What is Ideology?
An ideology is a set of conscious and unconscious ideas that constitute one’s goals, expectations, and actions. An ideology is a comprehensive vision, a way of looking at things (compare worldview) as in several philosophical tendencies (see political ideologies below), or a set of ideas proposed by the dominant class of a society to all members of this society (a “received consciousness” or product of socialization).
Ideologies are systems of abstract thought applied to public matters and thus make this concept central to politics. Implicitly every political or economic tendency entails an ideology whether or not it is propounded as an explicit system of thought.
The term “ideology” was born in the highly controversial philosophical and political debates and fights of the French Revolution and acquired several other meanings from the early days of the First French Empire to the present. The word was coined by Destutt de Tracy in 1796, assembling the parts idea (near to the Lockean sense) and -logy. He used it to refer to one aspect of his “science of ideas” (to the study itself, not the subject of the study). He separated three aspects, namely: ideology, general grammar, and logic, considering respectively the subject, the means, and the reason of this science. He argues that among these aspects ideology is the most generic term, because the science of ideas also contains the study of their expression and deduction.
According to Karl Mannheim’s historical reconstruction of the shifts in the meaning of ideology, the modern meaning of the word was born when Napoleon Bonaparte (as a politician) used it in an abusive way against “the ideologues” (a group which included Cabanis, Condorcet, Constant, Daunou, Say, Madame de Staël, and Tracy), to express the pettiness of his (liberal republican) political opponents.
Perhaps the most accessible source for the near-original meaning of ideology is Hippolyte Taine’s work on the Ancien Regime (the first volume of “Origins of Contemporary France”). He describes ideology as rather like teaching philosophy by the Socratic method, but without extending the vocabulary beyond what the general reader already possessed, and without the examples from observation that practical science would require. Taine identifies it not just with Destutt De Tracy, but also with his milieu, and includes Condillac as one of its precursors. (Tracy read the works of Locke and Condillac while he was imprisoned during the Reign of Terror.)
The word “ideology” was coined long before the Russians coined “intelligentsia”, or before the adjective “intellectual” referred to a sort of person (see substantive), i.e. an intellectual. Thus these words were not around when Napoleon Bonaparte took the word “ideologues” to ridicule his intellectual opponents. Gradually, however, the term “ideology” has dropped some of its pejorative sting, and has become a neutral term in the analysis of differing political opinions and views of social groups. While Karl Marx situated the term within class struggle and domination, others believed it was a necessary part of institutional functioning and social integration.
Meta-ideology is the study of the structure, form, and manifestation of ideologies. Meta-ideology posits that ideology is a coherent system of ideas, relying upon a few basic assumptions about reality that may or may not have any factual basis, but are subjective choices that serve as the seed around which further thought grows. According to this perspective, ideologies are neither right nor wrong, but only a relativistic intellectual strategy for categorizing the world. The pluses and minuses of ideology range from the vigor and fervor of true believers to ideological infallibility. Excessive need for certitude lurks at fundamentalist levels in politics and religions.
The works of George Walford and Harold Walsby, done under the heading of systematic ideology, are attempts to explore the relationships between ideology and social systems. Charles Blattberg has offered an account which distinguishes political ideologies from political philosophies.
David W. Minar describes six different ways in which the word “ideology” has been used:
- As a collection of certain ideas with certain kinds of content, usually normative;
- As the form or internal logical structure that ideas have within a set;
- By the role in which ideas play in human-social interaction;
- By the role that ideas play in the structure of an organization;
- As meaning, whose purpose is persuasion; and
- As the locus of social interaction, possibly.
For Willard A. Mullins, an ideology is composed of four basic characteristics:
- it must have power over cognition
- it must be capable of guiding one’s evaluations;
- it must provide guidance towards action;
- and, as stated above, it must be logically coherent.
Mullins emphasizes that an ideology should be contrasted with the related (but different) issues of utopia and historical myth.
The German philosopher Christian Duncker called for a “critical reflection of the ideology concept” (2006). In his work, he strove to bring the concept of ideology into the foreground, as well as the closely connected concerns of epistemology and history. In this work, the term ideology is defined in terms of a system of presentations that explicitly or implicitly claim to absolute truth.
Though the word “ideology” is most often found in political discourse, there are many different kinds of ideology: political, social, epistemological, ethical, etc.
In the Marxist economic base and superstructure model of society, base denotes the relations of production and modes of production, and superstructure denotes the dominant ideology (religious, legal, political systems). The economic base of production determines the political superstructure of a society. Ruling class-interests determine the superstructure and the nature of the justifying ideology—actions feasible because the ruling class control the means of production. For example, in a feudal mode of production, religious ideology is the most prominent aspect of the superstructure, while in capitalist formations, ideologies such as liberalism and social democracy dominate. Hence the great importance of the ideology justifying a society; it politically confuses the alienated groups of society via false consciousness, such as in the case of commodity fetishism—the belief that value is inherent to a commodity, rather than external, added to it via labor.
The ruling class affect their social reproduction by the dominant ideology’s representing—to every social-economic class—that the economic interests of the ruling class are the economic interests of the entire society. Some explanations have been presented. György Lukács proposes ideology as a projection of the class consciousness of the ruling class. Antonio Gramsci uses cultural hegemony to explain why the working-class have a false ideological conception of what are their best interests. Marx observed, “The class which has the means of material production at its disposal has control at the same time over the means of mental production.”
Chronologically, the dominant ideologies in Capitalism are:
- classical liberalism
- modern liberalism
- social democracy
corresponding to these three capitalist stages of development:
- extensive stage
- intensive stage
- contemporary capitalism (late capitalism)
The Marxist formulation of “ideology as an instrument of social reproduction” is conceptually important to the sociology of knowledge, viz. Karl Mannheim, Daniel Bell, and Jürgen Habermas et al. Moreover, Mannheim has developed, and progressed, from the “total” but “special” Marxist conception of ideology to a “general” and “total” ideological conception acknowledging that all ideology (including Marxism) resulted from social life, an idea developed by the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. Slavoj Žižek added to the “general theory” of ideology a psychoanalytic insight that ideologies do not include only conscious, but also unconscious ideas.
Louis Althusser’s Ideological State Apparatuses
Louis Althusser proposed a materialistic conception of ideology, which made use of a special type of discourse: the lacunar discourse. A number of propositions, which are never untrue, suggest a number of other propositions, which are. In this way, the essence of the lacunar discourse is what is not told (but is suggested).
Karl Marx posits that a society’s dominant ideology is integral to its superstructure
For example, the statement “All are equal before the law”, which is a theoretical groundwork of current legal systems, suggests that all people may be of equal worth or have equal “opportunities”. This is not true, for the concept of private property and power over the means of production results in some people being able to own more (much more) than others. This power disparity contradicts the claim that all share both practical worth and future opportunity equally; for example, the rich can afford better legal representation, which practically privileges them before the law.
Althusser also proffered the concept of the Ideological State Apparatus to explain his theory of ideology. His first thesis was “ideology has no history”: while individual ideologies have histories, interleaved with the general class struggle of society, the general form of ideology is external to history.
For Althusser, beliefs and ideas are the products of social practices, not the reverse. His thesis that “ideas are material” is illustrated by the “scandalous advice” of Pascal toward unbelievers: “kneel and pray, and then you will believe”. What is ultimately ideological for Althusser are not the subjective beliefs held in the conscious “minds” of human individuals, but rather discourses that produce these beliefs, the material institutions and rituals that individuals take part in without submitting it to conscious examination and critical thinking.
Many political parties base their political action and program on an ideology. In social studies, a political ideology is a certain ethical set of ideals, principles, doctrines, myths, or symbols of a social movement, institution, class, or large group that explains how society should work, and offers some political and cultural blueprint for a certain social order. A political ideology largely concerns itself with how to allocate power and to what ends it should be used. Some parties follow a certain ideology very closely, while others may take broad inspiration from a group of related ideologies without specifically embracing any one of them.
Political ideologies have two dimensions:
- Goals: how society should work
- Methods: the most appropriate ways to achieve the ideal arrangement
An ideology is a collection of ideas. Typically, each ideology contains certain ideas on what it considers to be the best form of government (e.g. democracy, theocracy, caliphate etc.), and the best economic system (e.g. capitalism, socialism, etc.). Sometimes the same word is used to identify both an ideology and one of its main ideas. For instance, “socialism” may refer to an economic system, or it may refer to an ideology which supports that economic system.
Ideologies also identify themselves by their position on the political spectrum (such as the left, the center or the right), though this is very often controversial. Finally, ideologies can be distinguished from political strategies (e.g. populism) and from single issues that a party may be built around (e.g. legalization of marijuana). Philosopher Michael Oakeshott provides a good definition of ideology as “the formalized abridgment of the supposed sub-stratum of the rational truth contained in the tradition”.
Studies of the concept of ideology itself (rather than specific ideologies) have been carried out under the name of systematic ideology.
Political ideologies are concerned with many different aspects of a society, some of which are: the economy, education, health care, labor law, criminal law, the justice system, the provision of social security and social welfare, trade, the environment, minors, immigration, race, use of the military, patriotism, and established religion.
There are many proposed methods for the classification of political ideologies. See the political spectrum article for a more in-depth discussion of these different methods (each of whom generates a specific political spectrum).
Today, many commentators claim that we are living in a post-ideological age, in which redemptive, all-encompassing ideologies have failed, and this is often associated with Francis Fukuyama’s writings on “the end of history”.
When a political ideology becomes a dominantly pervasive component within a government, it can be considered an ideocracy. Different forms of government utilize ideology in various ways, not always restricted to politics and society. Certain ideas and schools of thought become favored, or rejected, over others, depending on their compatibility with or use for the reigning social order. Galileo’s discoveries of the nature of the universe were suppressed due to their threat to the Church and the monarchy.
Even when the challenging of existing beliefs is encouraged, as in scientific theories, the dominant paradigm or mindset can prevent certain challenges, theories, or experiments from being advanced.
A special case of science adopted as ideology is that of ecology, which studies the relationships among living things on Earth. Perceptual psychologist James J. Gibson believed that human perception of ecological relationships was the basis of self-awareness and cognition itself. Linguist George Lakoff has proposed a cognitive science of mathematics wherein even the most fundamental ideas of arithmetic would be seen as consequences or products of human perception—which is itself necessarily evolved within an ecology.
Deep ecology and the modern ecology movement (and, to a lesser degree, Green parties) appear to have adopted ecological sciences as a positive ideology.
Some accuse ecological economics of likewise turning scientific theory into political economy, although theses in that science can often be tested. The modern practice of green economics fuses both approaches and seems to be part science, part ideology.
This is far from the only theory of economics to be raised to ideology status—some notable economically based ideologies include neo-liberalism, monetarism, mercantilism, mixed economy, social Darwinism, communism, laissez-faire economics, and free trade. There are also current theories of safe trade and fair trade which can be seen as ideologies.
Psychological research increasingly suggests that ideologies reflect (unconscious) motivational processes, as opposed to the view that political convictions always reflect independent and unbiased thinking. Research in 2008 proposed that ideologies may function as prepackaged units of interpretation that spread because of basic human motives to understand the world, avoid existential threat, and maintain valued interpersonal relationships. The authors conclude that such motives may lead disproportionately to the adoption of system-justifying worldviews. Psychologists have generally found that personality traits, individual difference variables, needs, and ideological beliefs seem to have a common thread.
Ideology and semiotic theory
According to the semiotician Bob Hodge, ideology “identifies a unitary object that incorporates complex sets of meanings with the social agents and processes that produced them. No other term captures this object as well as ‘ideology’. Foucault’s ‘episteme’ is too narrow and abstract, not social enough. His ‘discourse’, popular because it covers some of ideology’s terrain with less baggage, is too confined to verbal systems. ‘Worldview’ is too metaphysical, ‘propaganda’ too loaded. Despite or because of its contradictions, ‘ideology’ still plays a key role in semiotics oriented to social, political life.” Authors such as Michael Freeden have also recently incorporated a semantic analysis to the study of ideologies.