of the individual. The individual, rather than the collective, becomes the focus of rights and responsibilities, the center of public and private rituals holding the society together - a function once performed by the religion. To stress the importance of this concept, Durkheim talked of the "cult of the individual":

Thus very far from there being the antagonism between the individual and society which is often claimed, moral individualism, the cult of the individual, is in fact the product of the society itself. It is the society that instituted it and made of man the god whose servant it is. —Émile Durkheim

Durkheim saw the population density and growth as key factors in the evolution of the societies and advent of modernity. As the number of people in a given area increase, so does the number of interactions, and the society becomes more complex. Growing competition between the more numerous people also leads to further division of labor. In time, the importance of the state, the law and the individual increases, while that of the religion and moral solidarity decreases.

In another example of evolution of culture, Durkheim pointed to fashion, although in this case he noted a more cyclical phenomenon. According to Durkheim, fashion serves to differentiate between lower classes and upper classes, but because lower classes want to look like the upper classes, they will eventually adapt the upper class fashion, depreciating it, and forcing the upper class to adopt a new fashion.

Read more about this topic:  Émile Durkheim, Durkheim's Thought

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