Warning: Once you know this concept you will overthink group situations FOREVER!
I first learned of ‘Collective Effervescence’ in third year when I was telling another anthro major about my study habits. I told her how much trouble I had studying at home, but there was something about going to the Baillieu library. Being surrounded by other people working hard (or appearing to work hard) always gave me more motivation. She immediately replied, “Collective Effervescence!” Embarrassed that I didn’t know this term (or had forgotten it) I simply nodded and looked it up as soon as she left.
Collective Effervescence was first introduced by Emile Durkheim in his book ‘Elementary Forms of Religious life.’ He used the phrase to describe the inner experience that can occur during religious events. When a group with shared beliefs, such as a belief in God, come together and engage in ‘sacred’ rituals there is a build of energy and emotion. Praying, chanting and meditating are experienced quite differently when performed alone because in a group there’s a kind of ‘social heat’ in the air. Durkheim believes this ‘social heat’ sparks feelings of excitement within the individual and unifies the group. Religious rituals were thus seen as integral to maintaining solidarity within society.
One critique of Durkheim’s work is that he paints religion as a social enterprise, but is this always this case? E.g. Ascetic traditions in which connection to God is achieved through withdrawal and isolation. Another major critique of Durkheim’s work is his distinction between the sacred (E.g. important religious rituals) and the profane (E.g. Everyday tasks like cleaning and cooking). Collective effervescence was seen as limited to the ‘sacred.’ However, the line between the sacred and the profane isn’t always so clear cut…and who is say mundane tasks can’t also evoke collective effervescence?
There are a number of circumstances which can foster a sense of collective effervescence that aren’t ‘sacred’ or ‘religious’ – like my example of studying in the Baillieu library. Another popular example is an AFL grand finale (I’m sure many would argue it’s sacred). The experience of watching this match while in the crowd is obviously very different to that of watching it alone on T.V. In the crowd fans are united by their common devotion to the team and throughout the match will feel a shared sense of triumph or heartbreak.
Here are some other examples of activities in my life where I’ve felt or witnessed collective effervescence (whether these are sacred or profane is debatable):
- My friends gathered together to watch the Game of Thrones final episodes. I was intrigued by the fact they didn’t really speak or socialize before or after the episode. Their only interaction was the collective gasps to the events on the screen. At first I thought why don’t they just watch it at home where it’d be more convenient, but then I remembered – Collective effervescence.
- Going to a lecture vs. listening to it online. There’s something about seeing other people enthralled by the lecturer’s every word that makes me more invested. When I listen at home I’m always more likely to zone out.
- Music festivals – these feel like a kind of ‘modern’ religious gathering with a shared devotion to music. The colours, sounds, the ‘flow’ of energy certainly excite the individual (hence post festival depression).
Durkheim, E 1915, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life: A Study in Religious Sociology, Macmillan, Oxford.