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Theoretical Ideas in Sociology - Ideology


  1. Introduction

    1. Last 3 sessions: Douglas on classification; Parsons on pattern variables; Adorno on culture.  All are accounts of the way in which social experience is structured.  None is an account of what people explicitly believe, none is an account of ‘ideas’ or organised systems of belief. 

    2. This week: how to think about the relationship between ideas and society.  How to study ‘ideology’.  We will see that the history of the analysis of ideology is one in which the study of ideas has evolved into the study of (popular) culture. 


  1. Enlightenment and Romanticism

    1. Enlightenment: positive science of ideology (Destutt de Tracy) provides ‘mirrors in which objects are painted clearly and in their proper perspectives…from the true point of view’

    2. Romanticism: notion of ‘just prejudice’ (Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France) – ‘universal’ ideas (e.g. about human rights, democracy) are always refracted through the prism of a particular culture. 


  1. Two approaches to the study of ideas:

    1. Hermeneutics of suspicion (Marx, Nietzsche, Freud)

    2. Hermeneutics of recovery (Heidegger, Gadamer, Ricoeur)


  1. Marx

    1. Both enlightenment and romanticism are wrong:  enlightenment treats ideas as floating above concrete reality; romanticism thinks that concrete reality is so concrete that there is nothing but prejudice.  Marx wants us to attend to concrete, particular social relations out of which ideas emerge AND be able to say which are true, which false (so in a way his work shows a tension between enlightenment and romantic motifs (compare Isaiah Berlin on enlightenment and romanticism) 

    2. 2 targets for Marx’s social criticism: ideology (idols of the mind) and commodities (idols of the marketplace – fetishism of commodities); ideology – shadows cast on the wall of Plato’s cave; commodity – the object that casts those shadows. 

    3. Marx’s metaphor for thinking about ideology: ideology is the inverted image produced by the camera obscura (this of course implies that it might contain truth, just an inverted truth) The German Ideology is a critique of German idealist philosophy (e.g. Hegel)

    4. The task of the analysis of ideology is to demonstrate the limitations of philosophical or theological abstractions and to replace these with the study of concrete social relations (materialist conception of history).

    5. Difficulty for Marx: the study of ideology is inseparable from the belief in science, and on a distinction between science and ideology.


  1. Nietzsche (1844-1900) – Genealogy of Morals

    1. ‘Universal’ ideas about morality are the product of a ‘slave revolt in morals’; master morality – good/bad distinction; slave morality - good/evil distinction.  Master morality – the (weak) others’ badness is derived from our (the strong) goodness.  Slave morality – our (the downtrodden) goodness is derived from the perceived evil of others (rulers)  Ressentiment.  Slave morality invents universal moral principles to explain its own suffering; those who rule have violated these principles.  Primary example of slave revolt in morality – Christianity.   

    2. Unlike Marx or Freud, Nietzsche does not believe that his approach to the history of ideas is ‘scientific’.  Exposure of hypocrisy or of limitations of apparently universal principles must extend to science as well.  ‘Truth is a moving army of metaphors’. ‘the value of truth must be experimentally called into question’, etc.    


  1. Ideology in the Marxist tradition:

    1. Jameson, Althusser, Eagleton – all haunted by the camera obscura metaphor.

    2. Althusser (1964)

                                                               i.       ideology does not represent real conditions of existence in a false way. Ideology represents our relationship to those real conditions.  So ideology is not illusion, but an allusion to reality. 

                                                             ii.      Ideology has a material existence, which means: don’t look at ideas, but at ideological practices; not at beliefs about God but at religious rituals, not at ideas about good and evil but at representations of good and evil in, e.g., plays or films etc. 

                                                            iii.      Althusser still wanted to say that Marxism is scientific.


    1. cultural studies:

                                                               i.      retain idea of a critique of ideology but try to drop the assumption that ideology is opposed to science.

                                                             ii.      Residue of Marxism in the motivation for cultural studies: why isn’t there a revolution?   Passivity of populations, effects of popular culture (link with Frankfurt School here) film, TV, shopping. 


    1. irony of 20th century Marxism: not much on economics, a great deal on ideology and culture, about which Marx wrote not very much.


  1. Mannheim’s paradox:

    1. Ideology and Utopia: Germany in 1920s – new party political system, official pluralism; but also plurality of styles of thought in intellectual and especially political life.  Two in particular:

                                                               i.      Ideological thought – denial of current reality by looking back to a previous age and considering current reality from that point of view; legacy of enlightenment means that even conservatism becomes an ideology rather than an implicit, effortless adherence to custom or tradition. 

                                                             ii.      Utopian thought – denial of current reality by looking at it from the point of view of a possible future (communism and fascism)


    1. result of this is representatives of different styles of thinking ‘talking past one another’, mutual incomprehension.  This is made worse by spread of ‘unmasking turn of mind’, an attitude which says: ‘I can explain where you are coming from, but you cannot explain me’.  ‘My view is scientific and yours is ideological’, your ideas are tainted by their origins, mine are not’.  BUT if everyone can make this move, it loses all its force.

    2. So instead of the critique of ideology we should do the sociology of knowledge: treat styles of thought and belief as having an origin, and explicable in terms of that origin, but be agnostic on the question of whether they are right or wrong. 

    3. This has led most commentators on Mannheim to accuse him of relativism.


  1. Geertz

    1. Mannheim’s paradox is important but has been ignored, not only by Marxism but also by conservatives:

                                                               i.      e.g. Oakeshott, who objects to an ideological style of politics (Oakeshott’s famous thesis about ‘rationalism in politics – communism, fascism and even Thatcherism share a single feature - trying to base political action on ‘big ideas’ instead of seeking to inhabit and adapt to an existing tradition of behaviour)

    1. What both Marxist and conservative critiques of ideology do: rather than attend to the complexities of symbol systems or patterns of meaning, they move straight to an analysis of:

                                                               i.      The origins of beliefs and ideas (e.g. Kant’s philosophy as ‘bourgeois’ philosophy; James Bond as ‘cold war propaganda’)

                                                             ii.      The consequences of those beliefs and ideas (e.g. the conservative claim that all we need to know about Marxism is contained in reports from the Gulag; e.g. Critical theory’s claim that the effect/consequence of certain films/books etc is the reinforcement/reproduction, of capitalism)

    1. Problems with origins and consequences:

                                                               i.      Origins – aren’t there works of art/literature which transcend their origins?  (Isn’t that a definition of a classic?  E.g. Bach (contra Said) or: e.g. Durkhiem didn’t treat his wife very well, but can we see that in his writings on the division of labour?  Isn’t there a lot more in the text? (hermeneutics of recovery)

                                                             ii.      Consequences: how do we know what the effects of watching a film or reading a book actually are?  How long does the ideological content of a film/book stay with us?  Or do we say: ‘ideology exists only at the moment when we confront it face to face’ ?]

    1. Example of what Geertz might not like – the work of Pierre Bourdieu Photography: A Middle Brow Art.  There is not much discussion of photographs themselves, or what it is like to look at a photograph, but a lot on photography clubs, rituals connected with family albums etc; Distinction – link between cultural consumption and class 

    2. General tendency to see ideology as failed science should be resisted: novels and films are not trying to do the same thing as science – they are not trying to get to the truth about social reality.

    3. Geertz’s alternative to these: ‘thick description’ (description again!): we have to attend more closely to the mechanisms through which societies make sense of themselves, the ways in which meanings are articulated, the levels of significance on which a cultural product or idea operates etc.  See his account of the Balinese cock-fight.

    4. Problem with Geertz: doesn’t this mean that sociology is hampered – doesn’t sociology have to talk about belief and ideas in terms of their origins and consequences?   Or end up losing its vocation to art historians and literary critics?   (Simmel on general sociology) 


  1. Baudrillard:

    1. Postmodern reality: today, we cannot say that ideology is a distortion of reality, because today we live in a world not of ideology but of simulation.  There is no reality to be distorted because what we might call illusion helps to create reality.  B calls this hyperrreality.

    2. Examples:

                                                               i.       Medieval icnonoclasts – icons were considered dangerous and needed to be destroyed, not because they masked the reality of God, but because they replaced that reality)

                                                             ii.      pretending to be ill can produce symptoms of illness

                                                            iii.      food pictures in magazines are really photos of plastic models of food.  

                                                           iv.      The gulf war never happened – what we saw on our TV screens – the ‘reality’ of the war - was a computer game.

                                                             v.      Internet chat rooms


    1. Illusion is no longer possible because the real is no longer possible





Theoretical Ideas in Sociology – Ideology


‘Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as science ‘without presuppositions’…a ‘faith’ must always be there first of all, so that science can acquire from it a direction, a meaning, a limit, a method – a right to exist…

It is still a metaphysical faith that underlies our faith in science – and we men of knowledge of today, we godless men and anti-metaphysicians, we, too, still derive our flame from the fire ignited by a faith millennia old faith, the Christian faith, which was also Plato’s, that God is truth, that truth is divine – but what if this belief is becoming more and more unbelievable, if nothing turns out to be divine any longer unless it be error, blindness, lies – if God himself turns out to be our longest lie?’

(Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals, Third Essay, §24)


‘A work like the B Minor mass is an astonishing demonstration of piety and invention, but for all the intensity and skill of its various parts…it must also be read as an extended act of homage to the Elector of Saxony, to whom Bach wrote the most fawning letters imaginable.  Music therefore quite literally fills a social space, and it does so by elaborating the ideas of authority and social hierarchy directly connected to a dominant establishment imagined as actually presiding over the work’.

(Edward Said, Musical Elaborations, London: Vintage 1991, p.64)


‘Today we have reached a stage in which this weapon of the reciprocal unmasking and laying bare of the unconscious sources of intellectual existence has become the property not of one group but of all of them.  But in the measure in which various groups sought to destroy their adversaries’ confidence in their thinking by this most modern intellectual weapon of radical unmasking, they also destroyed, as all positions gradually came to be subjected to an alysis, man’s confidence in human thought in general’.

 (Karl Mannheim, Ideology and Utopia, p.37)


‘…those ‘ideas’ which govern the behaviour of the population of a certain epoch, i.e. which are concretely influential in determining their conduct, can, if a somewhat complicated construct is involved, be formulated precisely only in the form of an ideal type, since empirically it exists in the minds of an indefinite and constantly changing mass of individuals and assumes in their minds the most multifarious nuances of form and content, clarity and meaning.  Those elements of the spiritual life of the individuals living in a certain epoch of the Middle Ages, for example, which we may designate as the ‘Christianity’ of those individuals would, if they could be completely portrayed, naturally constitute a chaos of infinitely differentiated and highly contradictory complexes of ideas and feelings’.

(Max Weber, ‘Objectivity in Social Science and Social Policy’, in The Methodology of the Social Sciences, p.96)


‘It is of course easily overlooked that however important the significance even of the purely logically persuasive force of ideas – Marxism is an outstanding example of this type of force – nonetheless empirical-historical events occurring in mend’s minds must be understood as primarily psychologically and not logically conditioned’ (ibid. p.96)