Collective Effervescence


Late in September, I was watching an Op/Ed piece by David Byrne on CBS Sunday Morning, about “the return of the social experience”.  As a Talking Heads fan, I would have watched it even if he was talking about the return of large- shouldered sportscoats, but as a man who’s made his career in creating experiences, my interest was undeniably piqued.

In his segment, Byrne shared an idea and term, coined by the renowned sociologist Emile Durkheim called “Collective Effervescence”.  The idea by itself, reflects one of the oldest hallmarks of human society – the part that has bound us together as a race and helped make our proliferation possible.  Durkheim defined “collective effervescence”; a term he discovered by observing the effects of Religious Experiences, like this:

Collective effervescence refers to moments in societal life when the group of individuals that make up a society, come together in order to perform a religious ritual.  During these moments, the group comes together and communicates in the same thought and participates in the same action, which serves to unify a group of individuals.  When individuals come into close contact with one another and when they are assembled in such a fashion, a certain “electricity” is created and released, leading participants to a high degree of collective emotional excitement or delirium.  This impersonal, extra-individual force, which is a core element of religion, transports the individuals into a new, ideal realm, lifts them up outside of themselves, and makes them feel as if they are in contact with an extraordinary energy. [1]

What I found interesting was that Durkheim had hit the mark on what we in the Experiential Industry try to capture every day.  Our job is to figure out how we can bring likeminded groups together to discover, to celebrate and to elevate based on a shared passion.  This shared experience is at the heart of what makes Experiential so powerful because when we get it right, our experiences can generate a collective energy far greater than any even the most passionate fan can by themselves.

I thought about what this meant, not only for us as Experiential Marketers, but also for us as a country and as humans.  Over the past 20 years, as a society we seem to have forgotten the real power of collective effervescence.  Instead, we have been moving to an ever more virtual existence.  Physical distance and digital contact are now the norm.  No longer do we need to travel long distances to visit friends and relatives or even across the street.  My own kids sit across the table from each other for dinner or lunch, and text rather than enjoy the warmth of a real conversation.

The challenge of disassociation seems to have reached its climax during the global pandemic of the last two years.  During that time, most of the social gathering places we once held as inviolable, were anything but.  Schools, churches, concert halls and even our most hallowed sporting stadiums, were greatly reduced or in most cases, completely closed to their flocks of ardent fans.

Even today as we emerge from the shutdown, many places rightfully require masks and those that don’t still encourage them.  Masks, while inarguably necessary to maintain public health, also serve to create a barrier. Emotions are conveyed most clearly through human facial expression.  Anyone who has ever had an email or text misunderstood, will vouch for the importance of non-verbal communication.  The reduction of face-to-face interactions has brought that challenge into the “real world”.

The collective impact of the privations of the last year cannot be underestimated.  In the absence of real connection, about 4 in 10 adults in the U.S. have reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder, up from one in ten adults who reported these symptoms prior to the pandemic. [2]  Political discord and the perception of deep divisions are also at an all-time high.  In the vacuum of real conversation, our ability to empathize has been reduced to the lowest point possibly since the Civil War. [3]

So, while we in the Experiential Industry can make no claim to open doors to a higher power, to improve mental health, or to bridge the current perception of philosophical discord, what we can do is to create experiences that elevate the collective consciousness.  To help replace a little of what we have lost these last twenty and two years.  With a little luck and a pinch of artistry, we can often create moments that help bridge the gaps between brands and customers, but more importantly, between all people no matter their color, origin, or political leaning.

As we come to the end of our second long strange year, let us not forget that when we put our minds together, we can create a new generation of safer gatherings that empower us to celebrate the value and passions that bring us together.  Above all, let us embrace the idea of Collective Effervescence by sharing experiences, in real life, that elevate us beyond what we can do alone.





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