Social consciousness, or social awareness, is defined as consciousness shared by individuals within a society. It essentially means to be conscious or aware of the problems within a society or community.
According to German philosopher Karl Marx (1818-1883) human beings enter into certain productive, or economic, relations and these relations lead to a certain form of social consciousness. Examples include the relationship between lord and serf and the contract between employer and employee. This concept of economic determinism is central to the Marxist ideology, while capitalism is seen to have created a society of oppression and crime so the economic system must be changed in order to achieve a truly moral social consciousness. The new economic system proposed by Marx was socialism.
In an article Social Consciousness (1907), by American sociologist Charles Horton Cooley (1864-1929) published in the American Journal of Sociology, social consciousness is described as inseparable from individual consciousness. According to Cooley "mind is an organic whole made up of co-operating individualities" that can be compared to the music of an orchestra that consists of different but related sounds. Just as music is an inseparable entity the mind is seen as an organic whole where there is no need to differentiate between social mind and individual mind. This view is consistent with the general argument that nothing is isolated in nature.
By the beginning of the 20th century, the traditional view about consciousness had been that self-consciousness was primary and social consciousness was secondary. This view was supported by French philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650) with his famous quote: "I think, therefore I am" (Cogito ergo sum). Meanwhile, Cooley argues that social consciousness, or awareness of society and self-consciousness, or awareness of oneself, are inseparable as it is almost impossible to think of ourselves without referring to some kind of social group or think of the group without reference to ourselves. One argument to support this thesis is that children develop the "I" consciousness only at the age of two and when this happens, this self-awareness is inseparable from the consciousness of other persons.
According to Cooley, there is one body of personal thought where self-consciousness is just one aspect and social consciousness is another. The general idea is that self and society go together and that they are simply phases of a common whole. Social awareness is seen as something just as immediate and authentic as the awareness of oneself. Cooley further believes that social consciousness can be found either in a particular mind or as a co-operative activity of many minds. The social ideas of one individual are closely connected with those of other people and they form a whole, called public opinion, or "a group state of mind of which the group is more or less distinctly aware." Cooley also speaks of social will, which is different from public opinion as it implies a more continuous and efficient organization that guides to social development.
According to Scottish social philosophers David Hume (1711-1776) and Adam Smith (1723-1790) social consciousness is based on sympathy, which is seen as the communication of sentiments to others through a social-psychological connection. Language as a symbolic form of social action can affect this connection. Moreover, sentiments passed through it can be characterized by both positive and negative attitude. The communication of sentiments of judgment involved in social consciousness is a key characteristic of the social mind. People use collective judgments as a source for creating social rules, roles, structures and hierarchies.
According to Douglas Mann in Structural Idealism: A Theory of Social and Historical Explanation (2002), social consciousness can be represented through an organic model of interconnected layers rather than a logical set of thoughts, ideas and views. The individual sympathetic social mind exists in the social world by interacting with others, mostly by using symbolic forms of social action like languages. Social life is to some extent created by people who share values through mutually comprehensible symbols. Communication leads to the creation of various social rules, some of which aggregate to form social roles defining an individual's place in society. Certain social roles generate relationships between one type of role and another allowing an individual in one social role to formulate the social rules for persons in other social roles. This uneven distribution of influence demonstrates how some people have power over others. In this way hierarchies are constructed and they cycle back to modify individual consciousness.