Emile Durkheim and the Collective Consciousness of Society: A Study in Criminology

Emile Durkheim and the Collective Consciousness of Society: A Study in Criminology

by Kenneth Smith


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Together with the concept of ‘social facts’, the ‘collective consciousness of society’ is thought of as one of the key concepts in the sociology of Émile Durkheim, widely regarded as one of the founders of modern sociology. Yet, outside of the sociology of crime, the concept is little used within sociology and, even within criminology, seems only partially understood. English-speaking criminologists cannot even agree how the French term ‘conscience collective’ is to be translated into English. ‘Émile Durkheim and the Collective Consciousness of Society’ sets out to address this question and many others connected with the use of the concept in criminology and throughout sociology. Smith argues that Durkheim’s original concept must be sensitively revised and suitably updated for its real relevance to come to the fore. Major adjustments to Durkheim’s concept of the collective consciousness include Smith’s compelling arguments that the model does not apply to everyone equally (we are not all equally incorporated into the collective consciousness), and that Durkheim’s concept does not in any way rely on what might be called the disciplinary functions of society.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783082285
Publisher: Anthem Press
Publication date: 08/01/2014
Series: Key Issues in Modern Sociology , #1
Pages: 276
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Kenneth Smith is currently a reader in criminology and sociology at Buckinghamshire New University.

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Émile Durkheim and the Collective Consciousness of Society

A Study in Criminology

By Kenneth Smith

Wimbledon Publishing Company

Copyright © 2014 Kenneth Smith
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78308-228-5



Whenever an authority with power is established its first and foremost function is to ensure respect for beliefs, traditions and collective practices — namely, to defend the common consciousness. (Durkheim 1989, 42; emphasis added)

Durkheim does not explain his purpose in giving the series of lectures later collected together as Moral Education until near the end of the first half of the book. It was, he says, to discover the rational basis of those moral beliefs that up until the twentieth century had, in his view, scarcely been expressed at all other than in their religious form (2002, 103). Religion gives us an insight into the social origins of morality but, Durkheim argues, only in a distorted way. In order to understand morality properly it is necessary to strip it of its religious cloak. In Moral Education Durkheim not only claims to do this, but he also explains that this achievement was really no very great accomplishment, since all that he really needed to do was to 'substitute for the conception of the supernatural being the empirical idea of a directly observable being — which is society — provided we do not view society as an arithmetic sum of individuals but as a new personality distinct from the individual personalities' (104; emphasis added). This, then, is yet another expression of Durkheim's well-known 'holist' perspective. Durkheim had no time for the idea that society is merely the sum of its constituent parts (2002, 65), the individual people who merely happen to compose it at any given time. This is an absurd view Durkheim thinks, not least because most of the people who contribute to the form that society takes at any given time are no longer alive today, yet all of these may still be said to have left their mark on the character — or as Durkheim would say, the consciousness — of that society. Taking inspiration from the example of the natural sciences, Durkheim has this to say on this all-important point:

One may object that since society consists only of individuals it cannot have a character different from that of the individuals who compose it. This is a common-sense argument which for a long time has impeded and still impedes the development of sociology [...]. It is an argument that has received more attention than it merits. Indeed, experience demonstrates in a thousand ways that a combination of elements presents new properties that do not characterise any of the elements in isolation. [...] In combining tin and copper, basic elements that are soft and malleable, one gets a new substance with an altogether different property. It is bronze which is hard. [...] Thus, it is an invariable fact that a whole may be something other than the sum of its parts. (2002, 61)

Durkheim argues that society imposes certain conditions of membership — a group identity as we might describe this — on all the individuals who enter it and that most of these conditions were established long before the individuals who now make up that society were born. This fact, he claims, is the best proof that the group is always something greater than the mere sum of its individual parts (2002, 63).

How then does Durkheim go about establishing his thesis that there is a rational basis to all morality in modern society and, as we shall see, that this morality reflects the structure of the society of which it is composed? He begins by claiming that the first element of morality — all morality — is regularity: 'Duties are not fulfilled intermittently in a blaze of glory. Genuine obligations are daily ones and the ordinary course of one's life entails their regular performance' (2002, 34). It is duty and regularity then that are the foundation of all morality and, interestingly enough, Durkheim claims that regularity (in society) is the moral analogue of periodicity in the organism (34). There is, Durkheim believed, an aspect common to all behaviour that we ordinarily call moral: 'All such behaviour conforms to pre-established rules. To conduct oneself morally is a matter of abiding by a norm, and determining what conduct should obtain in a given instance even before one is required to act. The domain of morality is therefore the domain of duty [and] duty is defined as prescribed behaviour' (23). Thus, Durkheim argues, 'we can say that morality consists of a system of rules of action that predetermine conduct. They state how one must act in given situations; and to obey properly is to obey conscientiously' (2002, 24). But a rule is not a simple matter of habitual behaviour alone. Rather, according to Durkheim, 'it is a way of acting that we do not feel free to alter according to taste. It is in some measure — and to the same extent that it is a rule — beyond personal preference' (28). Now this is a very interesting argument indeed because Durkheim implies here — and certainly seems to have believed himself — that, left to ourselves, we would alter the rule if we could. The fact that we do not do this — that by and large we obey these rules even when we do not really want to — may well explain why we resent it so much when other people break those same rules that we only very reluctantly observe ourselves. As Durkheim says on this point: 'There is then in every moral force that we feel as above or beyond ourselves something that bends our wills. In one sense, one can say that there is no rule, properly speaking, which does not have this imperative character in some degree, because, once again, every rule commands. It is this that makes us feel that we are not free to do as we wish' (29; emphasis added). 'Morality thus presupposes a certain capacity for behaving similarly under like circumstances, and consequently it implies a certain ability to develop habits, a certain need for regularity' (2002, 27). And in fact Durkheim argues:

So close is the connection between custom and moral behavior that all social customs almost inevitably have a moral character. [...] When a mode of behavior has become customary in a group, whatever deviates from it elicits a wave of disapproval very like that evoked by moral transgressions. Customs share in some way the special respect accorded moral behavior. If all social customs are not moral, all moral behavior is customary behavior. (2002, 27–8)

Having thus ascertained in this way — at least to his own satisfaction — what he here describes as the first element of morality, Durkheim enquires into its second element which, he claims, is authority (2002, 47). Durkheim defines authority as 'a quality, either actual or imaginary, invested in a being by his relationship with others, by which he is thought to possess powers superior to their own' (88) and in order to fulfil one's obligations properly and to act morally Durkheim claims that we must have some appreciation of the authority sui generis that informs morality (34). What Durkheim appears to mean by this claim is that in order to fulfil obligations properly one must accept as legitimate that authority on which they are based (30–31) since, without this, the observance of morality will only ever be token. 'For the act to be everything it should be, for the rule to be obeyed as it ought to be, it is necessary for us to yield, not in order to avoid disagreeable results or some moral or material punishment, but very simply because we ought to, regardless of consequences our conduct may have for us. One must obey a moral precept out of respect for it and for this reason alone' (30). Having then established authority as the second element of morality, Durkheim goes on to argue that regularity and authority are basically one and the same thing: different aspects of the concept of discipline. Combining these two elements together we then arrive at what Durkheim terms the first principle of all moral action: the spirit of discipline. As Durkheim says on this point:

Morality, we have said, is basically a discipline. All discipline has a double objective: to promote a certain regularity in people's conduct and to provide them with determinate goals that at the same time limit their horizons. Discipline promotes a preference for the customary, and it imposes restrictions. It regularizes and it constrains. It answers to whatever is recurrent and enduring in men's relations with one another. (2002, 47)

Having thus established discipline as the first principle of morality, Durkheim then goes on to consider its second principle and he identifies this with what he claims is a common content that is found in all morality: 'A person is not only a being who disciplines himself; he is also a system of ideas, of feelings, of habits and tendencies and a consciousness that has a content' (2002, 73; emphasis added).

We have ascertained the first element of morality and have shown what its function is. But this first element only conveys an idea of the most formal aspect of moral life. We have said that morality consists of a body of rules that govern us [but] we have analysed the concept of rule without concerning ourselves with the content of the behaviour required of us. We have studied it in a purely formal sense, as a justifiable abstraction. But as a matter of fact, morality has a content that, as one can foresee, itself has moral import. Moral precepts demand of us certain specific behaviour [and] since it belongs to the same category — since in other words it shares the same character — it should manifest certain common characteristics. This, or these, common qualities constitute other essential elements of morality, since they are found in all moral behavior, and, consequently, we must try to identify them. (2002, 54–5; emphasis added)

Durkheim's method here, in determining the second principle of morality, is empirical: 'We shall not inquire what a moral act should be to justify the adjective "moral", commencing with some notion of morality fixed in advance of observation or anything else. On the contrary, we shall observe what kinds of acts they are to which we affix this label' (2002, 55). But he does not tell us how one is supposed to do this: how it is possible, without some kind of a priori idea of what morality is, to observe in a purely empirical fashion, a posteriori, those kinds of acts which we are to call moral and which we claim to distinguish from those which we say are not. We must, it would seem, have at least some prior idea of what morality is before we can distinguish the category of things which we call moral. But Durkheim passes over this well-known objection to inductive reasoning and claims instead (55–6) that all human behaviour can be distinguished in two ways according to the ends to which it is directed. All the objectives sought by men he thinks may be classified into the following two categories. First, there are those concerning only the individual himself, which Durkheim calls personal, and second there are those ends concerning something other than the individual actor, which he calls impersonal. And Durkheim claims (55–6) that behaviour directed towards oneself can never be called moral — and is therefore outside the realms of morality proper — while behaviour that is directed towards others, even where these others are members of one's own family, is moral precisely because it is to this extent impersonal (56). Hence, he says, 'we may conclude that behaviour prescribed by the rules of morality is always behaviour in pursuit of impersonal ends' (58).

Moral action pursues impersonal objectives. But the impersonal goals of moral actions cannot be either those of a person other than the actor or [even] those of many [other actors]. Hence it follows that they must necessarily involve something other than individuals. They are supra-individual.

Outside or beyond individuals there is nothing other than groups formed by the union of individuals, that is to say societies. Moral goals, then, are those the object of which is society.To act morally is to act in terms of the collective interest. [...] Now, it is evident that a moral act must serve some living and sentient being and even more specifically a being endowed with consciousness. Above and beyond me as a conscious being [...] there is nothing else save that sentient being that is society. By this I mean anything that is a human group, the family as well as the nation, and humanity. (2002, 58–9; emphasis added)

In making this claim Durkheim was well aware that he was dismissing out of hand any theological basis to morality. As he says on this point:

Now once we rule out recourse to theological notions, there remains beyond the individual only a single, empirically observable, moral being, [namely] that which individuals form by their association — that is, society. Unless the system of moral ideas is the product of a general hallucination, that being with which morality links our wills and which is the principle object of our behaviour can only be a divine being or a social being. We set aside the first of these hypotheses as [being] beyond the province of science. There remains the second which [...] embraces all the reality of the first, minus its symbolism. (2002, 60–61)

And he goes on to say, 'If we intend to take account of this', as he now describes it, 'formal principle of the common conscience — rejecting as moral any act exclusively self-centred — then we must regard society as desirable in and of itself and not only to the extent that it is useful to the individual' (2002, 67; emphasis added).

We see here then what Durkheim himself describes as the essence of his second principle of morality — selflessness — and we see that the main focus of this selfless or collective behaviour is society. Durkheim therefore replaces a religious idea as the basis of morality — it is no longer God to whom we owe respect and obedience — with what we might well call a kind of secular God; the God of society, in fact (for more on this point see Filloux 1993, 225). However, it is important to understand that although society transcends all of us as individual human beings, this God, society, is not a transcendental being for Durkheim. Because this 'God' is social, it must live in the real world and therefore cannot be a transcendental thing. On the contrary, Durkheim is careful to argue that 'one of the fundamental axioms of our morality — perhaps the fundamental axiom — is that the human being is the sacred thing par excellence. [Only] he merits the respect that the faithful of all religions reserve for their God' (2002, 107; emphasis added). Of course society itself transcends mankind; Durkheim has already established the principle in his holistic thesis that at any given time society is greater than the sum of its individual or constituent parts. But there is nonetheless nothing about Durkheim's conception of society that is not human. As he says on this point:

Society, therefore, goes beyond the individual; it has its own nature distinct from that of the individual; consequently it fulfils the first necessary condition for serving as the object of moral behaviour. But, on the other hand, it rejoins the individual. There is no gulf between it and him. It thrusts into us strong and deep roots. The best part of us is only an emanation of the collectivity. This explains how we can commit ourselves to it and even prefer it to ourselves. (2002, 73; emphasis added)


Excerpted from Émile Durkheim and the Collective Consciousness of Society by Kenneth Smith. Copyright © 2014 Kenneth Smith. Excerpted by permission of Wimbledon Publishing Company.
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Table of Contents

Preface; General Introduction; Part I: The Concept of the Collective Consciousness of Society; Part II: The Form of the Collective Consciousness; Macro-sociological Features of the Collective Consciousness; Interregnum on the State; Micro-sociological Features of the Collective Consciousness; Part III: Durkheim’s Concept of Crime and Punishment; Part IV: Durkheim’s Concept of the Collective Consciousness as a ‘Social Fact’; Part V: Some Problems with Durkheim’s Concept of the Collective Consciousness of Society; General Conclusion; Bibliography; Index

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From the Publisher

‘This excellent book makes a number of extremely interesting and original arguments and neatly links the historical/theoretical focus on Durkheim to contemporary criminological and more broadly sociological concerns. It should be accessible to undergraduates as well as being of interest to scholars in the field.’ —William Outhwaite, Professor of Sociology, Newcastle University, UK

‘In his excellent book Kenneth Smith provides a rigorous reading of a wider range of Durkheim’s texts than is typically used by sociologists and criminologists. In doing so, he finds rarely noticed positive developments of, but also flaws in, the conceptual systems Durkheim deploys. Smith works with these systems, discriminating between them, correcting them, combining them, and using his own sociological imagination to produce a new and conceptually enriched Durkheimianism.’ —Frank Pearce, Professor of Sociology, Queen’s University, Canada

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