Ideology is any set of socially structured ideas guiding behavior and thought in particular domains of life.

Ideology, in short...

Ideology is a widely used and abused term in science as well as in society-at-large. It is very often used negatively, as a characteristic of others but never of ourselves; it is also - similarly - often used as wrong, as a set of inauthentic beliefs and ideas that have been spread through propaganda and brainwashing, and preventing people from "thinking for themselves".

Let's abandon these folkloristic usages of ideology. In the study of culture and society, ideology simply stands for any set of socially structured ideas guiding behavior and thought in any domain of life. Let us clarify this now.

  • By "socially structured", we mean that such ideas are individually held but socially constructed, and that this social dimension reflects larger social structures. Concretely, gender (a big structure in society) will have an effect on how men and women perceive and enact their respective roles in social life; rich people may have very different views on consumption compared to poor people, for instance each time they need to decide whether something is "cheap" or "expensive"; employees may have a very different view on the salary they get, compared to the employers who pay these salaries - and so forth. Ideologies are socially embedded and reflect the social identities of those who articulate them. 
  • Of extreme importance is the fact that ideologies are not just ideas, but that they are also connected to behavior: most of what is ideological is in fact displayed by concrete behavior (rather than, e.g. by explicitly talking about it). Think of your own shopping behavior and how that reflects what was said earlier, about socially structured ideas.
  • Important is also to note that what is ideological in nature, is typically no longer experienced as ideological, but is "naturalized" or "normalized". We just think it's perfectly normal to hold particular views and act upon them, and we assume that those are just the things everyone believes and does. (Which is why we typically see others as holding ideologically inflected ideas - ours are just "normal"). In actual practice, ideology stands for how we think things are and should be. Here, the term hegemony is often used to express this normalization of ideologies.
  • The latter, of course, makes ideology  something which comes very close to norms: what is "normal" is normative. And since we have norms for almost everything we do in life, ideologies affect any domain of social life. We often use the term micro-hegemonies to describe the specific kinds of small norms for minute aspects of social life. Concepts such as frames and formats are similarly connected to ideologies.
  • A particularly good example of the latter are language ideologies: socially configured ideas we have of how language and communication work, directing our usage of language and communicative behavior. Think, for instance, of "politeness" in those terms, or of "formal" versus "informal" modes of communication. But think also about how many of us distinguish a "standard" variety of language as superior to "substandard" ones such as dialects or particular accents.

If we use this definition, we can see that all forms of sociocultural conduct are ideologically inflected, and that major differences in the production and understanding of such behavior are ideological rather than individual. Whenever we "think for ourselves", we tend to draw on ideas that are grounded in social realities - on ideologies, in short.

For those interested in a more developed account of ideology as a concept in the sciences, the following 10-minute read can be useful.

Ideology, more at length: Specific, general, and both

(from Jan Blommaert, "Discourse: A Critical Introduction", Cambridge University Press 2005)

To start with the simplest and most basic difference in definition and approach: there are on the one hand authors who define ideology as a specific set of symbolic representations – discourses, terms, arguments, images, stereotypes – serving a specific purpose and operated by specific groups or actors, recognisable precisely by their usage of such ideologies. On the other hand, there are authors who would define ideology as a general phenomenon characterising the totality of a particular social or political system, and operated by every member or actor in that system (see Eagleton 1991; Thompson 1984 for surveys).

Under the first category we can find the well-known ‘-isms’: socialism, liberalism, fascism, communism, libertarianism, anarchism and so forth. The category also includes more specific ones referring to the specific ‘ideology’ attributed to an individual or a ‘school’, such as Marxism, Leninism, Maoism, Stalinism, Rooseveltism, Gaullism, Mobutism and so forth. And the suffix ‘-ism’ can sometimes be replaced by nouns such as ‘school’ or ‘doctrine’, as e.g. in ‘Monroe Doctrine’, the ‘Truman Doctrine’, the ‘Chicago School’, and so on. They also include particular positions within a political system, ‘fractions’ so to speak, such as ‘conservative’, ‘progressive’, ‘revolutionary’, ‘reactionary’, ‘racism’, ‘anti-semitism’, ‘sexism’, ‘classism’ etcetera.  Such ‘ideologies’ characterise actors who adhere to them. A ‘socialist’ is someone who subscribes to the set of symbolic representations we call ‘socialism’; a ‘racist’ is someone who subscribes to racism; a ‘conservative’ socialist is someone who, within the complex of ‘socialism’ subscribes to a particular (‘conservative’) interpretation of the socialist lines of actions. Such ideologies are often codified – there are ‘basic’ texts supporting them – as well as explicit and historically contingent: they have a clear origin (often in the writings of a seminal author) and a pattern of development (e.g. through institutionalisation: political parties or movements), and like Mobutism, the Monroe Doctrine or Maoism, they may disappear (see Freeden 1996). Ideology in this first sense stands for partisan views and opinions, it is sensed to represent a particular bias characterising specific social formations with specific interests. Hence the widespread colloquial usage of ‘ideological’ as counterfactual, biased, partisan.

The second category is less easy to describe. Authors would emphasise that ideology stands for the ‘cultural’, ideational aspects of a particular social and political system, the ‘grand narratives’ characterising its existence, structure and historical development. This is the sense of ideology often attributed to the work of Antonio Gramsci (1971). Authors in this second category would emphasise that ideology cannot be attributed to one particular actor, not located in one particular site (such as a political party or a government), but that it penetrates the whole fabric of societies or communities and results in normalised, naturalised patterns of thought and behaviour. For such authors, ideology is common sense, the normal perceptions we have of the world as a system, the naturalised activities that sustain social relations and power structures and the patterns of power that reinforce such common sense. Authors articulating such views include Pierre Bourdieu (1990), Louis Althusser (1971), Roland Barthes (1957), Raymond Williams (1973, 1977) and Michel Foucault (1975).1 Often, only one ‘-ism’ is accepted: capitalism, seen as the overall system in which contemporary societies develop. And capitalism is a prototype of such ideological processes: it has become so natural and normal as a frame of reference for thought and behaviour that it is not perceived as a system with ideological attributes.

Roland Barthes (1957: 225), with characteristic irony, notes that there is no single parliament in Western Europe in which we can find a ‘Bourgeois Party’, while most parliaments would count members of the ‘Socialist Party’ or the ‘Labour party’. He adds:

“the bourgeoisie has erased its name in the transition from reality to representation (…) it has subjected its own status to an act of ex-nomination; the bourgeoisie defines itself as the social class that does not want to be named.” (ibid, my translation, French original).

The centre of capitalism, the bourgeoisie, is a neutral, unmarked, self-evident centre. Ideology, or at least, the overarching ideology which defines the others, is in the system itself, and precisely this all-encompassing ideological character of capitalism makes its ideological nature and characteristics invisible. They are ‘normal’ and ‘normative’: other ‘ideologies’ are measured against the ideological zero-point, capitalism.2 The ideological enemy, in Barthes’ view, is thus not liberalism, Gaullism or communism, but “l’ennemi capital (la Norme bourgeoise)” (1957: 8), the invisible and self-evident systemic core which we fail to recognise as ideological because it is our ideology.

Ideology is layered, stratified, something that has varying dimensions and scopes of operation as well as varying degrees of accessibility to consciousness and agency.

Seen from that perspective, the two senses of ideology are not each other’s opposite or contradiction. Barthes directs us towards a view in which ideology is layered, stratified, something that has varying dimensions and scopes of operation as well as varying degrees of accessibility to consciousness and agency. We see similar distinctions in Voloshinov’s work, when he separates ‘established ideologies’ from ‘behavioural ideologies’ (Voloshinov 1973: 90-92), in which the former is both the crystallization of and the motive for the latter. This insight is very useful and it resonates with many of the arguments on polycentric-stratified orders of indexicality and layered simultaneity developed elsewhere in this book. It will guide us through the discussion in this chapter. If we are not facing contradictory definitions but different aspects of the same thing, we need to find a solution for the whole thing.

I shall try to offer some suggestions on how to conceive of the relationship between ideology and layered simultaneity in discourse. The outcome will be a view in which various simultaneous ideologies operate in discourse, providing differing layers of sharedness, coherence and historicity to discourse. Since discourse is intrinsically historical, it is intrinsically ideological, but again different aspects of this are of a different order. In this exercise I hope to bring together several existing views on ideology, in an attempt to show how they address not different objects, but different aspects of the same object. I will start with a brief tour d’horizon of such views.

The terminological muddle of ideologies

Apart from the two main differences outlined earlier, between views of ideology as closed, named and specific objects on the one hand and views of ideology as general, totalising phenomena, several other differences should be noted in the field of study.

Cognitive/ideational versus material

A first distinction is between ideologies as primarily cognitive/ideational phenomena versus ideologies as material phenomena or practices. In the first view, ideologies would primarily be particular sets of ideas, perceptions, received wisdom; in the latter, ideologies would be defined as ideas produced by particular material conditions or instruments and performed in certain ways. In the second view, authors would emphasise the particular social formations, instruments of power and institutional frames within which particular sets of ideas are promulgated. Obviously, the most useful authors suggest that ideational and material forces interact, heeding Marx’s old saying that ideas become material forces as soon as they are appropriated by the masses.

Many approaches that define ideology in the sense of closed, particular objects (as ‘-isms’, in other words) subscribe to the cognitive/ideational (‘idealist’) view and define, for instance, socialism as a ‘socialist’ complex of definitions, ideas and values, rhetorical patterns, canonized texts, and views of society and of human beings (Freeden 1996). Many approaches in the totalising school, however, also conceive ideologies as primarily ideational, as ‘normalised’ ideas, concepts, associative connections between causes and effects and so on. Thus Paul Friedrich (1989: 302), reviewing several major sources of scholarship, defines ideology as “a set or at least amalgam of ideas, rationalizations, and interpretations that mask or gloss over a struggle to get or hold onto power, particularly economic power, with the result that the actors and ideologues are themselves largely unaware of what is going on”.

 An extreme example of the cognitive/ideational approach to ideology is Teun van Dijk’s socio-cognitive view. Van Dijk defines ideologies as

“the ‘interface’ between the cognitive representations and processes underlying discourse and action, on the one hand, and the societal position and interests and social groups, on the other hand. (…) As systems of principles that organize social cognitions, ideologies are assumed to control, through the minds of the members, the social reproduction of the group. Ideologies mentally represent the basic social characteristics of a group, such as their identity, tasks, goals, norms, values, position and resources.” (van Dijk 1995: 18)

In other words, ideologies are “group-schemata” in the cognitive-linguistic sense of the term: abstract cognitive complexes located in the minds of members of groups, based on accumulated experience and socialisation, and organising the way in which these members think, speak and act:

“As basic forms of social cognitions (…) ideologies also have cognitive functions. We have already suggested that they organize, monitor and control specific group attitudes. Possibly, ideologies also control the development, structure and application of sociocultural knowledge.” (van Dijk 1995: 19)

So when it comes to explain how ideologies become ingredients of structures of power and control, van Dijk’s solution is straightforward: people control themselves by means of the ideologies they have in their heads, and they do so as a group because the ideologies are group ideologies. Van Dijk insists that

“[i]deologies in our perspective are not merely ‘systems of ideas’, let alone properties of the individual minds of persons. Neither are they vaguely defined as forms of consciousness, let alone ‘false consciousness’. Rather, they are very specific basic frameworks of social cognition, with specific internal structures, and specific cognitive and social functions.” (van Dijk 1995: 21)

In other words: ideologies are even more abstract and fundamental than propositionally articulated ideas, they are the underlying ‘deep structures’ of social behaviour.

How such very deep cognitive patterns end up in people’s heads, and end up there as collective phenomena is a question van Dijk leaves to others. This is where materialist approaches may be helpful. Louis Althusser (1971) strongly emphasised the role of ‘ideological state apparatuses’ in the production and reproduction of ideologies. By ‘state apparatuses’ he understood the whole complex of institutions below the level of the state, but working in conjunction with the state or serving state interests. Such apparatuses include the church, schools, the media, interest groups – in short what is often called ‘civil society’. And they generate ideological ‘interpellations’: appeals to individuals to act in particular ways, ways that reflect dominant ideologies. In contrast to the cognitive/ideational approach, Althusser emphasises “a social process of address, or ‘interpellations’, inscribed in material social matrices” (Therborn 1980: 7). In other words, ideology needs to be understood as processes that require material reality and institutional structures and practices of power and authority.

No idea is in itself ‘ideological’; it may become ideological as soon as it is picked up by power-regulating institutions.

This corresponds to views such as those of John B. Thompson (1990). Thompson claims that modern First-World societies have undergone a drastic change in the way in which ideological processes develop. This change is due to the rise of modern mass media, and no ideological process today can be understood without taking into account the way in which messages, images and discourses are being distributed and mediated by the mass media. Consequently, the symbolic or the ideational has become far more of a commodity than before, and the dynamics of ideology should be interpreted likewise. No idea is in itself ‘ideological’; it may become ideological as soon as it is picked up by power-regulating institutions such as the media and inserted into the ideological reproduction system they organise. Thus, the media seem to have the power to construct deep ideological messages out of trivial, sociologically insignificant events or phenomena. The message may be shallow but the modulation of the message through the mass media converts it into a message of enormous importance. Consequently, Thompson warns us against “the fallacy of internalism” (1990: 24), the idea that effects of messages can be ‘read off’ the messages themselves, that the power of ideologies lies in the message alone, that we, for instance, can understand Lincoln’s charisma by analysing the grammar of his speeches. We need to investigate the ways in which the message is organised, mediated, modulated and reconstructed by the ideological actors using it.

Thompson, Althusser and others do not deny the necessity of an ideational or cognitive component in ideologies, but they emphasise the fact that something more is required to understand ideologies: attention to the material, political and institutional environments in which they operate. Ideas operate alongside and inside material conditions and institutions; it is the conjunction of both dimensions which lifts particular sets of ideas to the level of ideology. This basic insight can of course also be found in Bourdieu’s work as well as in that of Foucault. Foucault systematically emphasised the interrelation between a specific ‘épistème’ – a complex of savoir, of knowledge – on the one hand, and sets of practices and institutional conditions on the other. The ‘panopticon’ which Foucault described and discussed in Discipline and Punish is a case in point. Foucault argued that the panoptic architecture of modern prisons – a star-like shape in which all prisoners could be observed by their guards from one central point - generated a particular kind of knowledge through institutionally organised and materially enabled practices of seeing, observing, and disciplining. It was both the product of, and the instrument for such new forms of surveillance-by-knowledge (Foucault 1975; cf. also 2001b: 190-207). Bourdieu and Passeron’s (1977) notion of ‘reproduction’ stresses the connection between institutional educational practice and the construction of ‘legitimate’ knowledge, i.e. knowledge that relates and refers to the dominant culture (i.e. the culture of the dominant). Bourdieu summarises it succinctly: “educated people owe their culture – i.e. a programme of perception, thought and action – to the school” (1971: 199), and consequently, the education system, often a state-organised or controlled institution, culturally (or ideologically) reproduces class stratification:

“The school’s function is not merely to sanction the distinction (…) of the educated classes. The culture that it imparts separates those receiving it from the rest of society by a whole series of systematic differences.” (1971: 200)

A safe position, consequently, may consist in adopting a view of ideologies as materially mediated ideational phenomena. Ideas themselves do not define ideologies; they need to be inserted in material practices of modulation and reproduction.

Whose ideology and why?

Another difference encountered in the literature on ideology relates to the scope of ideologies. As mentioned above, there are authors who suggest that ideologies are general, all-pervasive and defining of a ‘society’ or a ‘system’, and there are authors who distinguish between several, group-specific ideologies. Such group-specific ideologies would be, for instance, class ideologies, gender-ideologies, ethnic group ideologies and so forth. Such differences cross-cut the general difference between the idealist and materialist main schools outlined earlier, but they raise issues of function and agency.

In the 1930s, Karl Mannheim (in Burke 1992: 95) already introduced the distinction between ‘total’ conceptions of ideology and ‘particular’ ones, whereby the total conception roughly corresponded to what in anthropological terms would be called ‘worldview’, a general pattern of beliefs and ideas characterising a social formation. The particular conception of ideology stood for ideology as instrumental to the aims and purposes of specific actors, for ideology as a tool of power. Whereas a ‘total’ conception of ideology would emphasise that ideologies are in se neither positive nor negative, but ‘just there’, the particular conception would emphasise the ways in which ideologies can become real agents of power and change.

The study of ideology owes much to Marxism, but in core Marxist writings both conceptions can be found. Marx and Engels defined ideology in The German Ideology in terms germane to the ‘total’ conception. In fact, the bourgeoisie is often characterised in such terms (see Barthes’ remarks above, but see also Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire). Similarly, Marx would identify the working class as characterised by ‘false consciousness’. The workers had ideas and perceptions of their life-conditions that were at odds with their objective position within the capitalist system. Thus, they would believe that they shared interests with their employers – interests such as the productivity of the enterprise, the profit margins of the capitalist entrepreneur - whereas in reality their interests were fundamentally incompatible with those of capital. This false consciousness was an effect of the incorporation of the workers in the ‘total’ ideology of capitalism. Therefore – and here we move into the particular conception of ideology – workers needed to acquire a different consciousness that reflected their real situation and would mobilise them against capital. Class consciousness formed by socialist ideology would become a weapon against capital, an instrument in the struggle for power.

Lenin as well as Gramsci further developed this ‘particular’, instrumental conception of ideology. To Lenin in What Is To Be Done? ideology was one of the central preoccupations of the socialist movement, for it was through the development of a socialist ideology that the workers would be built into a working class and become a revolutionary force (recall also E.P. Thompson’s theses on class consciousness as crucial to the emergence of ‘class’). Such an ideology would be particular: it would be the workers’ ideology, and it would be promoted and distributed by an ‘ideological state apparatus’, the party (or elsewhere the labour union), led by a ‘revolutionary vanguard’ of intellectual cadres (Lenin believed that a revolutionary ideology needed to be brought in from the outside, since workers could not develop such a theoretically grounded ideology themselves). When Antonio Gramsci started making notes in his Italian prison cell, he had this precise and specific, ‘particular’ problem in mind: how do we start a proletarian revolution in Italy, a society then completely dominated by Mussolini’s bourgeois fascists? His prison notes reveal an analysis of bourgeois ideology seen as a total, all-pervasive ideology, but analysed as to its instrumental (‘particular’) functions and modus operandi, as an ideology of domination. And Gramsci’s famous statements on ideological hegemony were the outcome of an exercise in which he adopted and adapted the bourgeois instrumentalisation of ideology for the cause of the proletarian revolution (including the development of a class of ‘organic intellectuals’ who could counter the ideological work of the ‘professional’ bourgeois intellectuals).

Different forms of ideologies may be part of the same historical process, and that differences between them may reflect differences in the social formations characterised by them.

The desired outcome of such an ideological offensive using a class-specific, particular ideology, would be a total ideology. A socialist, working-class ideology would become the ideology of everyone, it would become hegemonic and so mark the end of bourgeois capitalist society and the transition to a socialist one. The pattern of transition thus swings from a total ideology (that of the capitalist bourgeoisie prior to the socialist revolution) over a particular ideology (that of the revolutionary and mobilised working class) back to a total ideology (that of the new, post-revolution socialist society). The difference between total and particular ideologies is a temporal-sequential difference, the different kinds of ideology represent different stages in the process of historical change.

I would suggest that we keep this in mind: that different forms of ideologies may be part of the same historical process, and that differences between them may reflect differences in the social formations characterised by them, their purposes, or their moment of occurrence. Particular ideologies only make sense when seen in relation to other particular ideologies or to total ideologies operating in the same environment at the same time (cf. Woolard 1985). A description of a single particular ideology – for instance racism or anti-semitism – should be accompanied by an analysis of its relation to other ideologies, total as well as particular.