The citizens of the United States continue to suffer from loneliness at epidemic rates (Anon 2019). As a matter of fact, health insurer Cigna reports in their 2018 U.S. loneliness index 46% of Americans to suffer from this matter (Anon 2019). In their reports, Generation Z is by far the loneliest. As one considers these stunning facts, we begin to consider which activities are inviting of group experiences. Such experiences may be able to slow down the crippling increase of loneliness in the United States.
At first thought, one can think of coffee shops, churches, and so forth, but a place where Generation Z can be found part-taking is in nightlife. Night venues are inviting of a good time with friends or a place to make new friends. Several of these benefits of sharing a space and a celebration with other people are described in the concept of collective effervescence; a term originally coined by French sociologist Émile Durkheim. From a religious perspective, Durkheim explains how humans began to gather and find group experiences such as our modern-day night clubs. In this project, I go to night clubs in the city center of New Orleans to study whether collective effervescence and its benefits are present in the city’s nightlife scene. Done so, in hopes of explaining whether nightlife could be a fair proposal to increased shared experiences among locals to possibly being to work against this loneliness quasi-epidemic.
What has the literature said so far?
When one is to consider the literature research around collective effervescence, the post-modern example of it can be found in places with large crowds. This sets the example that effervescence can be found in venues such as large sports stadiums, supersized music festivals, and so forth. To introduce the concept of collective effervescence per se we turn to Émile Durkheim’s text concretely, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, where he first introduces us to collective dynamics such as a collective consciousness and behavior. Collective effervescence is at work when a group of individuals come together to celebrate a ritual together (Durkheim 1995). Aside from grasping the phenomenological concept of collective effervescence, it is imperative to consider the many different factors necessary for there to be a collective effervescence. According to Durkheim, there has to be a clear distinction between the sacred and the profane (1995). He understands the profane as our routinely daily activities from our mundane lives where there is little excitement and the sacred as a divine-like space of gathering in rare occasions that is proponent of high energy levels due to group dynamics (Durkheim 1995). The key parameter that can determine the presence of a group effervescence is the presence of the totem. In Durkheim’s view, the totem can be directed on a person or physical object (1995), such as a slayed animal or a cult leader and undergoes much more scrutiny by Durkheim in order to consider something a totem. The object or person has to be representative of the clan, intrinsic of that very clan specifically, and be represented in its clan members with different symbols or markings (Durkheim 1995). And it’s presence is required — in a central manner — at the moment of the rare divine gathering. When these factors are combined in the determined space, clan members will be bound to experiencing a “sense of interconnection” (Durkheim 1995), through a spirit-like feeling of belonging. Such factors have contributed to modern examples of collective effervescence.
In modern scholarship, scholars describe examples of where collective effervescence is found; music festivals, large sports stadiums, and so forth. Such events show “a more inclusive realm, encouraging the intermingling of different age-groups and mixed night-time activities” (Chatterton and Hollands 2002) where effervescence is present. And there, consumption is an option. For Shilling and Mellor, when “modern people are deprived of regular effervescent assemblies they may seek out other intoxicating means of provoking the transformation occasioned by group events” (2011). Topics such as alcohol, drugs, and repetitive behaviors are well covered in the literature and how they best explain their role. For example, in Hobbs and Hadfield’s research, “alcohol is the vital lubricant that aids the propulsion of young people into this carnivalesque  world” (2011:36). To them:
“alcohol is the commodity that draws people into our city centres after dark, and in addition, sustains an accepted means of altering the mundane, pressurized, regimented, and unattractive world of daylight comportment, realigning meaning and understanding to fit a more seductive and alluring world of hedonism and carnival.” (Hobbs and Hadfield 2011:36)
This is how alcohol is much more than present at these sites where collective effervescence is present. It is partly responsible for people’s attraction towards nighttime spaces and seems to begging to create a gap between the sacred and the profane as mentioned by Hobbs and Hadfield. Following the narrative of alcohol in a sacred space, it is relevant to mention the linguistic choice of naming some stronger alcoholic beverages as spirits. Whether that may or may not be connected to a higher intoxication in nighttime is up for debate but the fact that the term exists is worth the consideration. Additionally, Tutenges describes that young people are looking for nightlife spaces full of excesses because they are looking “to reach states of effervescence” (2011:245). So, in a way alcohol is related to effervescence. Furthermore, alcohol is a method of stirring up effervescence. And the combination with other techniques such as crowd effects also allow for bringing people towards states of effervescence (Tutenges 2011).
This is not just the case with alcohol but other methods of intoxication such as drugs. Bøhling describes that performing drinking and drug consuming activities promote the repetition of these actions from others in the club (2014). This is what one would hope to find if collective effervescence was perceived to be at work at that site. This repetition of behavior between strangers — a group dynamic without being acquainted — happens not only in intoxication. Liebst explains there being “bodily processes of rhythmic entertainment by which participants become synchronized with each other’s motions and emotions” (2019:28). Durkheim himself states the individual in this space “is followed by all his companions, who reproduce his gestures” (2008:356). So, this review should serve as theoretical background for nightlife spaces, its dynamics, with the theory of collective effervescence in consideration.
In this study, I followed Spradley’s method of ethnographic research. Since I sought to observe people’s behavior as it occurred for evidence of collective effervescence, I needed to engage in field research. I decided to observe two clubs in New Orleans, as it is a city that is known to have a thriving nightlife. For this study, I chose two clubs in New Orleans as my field sites and visited them six times each for a total of twelve individual sessions. These clubs were considerably different from each other and were chosen based on popularity. I determined popularity by the number of total reviews on google, by social media likes on Instagram, and checking which clubs get most visits from celebrities. I hoped to attend clubs that were popular with hopes of larger popular venues allowing for more varied experiences. I did internet searches, relied on word of mouth, and checking where famous artists perform, I chose the two clubs. Club 1 is located on Bourbon Street, a very popular location for tourists and locals, known for its celebratory nature and Mardi Gras specifically. Club 1 offers different forms of entertainment: a band, two large bars, stools, tables, an outdoor patio, a dance floor upstairs, and even a balcony. This club seemed more upscale than the other bars on Bourbon Street and had a predominantly white clientele. Club 2 is located in the Warehouse District. This club is much larger in space and its business model is geared around concerts. Their clientele varies depending upon the artist of the night but is still predominantly white.
I entered each site as a normal participant just like other customers, paying the entry fee and moving about the site. The only difference was that I did not consume any alcohol or drugs. On two occasions, I brought a friend with me who knew about my research but otherwise I did notify anyone I was a researcher. Notifying other clients of the clubs of my role as a researcher would have altered their behavior knowing they were being watched and would, in turn, have skewed my data collected. I underwent the appropriate ethical training through CITI courses and this project received IRB approval. I took jottings on my phone while at the sites and then turned these into detailed field notes after each field session.
The Spradley method encourages the researcher to first familiarize themselves with the sites with minimal preconceived notions. After doing so, I began analyzing my initial sets of fieldnotes for patterns related to collective effervescence. I took Durkheim’s writings on the topic and created a list of criteria that make up collective effervescence:
1. A clear distinction between the sacred and the profane
2. Gatherings on rare occasions at a defined space
3. Apparent high energy levels
4. A totem representative of the clan and present at the site
5. A sense of interconnection between clan members
If we consider these criteria in a visual representation in nightlife it would look like Figure 1 below;
With the help of Durkheim’s literature and the support of contemporary scholarship, I put together this diagram as a way of creating a visual definition showing the key parameters for a space to be considered collectively effervescent. The purpose of Figure 1 is to facilitate visually recognizing to what degree effervescence may be functioning. The black discontinuous line shows a determined space, whether open or closed, but defined for the space to be considered sacred. The dark figures inside the lines are members of the clan. The same dark figure outside the lines remains in the profane realm and is not a member of the clan because she does not carry a symbol or marking representative of the clan. That body marking per se is the light blue rhomboid that is on the totem and all clan members have. The totem itself is the centerpiece at this sacred gathering and should be intrinsic of the site. The continuous red line represents the feeling of belonging to the group and the thick green lines showcase the high energy levels one would expect to be at the sites from an encompassing combination of energy from this sense of group membership, music, rhythm, intoxication, and so forth.
Collective effervescence was not readily apparent, so I began to take field notes on how the sites prevented or inhibited collective effervescence. For instance, I paid careful attention to how people formed small groups and if/how these groups interacted with each other.
What do we find?
After conducting this study, it was apparent that collective effervescence was found at neither of the clubs. Collective effervescence involves people sharing group experiences together in defined spaces for a common purpose and I did not see clubgoers engaging in ways that resemble ones of collective effervescence.
For there to be high energy levels simply turning on really loud music does not create an affective arousal of collective assembly (Pickering 1984). The loud music can be heard from outside the venue and one may assume there to be a high energy. Yet, once inside the club the experience of the indoor noises — melody, singing, bass, yells, chatting, and so forth — was “uninviting of dancing” or repetitive rhythmic behavior such as jumping, head bumping, and other forms of active energy expended outwardly. There was no such thing as a communal elevated energy. Not from the entire clientele nor from smaller friend groups. Not only did the clubgoers not do similar moves and didn’t show their excitement in repetitive group manners at certain times, but I couldn’t find such actions at any point. Even from within small friend group, while they “seemed to be with a group of people but wouldn’t interact with them much while I observed him” (field notes).
A subsequent factor to high energy levels is the sense of interconnection and the reality that it was nowhere to be found. Attendees gathered in their own different groups, couples or even alone. I observed a few interactions of these forms of gathering between each other. The friends did not behave communally by dancing together or other ways of repeating similar motions by many bodies. The same disconnect of group behavior by its members was seen in their intoxicating practices; some drank alcohol, several didn’t, some seemed to be on ‘uppers’ — colloquial term for psychostimulant drugs such as cocaine, amphetamines, and so forth — while others acted very mellow. There was a lack of self-imitation within the group which clearly was failing to meet the category of sense of interconnection previously described.
First, one of the factors necessary for there to be effervescence is the rare nature of sacred gatherings. Club 1 is open every day of the week and offers the same forms of entertainment regardless of the night. Club 2, which is only opened for scheduled concerts or events is still functioning at least once or twice per week. Therefore, these sites offer more opportunities for gathering.
A few factors at the sites inhibited collective effervescence. Importantly, there was an absence of a central totem. If we consider how a totem might look like in a nightclub, such as pictured in Figure 1, I never found such a totem at my sites. I believe this is because at my sites there was more than one potential totem around which people gathered, notably: alcohol, drugs, and music. The sites were designed to attract people to the bar where they could spend money, as well as to the stage where music was being played. Clubgoers did not gather around alcohol but did consume it and held it individually. On the other hand, some clubgoers did gather around the music, such as standing on the dance floor, closest to the performers. Those were the three reasons for attending these clubs. Celebrate with different ways of intoxication — legal and illegal ones — or if one is a fan of the band or genre of music being played. Alcohol, for instance, is found at most nightlife venues, not only at club 1 and club 2. These three quasi-totems still have the importance of being main themes within these clubs because people grouped around them. Below I describe some observations from club 2 from my field notes:
“People certainly had been consuming hard drugs, hallucinogenics, and so forth. Some shivered without knowing, one really small kid had a long face that looked really worn out and old, while it was clear that he couldn’t be older than 21 or 22 years of age. Several others had these worn out faces and empty looks.” (field notes)
Here, a relationship is clear between the importance of drugs as key in nightlife, while showing how disassociated group dynamics were within the clubs.
Money as Alienation
Money was the common denominator for every factor of this experience of attending night events at clubs 1 and 2. Money was necessary for access into this venue, and without such monetary contributions, the gathering wouldn’t exist. Money clearly substitutes the previously stated importance of membership of the clan, and money has now taken over as the “membership symbol” (Liebst 2019:28). Money is the dependent variable because it is the one thing holding the gathering together. Yet, concurrently is not a totem due to it not being exclusive to the clan, or site, or members of said clan.
Money is alienating due to its impersonal nature. During an instance in the field, the exchange between ordering a drink and paying for it operated almost without any words. The few words being the name of the drink I desired. The bartender had shown me three fingers to indicate the price. After giving him the money, there ended the interaction. Such an example shows that money allows for detaching oneself from the equation when talking. Such alienating examples can take place when it comes to money. Money, therefore, did not result to be effervescent and was in a way limiting of effervescence to be able to grow.
What does all of this mean?
It seems then apparent that both the reason for gathering at these clubs of the consumer and the one of the service provider is not to achieve collective effervescence as other scholars reported in their studies and respective field sites. The consumer is at these sites for their consumption of desired entertainment and the provider to keep their business going. Money alienated clubs when, “in order to remain financially viable, [they] were forced to obtain alcohol licenses and to become more adult-oriented” (Hobbs and Hadfield 2011:64). Money has no name or is representative of no group in particular. The resource of money was gained outside of the gathering and its possible members, therefore, no shared experience holds its members together in a sense of belonging.
Furthermore, the example of having to settle for diffused quasi-totems can be symbolic of the passing of time concurrently to the long time passed since the conception of this notion of collective effervescence. Being maybe pre-prompting of a case for obsoleteness of collective effervescence overall. It is conclusive that collective effervescence is not found at my sites and its benefits may be outsourced elsewhere. Nevertheless, since loneliness rates only seem to increase in the United States, maybe the benefits of collective effervescence are not being found elsewhere after all. Scholars believe options for experiencing collective effervescence in our current age have lowered in number and in intensity of such experience. Whether that is more or less responsible of loneliness is beyond the reach of these findings. But it is sure that we are in shortage of more shared experiences that may allow for enjoying benefits from collective effervescence whether to the point of achieving the effervescence at such or not. If I may suggest a proposal for future research, I’d suggest to research shared experience opportunities where money is not prevalent, such as the Boy Scouts, and try to understand how much positive can come out of these group experiences. Maybe we can find whether communal experiences could be the beginning of a solution to lower loneliness in this nation.
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