#23 Gramsci & shaping a 'Common sense' in flux

‘Common sense’ … the traditional popular conception of the world – what is unimaginatively called ‘instinct’, it is in fact a primitive and elementary historical acquisition. (Gramsci, ‘Selection from Prison Notebooks’ p. 199, 1971)

Common sense appears when we tend to experience the particular ‘realities’ of our cultural world as fixed and unalterable. This Bank Holiday weekend, as I watched my neighbours break all the social distancing rules, I’ve been thinking about common sense and how it’s shaped.

Common sense is not rigid, it’s continually transforming itself, and it represents the popular knowledge at a given place and time. A few weeks ago, when the UK had over 1000 daily deaths from coronavirus, social distancing measures were in full force and the clap for carers seemed genuine. Our common sense established ‘group gatherings = bad’. Now our death toll is the highest in Europe, but daily deaths have decreased, the weather is getting warmer, other countries are lifting lockdown and everyone is a little bit bored, so social gatherings like the one below took place all across the country.

A street party in a suburb of Portsmouth to commemorate the 75th anniversary of VE Day.


It came to show how much of our common sense depends on our context and as Gramsci said, on historical acquisition. Cultural transformation is a complex historical process because it impacts a shared way of being and living, which has come into existence as a result of the interaction of different forces. It also brings its own ‘historical effectiveness’

Every philosophical current leaves behind it a sediment of ‘common sense’, this is, the document of its historical effectiveness(Gramsci, ‘Selection from Prison Notebooks’ p.362, 1971).

Thinking of common sense in this way allows us to interrogate what we consider effective from our current way of living. Even though the government has yet to introduce any formal changes to the public advice, the people from Cosham have been celebrating VE day communally for the past 74 years and decided to follow up with the tradition, while so many others were appalled by the image. It’s evident that Gramsci was right to say that common sense is a crucial site of ideological conflict. It is the terrain of the ‘taken-for-granted’, a consciousness that guides the actions of the everyday world, and it is also always in flux.

More broadly, that space of the ‘taken from granted’ presents a huge opportunity. As culture is constantly re-won and re-negotiated, it opens up the possibility of a challenge through stories. Advertising is a cultural text that creates symbolic meaning in two directions, outward in constructing the social world (social symbolism) and inwards towards constructing our self-identity (self symbolism). That is the domain in which we can make an impact. I particularly like this from anthropologists Douglas & Isherwood (full book available here if you’re interested)

“Consumption decisions become the vital source of the culture of the moment. People who are reared in a particular culture see it change in their lifetime: new words, new ideas, new ways. It evolves and they play a part in the change. Consumption is the very arena in which culture is fought over and licked into shape.” (Douglas and Isherwood, ‘The World of Goods. Towards an Anthropology of Consumption’, p.37, 1996)

We can take what is naturalised as an inevitable fact, and shape the stories and meanings around it so it’s questioned and resignified, ready for a historical acquisition of a different kind. It’s our role as planners to understand the ‘culture of the moment’ to challenge the common sense and offer new ideas grounded in the social context in a responsible manner. Consumption is the very arena in which culture is fought over and licked into shape. The brands that are able to do so are able to derive more from their role in cultural practices than from the satisfaction of simple human needs.