Ideology: A Brief Guide

Copyright 1997 by John Lye. This text may be freely used, with attribution, for non-profit purposes.
As are all of my posts on this course, this document is open to change. If you have any suggestions (additions, qualifications, arguments), mail me.

Ideology is a term developed in the Marxist tradition to talk about how cultures are structured in ways that enable the group holding power to have the maximum control with the minimum of conflict. This is not a matter of groups deliberately planning to oppress people or alter their consciousness (although this can happen), but rather a matter of how the dominant institutions in society work through values, conceptions of the world, and symbol systems, in order to legitimize the current order. Briefly, this legitimization is managed through the widespread teaching (the social adoption) of ideas about the way things are, how the world 'really' works and should work. These ideas (often embedded in symbols and cultural practices) orient people's thinking in such a way that they accept the current way of doing things, the current sense of what is 'natural,' and the current understanding of their roles in society. This socialization process, the shaping of our cognitive and affective interpretations of our social world, is called, by Gramsci, "hegemony;" it is carried out, Althusser writes, by the state ideological apparatuses -- by the churches, the schools, the family, and through cultural forms (such as literature, rock music, advertising, sitcoms, etc.)

While the concept of ideology is most generally associated with power relations, we have to keep from being too simplistic. Power is not a unitary force or phenomenon, nor an exclusively 'political' phenomenon. Power and power relations are woven throughout all our practices and ideas -- power is exercised in every relationship, group, and social practice, and it is not necessarily detrimental (what if a mother decided she did not want to operate in a power relationship to her newborn?). On the other hand, one must not forget that social order relies, in varying degrees, but ultimately, on the ability of one person or group to coerce another person or group, and that the basis of Law, however rationalized, is the authorized use of force.

Some conceptions of ideology de-emphasize the power aspect and see ideology as the structure of assumptions which form the imaginative world of groups. Ideology, writes Althusser, is "a representation of the imaginary relation of individuals to the real condition of existence." Further, Althusser writes, ideology creates us as persons: it "hails" us, calls us into being.

According to Marx, ideology naturalizes, it historicizes, and it eternalizes. That is,

  1. ideological structures appear to be natural, "according to the order of things" (naturalization);
  2. ideological structures appear to be the logical conclusion to an historical development(historicization);
  3. there is an assumption that now that this (natural) state of affairs has been reached, things will be that way, barring regression (eternalization).

E.g. "Democracy is the political system most in keeping with the nature and needs of humans; history has been an evolution of political forms towards democracy; once states have all reached democracy, all they have to do is avoid reverting, there is no 'farther' to go in terms of political organization." We assume that democracy is the political system best suited to the nature and aspirations of humans, we see history as a movement towards democracy, we assume that once all nations have achieved democracy they will continue to be democracies forever, unless they erode. These assumptions are ideology.

Any ideology will contain contradictions, will repress aspects of experience, will 'disappear' that which tends to contradict it or expose its repressions. Ideology's cultural activity will include the construction of pseudo-problems which are given pseudo-solutions -- e.g. our culture's obsession with stories about 'love' relations which are 'solved' by individuals realizing the true worth of the other, as if these issues were really central to our most fundamental human concerns, our moral and mental health, the justice and equity for which the world is calling out; all sorts of moral and social problems get 'disappeared' in the process.

Ideological analysis: some questions to ask of the text

  1. What are the assumptions about what is natural, just and right?
  2. What (and who) do these assumptions distort or obscure?
  3. What are the power relations? How are they made to appear as if they are normal or good? What negative aspects are excluded?
  4. Look for binaries, oppositions (good/evil, natural/unnatural, tame/wild, young/old). Which term of the binary is privileged, what is repressed or devalued by this privileging of one term over the other?
  5. What people, classes, areas of life, experiences, are 'left out', silenced?
  6. What cultural assumptions and what 'myths' shape experience and evaluation? What is mystified (e.g. a pastoral setting for cigarette smokers, a gentle rocking chair in a lovely room for motherhood)? I use "myth", also known as "second-order signification," in the sense in which it is used by Roland Barthes: as a sign which refers to a broad, general cultural meaning; see his Mythologies. An experience or event or thing is mystified when a broad cultural meaning obscures the particulars of that experience, event or thing; this obscuring usually covers up or 'disappears' contrary or inconvenient facts, as in the examples I have given. To demystify, pay attention to the particulars, the specifics, the concrete reality, with all its blemishes and contradictions.
  7. What enthymemes can you see in the 'logic' of the text? In a general sense, enthymemes are statements which exclude the expression of key assumptions which ground conclusions -- e.g. "Karen studies really hard. She'll ace this exam for sure" Unspoken assumption: What it takes (all it takes?) to 'ace' an examination is hard study.
  8. How does the style of presentation contribute to the meaning of the text? Style always contains meaning.
  9. What 'utopic kernel', that is, vision of human possibility, appears to lie at the heart of the understanding of the ideology? The assumption is that there will be some vision of the good that drives that ideological perspective's imagination of the world.

If you would like to read an example, you may go to an ideological reading I wrote of Adrienne Rich's poem "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers."