Friday, 16 March 2012

On ideology

Ideology comes in many shapes and sizes. On hearing the term we might think of religious ideology, or left-wing ideology, or, lo-and-behold, feminist ideology. But what about the ‘common-sense’, the ‘everyday’, the ‘status quo’ – is that ideology too?

Ideology is generally perceived as something radical, extreme and threatening, so most people would most likely disagree. Without (obvious) slogans, propaganda and figureheads, how could the ‘everyday’ be ideological? But let’s look at the term more closely to see whether or not the status quo might just have a whiff of ideology about it.

The Oxford Dictionaries online platform defines ‘ideology’ as follows: “a system of ideas and ideals, especially one which forms the basis of economic or political theory and policy” (OD 2012), which hardly proclaims the extreme. In fact, it is a surprisingly neutral and apt summary of any belief system – making the ‘common-sense’ one system of ‘ideas and ideals’ and therefore one particular ideology.

But why is a division constantly reinforced between the ‘everyday’ and ‘ideology’? The answer is as simple as it is disturbing: because only by making itself appear as different from ‘ideology’ – as essentially un-ideological – can ideology function in our most sinister understanding: by indoctrinating without us being aware of indoctrination and perpetuating without us challenging perpetuation.

As Louis Althusser remarks: “those who are in ideology believe themselves by definition outside ideology […] ideology never says, ‘I am ideological’” (Althusser 2008, 49). In short, dominant ideology builds its very dominance on the myth of functioning ‘outside’ of ideology. However, (how) can any system of ideas and ideals not be ideology?

It cannot, of course, but by maintaining the charade of separation dominant ideology makes us believe that within it we are able to think independently and be entirely self-determined and free. And in contrast to this ‘freedom’, other points of view can be declared as biased and limiting, whilst subtly reinforcing the own boundaries of limitation – which is why women’s equality seems not just unimaginable but something radical and extreme.

But while this continuing (mis)interpretation of ‘ideology’ can work to our disadvantage it can equally help us to further our (feminist) position. By actively exposing the ideological workings of the everyday, the ‘common-sense’ would suddenly no longer appear comfortably neutral. And looking at the general distaste for ideology, there seems little worse than standing accused of it.

After all, who wants to be tarred with the brush of the extreme?


Althusser, Louis. 2008. On Ideology. London: New York: Verso.


  1. How does ideology differ from culture, then, in your opinion, if at all?

  2. Hi Barbara,

    I don’t think there is much difference between the basic concepts of ideology and culture, rather, I believe culture is the ‘product’ of the constant perpetuation of certain ‘ideas and ideals’. However, because culture additionally holds powerful notions such as ‘tradition’ and ‘history’ it is even more resistant to change. So in effect, culture is (dominant) ideology at its best.