The Definition of Ideology and the Theories Behind It

Understanding the Concept and Its Relationship to Marxist Theory

The view through a smartphone camera symbolizes the definition of ideology.
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Ideology is the lens through which a person sees the world. Within sociology, ideology is broadly understood as referring to the worldview a person has that is the sum total of their culture, values, beliefs, assumptions, common sense, and expectations for themselves and of others. Ideology gives an identity within society, within groups, and in relation to other people. It shapes our thoughts, actions, interactions, and what happens in our lives and in society at large.

It is a very important concept within sociology and a core aspect of what sociologists study because it plays a fundamental and powerful role in shaping social life, how society, as a whole, is organized, and how it functions. Ideology is directly related to the social structure, economic system of production, and political structure. It both emerges out of these things and shapes them.

Ideology the Concept versus Particular Ideologies

Often, when people use the word "ideology" they are referring to a particular ideology rather than the concept itself. For example, people, especially in the media, often refer to extremist views or actions as being inspired by a particular ideology or as "ideological," like "radical Islamic ideology" or "white power ideology." And, within sociology, much attention is often paid to what is known as the dominant ideology, or the particular ideology that is most common and strongest in a given society.

However, the concept of ideology itself is actually general in nature and not tied to one particular way of thinking. In this sense, sociologists define ideology generally as a person's worldview and recognize that there are various and competing ideologies operating in a society at any given time, some more dominant than others.

This way, ideology can be defined as the lens through which one sees the world, through which one understands their own position in the world, their relationship with others, as well as their individual purpose, role, and path in life. Ideology is also understood to perform the function of framing how one sees the world and interprets events and experiences, in the sense that a frame captures and centers certain things and excludes others from view and consideration.

Ultimately, ideology determines how we make sense of things. It provides an ordered view of the world, our place in it, and relationship to others. As such, it is deeply important to the human experience, and typically something that people cling to and defend, whether or not they are conscious of doing so. And, as ideology emerges out of the social structure and social order, it is generally expressive of the social interests that are supported by both.

Terry Eagleton, a British literary theorist and public intellectual explained it this way in his 1991 book, Ideology: An Introduction:

Ideology is a system of concepts and views which serves to make sense of the world while obscuring the social interests that are expressed therein, and by its completeness and relative internal consistency tends to form a closed system and maintain itself in the face of contradictory or inconsistent experience.

Marx's Theory of Ideology

Karl Marx is considered the first to provide theoretical framing of ideology with relevance to sociology. According to Marx, ideology emerges out of the mode of production in society, meaning ideology is determined by whatever is the economic model of production. In his case and in ours, the economic mode of production is capitalism.

Marx's approach to ideology was set forth in his theory of base and superstructure. According to Marx, the superstructure, which is the realm of ideology, grows out of the base, the realm of production, to reflect the interests of the ruling class and justify the status quo that keeps them in power. Marx, then, focused his theory on the concept of a dominant ideology.

However, he viewed the relationship between base and superstructure as dialectical in nature, which means that each affects the other equally and that a change in one necessitates a change in the other.

This belief formed the basis for Marx's theory of revolution. He believed that once workers developed a class consciousness and became aware of their exploited position relative to the powerful class of factory owners and financiers—in other words, when they experienced a fundamental shift in ideology—that they would then act on that ideology by organizing and demanding a change in the social, economic, and political structures of society.

Gramsci's Additions to Marx's Theory of Ideology

The revolution of workers that Marx predicted never happened. Closing in on two hundred years since Marx and Engles published The Communist Manifesto, capitalism maintains a strong grip on global society and the inequalities it fosters continue to grow. Following on the heels of Marx, the Italian activist, journalist, and intellectual Antonio Gramsci offered a more developed theory of ideology to help explain why the revolution did not occur. Gramsci, offering his theory of cultural hegemony, reasoned that dominant ideology had a stronger hold on consciousness and society than Marx had imagined.

Gramsci's theory focused on the central role played by the social institution of education in spreading the dominant ideology and maintaining the power of the ruling class. Educational institutions, Gramsci argued, teach ideas, beliefs, values and even identities that reflect the interests of the ruling class, and produce compliant and obedient members of society that serve the interests of that class by fulfilling the role of worker. This type of rule, that achieved by consent to go along with the way that things are, is what he called cultural hegemony.

The Frankfurt School and Louis Althusser on Ideology

Some years later, the critical theorists of the Frankfurt School, who continued the trajectory of Marxist theory, turned their attention to the role that art, popular culture, and mass media play in disseminating ideology, supporting the dominant ideology, and their potential to challenge it with alternative ideologies.

They argued that just as education, as a social institution, is a fundamental part of these processes, so too is the social institution of media and of popular culture in general. These theories of ideology focused on the representational work that art, pop culture, and mass media do in terms of depicting or telling stories about society, its members, and our way of life. This work can serve to either support the dominant ideology and the status quo, or it can challenge it, like in the case of culture jamming.

At the same time, the French philosopher Louis Althusser brought together the history of Marxist approaches to ideology with his concept of the "ideological state apparatus," or the ISA. According to Althusser, the dominant ideology of any given society was maintained, disseminated, and reproduced through several ISAs, notably the media, church, and school. Taking a critical view, Althusser argued that each ISA does the work of peddling illusions about the way society works and why things are the way they are. This work then serves to produce cultural hegemony or rule by consent, as Gramsci defined it.

Examples of Ideology in Today's World

In the United States today, the dominant ideology is one that, in keeping with Marx's theory, supports capitalism and a society organized around it. The central tenet of this ideology is that U.S. society is one in which people are free and equal, and thus, can do and achieve anything they want in life. At the same time, in the U.S., we value work and believe that there is honor in hard work, no matter what the job.

These ideas are part of an ideology that supports capitalism because they help us make sense of why some people achieve so much in terms of success and wealth and why others, not so much. By the logic of this ideology, those who work hard and dedicate themselves to their pursuits and others are those who simply get by or live a life of failure and struggle. Marx would argue that these ideas, values, and assumptions work to justify the reality in which very few people have positions of power and authority within corporations, firms, and financial institutions, and why the majority are simply workers within this system. Laws, legislation, and public policies are crafted expressing and supporting this ideology, which means that it plays a significant role in shaping how society operates and what are lives are like within it.

And while these ideas may be part of the dominant ideology in today's America, there are in fact ideologies that challenge them and the status quo they support. The 2016 presidential campaign of Senator Bernie Sanders spotlighted one of these alternate ideologies—one that instead assumes that the capitalist system is fundamentally unequal and that those who have amassed the most success and wealth are not necessarily deserving of it. Rather, this ideology asserts that the system is controlled by them, rigged in their favor, and designed to impoverish the majority for the benefit of the privileged minority. Sanders and his supporters, thus advocate laws, legislature, and public policies that are designed to redistribute society's wealth in the name of equality and justice.