What is "ideology" ?

One of the more often used terms of political science and which found its way into political debates by politicians and the “man on the street” alike is the word “ideology”. Whenever its used by anyone, it almost always carries a ring of accusation accompanied by possible slander. It is one of those terms that everybody is happy to use but when asked what it really stands for will come up with vague answers or notions that seem to be very different or even contradictory to the answers given by the next person.

So, what is “ideology” ?

A good way to find out what a word means is to look it up in a dictionary:

An ideology is a belief or a set of beliefs, especially the political beliefs on which people, parties, or countries base their actions. [1]

That is a nice and easy, uncomplicated and neutral definition. And one, that is close to an everyday knowledge, a knowledge so basic it almost needs no further explanation.

Certainly “Microsoft Encarta  98 Encyclopaedia” seems to think so because though it uses the term “ideology” in 111 of its articles, it doesn’t bother with an explanation of the word itself. This task is left to an inbuilt dictionary, that comes up with a similar broad definition as the above.[2]

But a further investigation into the topic soon reveals a darker, sinister picture of “ideology”. Other dictionaries define the term “ideology” as a “doctrine[3] that wants to change the world[4], qualifying ideology as being “visionary[5] at best, but more likely being “theoretical, unworldly”,[6] and “unrealistic[7], therefore rather a “collective deception of oneself and others”[8] leading to “justification or legitimisation of subordination of one group by another[9], using manipulation[10] and while having unsavoury links with systematic violence and terror[11] resulting in imperialism[12], wars[13] and genocide[14].

What happened to the innocent concept of ideology that from being just a particular kind of belief- system it turned out to be a rather violent, action- centred, inflexible cloud-cuckoo-land ?  

As with so many things in life it all depends on the angle one looks at things.

When the term itself was established by Destutt de Tracy at the time of the French Revolution it embraced the rather positive notion of a “science of ideas” which did not only want to look at the (social) world and explain its present state but by realizing its shortcomings and imperfections seeking to improve the “living condition” of man. “Ideology” was a “science with a mission”[15], it wanted to change the world, it wanted a democratic, rational, and scientific society, which liberated the mind of man from prejudice.  Like so many of their contemporaries believing in and promoting enlightenment the “ideologues” regarded education as the key to social change. But the ideologues wanted more than just promoting an all embracing encyclopaedic knowledge for everyone, they wanted more than just being teachers with different ideas, they wanted to actively bring about the new order of things. In doing so they anticipated the resistance of advocates of keeping the status quo and were aware that they might have to stir up a protracted social struggle. In doing so they needed the support and commitment of loyal followers and even though they targeted the wider public they came to believe that a leadership of that would largely consist of the teachers or philosophers, hence a small base of intellectuals.[16]    

In the aftermath of the French Revolution those ideas became popular and soon afterwards it became the official policy of the French Republic.[17]

But soon things turned sour.

As with so many new projects, things do not quite go the way as planned. Some difficulties are expected but unanticipated problems crop up as well. And sooner or later a dispute breaks out about how best to pursue the project, in this case the ideals of the new society. Whereas one group wants to hold on to the established principles and ideas unwaveringly the other group wants what it sees as necessary changes to adopt to the “reality” as they perceive it. One group still pursue “what ought to be possible”, the other “what is possible”. In modern political terms the two fractions would be called “fundamentalists”(in our case the group of “ideologues” around Destutt de Tracy) and “pragmatics”.  

The pragmatics, in this case represented by Napoleon, who in the beginning had supported the ideals of the “ideologues” turned against them and while presenting themselves as being flexible, dynamic, and based in reality started to use the word “ideology” as an emotional charged battle-term against the “hardliners”, blaming them for everything that went wrong.[18] In the further course of history Napoleon, being a military hero, got more and more popular, and with his growing importance, his usage of  “ideology” won the day whereas the “ideologues” lost out, unable to recover their good reputation.[19]

Since then, “ideology” associated with visionaries and theoreticians who are out of touch with reality, but being in the same time fixed in one’s own views, stubborn and dogmatic.[20]

So “ideology” did not get its bad image through a detailed logical criticism of its philosophical and social aims or principles but the negative image was the result of public “dirty-laundry-washing” of former followers.

But like in life again, once one got a negative image, however unjustified, it is hard to get rid of it.

Up to the middle of the 19th century the term “ideology” was used to describe a certain conduct rather than the contends of political or social programmes- after all even Napoleon could hardly disagree with the values of education, enlightenment, freedom, equality and fraternity which the “ideologues” wanted to bring about.[21] 

It was left to Marx and Engels to change the connotation of the term from meaning a certain “conduct” to a general “quality” and eventually to a particular “contend”. Marx and Engels identified various bundles of concepts and ideas, which were determined by the social, or more particular class position of their respective bearers at any given society at any given time.[22] Those concepts and ideas were “ideologies”, which, like the opening definition, were defined as a set of beliefs. Instead a being a certain mode of conduct the term “ideologies” were used to represent various “Weltanschauungen” (literally, the “views of the world”). Due to the nature of this open-ended quality of this definition the number of different ideologies was multitude, theoretically unlimited.

But Marx and Engels began to use the term “ideology” not only to refer to any set of beliefs but used it increasingly as normative criteria.

Soon, “ideologies” were only those sets of belief, which were favoured by the respective ruling classes of any given society. Due to the power of the ruling classes their belief-system are the dominant ones. But since the interests of the ruling classes just lie in themselves and not in humanity in general, their interests are therefore partial and their belief-system distort the “truth” about the “real” world. “Ideologies”, therefore, were false representations of reality. The acceptance of the ideology of the ruling classes by members of the working class would lead to a false consciousness, which hinders the members of the working class to realise their own, true interests.[23]  In order to liberate themselves from “ideologies” of the ruling classes, the workers need to “awaken” to the realization of their social and economic situation. Thus, by developing their very own “class-consciousness” they can sweep away the cobwebs of “ideology” and live happily ever after.

Since the mid- 19th century “Ideology” was a set of belief that was, by definition, “false” or “wrong”. This aspect was to be cherished by everyone, regardless whether they otherwise agree with Marx and Engels analysis, which wanted to make a normative remark about any belief-system. “Ideology” was, what the opponent argued for, whereas one’s own views were regarded as free of ideology.[24]

The next step in the troubled journey of the term “ideology” was marked by the arrival of the “sociology of knowledge” with M. Weber and K. Mannheim. Hinting at the paradox within Marx and Engels analysis of how the awakening towards a “true”, un-distorted alternative belief-system could be brought about if every social and cognitive aspect within a society was distorted by the “ideology” of the ruling classes in the first place, [25]they questioned the validity of the dualism of “true” and “false”, “right” and “wrong” when talking about different belief-systems. Although they accepted that all belief-systems were determined by social and economic factors, they disagreed that one set of belief is more capable to make valid statements about the nature of (social) reality than another.[26] 

The material condition of existence determines the consciousness- the famous “das Sein bestimmt das Bewusstsein”-axiom- of the individual, but since no-one can step outside one’s own consciousness no-one could claim to have the possibilities to make impartial assessments after an objective stock-taking of all ideologies. In the final analysis one can dispute the notion that “all is ideology”- a statement which then is, by definition, in itself a product of a certain ideology.

The widening of the term „ideology“ to embrace not only the meaning of  „false” belief-sets but all sets of belief has even been accepted by modern Marxist writers- Marxism itself is now an “ideology” [27]- but claims of Marxist ideology being the only ideology that can make “true” and “right” statements about the nature of “ideologies” still persist.(“Eine wissenschaftliche Begriffsbestimmung und befriedigende Loesung der mit diesem Begriff verbundenen Probleme ist einzig und allein vom philosophisch- methologischen Standpunkt des dialektischen und historischen Materialismus aus möglich.“)[28] The reflections and findings of other schools of thought are categorically dismissed. („Alle weiteren Entwicklungen uns Ansätze einer „Ideologiekritik“ innerhalb des bürgerlichen Denkens nach Marx stellen diesen Einsichten und Erkenntnissen einen Rückschritt dar.“) [29]

Lately, besides claims about the possibility of making “true” statements, certain other aspects of the concept of “ideologies” have also come under scrutiny.

Some writers argue, that ”ideology” should not be regarded as be created and defined by intellectuals and philosophers only, but also as being influenced by “ordinary” people- a turn against the early notion of “ideology” as used by its “inventor” Destutt de Tracy.

Other writers have questioned the notion of “ideology” as a set beliefs or ideas. They define “ideology” as “practices” carried out by everyone every day in an entirely unreflecting manner.

And another group of writers have questioned the nature of the structure that determines the formation of “ideologies”. They think that it is not the socio-economic situation but rather the structures of language that influences the nature of “ideologies”. 

And a fourth group of writers does not acknowledge the importance of structural factors such as socio-economic backgrounds or language patterns in the creation of “ideologies” whatsoever but places a higher emphasis on agency, on the individual human being- a turn against Marxist thinking, “sociology of knowledge” and language-structuralists alike.[30]

So, what is “ideology” ?

An answer, which could claim at least a basic area of agreement would come close to the definition at the beginning of this essay:

An ideology is a belief or a set of beliefs, especially the political beliefs on which people, parties, or countries base their actions. [31]

However, each possible answer would be itself be determined by a certain ideology in turn- even this simple definition is “ideological” in so far as it rejects or fails to agree with a more pointed Marxist definition, for instance.

In the end, the term “ideology” says more about the one who uses it than about what it ought to define.

Do we need a theory of “ideology” ?

Social science wants to investigate the political realm of human existence. To do so it observes, measures, catalogues. But one of the more creative sides of social science is the development of theories. There are theories for everything, covering different areas; there are political theories (!), social theories, economic theories, philosophical theories, sociological theories, psychological theories, and epistemological theories.

But is there a theory of “ideology” ? And if not, do we need one ?

The present state of “ideology” is largely regarded as being one of a “concept”.[32]

A “concept” is defined as “(a) a general idea,(b) a thought or a notion[33] or an “abstract principle”.[34]

In order to discuss what improvements or qualitative-logical changes are to be made in order to create or invent a “theory of ideology” one has to understand what a “theory” is. The problem lies, again, in the difficulty to identify what the term exactly means, as many social scientists are ready to acknowledge[35].

A “theory” can be anything from an abstract general account (systematically organised knowledge[36], abstract principle[37] ) or a vague idea about something: (speculation, an assumption [38], an idea about something that is based on a lot of thinking but not on actual knowledge or evidence[39]), to a precise statement that can and has to be empirically proven[40]. Social scientists who favour the latter definition of “theory” would deny “theories” of the former definitions the attribute  “theories”.[41]

However,  both “concept” and “theory” can be defined as being ideas or abstract principles.

In order to decide whether or nor we need a “theory” of ideology we need to look further into the “nature” of theories in order to establish a certain quality that is unique to the notion of “theory” and makes a change from the present state of “ideology” being a “concept” into a “theory” possible and conceivable.

However, with such a wide range of possible “things” that can be labelled “theory” one finds all sorts of descriptions and definitions, including contradictions, and tautologies.

Ralf Dahrendorf, for instance, writes about his basic thesis, that it is possible to create theories: “Meine erste These ist: Es ist denkmoeglich (vorstellbar), verallgemeinernde soziologische Theorien (…) zu bilden”[42]   That sounds fine, but then, what is the meaning of the term “thesis” ? Dahrendorf himself does not answer that question- very wisely. After all, one common definition of “thesis” is “an idea or theory”[43]. So, basically, what Dahrendorf says is that he has the theory that it is possible to create theories. Tautology par excellence. 

Another illustration of the chaos of definitions regarding “theory”: Even though most social scientists agree that within a wider hierarchy the “theory” is the “generic term”, while “hypothesis” is the subordinate term, i. e. a theory consist of several hypothesises[44], it is by no means uncommon to equate “theory” with “hypothesis”.[45]  

Since basically everything that explains something can be called “theory”, some authors argue for distinctions between “theories” regarding their “importance” or “scope” of their conclusions by introducing the terms “general theories” and “theories-of-the-middle-range”[46]-  a proposal which is criticised and rejected by other authors.[47]

Some scientists have two categories of classification of “theories”: “normative” versus “descriptive-empirical”[48], or “normative/metaphysical-pragmatic” versus “empirical-cognitive”[49]- others have three:  “ontological-normative”, “deductive-empirical” or “empirical-analytical” and “dialectical-critical”[50].

What lies at heart of the matter regarding the number of existing definitions of “theory”, assumptions about their scope and their possible classifications is the lack of  an authority that could supervise the introduction and revision of  binding  fundamental terms.

On one hand one has to admire the sheer fantasy that social scientists display when they produce yet another definition for already existing categories and terms, but on the other hand the lack of precise definitions and logical coherence regarding the hierarchy of terms and concepts makes social sciences an area of mayhem and disarray.

This is made worse by the otherwise unanimously accepted notion that clear and exact definitions and logical coherence is the very foundation, the “bread and butter” of the profession.[51] Everyone knows about these basic requirements of the social science, yet few seem to worry about them.

Do not get me wrong; I do not want to give up the variety and plurality of social science. The very fact of different views and convictions makes social science the most lively, vibrant and interesting of all sciences. However, one can learn from natural science to that effect that even though their general principles get frequently shaken and turned upside down they all can, regardless of their actual usage, agree when they refer to definitions of basic terms such as “Bunsen burner” and “test-tube”.

However, tough we may not be any nearer to an answer what criteria a “theory” of ideology should have, never the less we may still feel that it would be good to have one anyway.

But here lies the next problem. Not only do we not know what qualitative requirements a “theory” of ideology would have to meet, but would we be able to have just one theory of  ideology ? After all, the absence of “the one unifying theory” or “grand theory” is sadly missed by some authors, although not by others.[52] 

Could “ideology” prove to be the “holy grail” of social science, the one “topic” on which everyone could agree to have just one, unified view ?

If experience is anything to go by than that remains more than doubtful. Even if everyone could agree on a general standard of “theory”-definition and requirement, the existing “viewpoints” or “philosophies” within the social sciences, which more often than not call themselves “theories”- rational choice, behaviourism, Marxism etc.- are unlikely to give up their particular philosophy. Rather than to agree on one “theory of ideology”, every “social science philosophy” would come up with their own definition of a “theory of ideology”.

Marxism-Leninism, after all, claims already to have a “theory” of ideology.[53]

In the end, there would be as many different theories about “ideology” as there are “concepts” of  ideology.

So what would have changed ?

Since there is no authority to determine the exact definition of the terms “theory” and “concept” and establish requirements about qualitative differences between the two terms, no one could ensure that any “theory of ideology” is not just a change of words but a real qualitative improvement. But anything less than significant qualitative “upgrade” of the existing notions of “ideology” would just result in a mere “re-name” and have no epistemological benefit.

I cannot see what a “theory” of ideology could do that the various “concepts” of ideology are not capable of.

Regarding the clutter within social sciences when it comes to formulate clear, consistent definitions and establish generally accepted logical relations within hierarchies of terms “what is usually referred to as sociological theory is made up of looser articulations of descriptive and explanatory concepts”[54] anyway.

  • [1] “Ideology”, Collins Cobuilt
  • [2] “Ideology”, Microsoft Encarta98 Encyclopedia
  • [3] “Ideology and pragmatism”, Encyclopaedia Britannica
  • [4] “Origins and characteristics of ideology”, Encyclopaedia Britannica
  • [5] “Ideology”, ODWE; “Ideology”,Merriam-Webster Dictionary
  • [6] “Ideologie”, Textor, A. M.
  • [7] “Ideologie”, Textor, A. M.
  • [8] Goerlitz, A./ Praetorius, R., p. 140; Kerber, H. / Schmieder, A., p. 203; Narr, W. D., p. 71
  • [9] Kerber, H. / Schmieder, A., p. 203
  • [10]Kerber, H. / Schmieder, A., p. 203
  • [11] “Ideology and terror”, “Ideology in the early political philosophy”, Encyclopaedia Britannica
  • [12] “Imperialism”,Microsoft Encarta98 Encyclopedia
  • [13] “Ideology and the cold war”, Encyclopaedia Britannica
  • [14] “Genocide”,Microsoft Encarta98 Encyclopedia
  • [15] “Origins and characteristics of ideology”, Encyclopaedia Britannica;
  • [16] “Origins and characteristics of ideology”, Encyclopaedia Britannica; “Ideologie”, Data Becker Lexikon 1998; “Ideologie”, Geschichte, Lexikon der Grundbegriffe 
  • [17] “Origins and characteristics of ideology”, Encyclopaedia Britannica;
  • [18] “Origins and characteristics of ideology”, Encyclopaedia Britannica; “Ideologie”, Geschichte, Lexikon der Grundbegriffe
  • [19] “Ideologie”, Geschichte, Lexikon der Grundbegriffe
  • [20] “Ideologie”, Geschichte, Lexikon der Grundbegriffe
  • [21] “Ideologie”, Geschichte, Lexikon der Grundbegriffe
  • [22]“Originsand characteristics of ideology”, Encyclopaedia Britannica; “Ideologie”, Geschichte, Lexikon der Grundbegriffe; “Ideology”, Dictionary of Politics
  • [23] Abercrombie, N./ Hill, S./ Turner, B. S., p. 119; Jary, D./ Jary, J., p. 306; “Origins and characteristics of ideology”,” Hegel and Marx”,Encyclopaedia Britannica; “Ideologie”, Data Becker Lexikon 1998; “Ideologie”, Geschichte, Lexikon der Grundbegriffe 
  • [24]  Goerlitz, A./ Praetorius, R., p. 139
  • [25] Abercrombie, N./ Hill, S./ Turner, B. S., p. 119; “Ideologie”, Geschichte, Lexikon der Grundbegriffe
  • [26] Abercrombie, N./ Hill, S./ Turner, B. S., p. 119; Jary, D./ Jary, J., p. 306; Robertson, D., p. 153,  Kerber, H. / Schmieder, A., p. 237, “Ideologie”, Data Becker Lexikon 1998; “Ideologie”, Geschichte, Lexikon der Grundbegriffe 
  • [27] „Ideologie“, Woerterbuch der marxistisch-leninistischen Soziologie
  • [28] „Ideologie“, Woerterbuch der marxistisch-leninistischen Soziologie
  • [29] „Ideologie“, Woerterbuch der marxistisch-leninistischen Soziologie
  • [30] Abercrombie, N./ Hill, S./ Turner, B. S., p. 119
  • [31] “Ideology rdquo;, Collins Cobuilt
  • [32] Abercrombie, N./ Hill, S./ Turner, B. S., p. 119;  Robertson, D., p. 153; “Ideology ”, Encyclopaedia Britannica
  • [33] “Concept”, Microsoft Encarta98 Encyclopedia; “Concept”, Collins Cobuilt
  • [34] “Concept”, Collins Cobuilt
  • [35] Dahrendorf, R., p. 33;  Friedrichs, J., p. 60f; Reimann, H., p. 86f
  • [36] “Theory”, Microsoft Encarta98 Encyclopedia
  • [37] “Theory”, Collins Cobuilt
  • [38] “Theory”, Microsoft Encarta98 Encyclopedia
  • [39] “Theory”, Collins Cobuilt
  • [40] “Ideology and terror”, Encyclopaedia Britannica;  Dahrendorf, R., p. 33;  Friedrichs, J., p. 60f;  Reimann, H., p.86f, “Theorie”, Geschichte, Lexikon der Grundbegriffe;  “Theorie”, Philisophielexicon
  • [41] “Ideology and terror”, Encyclopaedia Britannica;  Friedrichs, J., p. 60f;
  • [42] Dahrendorf, R., p. 33
  • [43] “Thesis”, Collins Cobuilt
  • [44] Dahrendorf, R., p. 33; Friedrichs, J., p. 60f
  • [45] Abercrombie, N./ Hill, S./ Turner, B. S., p. 116; “Theory”, Collins Cobuilt
  • [46] Jary,D./ Jary, J., p. 685; „Theorie“, Woerterbuch der marxistisch-leninistischen Soziologie
  • [47]  „Theorie“, Woerterbuch der marxistisch-leninistischen Soziologie
  • [48] Stoker, G., p. 17
  • [49] Goerlitz, A/ Praetorius, R., p. 562
  • [50] Muenkler, H., p. 18f
  • [51] Stoker, G., p. 17
  • [52] Jary, D./ Jary, J., p. 685
  • [53] „Ideologie“, Woerterbuch der marxistisch-leninistischen Soziologie;  “Ideologie”, Data Becker Lexikon 1998;  Jary, D./ Jary, J., p. 306
  • [54] Jary, D./ Jary, J., p. 111


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