Consciousness in classical sociological theories

Publication Title

Journal of Consciousness Studies

Document Type


Department or Program


Publication Date



The concept of ‘consciousness’ appears in the works of all major classical sociological figures. Curiously, to date, no systematic effort exists toward a comparative assessment of its use. We are accordingly unable to appreciate the importance of that concept for the foundations of sociological thought, or to understand fully how each theorist is positioned within that tradition. This article turns to five foundational theorists — Marx, Durkheim, Weber, Mead, and Du Bois — and puts forth four propositions. First, the entire theoretical edifice of each thinker is built on the assumption that human beings are conscious beings. Without it, their theoretical constructs could not exist. Sociology as a discipline is thus predicated on the belief in human consciousness. Yet, second, what humans are conscious ‘of’ varies significantly across theorists, as does the prominence of that consciousness in actors’ minds. Third, all theorists recognize the existence of some sort of ‘shared’ consciousnesses besides individual ones. At the same time, fourth, they hold different assessments of whether the intersections between individual and shared consciousnesses are places of harmony or conflict. The final section summarizes the key comparative findings and reflects on the broader takeaways for sociology and the study of consciousness itself.


Original version is available from the publisher here.