Theories of Ideology

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 views the world. Within the field of sociology, ideology is broadly understood to refer to the sum total of a person's values, beliefs, assumptions, and expectations. Ideology exists within society, within groups, and between people. It shapes our thoughts, actions, and interactions, along with what happens in society at large.

Ideology is a fundamental concept in sociology. Sociologists study it because it plays such a powerful role in shaping how society 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 vs. Particular Ideologies

Often, when people use the word "ideology" they are referring to a particular ideology rather than the concept itself. For example, many people, especially in the media, refer to extremist views or actions as being inspired by a particular ideology (for example, "radical Islamic ideology" or "white power ideology") or as "ideological." Within sociology, much attention is 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 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.

Ultimately, ideology determines how we make sense of things. It provides an ordered view of the world, our place in it, and our 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 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

German philosopher Karl Marx is considered the first to provide a theoretical framing of ideology within the context of sociology. According to Marx, ideology emerges out of a society's mode of production. In his case and in that of the modern United States, 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 of society, 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, meaning 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 working-class revolution that Marx predicted never happened. Nearly 200 years after the publication of 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. This type of rule is what Gramsci called cultural hegemony.

The Frankfurt School and Louis Althusser on Ideology

Some years later, the critical theorists of the Frankfurt School turned their attention to the role that art, popular culture, and mass media play in disseminating ideology. They argued that just as education plays a role in this process, so do the social institutions of media and popular culture. Their theories of ideology focused on the representational work that art, popular culture, and mass media do in telling stories about society, its members, and our way of life. This work can either support the dominant ideology and the status quo, or it can challenge it, as in the case of culture jamming.

Around the same time, the French philosopher Louis Althusser developed his concept of the "ideological state apparatus," or the ISA. According to Althusser, the dominant ideology of any given society is maintained and reproduced through several ISAs, notably the media, religion, and education. Althusser argued that each ISA does the work of promoting illusions about the way society works and why things are the way they are.

Examples of Ideology

In the modern United States, the dominant ideology is one that, in keeping with Marx's theory, supports capitalism and the society organized around it. The central tenet of this ideology is that U.S. society is one in which all people are free and equal, and thus, can do and achieve anything they want in life. A key supporting tenet is the idea that work is morally valuable, no matter the job.

Together, these beliefs form an ideology supportive of capitalism by helping us make sense of why some people achieve so much in terms of success and wealth while others achieve so little. Within the logic of this ideology, those who work hard are guaranteed to see success. Marx would argue that these ideas, values, and assumptions work to justify a reality in which a very small class of people holds most of the authority within corporations, firms, and financial institutions. These beliefs also justify a reality in which the vast majority of people are simply workers within the system.

While these ideas may reflect the dominant ideology in modern America, there are in fact other ideologies that challenge them and the status quo they represent. The radical labor movement, for example, offers an alternative ideology—one that instead assumes that the capitalist system is fundamentally unequal and that those who have amassed the greatest wealth are not necessarily deserving of it. This competing ideology asserts that the power structure is controlled by the ruling class and is designed to impoverish the majority for the benefit of a privileged minority. Labor radicals throughout history have fought for new laws and public policies that would redistribute wealth and promote equality and justice.