What is Ideology?
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Last updated 8 Jul 2018
The word ideology does not have a single clear definition and is used in a variety of ways. Its most common use in every-day language is to describe a broad, cohesive set of political ideas and beliefs (e.g. liberalism, socialism, conservatism, etc.)
You will encounter ideology used in this way in sociology, but you will encounter it used in other ways too, most particularly by Marxists.
The Marxist concept of ideology is a word to describe a set of ideas and beliefs that are dominant in society and are used to justify the power and privilege of the ruling class. While the mainstream use of the word ideology is effectively neutral (it can be a good or bad thing depending on your perspective) this is clearly a negative concept of ideology: ideology is used to obscure the truth, to give people a false picture of how the world works in order to manipulate and control them.
In related, but subtly different, definitions, ideology is also used to describe an official set of beliefs and ideas associated with a political system (usually an oppressive, authoritarian system based on a single ideology) or the world-view associated with a religion.
The Marxist view of ideology is shared by many feminists who argue that it is patriarchal ideology that maintains the dominant role of men in society. According to radical feminists, one of the ways it achieves this is by convincing women that patriarchy is natural, normal or even desirable. This is very similar to the Marxist concept of false consciousness.
Marxists argue that if the proletariat really understood the exploitative nature of capitalist society and their place within it, there would be a revolution. What prevents revolution is ideology: a set of ideas that creates an illusion. That convinces the workers (or enough of them) that capitalism is fair; that they are not being exploited by the system and those who are wealthy have worked hard and deserve their success. Marxists argue that this ideology is reinforced by a wide range of institutions in society (what Althusser called ideological state apparatus). Religion forms part of that ideological state apparatus, as we shall see in the next section.
Evaluating the Marxist view of ideology
- Somewhat ironically, Marxism itself could be said to have performed the role described by Marx in the Soviet Union and other communist countries.
- Karl Popper argues that the Marxist view of ideology is impossible to study scientifically, because its effects are impossible to falsify. If a worker expressed contentedness with their situation or the system, how could this be scientifically shown to be false consciousness as a result of ideology? For traditional Marxists this is almost an article of faith as it is clearly the case that such a view would go against the worker’s own material interests.
- Some neo-Marxists suggest that the idea that the working class do not know their own mind and have been indoctrinated by bourgeois ideology is patronising and disempowering. Many feminists (other than radical feminists) take a similar view regarding the idea that women have been brainwashed by patriarchal ideology and therefore do not know what they want. Arguably, the suggestion that ideology leads to false consciousness is just a convenient explanation for not being able to persuade people of the strength of their arguments!
- The suggestion in traditional Marxist approaches to this is that there is just that one ideology in society, but some neo-Marxists argue that this is just the dominant ideology. There are other competing sets of ideas in society, some of which can be developed in opposition to the ruling class. This idea is developed particularly by Antonio Gramsci and his concepts of hegemony and counter-hegemony.