On the collective production of “conscience collective”

Those who read this blog regularly may remember that I have been writing a paper with Juliette de Wolfe on the conceits of autism [Life endings? Or: Ends of life? and Islanding assemblages of haecceities].  I have been kind of stuck with this paper that may have grown too long and unfocused.  I am not sure where to send it.

Anyway, while following a new cohort of students struggle through Durkheim, Garfinkel, Latour, (and altogether doing well with them), I wondered about the ANT of “collective consciousness” and whether what I want to do with conceits may be an answer.  Specifically, “collective conscience/consciousness” is one of the more difficult concept in Durkheim (along with the related one of “collective representations”).  But concepts do not survive longs as ideas before transforming into conceits, that is overall guiding principle for subsequent discourse first in the work of an author and then, more importantly for our purpose, into conversations about the work among emerging and evolving assemblages (groups? communities? polities) explaining, using, critiquing, etc., the work and earlier statements in the conversation.  Thus Durkheim wrote about “l’ensemble des croyances et des sentiments communs à la moyenne des membres d’une même société … qui a sa vie propre” (De la division du travail social,  Chapter II, Section 1, 1930 [1893]: 46).  A century later, “it is a truth universally acknowledged …” that Durkheim said that, as the editors of Wikipedia put it,: “Collective conscious or collective conscience is the set of shared beliefs, ideas and moral attitudes which operate as a unifying force within society” (retrieved on October 10, 2014 from en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Collective_consciousness).  Anyone who writes something like this (though not exactly: do not plagiarize! Do not quote Wikipedia!) passes their exam!  Note how Wikipedia, quoting another encyclopedia probably deriving from still earlier texts first collapse whatever Durkheim was writing about into “shared attitudes” and then affirms that attitudes cause solidarity.

I am not writing today to explain why I believe that this expansion on Durkheim is wrong, or unhelpful, indeed dangerous, for current students, but to wonder about the collective consciousness of “conscience collective” as an interactional event.  This is partly an expansion of my 1984 paper in the direction of making it more specifically interactional.

It is evident that Durkheim, like all of us, was writing against some other writers, trying to say something different to an audience of, in his case, students and policy makers in turn of the 20th century France.  His statements were then picked by his students and their students (Mauss, Lévi-Strauss, etc.) in France, by Radcliffe-Brown and others in England, by Parsons in the United States of the 1940s, by Latour (negatively) and by Garfinkel (positively) a century later.  Now, I write given Garfinkel (and indeed all the others that I read more or less critically at various points in my career).

Let’s start with Durkheim’s own expansion of what may be a “definition”:

“la conscience collective ou commune … n’a pas pour substrat un organe unique; elle est diffuse … diffuse dans toute l’étendue de la société; mais elle n’en a pas moins des caractères spécifiques qui en font une réalité distincte. En effet, elle est indépendante des conditions particulières où les individus se trouvent placés; ils passent, et elle reste. … Elle ne change pas à chaque génération, mais elle relie au contraire les unes aux autres les générations successives. Elle est donc tout autre chose que les consciences particulières, quoiqu’elle ne soit réalisée que chez les individus. (De la division du travail social,  Chapter II, Section 1, 1930 [189?]: 46) Collective or common conscience does not have a unique organic support; it is diffuse … through the spread of society; but it still has specific characteristics that give a distinct reality.  It is independent of the particular conditions within which individuals find themselves placed; they go and it stays. … It does not change with each generation.  It is thus something other that the particular consciences even though it realized among the individuals (my translation.  See Simpson’s translation 1933: 79-80)


Let’s focus on: “Les individus passent et elle reste.”  This is what Garfinkel also wrote about traffic flow on a California highway: individual drivers that enter and then leave arising cohorts of drivers, the cohort stays.  The cohort is an “immortal fact” (Garfinkel 2002).  What about “collective conscience”?

From that perspective, what Durkheim might have “meant,” or how what he meant was “the product of his time,” is not the issue.  The issue is the characteristics of the conversations within which his texts were “next” statements (in Conversational Analysis term) within an ongoing conversation that Durkheim did not start.  The current issue concerns using his texts for further statements, long after his death.  Of course, conversations require participants but participation (whether one is recruited, accepted, tolerated, etc.) can only happen to the extent that the participant takes into account the characteristics of the conversation.  They need not agree, or even know much about it, as individuals, but they ignore its mechanisms at the peril of their continued participation.

“Conscience collective” can be taken as an attempt by Durkheim to “say” something “next” that is now the occasion for further statements like: emergent collectivities (made up for a few moments or for centuries) also produce, along with the material means of their production and reproduction, multi-authored texts through the usual processes of encouragement, assessment, policing, correcting, etc. that are well documented by ethnomethodological research for such things as service lines, gender displays, etc.  That is, what might be deemed in psychological terms, matter of morality (conscience) or cognition (consciousness, representation) is a matter of the symbolic forms used, at any particular time, by collective forces to police, amplify and silence individual voices.

So, we must continue to look for the interactional mechanisms (including people, institutions, objects, etc.) that produce discursive and meta-discursive statements with consequences, and particularly when “next” statements “repair” the conversation back to where it “should” be (for example, in Euro-America, bring it back to the freedom of the individual).

If I were to suggest a correction to the Wikipedia entry on “collective consciousness,” I would write something like “solidarity (social order) is partially produced by conversations about what should or should not be done, what should or should not sanctioned; a social order is also a moral order is also something to which the individuals who are caught within the conversation will have moral or emotional reactions–particularly when they see resistance to the order, whether that of others or, more powerfully, their own.” (See also Boas on “The emotional associations of primitives” [1911] 1938) This is probably too long and jargonistic, and I have no doubt that the editors of Wikipedia (an invisible collective force if ever there was one!) would “correct” it back to what is universally known about Durkheim: that he wrote about “beliefs individuals share with other individuals”…

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