On ideology

One of the frequent expressions heard in the context of education and education research is that of ideology and/or the accusation that someone (presumably that we don’t agree with) is either being ideological or conducting ideological research. I must confess to being guilty of this at times as well. In my opinion ‘being ideological’ is often conflated with the quality of research, non-ideological=good research or practice, ideological research=bad research or practice. My argument in this post is that this conflation is highly problematic, because in its most literal sense all research can be seen as ideological to some degree because it is about the intersection of ideas with social relations and institutions.

One of the problems with this conflation is that it basically advances a position that some research (generally that I disagree with) is ideological and other research (generally that I agree with based either on the findings or the method) is clearly not ideological. This position is problematic for a number of reasons, because a) it misunderstands the etymology of ideology and b) following on from a), this position fails to recognise that all research is inherently ideological because the questions that we ask, the methods that we use, the way we analyse data etc are predicated upon ideological assumptions about reality, the world, the purpose of education etc.

One example of this is this article published in The Age, an Australian newspaper, which argued that social science as a discipline is in a dire state because “The very concept of objectivity is scorned in the academy” such that

The victory of theory and ideology is now pervasive in the social sciences, especially sociology and social psychology. Even history is now wrapped in so much historiography, encroaching on the primacy of rigorous factual research and narrative. Communications degrees are now weighed down by useless theory when the field requires rapidly evolving technical skills.

Of course the chief cause of this problem is the university, that bastion of (presumably Left) ideology, has become so enamoured with anti-empiricism and/or anti-realism that we can’t have basic Clint Eastwood style westerns anymore where the white guys are the good guys and the Indians are the bad guys.

One of the things that I find interesting about this piece is that it advances the notion that some beliefs are ideological, and others are not.  In this instance, it seems that a belief in empirical objectivity is natural, and a belief in theoretical accounts of the world must be ideological. Rather than prosecuting this as an argument about whether this is right/wrong (and I clearly have a position on that) I am much more interested in working through how we understand ideology, the rhetorical work that it does and how it is that some beliefs are OK and others not. In short, I think it could usefully help debate if we had a better understanding of ideology, particularly in the context of social media discussions.

Ideology was a phrased first coined, or at least popularised, by  Antoine Destutt de Tracy during the upheaval during and after the French Revolution. It’s originary meaning refers to a ‘science of ideas’, which aims to understand ideas empirically rather than theologically and/or metaphysically. During his life, de Tracy and his followers came into conflict with Napoleon who accused them, as Enlightenment thinkers interested in human rights, freedom, and other Enlightenment ideals, of being “ideologues” because their views were overly romantic, unrealistic and of no use to the real world which demanded military conquest. It seems that this style of critique remains alive and well.

Subsequently, ideology became an important concept for Karl Marx and his followers (such as Althusser), who argued that social, economic, and political theories were the structures, consciousness and set of ideas of the ruling classes. Of course, one of the problems with this position is that if all social theories are ideological, so is Marxism (a point I tend to agree with). In other words, Marxism is necessarily ideological as it advances ideological critique of the ‘ruling classes’.

In 1991, Terry Eagelton in his book Ideology: An Introduction which is framed as a Marxist rebuke of postmodernism, argued that the

word ‘ideology’, one might say, is a text, woven of a whole tissue of different conceptual strands; it is traced through by divergent histories, and it is probably more important to assess what is valuable or can be discarded in each of these lineages than to merge them forcibly into some Grand Global Theory. (p.1)

It is an interesting point, how do we assess what is valuable within the various ideological positions that proliferate within the social world? Also importantly, what do we need to challenge, remove, discard within those positions?  However, what his work most usefully does is set out a list of ways that ideology is employed as a communicative, and often rhetorical, tool. Eagleton argues that there are least 16 definitions of ideology (see below) that make up this text, some of which are similar whilst others are contradictory. This highlights the complexity of ideology as a word, often we may be using the same word but our understandings are so different that assuming word-meaning correspondence is often a problem for discussion.

(a) the process of production of meanings, signs and values in social life; (b) a body of ideas characteristic of a particular social group or class; (c) ideas which help to legitimate a dominant political power; (d) false ideas which help to legitimate a dominant political power; (e) systematically distorted communication; (f) that which offers a position for a subject; (g) forms of thought motivated by social interests; (h) identity thinking; (i) socially necessary illusion; (j) the conjuncture of discourse and power; (k) the medium in which conscious social actors make sense of their world; (l) action-oriented sets of beliefs; (m) the confusion of linguistic and phenomenal reality; (n) semiotic closure; (o) the indispensable medium in which individuals live out their relations to a social structure; (p) the process whereby social life is converted to a natural reality (pp.1-2)

Perhaps the most useful, albeit largely forgotten contribution to understanding ideology was that of Karl Mannheim. Mannheim argued, in his foundational work Ideology and Utopia, that most ideological positions are derived from social life, are quite workable in social situations, and that they may even be necessary in certain ways for the maintenance of that social life. Where things get interesting, is where ideology becomes to an extent unworkable or unavailable (and indeed the inevitability of this), as “The individual is always compelled to fall short of his own nobler motives.” (p.342) and utopian notions of changing social relations are manifest.

Inasmuch as man is a creature living primarily in history and society, the “existence” that surrounds him is never “existence as such,” but is always a concrete historical form of social existence. For the sociologist, “existence” is … a functional social order, which does not exist only in the imagination of certain individuals but according to which people really act. (p.341)

One of the most interesting things about the use of ideology as a rhetorical device (intended as either a Napoleonist/Marxist put-down) is that it necessary appears to operate as a pejorative; whether it be a belief in the scientific method (or indeed its critique), quantitative or qualitative research method, the Foucaultean juncture of knowledge/power etc. Arguing that social science should be more objective is necessarily ideological, but it is also a position that should be engaged with and argued for or against rather than ignored. However, I don’t think that utilitarian or economic arguments are the best way to justify what it is that social science is and should be.

As I read it, everything we believe is already ideological because we are necessarily social (for example, through language). Saying this, however, does not  imply that any position held is necessarily right or wrong, rather that within the ontological and epistemological assumptions of any belief system ideology invariable precedes consciousness. For this reason, I don’t mind being called ideological (of course I am) or suggesting that others are ideological (of course they are). However, I do think that what is most interesting about the use of the term ‘ideology/ical’ is to try to uncover what is being concealed within that rhetorical move. Sometimes it may be a frustration that two distinct ways of looking at the world aren’t reconcilable. I kind of like this irreconcilability, I often learn more form the productive tension of ideologies than I ever do from their attempted synthesis.