Earl Jackson, Jr.
Ideology is a term developed in the Marxist tradition to talk about how
cultures are structured in ways that enable that 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, 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 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?).
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
2. ideological structures appear to be the logical conclusion to an
3. there is an assumption that now that this (natural) state of affairs
has been reached, things will be that way, barring regression
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 are the power relations? How are they made to appear as if they
- are normal or good? What negative aspects are excluded?
- 3. 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?
- 4. What people, classes, areas of life, experiences, are ‚left out‘,
- 5. 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)?
„myth“ here 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 it is
culturally interpreted in such a way that all of the potentially
negative elements are erased, as in the examples I have given.
- 6. How does the style of presentation contribute to the meaning of the
- text? Style always contains meaning.
- 7. 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.
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