Defined by Émile Durkheim as ‘the body of beliefs and sentiments common to the average of members of a society’, it comprised a form and content which varies according to whether society is characterized by mechanical or organic solidarity. In the former, the collective conscience is extensive and strong, ranging far and wide into people's lives, controlling them in detail through various religious or other traditional means of sanction. It emphasizes the primacy of society over the individual and his or her dignity. However, with the coming of the Enlightenment the collective conscience waned, becoming less extensive, weaker in its grip on the individual, secular, and sanctioned through the imposition of general rule rather than specific codes. The growth of individualism, albeit moral individualism in Durkheim's view, undermined the collective conscience. In the transition to organic solidarity this could be observed in the replacement of repressive by restitutive systems of law. Whereas the former punished for the violation of solidarity itself, the latter is geared to maintain the normal contact and social intercourse in society. Durkheim's argument is that a society-wide collective conscience can only hold a segmental society together; a more differentiated society must be held together by a more differentiated moral consciousness, whose foci (at least in his view) would be occupational groups and the specialized norms issuing from them. The collective conscience becomes a diffuse, abstract ‘cult of the individual’ which, as a civil religion, supplies ultimate principles and justifications, but cannot bear the whole weight of social cohesion. See also anomie; division of labour; dynamic density.
Subjects: Social sciences — Sociology