Collective Consciousness in Sociological Theory

The concept of “collective consciousness” in the cumulative emergence of sociological theory

Note: Paper was written in March 1988 when the author was a Research Fellow at the Institute for African Studies. The paper was for the Humanities and Social Science Seminar Paper Series of the University of Zambia.


This paper defines the concept of “collective consciousness”. It traces the concept of “collective consciousness” through the development of sociological theories. It examines the basic tenets of a number of major sociological theorists. The objective of the exercise is to demonstrate how the concept of collective consciousness is the underlying theme of the theories.

The crucial question of whether the concept of collective consciousness can be subjected to empirical test and analysis is discussed. The question of whether Zambian and African sociologists should blindly and uncritically follow and adhere to sociological theories in a dogmatic fashion is debated. The notion of intellectual “peakocktry” is used to characterize how African sociologists use and regard the sociological theories.


The concept of “collective consciousness” has a variety of meanings. Collective refers to any characteristics or social phenomenon that is made by individuals acting as a group. One can then refer to “collective effort”, “collective decision.” The dictionary defines collective as: “formed by collecting, assembled or accumulated into a whole. Pertaining to, characteristics of, or made by a number of individuals taken or acting as a group.”1

“Consciousness” is a total sum of attitudes, opinions, and world out-look that an individual or a group has. There is also a consciousness relating to different levels of individual or group awareness of specific issues. For example “class consciousness”, “consciousness raising”, “sub-consciousness”, “religious consciousness”. The dictionary defines consciousness as: “the state of condition of being conscious. The essence or totality of attitudes, opinions, and sensitivities held or thought to be held by an individual or group.”2

Collective consciousness is the attitudes, values, and beliefs of the group that define its outlook or how things are or are supposed to be. It is what can be called the group ethos, consensus, the world outlook of a group, common understanding, or weltanschauung3 that transcends individuals but binds the whole social group.

The two basic types of consciousness are individual and group. Individual consciousness is often a reflection of the collective consciousness of the group. A Zambian’s idea of the family, for example, generally reflects what the Zambian society defines as the family.When a society has many distinct ethnic, racial, cultural or tribal groups, the collective consciousness of that society is the sum total of the various types of group consciousness. In African countries where there are many tribal groups that stretch across national boundaries, the so-called tribal collective consciousness of one group can be part of the collective consciousness of two different modern African nations. What can be termed the Zambian collective consciousness is a sum total of the types of individual consciousness that are a reflection of the many types of the so-called tribal and ethnic collective consciousness. The diagram is a good illustration.


This paper will explore a type of collective consciousness that major sociological theorists have addressed over the centuries. In their analyses and descriptions of their different contemporary societies, and predictions, these different theorists have touched on the concept of collective consciousness or good formation through various society epochs up to early this century. This is the collective consciousness that has been traced by philosophers, sociologists, and other theorists. The theorists abstract from society traces of social cohesion and purposeful group action to reinforce or achieve a permanent, continuous, and consistent state of collective good formation. Whether it is Marx’s class conflict, Durkheim’s mechanical and group solidarity, or Weber’s action theory, the paper asserts that they all trace elements and strands of collective consciousness; i.e group purposeful action that establishes order, stability, and collective good formation.


The origin of the notion of collective good formation goes back to the moment human beings began to live in groups. In his discourse on the Philosophy of Science, John Locke says the state of nature meant men living together without polity of any kind. In other words, courts, the police or the institution of law as known in the contemporary society were non-existent. The behavior of human beings towards others was governed by reason and rationality. Locke says equality prevailed as no one individual had power over another. If an individual violated the rights of another, he lost his rights to the offended party. The offended party held the right to mete any punishment. As the sentence for most of the offences was normally death, at his own discretion, the offended party could keep the individual as a slave.

As groups expanded in terms of numbers as well as the magnitude of social interaction, people agreed to enter into a community of civil society. Locke says this was an attempt to eliminate the inconveniences of the law of nature and to preserve property. As a result of this development, four major institutions emerged in civil society; the family, property, money, and slavery.4

The social philosophy of John Locke generally reflects the thinking of the 17th century “enlightenment” period. It was during this period that the trend of thought among social philosophers was to try to determine the origin of society through examination of origin of the state as a political institution. During the enlightenment period, Zeitlin says “Self- examination, an understanding of their own activity, their own society, and their own time, was an essential function of thought.”5

The essential point is that the thought of the period set a foundation or starting point for the major sociological theorists. However, the notion of collective consciousness at this point is not directly evident. But rudimentary forms of it are already traceable. For example, the social philosopher Montesquien (1689-1755) in his discourse of empirical philosophy conducted studies of contemporary societies. “He concluded that there is no single government which is universally applicable. Political institutions must conform to the peculiarities of the society for which they are intended.”6

Montesquien believed that the social institutions of society were very closely related or connected. Even forms of thought were closely related to these institutions. Zeitlin says that in this respect, Montesquien could be regarded as the founder of the sub discipline known as the sociology of knowledge. According to Zeitlin, “His (Montesquien) sociology of knowledge, however rudimentary, anticipated many, if not all, the major postulates about society and its consciousness.”7

The use of terms like “political” and “social” institutions strongly suggests that Montesquien had notions of collective consciousness. The concept of government as known is contemporary political philosophy implies a collectivity of human beings into societies. Another philosopher of the period of enlightenment was Rousseau (1712-1778).8 The phenomenon of collective consciousness is even more pronounced in his social philosophy.

Auguste Comte (1798-1857) is regarded as the founder of sociology. He conceived the study of society with the possible use of the methodology employed in physics; hence the original “social physics.” His sociological theory is essentially based on the law of three stages of development of society as well as knowledge; theological, metaphysical, and positive stage. He was confident that societal problems triggered by the French Revolution could be solved through positive social development. This entailed familiarity with knowledge of the laws governing the development of society.

The study of society was going to involve examining the statics which corresponded to social order and dynamics which corresponded to progress or succession of individual stages of development. In Comte’s sociological theory, the notion of “Consensus Universalis” is the ultimate and explicit reflection of the concept of collective consciousness. According to Comte, the notion of consensus universalis reflects the major fact of social order. Society is not a chaotic and disorganized form. But quite contrary to this view, all parts of the society operate in such a way that order and progress are always maintained. He says this is in accordance with the laws of nature. “The basic fact of social order is consensus universalis, the necessary correlation between the elements of a society. Such a consensus exists in all realms of life but reaches its climax in human society.”9 The connotation of Comte’s theory is that there exists hitherto some force which is presumably independent of human individual power but makes the prevalence of order in society an imperative phenomenon. Order seems to be good in itself.


The Marxist theory can be broken into two major postulates. Several colloraries including sociological elements arise from the postulates.10

The first postulate is that the economic factor in society is the fundamental determinant of the structure and development of society. The means of production determine the social organization, that is the relations in which men enter in order to produce goods more effectively through co-operation and division of labor. What he terms “productive forces” refers to the cooperative power which is a prerequisite of the large scale productive activity of human beings.

Arising further from this notion of economic determinism11 is the concept of relations of production which transcends property relations; these reflect the relationship between the owners of the means of production (capitalists) and the workers (ploretariat). According to Timasheff, “These relations, according to Marx develop independently of human will. Moreover, the organization of production (called by Marx ‘the economic substructure of society` not only limits but also, in the final analysis, shapes the whole superstructure: political organization, law, religion, philosophy, art, literature, science, and morality itself.”12 The assertion that “relations develop” independently of human will suggests more mysterious force which propels individuals in collectivities known as society. However, Marx’s explanation of this phenomenon is made in the second postulate.

The second postulate seems to be an exemplification of his materialistic premise that matter is the only thing that exists and it does so in a dialectical form. The negation of the negation. Human “consciousness is an epiphenomenon; a manifestation of motion in the brain cells.”13 The implications of the premise become wide reaching as evidenced in the second postulate.The postulate mainly accounts for the process and cause of social change. Marx states that by a three phase dialectical process, social change occurs in society. Through conflict between classes, the bourgeoisie (capitalist class) and proletariat (workers), over ownership of the means of production, revolutionary change occurs with victory being on the side of the workers. The new mode of production, socialism and communism, will be the synthesis. Confirming this summary, Timasheff says; “Everything in the world including society itself, passes through the three stages of affirmation or thesis, negation or antithesis, and reconciliation of opposites or synthesis. On this higher level of synthesis, the dialectical process continues with new conflicts and accommodations always making the historical process.”14

At this juncture in the Marxist theory, it is not very evident that his theory is based on the concept of collective consciousness except in very occasional circumstances. But in the quote below from Timasheff, it is evident that collective consciousness and good formation are synonymous notions which seem to represent the ultimate purpose of Marx’s analysis. “Capitalism’s heir will be the socialist order characterized by the collective ownership of means of production and ultimately by a classless and, indeed, stateless society – a Utopian goal long held by pre-Marxian and, according to Marx himself, non- scientific socialists.”15

Marx’s sociology of alienated labor and class consciousness is a further reflection or confirmation that his sociological theory is based on the premise of the concept of collective consciousness and good formation. The essence of alienation is that the labor of human beings becomes a debasing activity because of the advanced level of division of labor. Marx cites the guild system and the craftsmanship in which man engaged his full creative capacities in the production of a commodity. But the industrial development to the level of the factory system required each worker to perform a small monotonous task as a contribution to the production of a commodity. Alienation “referred to the growing dehumanization of man under capitalist industrial conditions.”16

Finally, Marx conceives the solution to all the social problems associated with capitalist development as being the establishment of communism after the societal epochs of development had passed through the various preceding stages. As opposed to the alienating nature of the capitalist society, Marx says:”While in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing to-day and another to-morrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic. This fixation of social activity, this consolidation of what we ourselves produce into an objective power above us, growing out of control, thwarting our expectations, bringing to naught our calculations, is one of the chief factors in historical development up till now.”17

As evidenced in this quotation regarding Marx’s views on communism, the concept of collective consciousness bears its ultimate prominence and centrality in his theory. The communal provision of basic social services can be viewed as collective good formation which is good in itself. Human beings will be able to realize and express their creative capacity in life. It is assumed that human beings will be happier as they will be less alienated, they will have suitable shelter, adequate food and technology will be serving society.


Max Weber (1864-1920) is developed his sociology as a response to and being interested in the issues and problems Marx had raised. Commenting on this fact, Zeitlin says; “Though Weber was influenced by the German historical school – itself engaged in a critical examination of Marx’s (and Hegel’s) conceptions – the main character of his total work was shaped by his debate with Marx; and among those who took up the Marxian challenge, Weber was perhaps the greatest.”18 These assertions suggest that Weber was influenced by Marx. Prima facie a case of the existence of the concept of collective consciousness in Max Weber’s theory can be assumed. However, only prominent parts of Weber’s theory will be highlighted.The sociological theory of Max Weber seems to have two postulates; action theory and ideal type.19 From these two postulates, he develops methodological corollaries and conceptions of social and political institutions of industrial society. As well as making a critique of the Marxian theory, Weber is said to have been influenced by the idea that “the validity of values is a matter of faith, not of knowledge, therefore the social sciences must investigate values but cannot provide binding norms and ideals from which directives for controlling practical activity can be derived. Accordingly, in Weber’s opinion, the social sciences (including sociology and history) must be value-free.”20 He further asserted that social science must be an empirical science based on concrete reality. In this respect therefore, he never made generalizations embracing wide cultural types.

It seems evident from his theory that Weber did not entertain, at least explicitly, the concept of collective consciousness since according to his conviction generalizations could not be made until an objective study of the particular aspect of society had been made in several societies. For example, after studying religion in India and China, in accordance with the method he employed in his work on “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” he concluded that “specific economic conditions do not guarantee the rise of capitalism, at least one other condition is necessary, one that belongs to man’s inner world. There must be in other words, a specific motive power, the psychological acceptance of values and ideas of favorable change.”21

Criticizing the Marxian theory, Weber said that it seemed prejudicial to the explanation of social phenomenon is that the theory is “monocausal”. In otherwords, the economic factor was not necessarily the only determinant of social and historical development of society. Gerth and Mills (1946) state that Weber paralled Marx’s economic materialism by his (Weber’s) political and military materialism. Weber says that Marx failed to distinguish what is economically determined and economically relevant. Weber tries to back this claim by conducting studies about religion and tries to prove its mere relevance to economic activity.Since it is not clear whether political and military materialism transcends economic materialism or vise versa, it becomes increasingly difficult to determine whether the notion of collective consciousness and good formation is reflected by making economic or political power a central or fundamental factor in sociological analysis. However, this does not rule out greater possibility that the notion of collective consciousness as inherent in the earlier theories also prevails in the Weberian theory.


As one of the eminent sociological theorists, Durkheim seems to have provided a watershed in the history of collective consciousness as traced in this paper. He dealt with it explicitly and analyzed it to a point to which most of the renowned contemporary schools of sociological theory owe their inspiration. These are generally the structural-functionalist schools. According to Timasheff: “Durkheim took from Comte both the positivistic stress on empiricism and the emphasis on the significance of the group in the determination of human conduct.”22He attributed social reality to the group and not the individual and asserted that social facts are irreducible to individual facts. There are ways of thinking, acting and feeling which are external to the individual and they are given to him by a power which is external; given in a coercive fashion. He gives examples of morality, family religious ideas, and beliefs. “Social phenomenon are rooted in the collective aspects of the beliefs and practices of a group.”23

According to Durkheimian analysis, social facts are very closely related to the concept of collective consciousness.24 For example, in his study and analysis of “The Division of Labour in Society” (1893), he discussed social solidarity. He states that social phenomenon are greatly influenced by levels of division of labor. He compared archaic and advanced societies. He states that archaic societies have mechanical solidarity while advanced societies have social cohesion by organic solidarity. The two types of society and their types of social solidarity serve as a basis for the study of collective social phenomenon.

On the basis of social solidarity, he conducted a study into suicide in industrial Europe. He concluded from the findings of the study that egoistic suicide is a product of weak group integration. For example, he found a high prevalence of suicide among the unmarried. Anomic suicide is a result of a breakdown in social norms particularly after sudden social changes. For example, during the industrial revolution in Europe. The third conclusion he made about suicide is that altruistic suicide takes place as a result of a large magnitude of social solidarity.Pushing the concept of collective consciousness into further lime light, Durkheim made an analysis of religion in one of his several classical works. In “The Elementary Forms of Religious Life”, he attributes the origin of religious ideas, beliefs, myths, and practices to the collective nature of groups; societies. The ideas of divinity and religious norms provide cohesion for the society. Timasheff says: “Durkheim develops his fundamental theses; that group life is the generating source or efficient cause of religion; that religious ideas and practices symbolize the social group; that the distinction between sacred and profane is found universally and has important implications for life as a whole.”25

Fundamental to his whole sociological approach is the term ‘sui generis` which means that the society is bigger than its parts. Critics believe that he committed a compositional and ecological fallacies in adopting this approach.26

Perhaps the most useful contribution Durkheim made to the analysis of society in terms of collective consciousness in his ideas about the origin of knowledge. In his conclusion on religion, he speculates that since religion and other social phenomenon are collective, he suggests that knowledge of concepts in society is something the individual holds in common in their collective bond. By virtue of this fact, the definition of conceptual issues lies in the dynamics of individual societies. In this respect therefore, knowledge is bound to be dependent on society and its pace of growth is bound to be determined by what types of developments occur in the society as a totality. According to Durkheim; “Since the world expressed by the entire system of concepts is the one that society regards, society alone can furnish the most general notions with which it should be represented.”27


Having determined the prevalence of the concept of collective consciousness in the major sociological theories, the next crucial task will be to find out whether the concept can be subjected to empirical test and analysis. Can universal laws and theories be made about the concept? Has it got any predictive validity?

The long standing problem of the empirical approach in the field of the social sciences in the fact that only observation is possible while experimentation has ethical implications. Homans (1967) discusses the same issue. If it were possible to conduct experiments about the concept of collective consciousness, it was going to be possible to manipulate variables that are said to influence the magnitude of its strength in society. But since this is not possible, the social sciences in general and sociology in particular, have resorted to observation and speculation about the social phenomenon in question. Methodologies of sociological inquiry have been proposed by each theorist; Marx, Weber, and Durkheim. But these methods have not been adequate enough to test such seemingly universal and abstract phenomena as collective consciousness. It seems what most of the methodologies are effective in the study of corollaries or secondary characteristics of collective consciousness. For example, marriage institutions, suicide, nature of social classes, rates of divorce.

The non-existence of a tool in sociology which could measure, perhaps through calibration, the phenomenon of collective consciousness suggests that the term should only be entertained on the level of philosophical discourse and speculation. On the other hand, on the optimistic side, the concept can only be empirically tested perhaps through some of its supposedly indirect manifestations. An interesting comparison should be made with the properties of electricity in physics. Electricity cannot be visually perceived, but its presence or non-presence is determined by gadgets. Similarly, even though it is impossible to see air, its presence can still be inferred.From the review of the theories, it seems evident that the concept has been responsible for the proliferation of the many sub-areas of study in sociology. Sociology of knowledge, religion, marriage, politics. Most of these splinters which emanated from the generic and universal “collective consciousness” seem to share a concern with the description and restoration of collective good formation. Political institutions seek to maintain order and liberty among citizens of the society. Marriage maintains families and social cohesion.

Another possible problem with the concept is the difficulty of making it a central phenomenon in the formulation of theories, principles and laws identical to the ones in the natural sciences. For example, scientific discovery and explanation, Homans (1967) says it is not good or useful enough on scientific grounds to merely discover that marriage is a universal institution, that all societies are stratified, that all societies have cultural norms governing behavior. But more than this, sociology must be more assertive. It must be less general and through studies be able to formulate real theories than could be empirically tested and validated. In the words of Homans: “The failure to state real propositions leads in turn to failure to create real theories, for, as we shall see, a real theory consists precisely of propositions.”28


It is evident from the foregoing so far that collective consciousness is a term used to refer to something very abstract, a force which is independent of any individual control although created by society as a collection of individuals. This is a coercive power which sanctions behavior and acquires its legitimacy from its collective source. Such a term cannot possibly be subjected to empirical analysis. Examining its corollaries or parts, as mentioned earlier, would be futile because there is no way in which the whole would be reflected by what you find in its parts.

Sociological theories generally do not seem to involve themselves deeply in prediction in the sense of coming up with specific scientific laws. This is an aspect of sociology which requires urgent attention if it will have to continue to assert that it is a science. Homans states that nonoperative definitions and orienting ones are prevalent in sociology and these are often mistaken for real definitions.

The concept of collective (formation) consciousness seems to have withstood about two centuries of continuous theoretical development in sociology and social philosophy. But since it has not been proved to bear any significant empirical value, its survival and transmission could have been only possible if the concept was regarded in the fashion of a religious dogma. Religious dogma exists through inspiration of faith among the believers. The various sociological theorists have found the concept of collective consciousness so overwhelming that it has seemed totally unimaginable or unconventional29 to start or base their theories on some fresh premise or even on a contrary premise. For example, why not start from a premise that human beings` existence is a struggle to live alone. That living together has restrained much of their original animal freedom. This premise then would turn the notions of morals, public good formation, as virtues that have been imposed on human beings through accidental requirement or necessity to live in collectivities with other human beings; i.e villages, bands, social groups, society etc. But the problem with starting from such a contrary and an unusual premise is that it contravenes the conventional values, tradition, and belief; i.e the accepted way of thinking and explaining social phenomenon.

What is wrong with an academic issue being passed along in the fashion of a religious dogma? First, let us examine what are said to be the positive elements of religious dogmatism. According to Durkheim, religious phenomena is divided into parts; the world of the sacred and profane. Religion is a system of ideas which correspond to some determined object. For example, nature, the infinite, the ideal and the unknowable. Durkheim observes that believers say that the real function of religion is to make them think, act and aid them to live. The religious believer is stronger and can endure more the trial of existence. The point to be brought to our attention is that a parallel can be drawn between the nature of religion and the history of the concept of collective consciousness. The sacred seems to be the concept of collective consciousness and the profane constitutes its parts of corollaries in which the concept is said to manifest its powers. Its seems the survival of sociological theories has relied on the maintenance of the sacred as is the case with religious ideas embodied in religious institutions. Hence the survival of the theories over the centuries. The positive quality of religious dogma only lies in one important point; that it keeps individuals strong and ensures the transmission of ideas as no one is supposed to be skeptical about them.

The negative aspects of religion on the other hand are overwhelming. After a systematic analysis and study of religion, Durkheim says nearly all the great social institutions have been born out of religion. Religion is merely an idea that comes to express our aspirations for the good, beautiful, and ideal. He further says the essential ideas of scientific logic are of religious origin. “Scientific thought is only a more perfect form of religious thought.”30

It is stated that religion should therefore disappear or be reduced as science becomes more perfect. From Durkheim’s observations it can be concluded that religious dogma, though an essential part in the earlier stages of the development of knowledge, at a later stage acts as an obstruction and impediment to discovery of further knowledge on the level of science. This might possibly be the case with regards to the concept of collective consciousness and how sociological theorists have regarded it. According to Bottomore: “Religious suffering is at the same time an expression of real suffering and protest against real suffering. Religion is a sigh of the oppressed creature, the sentiment of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as illusory happiness of men, is a demand for their real happiness.”31 Perhaps the elimination of academic dogmatism in sociological theory will be a demand for our real progress along scientific lines.

African and Zambian sociologists should produce academic material that is pregnant with criticism of the outcome of the continued and unquestioned use of the notion of collective consciousness in sociology as a discipline. The continued unquestioned application and use of this concept has possibly dwarfed or crippled chances of formulating radically “new sociological theories” particularly among developing countries like Zambia where societies are experiencing new and unique types social crises.

The outcome of the continued and unquestioned use of the concept in sociology will perhaps lead to intellectual stagnation. This is in the sense that the concept will be (or is already) taken as a common denominator and therefore taken for granted as a given phenomenon. Sometimes in their overzealousness to discover new sociological theories, sociologists overlook what would be discovered in what is taken for granted.

To this effect, Homans says that before the “law of gravity” was discovered, people had always seen apples fall from trees, and objects of every kind fall to the ground. But through scientific or empirical examination, the law of gravity was discovered which had very wide reaching implications in the natural science. The point to be emphasized is that what is taken for granted can be after all the basis of new theories and laws which can expand the horizon of sociology.However, there are other schools of thought that maintain contrary views. These must be entertained only in the sense that they act as a source of inspiration. For example, Durkheim said, “really and truly human thought is not a primitive fact; its is the product of history; it is the ideal limit towards which we are constantly approaching; but which in all probability we shall never succeed in reaching.”32 The implications of Durkheim’s thoughts are that human beings can never reach the zenith of thought and knowledge because it has an ideal limit.33 But he does not attempt to determine the point on the continuum of knowledge beyond which man will not go. It can be stated with certainty that the same could have been the case with knowledge in the exact sciences. But these rather critical remarks should not discourage further examination of the concept of collective consciousness as it is very possible that it might after all be the Pandora box of sociology.

One of the most critical developments has been the adoption of the concept and other aspects of western intellectual tradition by the academicians of developing countries including Zambia. The major sociological theories to-day were products of the social or societal problems and conditions of their time. The theories were a response to intellectual thought of their time as well as the impact of the stresses of society. For example, the Marxist theory is said to have been a product of the problems posed by the industrial revolution in Europe. Durkheimian thought was a product of the French Revolution. In the same way, scholars of developing countries like Zambia should formulate theories which reflect the unique conditions of their time. But why has this not been the case?

One of the possible causes is the unquestioned adoption of Western sociology with no or little attempt what so ever at conducting critical examination of the ideas and determining their relevance to their own contemporary thought. For instance, the concept of collective consciousness is perhaps universal in the sense that it exists in every group or society. If this is the case, why should the collective consciousness of Western societies prevail over that of a Zambian, African, or any other society?

According to Durkheim, concepts are collective representations. They surpass the knowledge of the average individual. It is therefore collective knowledge. If this is the case the “collective thought” of developing countries like that of Zambia should bear marked differences, from Western thought. On the other hand, by virtue of this principle of knowledge, collective nature, sociological knowledge can neither be objective as such nor value-free. Therein lies the fallacy of sociological knowledge of the type that prevails in the developing countries like Zambia to-day. Here is an illustration.

Ethnocentricism34 is a term used to define the state of mind in which the ways of one’s group seem natural and logical for all human beings. The effect of colonialism for instance is one testimony of the phenomenon. The customs, beliefs, religious values, and ideas of the colonized people were forcibly thrown overboard. The amazing thing is that the now independent African people refuse to throw away the negative dichotomy or dualism colonialism had introduced in the perceptions and attitude of the indigenous people. For example, in Zambia to-day, an African dog is still a very small, slim, malnourished, sickly dog, and not aggressive. While the yimbwa yacizungu (European dog) is huge, menancingly healthy, and prone to sudden tempers. The African chicken is small, eats food indiscriminately, hard to cook, and tough to chew. While the Earopean counterpart possesses all the enviable qualities of being big, financially beneficial, and easy to chew.

Coming to the level of the social sciences in general, and sociology in particular, an analysis of society is not complete or hardly academic if it does not make overt reference to a Western sociological theorist. Is this really necessary or even productive?35 Zambian academics can only take receptive postures with inevitable elements of dogmatism in terms of sociological ideas. The collective consciousness has been manipulated in such a way that it cannot be self sustaining in terms of knowledge. So long thought springs from this inferior or surbodinate posture, the social thought of the individuals in these societies is bound to contribute very little of significance in terms of originality of ideas.


The notion of “intellectual peacockry” is used to characterize the unchallenging and uncritical approach of Zambian intellectuals in general and Zambian sociologists in particular towards academic theories. The dictionary says a peacock is a male peafowl with a “crested head, brilliant blue or green feathers, and long tail feathers……that can be spread in a fan like form.”36 The second meaning which is more pertinent to this paper says: “A vain person given to display……to strut about like a peacock; exhibit oneself vainly.”

Intellectual peacockry in relation to Zambian sociologists can be of two types; there is the intellectual peacockry that displays the sociologist’s intellectual ability, acumen, flamboyance and flare. This is the intellectual peacockry that is critical, original, and is a product of the intellectual’s genuine Zambian experiences. On the other hand, the second type of intellectual peacockry is the type that is vain, parrot like, and contributes very little critical theoretical articulation of academic knowledge. This type of intellectual peacockry involves mere posturing and employing over used blanket cliches like diversification, self-reliance among the masses, the Zambian culture, articulating the infrastructure etc. All with very foggy ideas about what these clichés mean in the Zambian academic and social environment.37 Questions of whether in fact these clichés really mean what everybody thinks they mean are never even considered from context to context. How does the notion of intellectual peacockry apply to the concept of collective consciousness?

Zambian sociologists who engage in intellectual peacockry of the vain type will merely repeat sociological theories formulated by Karl Marx, Max Weber, Emile Durkheim and others as if they were tailor made for the contemporary Zambian and African society. The perpetrators of this type of peacockry make very little attempt to question some of the assumptions on which these theories were based. In a blanket fashion, they accept the notion of collective consciousness and take it for granted. They regard it as being universal.

Those sociologists who engage in intellectual peacockry of the productive type are generally critical. They avoid over used clichés in sociology, redefine old concepts to suite new social situations, and generate new ones where old ones do not apply. This is the intellectual peacockry that is going to be very productive and will help generate theories that will explain better some of the unique social phenomena. This type of sociologist will critically re-examine the very concept of collective consciousness. Does it exist in the Zambian Society? If so, what are its unique aspects? Are there indigenous linguistic equivalent(s) for it? Most sociologists fall between the extremes of intellectual peacockry of the vain type and the positive type.In contemporary society, there is a collective consciousness that helps create a societal consensus that penetrates the national ethos about how certain problems should be solved. It is a collective consciousness that permeates society and determines the individual predisposition to perceive and think in a certain way.


If Zambian sociologists engaged in intellectual peacockrization of the positive type, they would resist some elements of the thought that emanates from the contemporary collective consciousness. As a result of this intellectual resistance, some social issues would not only be analyzed differently, but fresh and perhaps better perspectives could be found. A few examples will illustrate this point.

1. For a long time after independence, it was true that at the end of formal school lay a good job waiting. This is not the case now with the increase in population combined with poor growth of the economy. For the vast majority of the youngsters, there is no longer a white collar job on completion of formal school. Should the illusion of a good job at the end of school be continued for the majority of Zambian youngsters? Shouldn’t parental expectation and socialization change? Shouldn’t the current school and educational structure be replaced or scrapped? Unfortunately, the thought from the present collective consciousness is that current model of school has always been good. Changes like better pay for teachers, expanding school places, constitute the popular solutions from the national collective consciousness.

2. One of the persistent and worsening problems of the Zambian society is producing enough food to feed the expanding population. Irrigation along the major rivers of Zambia would result in two harvests per year for the farmers involved; one during the regular rainy season and another through irrigation during the dry season. One novel way of introducing the irrigation schemes would be to establish “irrigation towns.” These “towns” would attract the young unemployed from the urban and rural areas. These irrigation schemes would NOT lay irrigation canals FIRST. Instead the irrigation towns would first build the cinema, microwave dish for satellite links, electricity, telephone, daily newspapers, discos, TV studios, mishanga boys,38soccer stadium, rail link, and other assortments of Zambian urban life. This is perhaps one fool proof way of getting the young energetic people to work in such productive projects. The current collective consciousness is that if you campaign for the urban unemployed to go back to the land, with a few farming incentives, that is the only way. Going back to the land cannot be legally enforced anyway.

3. Intellectual peacockrization would no longer explore “racism” to mean the study of black and white relations only. The notion of “positive racism” for example is when nearly every Zambian regards a white person as being “rich”, “clever”, “competent at whatever job”, “intelligent”. The consequences of this that Zambians prevent “normal” or “average” whites from being themselves or just like any other human being. The current Zambian collective consciousness is that any white person is “intelligent”, rich, wise, privileged, and generally better than themselves. So the white person has to be treated as such. 4. As unemployment is high in Zambia and the country cannot earn enough foreign exchange to expand the economy, Zambians with determination and skill should be encouraged to migrate to other countries as an active government policy. When they are in the other country, these Zambians could start businesses importing Zambian mangoes, opening restaurants for Zambian foods, the Zambian communities in the foreign countries could also provide a legitimate market for Zambian mealie meal and other products. Europeans, Indians, Koreans, Japanese etc. have their nationals abroad. It is now Zambia’s turn. The current Zambian collective consciousness is that Zambians have to find employment in the country. Migration leads to social problems, degradation, and is unZambian. The only Zambians who can migrate are highly skilled individuals. Even then, they are robbing their country of the hard earned skills. Brain drain to the Western society is the most cited example. But Zambians need not migrate necessarily only to the Western society.


The concept of “collective consciousness” is commonly used my most sociological theorists. The concept of collective consciousness is abstract and can never be subjected to empirical verification. It has been passed along in a dogmatic way in the history of the discipline of sociology. This transmission has had some value. It is suggested, however, that this is no longer productive for the Zambian sociologist.

The Zambian sociologist should not only be critical of the concept of collective consciousness, but she should be able to formulate new theories to better explain some of the unique social experiences in society. These new theories could also help in identifying fresh methods of approaching and solving persistent and stubborn social problems.


1William Morris, (ed.) The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1976)


3German word meaning “world view” or “world outlook”.

4The institutions had various functions. The family involved a contract between man and woman, procreation and caring for the offsrping, mutual support, educate the children in terms of the right use of power of reason. The money institution emerged when individuals accumulated property than they could use. Money was created as a medium of exchange. 5Irvin M. Zeitlin, Ideology and the Development of Sociological Theory, (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., Prentice-Hall, 1968.) p.5

6Ibid., p.13

7Ibid., p.15

8Rousseau discusses the “state of nature” and the origin of society. To understand man in complex and civilized society, the natural man must be studied; man who is devoid of social existence. e.g studying primitive people, savages. He says this was going to be an objective, non-ideological yardstick for evaluating society. He attributes the origin of society to bad natural conditions which forced man to begin living in groups. He discusses the notion of social contract. Durkheim uses the same method in explaining the origin of religion. Durkheim, Emile. Montesquien and Rousseau: Forerunners of Sociology, Translated by Ralph Manheim, (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1960).

9Nicholas Sergeyevitch Timasheff, Sociological Theory; its nature and growth, (New York: Random House, 1967). p.23


11Economic determinism being the notion that economic factors determine the nature of man’s existence in society and the phenomenon of social change can be explained in similar terms.12Nicholas Sergeyevitch Timasheff, Sociological Theory; its nature and growth, (New York: Random House, 1967). p.47

13Ibid., p.46

14Ibid., p.47

15Ibid., p.47

16Irvin M. Zeitlin, Ideology and the Development of Sociological Theory, (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., Prentice-Hall, 1968.) p.107

17Karl Marx and Frederick Engels,The German Ideology: Part One, Edited by C.J. Arthur, (New York: International Publishers, 1970). p.53

18Irvin M. Zeitlin, Ideology and the Development of Sociological Theory, (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., Prentice-Hall, 1968.) p.111

19Irvin M. Zeitlin, Ideology and the Development of Sociological Theory, (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., Prentice-Hall, 1968.) Nicholas Sergeyevitch Timasheff, Sociological Theory; its nature and growth, (New York: Random House, 1967). Ch. 14

20Ibid., p.163

21Ibid., p.172

22Ibid., p.106

23Ibid., p.107

24He uses collective consciousness in two contexts; the first one refers to the group awareness or sharing of ideas, etc. While the second one has moral connotations.

25Nicholas Sergeyevitch Timasheff, Sociological Theory; its nature and growth, (New York: Random House, 1967). p.113

26Committing a compositional fallacy is false or illogical reasoning based on the belief that one can know about an individual and discrete social facts by looking at the whole. An ecological fallacy is the false or illogical reasoning that one can know about the whole by examining its parts. In both instances social scientists or theorists can make sweeping and largely unsubstantiated generalizations.

27Durkheim, Emile. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Translated from French by Joseph Ward Swain, (London: G. Allen and UnWin, 1957). p.49028George Caspar Homans. The Nature of Social Science, (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1967) p.13

29This statement does not apply universally to all intellectual at all times. But Zambian and African intellectuals, including the author, are more likely to start from this premise. This is because they grew up within the African traditional heritage where group values are emphasized. Individualism in the traditional society is discouraged if not right out punished. Western society tends to generally idolize individualism. In fact philosophers like David Hume belong to the philosophical school of thought that says humans initially were brutal and lived as individuals. Society was formed as a collective and necessary attempt to thwart the problems of individualism and aggression. i.e war, greed, selfishness, disorder. Don Martindale, The Nature and Types of Sociological Theory, (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1960) pp. 138-140. David Hume, Essays:Moral, political, and Literacy, Edited by T.H Green and T.H Grose (London: Longmans, Green, 1907) Vol. 1, pp. 109-110.

30Durkheim, Emile. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Translated from French by Joseph Ward Swain, (London: G. Allen and UnWin, 1957). p.147

31Karl Marx, Early Writings, Translated and Edited by T.B. Bottomore, (London: C.A. Watts, 1963) p.44

32Durkheim, Emile. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Translated from French by Joseph Ward Swain, (London: G. Allen and UnWin, 1957). p.493

33Roger W. Brown and Eric H. Lenneberg, “Studies in Linguistic Relativity,” in Readings in Social Psychology, Edited by Eleanor E. Maccoby, Theodore M. Newcomb, and Eugene L. Hartley, (New York: Holt, 1958) pp. 9-18

34An unpublished paper written in 1977.

35Productive in the sense of establishing, discovering, formulating, or identifying newer, better, and more convincing theories for explaining social phenomena that seem unique to the experiences of the country or African continent. Kofi Buernor Hadjor, On Transforming Africa: Discourse with Africa’s Leaders, (Trenton, New Jersey, Africa World Press, Inc.; and London: Third World Communications, 1987) Ch. 11, On the African Intellectual, pp 97-102.36William Morris, (ed.), The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1976).

37In some cases, the merging of the language used in the general society and academia has been useful. But when intellectuals attempt to write theoretical and academic papers employing these words without defining them in strictly academic and contextual terms, there is danger of over simplification and lack of clarity. For example, in a purely academic paper, intellectuals should redefine terms like “development”. Is development raising the I.Q of everybody? Is it building more hospitals, more roads, more schools? etc. Note that “development” these days can also mean holding the national population growth constant. This is just one example. But there many other concepts that are used in a cliché fashion. Do many Zambian intellectuals think twice when they use these concepts these days?

38″Mishanga boys” seem to be now an integral feature of Zambian economic and social reality. Whether they are considered “bad” or an anomaly, or “good” is yet another issue that perhaps requires a sociological study to prove. I suggest that people, especially the young, run away from the rural areas because the “exciting things” that are found in the urban areas cannot be found in the rural areas. These include discos or night life, newspapers, good hospital facilities, piped water, convenience and easy life of cash economy etc. more schools? etc. Note that “development” these days can also mean holding the national population growth constant. This is just one example. But there many other concepts that are used in a cliché fashion. Do many Zambian intellectuals think twice when they use these concepts these days? a sociological study to prove. I suggest that people, especially the young, run away from the rural areas because the “exciting things” that are found in the urban areas cannot be found in the rural areas. These include discos or night life, newspapers, good hospital facilities, piped water, convenience and easy life of cash economy etc.


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