Ideology Essay

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Ideology is a term coined by French philosopher Destutt de Tracy (1754–1836) to designate the science or study of ideas. In its current usage, ideology is a pattern of ideas, beliefs, values, and attitudes, a way of looking at the world, a general life-orienting cognitive and emotional picture of how things are or should be. Ideology provides individuals with a compact shorthand guide to organizing their intellectual world, which can be carried with them from issue to issue whether the issue is political, social, economic, or religious in nature. This roughly coherent set of ideas and values need not necessarily be an identifiable ideology such as Marxism. Many people may not be aware that that they are expounding a particular ideology and may claim that they have the values and attitudes they have for pragmatic reasons, or because their position on relevant topics is simply “common sense.” If one defines ideology as a taken-for-granted worldview, all individuals have some sort of ideology guiding their thoughts and actions.

The term ideology has been used mostly pejoratively as denoting a set of dogmas having little or no basis in reality. The person most associated with the pejorative use of the term is Karl Marx. Marx considered ideology to be a collective illusion fostered on the working-class masses by the capitalist ruling classes to placate them and induce them to do the ruling class’s bidding. The ideas, attitudes, and values undergirding the capitalist ideology were (and are) personal responsibility, duty, hard work, future orientation, scrupulousness, and so forth. Marx considered the acceptance of this set of characteristics as false consciousness because it better served the needs of the bourgeoisie rather than those of the proletariat. Marx offered an ideology of his own to describe how the world works (or ought to), which he called a theory—“scientific socialism”—rather than an ideology.

Marx’s thoughts on ideology were expanded by Antonio Gramsci and Lois Althusser. In trying to explain why revolution never occurred in the most capitalist societies, Gramsci averred that capitalism maintained its grip not only through violent means (which Althusser would call the “repressive state apparatus,” meaning the military and criminal justice systems) but also, and primarily, by cultural hegemony—Althusser’s “ideological state apparatus” (ISA). The ISA includes all the traditional social institutions, such as the family and schools, but also trade unions, the media, and the arts. Althusser considered each of these ISAs to be the realization of an ideology with a material existence, and it is from these ISAs that each person becomes a conscious subject who willingly complies with the values and ideas of the ISA and views them as their own and as “common sense.” It seems that for Gramsci and Althusser ideology is just another term for socialization with a highly politicized and critical focus.

Thus, ideologies are systems of ideas that aspire to explain not only how the world works, but also (1) what to do to preserve it as it is, or (2) how to change it to what it should be. In the United States, and elsewhere, ideology dictates opposing positions on a host of “preserve-or-change” issues, such as the death penalty, abortion, illegal immigration, same-sex marriage, school prayer, and school vouchers. Contrasting positions on these and many other issues define the liberal-conservative divide in the modern United States, although not always consistently.

“Conservative” and “liberal” are confusing terms when attempting to apply them across the board. When Mikhail Gorbachev moved toward a free market and social openness from a command economy in the Soviet Union in the late 20th century, it was conservatives supporting their vision of stability, tradition, and cultural continuity who opposed him. They desired to preserve socialism, but anyone favoring socialism over capitalism in the United States would be a radical liberal, and certainly not a conservative. Likewise, support for a free market economy and limited government was a classical Western liberal position, but is a conservative position in the United States today. It is therefore difficult to cluster together a set of attitudes and values that can be labeled “conservative” or “liberal” across time and place.

People of different dispositions are attracted to grassroots movements, such as the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street, with two totally opposite ideological agendas, the first wanting to radically limit government influence on the economy and the other wanting to radically expand it. To discover why some people are disposed to a broadly rightist conservative ideology while others are disposed to a broadly leftist liberal ideology, one might appeal to the 19th-century English poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Coleridge believed that all people are born either an Aristotelian or a Platonist and that it is impossible to change from one to the other. Plato was a romantic thinker who dreamed of the perfect society run by philosopher kings and that human nature was sufficiently malleable to make this possible. Aristotle was a hard-headed realist who believed that human nature puts constraints on what can be achieved socially and politically and who would never trust a self-anointed intellectual elite to define what is good for everyone else.

A major contemporary theorist of ideology, Thomas Sowell, agrees with Coleridge and claims that two conflicting visions have shaped thoughts about important issues throughout history that mirror the Aristotle/Plato divide: the constrained and unconstrained visions. Constrained visionaries believe that human activities are constrained by an innate human nature that is self-centered and largely unalterable; unconstrained visionaries deny an innate human nature, viewing it as formed anew in each culture. Constrained visionaries (mostly conservatives) say: “This is how the world is” and unconstrained visionaries (mostly liberals) say: “This is how the world should be.” An unconstrained visionary, for instance, may ask what causes poverty and crime while a constrained visionary will say that poverty and crime are the default conditions that result from doing nothing, and that the question should be what are the causes of wealth and a well-ordered society.

It seems that Coleridge was at least partially right. A large number of studies conducted by political scientists and geneticists find heritability coefficients for American liberalism-conservatism in the mid-0.50s, and neuroscientists are finding that different political orientations are correlated with variant brain structures. Of course, geneticists do not expect to find genes for a Sowellian vision by rummaging among human chromosomes, nor do neuroscientists expect to discover red and blue color-coded pathways taking the left or right highways to the prefrontal cortex. Rather, the claim is that Americans’ visions are synthesized genetically via their temperaments that serve as physiological-emotional substrates guiding and shaping their environmental experiences via the processes of gene-environment correlation and gene-environment interaction in ways that increase the likelihood of developing traits and attitudes that color their worlds for them in hues most congenial to our natures.

If about 50 percent of the variance in ideology is accounted for by genes, the environment accounts for the remaining variance. Thus, while people’s visions are resistant to change, they are not impervious to it. The Platonic/Aristotelian and constrained/unconstrained dimensions are continua along which people may shift back and forth according to the issue at hand and are certainly not rigid dichotomies. Only a few fundamentalist zealots are glued tightly to the tails of the distribution; however, temperamental tendencies trump reason in many ways that matter. If it did not, one would not see such eminently reasonable thinkers as Plato and Aristotle, and all the constrained and unconstrained scholars of modern times, differing so widely on important emotionally laden issues that provide grist for the ideological mills.

Ideology is an important issue in criminology and criminal justice. Anthony Walsh and Lee Ellis have called ideology criminology’s “Achilles’ heel,” retarding the development of its full potential. Ideology forms, shapes, and colors people’s concepts of crime and its causes as it does with so many other things, and professional criminologists are not immune to the tendency to accept or reject evidence according to how well it fits their ideology. Studies find that ideology (conservative, moderate, liberal, radical) more than any other variable accounts for the theories favored by individual criminologists. As unconstrained visionaries, liberals and radicals gravitate toward structural theories (e.g., anomie) that tend to blame society for crime, while conservatives and moderates favor more individualistic theories (e.g., self-control) that tend to blame the individuals who commit it. Theories favored by conservatives have a tendency not to address distal variables that mediate proximate causes (thus absolving society from any blame), and theories favored by liberals and radicals tend to avoid addressing variables in direct proportion to their closeness to individuals (thus absolving individuals from blame). Such ideological fractures harm the advance of criminology as a science as well as policies designed to address the crime problem.


  1. Althusser, L. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.” In Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2001.
  2. Anderson, P. “The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci.” New Left Review, (November–December 1976).
  3. Eagleton, Terry. Ideology: An Introduction. London: Verso, 1991.
  4. Jost, John, Christopher Federico, and Jaime Napier. “Political Ideology: Its Structure, Functions, and Elective Affinities.” Annual Review of Psychology, v.60 (2009).
  5. Kanai, Ryota, Tom Feilden, Colin Firth, and Geraint Rees. “Political Orientations Are Correlated With Brain Structure in Young Adults.” Current Biology, v.21 (2011).
  6. Sowell, Thomas. A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles. New York: William Morrow, 1987.
  7. Walsh, Anthony and Lee Ellis. “Ideology: Criminology’s Achilles’ Heel?” Quarterly Journal of Ideology, v.27 (2004).

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