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Collective consciousness is a term used in sociology, the study of human societies. It refers to the knowledge and beliefs shared by all the members of a particular group, whether that group encompasses a few individuals, a nation, or the planetary population as a whole. Collective consciousness allows members of a group to share common goals, behaviors, and attitudes. It also encourages individuals with differing views to conform to the beliefs of the overall group. In short, it makes human society possible.
Primates, including humans, are social animals. Like other social animals such as wolves or ants, they prefer to live in groups for a number of reasons. While it is possible for individuals to survive in isolation, it is rare for a person to do so by choice. In fact, such social isolation is considered an extreme form of punishment in many societies. Sociologists and other scientists have studied the psychological basis behind social groups, and collective consciousness is one of the primary factors behind human group activity.
French sociologist Émile Durkheim coined the term collective consciousness in the 19th century. It illustrated what he and other scientists had discovered about the ways human beings interact. As people are fully capable of acting independently, there must be strong motivations for most of them to act in concert with each other most of the time. In all human societies, most members will conform to group attitudes on appearance, behavior, social interaction and the like, even when viable alternatives exist.
Durkheim proposed that collective consciousness results from strong positive and negative pressure on the individual. From a very early age, any person learns that some behavior results in the approval of peers, while other behavior elicits subtle or strong disapproval. Once this knowledge has been fully assimilated, the person will respond in similar ways to the behavior of others. In this way, the values of the group become the values of the individual. This ensures that the individual conforms to social concepts such as laws or moral codes, even if his or her natural tendency is to do otherwise.
Pioneering psychologist C.J. Jung proposed that there was a collective unconscious in addition to the collective consciousness. Jung believed that some human concepts, which he called archetypes, are inherited rather than learned. This would explain why all human societies share some attitudes, beliefs, and laws, even those societies developed in isolation. From a psychological viewpoint, these theories are not just important to the study of human society; they offer insights on how an individual can achieve happiness even if his or her personal goals are vastly different from those of society at large.