Skip to main content



I The Conceptand Functionof Ideology


II Ideologyand the Social System



Ideology is one variant form of those comprehensive patterns of cognitive and moral beliefs about man, society, and the universe in relation to man and society, which flourish in human societies. Outlooks and creeds, systems and movements of thought, and programs are among the other types of comprehensive patterns which are to be distinguished from ideology.

These comprehensive patterns differ from each other in their degree of (a) explicitness of formulation; (b) intended systemic integration around a particular moral or cognitive belief; (c) acknowledged affinity with other past and contemporaneous patterns; (d) closure to novel elements or varia-ations; (e) imperativeness of manifestation in conduct; (f) accompanying affect; (g) consensus demanded of those who accept them; (h) au-thoritativeness of promulgation; and (i) association with a corporate body intended to realize the pattern of beliefs.

Ideologies are characterized by a high degree of explicitness of formulation over a very wide range of the objects with which they deal; for their adherents there is an authoritative and explicit promulgation. As compared with other patterns of beliefs, ideologies are relatively highly systematized or integrated around one or a few pre-eminent values, such as salvation, equality, or ethnic purity. They are more insistent on their distinctiveness from, and unconnectedness with, the outlooks, creeds, and other ideologies existing in the same society; they are more resistant to innovations in their beliefs and deny the existence or the significance of those which do occur. Their acceptance and promulgation are accompanied by highly affective overtones. Complete individual subservience to the ideology is demanded of those who accept it, and it is regarded as essential and imperative that their conduct be completely permeated by it. Consensus among all those who affirm their adherence is likewise demanded; all adherents of the ideology are urgently expected to be in complete agreement with each other. A corporate collective form is regarded as the mode of organization of adherents appropriate for maintaining discipline among those already committed and for winning over or dominating others.

Outlooks tend to lack one authoritative and explicit promulgation. They are pluralistic in their internal structure and are not systematically integrated. Lacking an authoritative promulgation, outlooks are more open to the entry and inclusion of elements from other outlooks and alien creeds than are ideologies or even creeds. Outlooks contain within themselves a variety of creeds, which differ from each other by divergent emphasis on different elements in the outlook; creeds tend, therefore, to be in conflict with each other on particular issues, while in many respects they accept the prevailing encompassing outlook of the society in which they exist. The vagueness and diffuseness of outlooks and—to a lesser extent—creeds are paralleled by the unevenness of the pressure for their observance in action. In expression, outlooks are relatively un-affective. They are also less demanding of consensus among their bearers than ideologies are.

Ideologies, especially in their incipient stage, are not usually espoused by the incumbents and custodians of the central institutional and value systems. In contrast, outlooks and their subsidiary creeds are the characteristic patterns of belief in those sections of the society which affirm or accept the existing order of society. Rulers and those elites associated with them in the conduct of the central institutional systems tend to espouse the outlook and one or several of the creeds which seek to give a more definite promulgation to certain elements of the prevailing outlook. Creeds which become alienated from the central institutional system tend to acquire the formal properties of ideologies. Whereas outlooks (e.g., Buddhism, Protestantism) bear only a very loose relationship with conduct, creeds (e.g., Quakerism, Roman Catholicism) aspire to a fuller influence on the conduct of those who espouse them.

Creeds often shade off into ideologies, but because they do not tend to take as sharply bounded a corporate form and because they have much less orthodoxy, they cannot command the concerted intellectual power of ideologies. Actual subscription to them tends, therefore, to be partial, fragmentary, and occasional. Unless a creed is taken in hand by a school of thought, it does not undergo systematic elaboration and its scope is not broadened to a point of universal comprehensiveness. Its founder or inspiring genius might have created a coherent system of moral, social, and political philosophy, which in its comprehensiveness, elaborateness, and explictness might be equivalent to the intellectual core of an ideology. However, if the founder forms neither a school of thought nor an ideological primary group, his influence, however great, will be carried by the winds. Each will take from this creed what he wants: it will become a pervasive influence, but it will lose the unity and the force which it needed to become an ideology. If, furthermore, the great thinker is neither far-reachingly alienated from the central value and institutional systems of his society nor unqualifiedly insistent on the complete realization of his doctrine in the conduct of his followers, there is little chance that an ideology will flow from his intellectual construction.

Systems and movements of thought are more or less explicit and systematic intellectual patterns developed in the course of generally undirected intellectual collaboration and division of labor (e.g., existentialism, Hegelian idealism, pragmatism). Like ideologies and unlike outlooks, they are elaborate and internally integrated. However, insofar as they do not insist on total observance in behavior, on a complete consensus among their adherents, and on closure vis-a-vis other intellectual constructions, they do not become ideologies.

A program is a specification of a particular limited objective (e.g., civil rights or electoral reform movements); thus, it represents the narrowing of a focus of interest that is implicit in an outlook and made more explicit or compelling in a creed or a movement of thought. Depending on the pattern from which a program originates, its relationship to more general cognitive and moral principles will be more or less elaborate and explicit. Since its major feature is the limited range of its objectives, it is less likely to be immediately ideological in its origin and association.

Like ideology, movements of thought and programs tend to be in disagreement with contemporaneous outlooks and dominant creeds and the practices through which they operate institutionally. But ideology differs from “dissensual” movements of thought and programs in the intensity of the affect which accompanies its dissent, in the completeness of its corporate self-separation, in its degree of intellectual closure, and in the range of its aspiration to encompass (cognitively, evaluatively, and in practice) all available objects and events.

Ideologies and those who espouse them allege that they speak for a transcendent entity—a stratum, a society, a species, or an ideal value—which is broader than the particular corporate body of those who believe in the ideology. Corporate carriers of the ideologies, whatever their actual practice, claim to act on behalf of an “ideal,” the beneficiaries of which include more than members of the ideological group. Since the ideal always diverges from the existent, the ideology contends for the realization of a state of affairs which, its proponents allege, either never existed previously or existed in the past but exists no longer. (Karl Mannheim [1929-1931] designated the former type of ideals as utopias, the latter as ideologies. Moreover, within the category of ideology, he included sets of beliefs which affirm the existing order—that is, the patterns which I have designated as outlooks and creeds, schools of thought, and programs. Neither his terminology nor his classifications are adhered to in this analysis of patterns of belief.)

Ideology and central value systems

As compared with the prevailing outlook and its constituent and overlapping creeds, an ideology characteristically contends more strenuously for a purer, fuller, or more ideal realization of particular cognitive and moral values than exist in the society in which the ideology obtains currency. Ideologies are more insistent on an actual and continuous contact with sacred symbols and with a fuller manifestation of the sacred in the existent. Whereas outlooks and creeds connected with the central institutional system demand, in their programmatic promulgations, segmental changes or changes which do not diverge profoundly from what already exists, ideologies impel their proponents to insist on the realization of the ideal, which is contained in the sacred, through a “total transformation” of society. They seek this completeness either through total conquest (including conversion) or by total withdrawal so that the purer, ideal form of value can be cultivated in isolation from the contaminating influence of the environing society. Whereas the bearers of each of the several creeds of a prevailing outlook accept some measure of community with other creeds, the exponents of an ideology, being set against other ideologies and particularly against the dominant outlook and creeds, stress the differences between their ideology and the other outlooks and ideologies within the society and disavow the identities and affinities.

Nonetheless, every ideology—however great the originality of its creators—arises in the midst of an ongoing culture. However passionate its reaction against that culture, it cannot entirely divest itself of important elements of that culture. Ideologies are responses to insufficient regard for some particular element in the dominant outlook and are attempts to place that neglected element in a more central position and to bring it into fulfillment. There are, therefore, always marked substantive affinities between the moral and cognitive orientations of any particular ideology and those of the outlooks and creeds which prevail in the environing society and which affirm or accept the central institutional and value systems.

However, in their formal structure such outlooks are constellations of very loosely integrated and ambiguous moral and cognitive propositions and attitudes toward a variety of particular, often relatively concrete, objects and situations. In the minds of most of those who share an outlook, it does not form a consistent system focused on one central theme, principle, value, or symbol. In contrast, an ideology involves an intensification and generalization of certain central propositions and attitudes, a reduced emphasis on others and their subordination to the proposition (or propositions), which is raised to a position of predominance. An ideology differs, therefore, from a prevailing outlook and its creeds through its greater explicitness, its greater internal integration or systematization, its greater comprehensiveness, the greater urgency of its application, and its much higher intensity of concentration focused on certain central propositions or evaluations.

All ideologies—whether progressive or tradition-alistic, revolutionary or reactionary—entail an aggressive alienation from the existing society: they recommend the transformation of the lives of their exponents in accordance with specific principles; they insist on consistency and thoroughgoingness in their exponents’ application of principles; and they recommend either their adherents’ complete dominion over the societies in which they live or their total, self-protective withdrawal from these societies. Even where the exponents of an ideology have been successful in attaining the key positions from which power is exercised in the central institutional system, they continue to be alienated from the outlook and creeds of the society over which they exercise power.

Ideologies passionately oppose the productions of the cultural institutions of the central institutional system. They claim that these institutions distort the truth about “serious” things and that they do so to maintain a system of injustice in the earthly order. Ideologies insist on the realization of principles in conduct; this is one of their grounds for accusing central value and institutional systems of hypocrisy, the compromise of principles, and corruption by power. Thus, ideologies and their exponents—whether out of power or in central positions of power over society—are relentlessly critical of the inconsistencies and shortcomings of conduct, evaluated with respect to rigorous principles of right and justice, in sectors of society over which they do not have complete control. Ideologies demand an intense and continuous observance of their imperatives in the conduct of their exponents.

Whereas the various component elements of an outlook may be unevenly distributed among those who share the outlook, an ideology insists on a greater completeness of possession by each of those who are committed to sharing in it. In other words, a “division of labor” in attachment to the diverse elements of ideological belief is less supportable to the most fervent exponents of ideology than a comparable division of attachment is to the exponents of an outlook, a creed, or a movement of thought.

Ideological politics

Ideologies are always concerned with authority, transcendent and earthly, and they cannot, therefore, avoid being political except by the extreme reaction-formation of complete withdrawal from society. Even in ages which saw no public politics permitted, ideological groups forced themselves into the political arena. Since the seventeenth century, every ideology has had its views on politics. Indeed, since the nineteenth century, most ideologies have come to be preponderantly political.

This appearance of thinking of nothing but politics is not identical with the attitude of the professional politician, who lives for politics to the exclusion of everything else. Ideologies which concentrate on politics do so because for them politics embraces everything else. The evaluation of authority is the center of the ideological outlook, and around it are integrated all other objects and their evaluations. Thus, no sphere has any intrinsic value of its own. There is no privacy, no autonomous spheres of art, religion, economic activity, or science. Each, in this view, is to be understood politically. (This is true of Marxism, despite the fact that it is reputed to have made everything dependent on economic relationships. In Marxist ideology the relations of production are property relations—i.e., relationships of authority, supported by the power of the state.)

Ideology, whether nominally religious or anti-religious, is concerned with the sacred. Ideology seeks to sanctify existence by bringing every part of it under the dominion of the ultimately right principles. The sacred and the sacrilegious reside in authority, the former in the authority acknowledged by ideology, the latter in that which prevails in the “wicked world,” against which ideology contends. From the viewpoint of an ideology, ordinary politics are the kingdom of darkness, whereas ideological politics are the struggle of light against darkness.

Participation in the routine life of the civil political order is alien to the ideological spirit. In fact, however, there are many adulterations of this ideological purity, and purely ideological politics are marginal and exceptional. The need to build a machine strong enough to acquire power in the state, even by conspiracy and subversion, enforces compromises with, and concessions to, the ongoing political order and the less than complete ideological orientation of potential and desired supporters. Failure, too, damages the purity of ideological politics. The pressure of competition enforces alliances and the adoption of procedures which are alien to their nature. Nonetheless, ideological politics, in splinters of rancorous purity or in attenuation, often penetrate into civil politics, and conversely, civil politics often force their way into ideological politics.

Among intellectuals there are many who have inherited an ideological tradition and to whom ideological politics appeal as the only right politics. Even where intellectuals often appear to be convinced of the inefficacy of ideological politics, the categories in which ideologies view the world, as well as the techniques and the heroes of ideological politics, often stir and master their imaginations.

The emergence of ideologies

An ideology is the product of man’s need for imposing intellectual order on the world. The need for an ideology is an intensification of the need for a cognitive and moral map of the universe, which in a less intense and more intermittent form is a fundamental, although unequally distributed, disposition of man.

Ideologies arise in conditions of crisis and in sectors of society to whom the hitherto prevailing outlook has become unacceptable. An ideology arises because there are strongly felt needs, which are not satisfied by the prevailing outlook, for an explanation of important experiences, for the firm guidance of conduct, and for a fundamental vindication or legitimation of the value and dignity of the persons who feel these needs. Mere rejection of the existing society and the prevailing outlook of the elites of that society is not sufficient. For an ideology to exist, there must also be an attendant vision of a positive alternative to the existing pattern of society and its culture and an intellectual capacity to articulate that vision as part of the cosmic order. Ideologies are the creations of charismatic persons who possess powerful, expansive, and simplified visions of the world, as well as high intellectual and imaginative powers. By placing at its very center certain cosmically and ethically fundamental propositions, an ideology brings to those who accept it the belief that they are in possession of, and in contact with, what is ultimately right and true.

Some personalities are ideological by constitution. Such persons continuously feel a need for a clearly ordered picture of the universe and of their own place in it. They need clear and unambiguous criteria as to what is right and wrong in every situation. They must be able to explain whatever happens by a clear and readily applicable proposition, itself derived from a central proposition. Other persons become ideological under conditions of private and public crisis, which accentuate the need for meaningful moral and cognitive order; when the crisis abates, such persons become less ideological.

An ideology cannot come into existence without the prior existence of a general pattern of moral and cognitive judgments—an outlook and its subsidiary creeds—against which it is a reaction and of which it is a variant. It requires, in other words, a cultural tradition from which to deviate and from which to draw the elements which it intensifies and raises to centrality. An intellectualized religion provides the ideal precondition for the emergence of ideology, since the former contains explicit propositions about the nature of the sacred and its cultivation, which is what ideologies are about. The fact that an ideology already exists serves both to form an ideological tradition and to provide a medium in which ideological dispositions can be precipitated by emulation and self-differentiation.

Ideologies and ideological orientations have existed in all high cultures. They have, however, been especially frequent in Western culture. The continuous working of the prophetic tradition of the Old Testament and the salvationary tradition of the mystery religions and of early Christianity have provided a set of cultural dispositions which have been recurrently activated in the course of the Christian era in the West. The secularization of the modern age has not changed this. Indeed, the growth of literacy and of the educated classes and the “intellectualization” of politics have widened receptivity to ideological beliefs. The spread of Western ideas to Asia and Africa has involved, among many other things, the diffusion of a culture full of ideological potentiality.

The bearers of ideology

The disposition toward ideological construction is one of the fundamental characteristics of the human race once it reaches a certain stage of intellectual development. It is, however, a disposition which is usually latent. It finds its fullest expression in a charismatic ideologist, a person with an overwhelmingly powerful intellectual and moral drive to be in contact with the sacred and to promulgate that contact in comprehensive and coherent terms. The charismatic ideologist cannot, however, construct an ideology in isolation from a collectivity on behalf of which he speaks and with which he must share that ideology. An ideologylike intellectual construction produced in isolation from a political or religious sect would be no more than a rigorous system of religious, moral, social, and political thought based on fundamental propositions about the cosmos and history. It becomes more than that only when it is shared by a community constituted on the basis of the acceptance of that outlook.

The characteristic and primal bearer of an ideology is an ideological primary group (what Herman Schmalenbach [1922] called a Bund). The bond which unites the members of the ideological primary group to each other is the attachment to each other as sharers in the ideological system of beliefs; the members perceive each other as being in possession of, or being possessed by, the sacred-ness inherent in the acceptance of the ideology. Personal, primordial, and civil qualities are attenuated or suppressed in favor of the quality of “ideological possession.” A comrade is a comrade by virtue of his beliefs, which are perceived as his most significant qualities. A fully developed ideological primary group is separated by sharply defined boundaries from the “world” from which it seeks to protect itself or over which it seeks to triumph. Stringent discipline over conduct and belief is a feature of ideological primary groups; intense solidarity and unwavering loyalty are demanded (as in revolutionary cells and in separatist religious sects).

In reality, of course, the ideological quality never completely supplants all other qualities, and the fully developed ideological primary group is never completely realized. Thus, the ideological primary group is subject to recurrent strains, not only because of the strains inherent within the ideology as an intellectual system, but also because the other qualities become, in various measures for many of the members of the group, significant qualities, on the bases of which supplementary and often alternative and contradictory attachments are formed. Even the most disciplined ideological primary group is under the strain of divergent beliefs among members, as well as the pull of their various attachments to the “world.” All these anti-ideological tendencies within ideological primary groups are greatly aggravated in modern societies in which large parties are organized and in which large-scale bureaucratic administrations are necessary. Both of these generate many nonideological tendencies and place further strain on ideological purity and its cognate solidarity.

Nevertheless, ideologies have a self-reproductive power. They are often partially espoused by more loosely integrated circles, particularly when the ideology itself has moved into a condition of disintegration. Echoes and fragments of ideologies go on after their primal bearers have died or dissolved in defeat or disillusionment. Thus, ideologies sometimes turn into movements of thought. Moreover, fragments of ideology may become transformed into creeds and re-enter the outlooks from whence they once came and which they now change.

On the social origins of the bearers of ideology, little can be said. It was Max Weber’s view that they came from the strata of traders and handicraftsmen and from sections of society which are shaken by a disruption in their conventional mode of life. There is some plausibility in this hypothesis. However, they also appear to come from educated circles as well and from ethnic “outsiders,” whose prior alienation makes them receptive to ideological beliefs.

Endogenous and exogenous changes

Proponents of ideologies obdurately resist the explicit introduction of revision of their articles of belief. Ideologies aspire to, and pretend to, systematic completeness, and they do not appear to their proponents to be in need of improvement. Nonetheless, ideologies are never completely consistent or completely adequate to the facts of experience which they claim to interpret and dominate. Even the most systematically elaborated ideology, like all systems of belief, scientific and nonscientific, contains inconsistencies, ambiguities, and gaps. These tend to result in disputes among the adherents of the ideology who espouse divergent ways of filling the gaps and clarifying the ambiguities, each claiming that his way represents the “correct” interpretation of the unchanged and unchangeable fundamentals. Inconsistencies and ambiguities may be perceived on purely intellectual grounds, and the efforts to repair them may be motivated primarily by a concern for intellectual clarity and harmony. Such efforts are likely to arouse antagonism from the more orthodox exponents of the ideology—that is, those who adhere to the previously dominant interpretation. In this way, either through the triumph of the innovators or the triumph of the orthodox, the previous formulation of the ideology undergoes a change.

In addition to these more intellectual sources of changes in ideologies, further endogenous changes occur in consequence of conflicts among the proponents of divergent policies which appear to be equally sanctioned by the ideology. As a result of the triumph of one of the contending groups over the other, new emphases and developments occur within the ideology. These very properties which are sources of instability in ideologies and in the groups which support them are also prerequisites for their further development in the face of new situations and for their adaptation and compromise with the intractability of reality as an object of exhaustive cognition and control.

Ideologies also change because of the pressure of external reality. The “world” does not easily accommodate itself to the requirements of ideologies. The “facts” of life do not fit their categories; those who live their lives among these facts do not yield to the exhortations and offensives of the ideologists. The proponents of ideologies are often defeated in their campaigns for total transformation. Defeat is a shock, a pressing occasion for revision of the ideology to make it fit the “facts” which have imposed themselves. Despite resistance, the ideology is retouched, at first superficially, later more deeply. Fissures among the ideologists accompany this struggle to cope with the impregnability of the “world.”

Another external factor which places a strain on ideology is the diminution of the crisis which gave rise to it and the consequent dissipation of ideological orientation. Those whom crisis has inflamed into an ideological state of mind either withdraw from, or loosen their connections with, the ideological primary group; if they are influential enough, they modify and adapt it to the demands of life in the environing society, into which they once more become assimilated. Under these conditions, the sharply defined boundaries of the group become eroded, and the members cease to define themselves exclusively by their ideological qualities. The specific modifications which the ideology introduced to differentiate it from the predominant outlook in the central institutional and value systems become less disjunctive, and its distinctive ideological elements fade into a ceremonially asserted formula. Under these conditions ideologies sometimes dissolve into creeds and programs or fall away into systems of thought. Quite frequently some elements of the ideology turn into accentuated and intensified forms of certain features of the prevailing outlook or creeds which had previously existed in a blurred and unemphasized state.

Quasi-ideological phenomena

The potentialities of ideological orientations relatively seldom come to realization. Quite apart from the tenacious hold of the central institutional and value systems on many persons who are simultaneously ideologically disposed, ideological orientations often do not eventuate in fully developed ideologies or ideological primary groups because the ideological needs of those who come under their influence are not sufficiently intense, comprehensive, and persistent. Without a powerful ideological personality, powerful in intelligence and imagination, ideological propensities in the more ordinary human vessels of ideological needs do not attain fulfillment.

Furthermore, once the ties binding an ideological primary group weaken, the ideology persists in a somewhat disaggregated form among the late members of the group. In that form, too, it continues to find adherents who, without the discipline of an ideological primary group, select certain congenial elements of the ideology for application and development. These elements constitute an ideological tradition which is available to subsequent ideologists and ideological primary groups.

Sometimes certain of these elements become a program of aggressive demands and criticism against the central institutional and value systems. Programs, like ideologies, are also emergents from prevailing outlooks and creeds; they “take seriously” some particular element in the outlook and seek to bring it to fulfillment within the existing order. A program accepts much of the prevailing institutional and value systems, although it fervently rejects one sector. Thus, a program stands midway between an ideology and a prevailing outlook or a creed; it can be reached from either direction (and testifies thereby to the affinities between ideologies and outlooks and creeds).

The programmatic forms of ideological orientation are sometimes concentrated on particular and segmented objects—for example, the abolition of slavery or the promotion of the rights of a particular sector of the population, such as an ethnic group or a social stratum. They do not expand to the point where they embrace the whole society as the objects of the sought-for transformation. The attachment of such programs to the central institutional or value systems may be so strong that it survives an intense but segmental alienation with respect to particular institutional practices or particular beliefs. This is characteristic of certain modern “reform movements,” such as the abolitionist movements in Great Britain in the early eighteenth century and in the United States in the period up to the Civil War. These movements have focused their attention and efforts on specific segments of the central institutional system, demanding the conformity of conduct with moral principles that can neither be yielded nor compromised. Although such programs and the movements which are their structural counterparts do not insist on the complete transformation of the whole society, they are uncompromisingly insistent on the attainment of their particular ideally prescribed ends. Often these movements have been borne by a small circle of persons organized into a quasi-ideological primary group. To some extent this type of group draws boundaries around itself and regards itself as disjunctively separated from its enemies, who are not, however, as in more fully developed ideological primary groups, regarded as identical with the totality of the environing society.

Proto-ideological phenomena

Another variant of ideological phenomena is to be seen in those collectivities—such as adolescent gangs and military and paramilitary units—which, although “sodality-like” in structure, do not have the intellectual patterns which are here designated as ideological. Such collectivities are alienated from the prevailing outlook associated with the central institutional and value systems and draw sharply defined boundaries around themselves. Moreover, they insist on a concentration of loyalty to the group and on stringent discipline to the standards of the group and have simplistic criteria of partisanship and enmity. They do not, however, develop or espouse a coherent moral and intellectual doctrine. Such proto-ideological primary groups have no well-developed and principled view of the contemporary society which surrounds them; no less important, they have no image of a comprehensive order that would permanently replace the order from which they are alienated. The “world” is the enemy with which they are at war, but they have no interest in taking it over and refashioning it in the name of a cosmically significant principle. In this respect, this type of group approximates the “withdrawn” ideological primary group; however, unlike the latter, the proto-ideological group is aggressively at war with an enemy and lacks an intellectual doctrine.

The failure of the proto-ideological primary group to develop an ideology might be attributed to the insufficient intellectual endowment of its members and, above all, to the absence of a charismatic ideological personality, that is, a founder who is sufficiently educated or sufficiently creative to provide them with a more complex system of beliefs. Such groups lack sufficient contact with both the central value system and the tradition of ideological orientation. They are “rebels without a cause.” (The boys’ gangs of the great cities of the Western world are typical of these proto-ideological formations; as such, they contrast with the more ideological youth groups which flourished in Germany from the last years of the nineteenth century to the coming of World War II.)

The functions of ideologies

Ideologies are often accepted by persons who, by temperament or by culture, are ideologically predisposed. Such persons might be inclined to express their views with aggressive affect, might feel a strong need to distinguish between comrades and enemies, or might have been raised in a salvation-ary, apocalyptic culture. There are, however, persons who do not have this predisposition but who nevertheless come under the influence of ideology because of fortuitous circumstances or through the strain of crisis. In such persons ideologies can, up to a point and for a limited time, exert a powerful influence. By making them believe they are in contact with the ultimate powers of existence, ideology will greatly reinforce their motivation to act. They will gain courage from perceiving themselves as part of a cosmic scheme; actions that they would not dare to envisage before will now have the legitimacy which proximity to the sacred provides.

Ideologies intend either the disruption of the central institutional and value systems by conflict with them or the denial of the claims of these systems by withdrawal from them. In the former case, ideologies aim at “total” replacement. However, they do not succeed in this, even where their bearers are successful in the acquisition of power in the larger society. Where an ideological primary group succeeds in overcoming existing elites and comes to rule over the society, it is incapable of completely and enduringly suppressing the previously predominant outlook. It is unsuccessful on a number of grounds. First, the ideology has to contend with strong attachments to the previously prevailing central value systems or outlook among the population at large, and the resources available to the ideological elites are not adequate for suppressing these attachments; too much remains outside the scope of their control or surveillance. Then, as time passes, some elements (although never all) of the previously prevailing outlook reassert themselves. This process is assisted by the fact that the members of the ideological primary group themselves, in the course of time, fall away from their zealous espousal of the ideology and fall back toward one of the outlooks from which the ideology sprang. As the ideological primary group continues in power, the obstacles to the realization of their goals, the multiplicity of alternative paths of action, and other circumstances cause some of the members of the group, especially newly recruited ones, to have recourse to ideas which fall outside the once-adhered-to system of thought.

Ideological primary groups, whether or not they succeed in their aspiration to rule, inevitably fail in the fulfillment of their global aspirations. The “normal” pattern of value orientations, which they have sought to overcome, either persists or reasserts itself. However, some change does occur: these groups leave behind adherents who survive despite failure and in the face of restoration. Where routinization occurs, as in the case of an ideological elite which is not expelled from authority, the new routine is never quite the same as the one which it replaced, however much it diverges from the stringent demands of the ideology in the name of which it was originally established.

Once the ideological orientation comes to be passed on to the next generation, by tradition as well as by systematic teaching, it encounters the resistance which is characteristic of intergenera-tional relationships, and this in its turn introduces modifications in the direction of compromise and adaptation to primordial and personal needs, as well as to civil exigencies. However, the ideological orientation has not lived in vain. Those who appear to have rejected it or to have become more indifferent to it live under a tradition which has absorbed at least some of the heightened accents which the ideology has brought to the configuration of elements taken over from the prevailing outlook or creeds.

When an expansive ideological primary group does not succeed in attaining dominance, yet endures for a substantial period and impinges on the awareness of the custodians of the central institutional and value systems, it precipitates a partial reorientation of the previously dominant outlook, bringing about a new emphasis within the framework of the older outlook. It renews sensibilities and heightens consciousness of the demands of moral and cognitive orientations which have slipped into a state of partial ineffectiveness. The old order, against which it contended, is never the same because the old order has adapted itself to the challenge and assimilated into itself some of the emphases of the ideology.

Truth and ideology

The question of the relationship between truth and ideology has been raised by the tradition of European thought which culminated in Marxism and in the sociology of knowledge developed by Mannheim [see the biography ofMannheim]. According to this view, ideology is by its nature untruthful, since it entails a “masking” or “veiling” of unavowed and unperceived motives or “interests.” These interests impel the deception of antagonists and the transfiguration of narrow sectional ends and interests by means of an ostensible universalization. They distort reality for the ideologists and for their antagonists. Thus, in this view, ideology is a manifestation of a “false consciousness.”

Viewed from a more dispassionate standpoint, which is less involved in a particular historical metaphysic and less involved in proving everyone else wrong and itself incontestably and cosmically right, the question of the compatibility of scientific or scholarly truth with ideology does not admit of a single, unequivocal answer. Ideologies, like all complex cognitive patterns, contain many propositions; even though ideologists strive for, and claim to possess, systematic integration, they are never completely successful in this regard. Hence, true propositions can coexist alongside false ones. Ideologies hostile to the prevailing outlook and the central institutional system of a society have not infrequently contained truthful propositions about important particular features of the existing order, and have drawn attention to particular variables which were either not perceived or not acknowledged by scholars and thinkers who took a more affirmative, or at least a less alienated, attitude toward the existing order. On the other hand, ideologies have no less frequently been in fundamental error about very important aspects of social structure, especially about the working of the central institutional system, about which they have had so many hostile fantasies.

With reference to the cognitive truthfulness of ideologies, it should be pointed out that no great ideology has ever regarded the disciplined pursuit of truth—by scientific procedures and in the mood characteristic of modern science—as part of its obligations. The very conception of an autonomous sphere and an autonomous tradition of disciplined intellectual activity is alien to the totalistic demands of the ideological orientation. Indeed, ideologies do not accredit the independent cognitive powers and strivings of man.

This view is also expressed in the proposition that ideologies must necessarily be distortions of reality because they are impelled by considerations of prospective advantage or of interest. Like the ideological orientation, the view which asserts the inevitability of false consciousness assumes that cognitive motives and standards play little part in the determination of success or failure in the assessment of reality. It assumes that training in observation and discrimination and discipline in their exercise, rational criticism, and an intellectual tradition are of little importance in the formation of propositions about reality. For example, Mannheim conceived of the freischwebende Intelligenz, an intellectual stratum which would be able to free itself from the deformations of the ideological orientation in consequence of its “socially unattached” and therefore class-disinterested character, but he never considered that detachment could be a product of moral and intellectual training and discipline. This view is obviously incorrect in principle, even though in reality, evaluative (and therewith ideological) orientations have often hampered the free exercise of the powers of reason, observation, and judgment. Its incorrectness must be acknowledged as such by those who assert that all knowledge is ideological and that truth cannot be discerned because interests and passions interfere—at least if they believe in the truthfulness of their own assertion.

The ideological culture—in the sense described earlier—does in fact often interfere with the attainment of truth. This is, however, a result of the closure of the ideological disposition to new evidence and its distrust of all who do not share the same ideological disposition. The chief source of tension between ideology and truth lies, therefore, in the concurrent demands of the exponents of ideologies for unity of belief and disciplined adherence on the part of their fellow believers. Both of these features of the ideological orientation make for dogmatic inflexibility and unwillingness to allow new experience to contribute to the growth of truth. This applies particularly to the social sciences, the subject matter of which overlaps so considerably with that of ideology and which is therefore so often the object of ideological and quasi-ideological judgments. The tension is less pronounced with respect to the natural sciences; however, there, too, ideologies tend to inhibit the growth of understanding, because of their concern with man’s nature and the nature of the universe and because of their insistence on the unity of knowledge. Thus, however great the insight contained in an ideology, the potentialities for the further development of understanding within the context of the ideology or by the efforts of the ideologists are hampered and distorted, especially where the proponents succeed in establishing control over the central institutional system (particularly the central cultural institutional system).

A related question, which has often been discussed, is whether all forms of scientific knowledge in the natural and social sciences are parts of ideologies. In the sense in which ideology has been defined and used in the foregoing analysis, this proposition must be rejected. The great advances in scientific knowledge have been influenced here and there by fragments of ideologies or quasi ideologies, just as they have been influenced, to a greater extent, by prevailing outlooks and creeds. (Outlooks and even creeds, by virtue of their inherent pluralism, allow more freedom for the uninhibited exercise of the cognitive powers of man.) But science is not and never has been an integral part of an ideological culture. Indeed, the spirit in which science works is alien to ideology. Marxism is the only great ideology which has had a substantial scientific content, and the social sciences have benefited from it in certain respects. Nonetheless, the modern social sciences have not grown up in the context of ideologies, and their progress has carried with it an erosion of ideology. It is true that the social sciences have absorbed and domesticated bits of ideologies and have formed parts of the prevailing outlooks, creeds, and movements of thought of the educated classes of various modern societies. As such they have often been opposed to, and critical of, various aspects of the existing social and cultural systems, but they themselves have seldom been ideological. Insofar as the social sciences have been genuinely intellectual pursuits, which have their own rules of observation and judgment and are open to criticism and revision, they are antipathetic to ideology. That they have come increasingly to contribute to the prevailing outlooks, movements of thought, and programs of their respective societies is not, and cannot be, relevant to any judgment concerning their truthfulness.

Although scientific activities and outlooks—in terms of both procedure and substance—are parts of a general culture or a prevailing outlook, they are very loosely integrated parts of those cultures or outlooks (just as the various parts of science are not completely integrated with each other). As explained above, it is characteristic of prevailing outlooks to be loosely integrated internally and to have no single element that predominates exclusively over the others. In a great variety of ways, the scientific and the nonscientific parts of prevailing outlooks, creeds, and movements of thought influence each other, and at the same time, each part possesses considerable autonomy. It is likely that this relationship will become more intense in the future and that scientific knowledge, although never becoming exclusively dominant, will have an even greater influence on prevailing outlooks, creeds, and movements of thought than it has had. For all these reasons, assertions to the effect that “science is an ideology” or that “the social sciences are as ideological as the ideologies they criticize” must be rejected.

The end of ideology?

In the 1950s, with the beginning of the “thaw” in the communist countries and the growing disillusionment about the realization of Marxist ideology in the advanced countries, reference was frequently made to an “end of ideology.” Those who propounded this conception originally intended it to refer only to the situation existing at that time. However, antagonists of the idea took it to imply that ideologies (in the sense used in this article) could never again exist. Moreover, they also took it to mean that ideals, ethical standards, and general or comprehensive social views and policies were no longer either relevant or possible in human society. This was a misunderstanding engendered to some extent by the failure of both proponents and critics of the concept of the end of ideology to distinguish between ideology and outlook and between ideology and program. Since a better understanding of these distinctions might obviate much of the contention, I will attempt to clarify some of the issues involved.

In the first place, it is obvious that no society can exist without a cognitive, moral, and expressive culture. Standards of truth, beauty, and goodness are inherent in the structure of human action. The culture which is generated from cognitive, moral, and expressive needs and which is transmitted and sustained by tradition is part of the very constitution of society. Thus, since every society has a culture, each will have a complex set of orientations toward man, society, and the universe in which ethical and metaphysical propositions, aesthetic judgments, and scientific knowledge will be present. These will form the outlooks and creeds of the society. Thus, there can never be an “end” of outlooks and creeds. Similarly, there can never be an “end” of movements of thought and programs. The contention arose from the failure to distinguish these and ideology in the sense here understood.

However, the theoretical conception implicit in the idea of the end of ideology goes further than this. The concept implies not only that any culture is capable of being in a state of loose integration (with much autonomy of its different parts) but also that the ongoing culture of any society which has attained a considerable degree of differentiation is loosely integrated most of the time and therefore cannot be completely supplanted by an ideology. It follows that this theory regards an ideological state, which is characterized by a high degree of integration among the elements of a culture, as inherently marginal and highly unstable. According to the proponents of the end of ideology, the ideological state is one which is incapable of enduring extension to an entire society. The exponents of the end of ideology were taking note of the recession of the titanic attempts in Europe to extend the ideologies of fascism and communism to entire societies, as well as the diminution of the belief among Western intellectuals that such extensions were enduringly possible or desirable.

Moreover, those who spoke of the end of ideology did not assert or imply that the human race had reached a condition or a stage of development in and after which ideologies could no longer occur. On the contrary, the potentiality for ideology seems to be a permanent part of the human constitution. As we have seen, in conditions of crisis, when hitherto prevailing elites fail and are discredited and when the central institutions and culture with which they associate themselves seem unable to find the right course of action, ideological propensities are heightened. The need for direct contact with the sources or powers of creativity and legitimacy and for a comprehensive organization of life permeated by those powers is an intermittent and occasional need in most human beings and an overwhelming and continuous need in a few. The confluence of the aroused need in the former with the presence of the latter generates and intensifies ideological orientations.

As long as human societies are afflicted by crises and as long as man has a need to be in direct contact with the sacred, ideologies will recur. As long as there is a discrepancy between the ideal and the actual, a strong impetus for ideologies will exist. The strongly ideological potentialities of the tradition of the modern Western outlook are almost a guarantee of the persistent recurrence of ideology. The idea of the end of ideology was only an assertion that the potentiality for ideology need not always be realized and that in the 1950s this potentiality was receding in the West. It asserted that this was coming to be recognized and that both the facts and their recognition were desirable for the good ordering of society and man’s well-being.

Edward Shils

[See alsoKnowledge, sociology of; Social movements. For specific examples of ideologies, seeDemocracy; Fascism; International relations, article onIdeological aspects; Marxism; Totalitarianism. Other relevant material may be foundinAlienation; Consensus; Political theory; and in the guide to the reader underReligion.]


Aron, Raymond (1955) 1957 The Opium of the Intellectuals. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday. → First published in French. A paperback edition was published in 1962 by Norton. See especially pages 305-324 on “The End of the Ideological Age?”

Aron, Raymond 1965 Société industrielle, idéologies, philosophic Parts 1, 2, and 3. Preuves no. 167:3-13; no. 168:12-24; no. 169:23-41.

Barth, Hans (1945) 1961 Wahrheit und Ideologie. 2d ed., enl. Zurich: Rentsch.

Bell, Daniel (1960) 1962 The End of Ideology: On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties. 2d ed., rev. New York: Collier. → See especially pages 21-38 on “America as a Mass Society: A Critique.”

Bendix, Reinhard 1964 The Age of Ideology: Persistent and Changing. Pages 294-327 in David E. Apter (editor), Ideology and Discontent. New York: Free Press.

Bergmann, Gustav 1951 Ideology. Ethics 61:205-218.

Geertz, Clifford 1964 Ideology as a Cultural System. Pages 47-76 in David E. Apter (editor), Ideology and Discontent. New York: Free Press.

Jordan, Pascual 1955 Das Ende der Ideologien. Neue deutsche Hefte 2:581-594.

Lenk, Kurt (editor) (1961) 1964 Ideologie: Ideologie-kritik und Wissenssoziologie. Neuwied (Germany): Luchterhand.

Lichtheim, George 1965 The Concept of Ideology. History and Theory 4:164-195.

Lipset, Seymour M. 1960 Political Man: The Social Bases of Politics. Garden City, N.Y.; Doubleday. -→ See especially pages 439-456 on “The End of Ideology.” A paperback edition was published in 1963.

Mannheim, Karl (1929-1931) 1954 Ideology and Utopia: An Introduction to the Sociology of Knowledge. New York: Harcourt; London: Routledge. → First published in German. A paperback edition was published in 1955 by Harcourt.

Oakeshott, Michael J. 1962 Rationalism in Politics, and Other Essays. New York: Basic Books. → See especially pages 1-36.

Schmalenbach, Herman 1922 Die soziologische Kate-gorie des Bundes. Dioskuren 1:35-105.

Shils, Edward 1955 The End of Ideology? Encounter 5, no. 5:52-58.

Shils, Edward 1958 Ideology and Civility: On the Politics of the Intellectual. Sewanee Review 66:450-480.

Weber, Max (1922) 1956 Umbildung des Charisma. Volume 1, pages 758-778 in Max Weber, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft: Grundriss der verstehenden Sozio-logie. 4th ed. Tübingen (Germany): Mohr.


The word “ideology” was first used, in the late eighteenth century, to mean “the study of ideas,” but it soon came to refer to ideas about society, with the connotation that these ideas were distorted or unduly selective from a rational, objective point of view. It will be useful, however, to distinguish four meanings of “ideology.”

(1) One of the most common uses of the term is defined as follows in Webster’s Third New International Dictionary: “the integrated assertions, theories, and aims that constitute a sociopolitical program.” Note that in this meaning an ideology embraces both normative and allegedly factual elements and that the allegedly factual elements are not necessarily distorted. Only slightly departing from this conception is the following definition: “Ideology is a pattern of beliefs and concepts (both factual and normative) which purport to explain complex social phenomena with a view to directing and simplifying sociopolitical choices facing individuals and groups” (Gould 1964, p. 315). This definition suggests the almost universal tendency of sociopolitical programs, in a polemical context, to simplify (that is, to distort) to some extent. Many writers, however, would reject the (perhaps unintended) implication that such distortion is necessarily conscious. The ideologist himself frequently distorts unwittingly; and the success of ideology, in the sense of its acceptance by a public, of course depends upon the public’s being unaware on the whole that the ideas are distorted. Geertz (1964) thinks that a practical complex of ideas, values, and aims should mainly be viewed as a “schematic image of social order” in situations that are inadequately defined in traditional terms, and that the presence of distortion and selectivity should be regarded as secondary and as an empirical question in each case. “A schematic image of social order” is a possible definition of the “neutral” sense of “ideology.” Not all writers who use the term “ideology” in the neutral sense, however, would confine it to ideas developed only in periods of change—but perhaps Geertz himself would not either; he happened to be writing about so-called developing countries or new nations.

(2)Another common meaning of the term “ideology” is defined in Webster’s Third New International as follows: “an extremist sociopolitical program or philosophy constructed wholly or in part on factitious or hypothetical ideational bases.” An ideology in this sense may be of the “left” or of the “right” (whatever these terms may mean in the specific sociopolitical context). An extremist ideology may be a comprehensive, closed system of ideas. It is this pretentious kind of ideology that Daniel Bell had in mind when he “defined an ideological writer as one who runs down the street crying ’ I’ ve got an answer, who’s got a question?’” (see Gilroy 1966).

(3) Karl Marx, who gave prominence to the term “ideology,” used it for distorted or selected ideas in defense of the status quo of a social system. Marxists today often use the term with this connotation, as when they speak of “capitalist ideology”; but the various communist parties have more or less official ideologists, and they of course are not officially defined as distorters. Their task is to provide justification and apparent continuity for party policy by trying to show that particular policies and decisions are in line with the values and ideas of Marx (or Lenin, or Stalin, or Mao Tse-tung, etc.). Karl Mannheim also used the term “ideology” to refer to conservative ideas. Like Marx, he tended to imply that conservative ideas are always distorted; but, again like Marx, he was not consistent on this point. He gradually and unevenly worked away from his early view, inconsistently expressed, that all ideas are determined by their holders’ position or positions in the social system and are necessarily distorted, to the more tenable view, previously expressed by Max Weber, among others, that although one’s ideas may to some extent be related in various possible ways to one’s social position, these ideas may or may not be distorted in the sense of being unscientific, and that the same criteria of truth and validity apply regardless of the social origin of ideas. The relevant works and aspects of Marx, Mannheim, and Weber are considered in the critical exposition and commentary by Merton ([1949] 1957, pp. 456-508).

(4) The definition of ideology adopted for the rest of this article is both broader and narrower than the foregoing definitions. Ideology consists of selected or distorted ideas about a social system or a class of social systems when these ideas purport to be factual, and also carry a more or less explicit evaluation of the “facts.” This definition is narrow in that ideology consists only of those parts or aspects of a system of social ideas which are distorted or unduly selective from a scientific point of view. An ideology is a more or less coherent system of ideas in which ideological distortion is important. (Strictly speaking, the expression “ideological distortion” is pleonastic, but I shall use it nevertheless, since this technical meaning of “ideology” is not universally established.) This fourth definition of ideology is broader than some of the previous ones in that it does not restrict ideology to the conservative type. I shall return to this point below.

Since social life is complex and most people are not careful students of it, distorted ideas about social systems are extremely common. By simplifying complex situations, these ideas help many diverse people to cooperate toward the same goals. They define the situation and justify a particular course of action. Depending upon one’s values and the particular circumstances, one can say, therefore, that ideology sometimes helps in achieving desirable social change, sometimes facilitates undesirable social change, and at other times facilitates desirable or undesirable resistance to social pressure for change.

Ideology and social values

Ideological distortion is either an exaggeration or an underrepresentation of the extent to which one or more social values are or can be institutionalized in the social systems in question (Parsons 1959). The precise meaning of “institutionalization” will be given below; but, briefly, the distortion in ideology has to do with the extent to which social values are actually realized or carried out in all the transactions of the system of social interaction. Social values are conceptions of what the social system would be like in its ideal form—conceptions, moreover, that people are committed to realizing. How many people, how deeply committed—these are variables.

This conception of ideology implies that we carefully distinguish between ideology, on the one hand, and, on the other, (1) social values themselves, (2) social science, (3) valid facts about particular social systems, and (4) nonempirical beliefs (e.g., religious ideas). The reasons for making these distinctions will appear below.

Social values. The reference to a social value system need not be direct. For example, racists in the United States (who are in a minority) believe that Negroes are biologically inferior to whites, that they are incapable of producing higher civilization, and that the attempt to integrate them with whites, or even to extend to them the right to vote (where they do not already have it), will, by encouraging eventual racial amalgamation, debase the biological conditions of civilization itself and thus destroy the American way of life. Thus, by denying, in effect, that Negroes are full human beings, these racists are denying that segregation and other forms of discrimination are really contrary to American social values. Since the racist belief is erroneous, it may be regarded as an ideology that exaggerates the extent to which certain social values are already realized in the social system of the United States. Strengthened by this ideology, these racists feel justified in resisting social reforms that the vast majority of the population favor to a varying extent.

Social science. Social science, of course, is abstract and general and consists of systematic statements about uniformities of process in social systems. Ideology, however, refers to particular social systems or classes of historical systems. Therefore, social science is not the direct criterion by which we judge whether or not particular ideas are ideological. The direct criterion is what Parsons (1959) calls a “value-science integrate.” The ideas to be judged purport to describe a particular social system or some of its aspects. The corresponding value-science integrate is an objective description of the same social system, a description made with reference to the conceptual schemes of social science but showing to what extent in fact the cultural value system of that particular social system is carried out or realized in the various levels of its structure. If the ideas to be judged depart from this value-science integrate, the departures are said to be ideological.

This test is no doubt difficult to apply in some cases, but to deny the possibility of such a test is in effect to deny the possibility of social science. Some writers come close to doing exactly this. In the present article, however, I shall assume that there are objective and applicable criteria of validity for social science and that social science, despite its imperfections, does in fact exist and is being extended.

Note that the social values involved in a value-science integrate are empirical data: they are not necessarily the values of the social scientist; they are the values of the social system in question. Thus, the concept of a value-science integrate depends upon the theory, well established since the work of Durkheim, Weber, and Parsons, that the structure of a social system is fundamentally cultural and fundamentally normative, even though that structure may, of course, be stabilized in part by vested interests and even by ideology. Values are the highest level of the normative structure of a social system.

From these statements, it follows that a value-science integrate is not, in principle, either a defense of or an attack upon the social system to which it refers. To be adequate, it must show, for example, the respects in which the value system is not carried out, as well as the respects in which it is. In its essential neutrality, the value-science integrate differs, of course, from ideology, the function of which in a social system is always essentially polemical.

Valid facts. We do not ordinarily regard the acceptance of valid ideas as a phenomenon that requires special explanation. Many ideas that people have about the social systems in which they participate are, of course, accurate enough even from a social science point of view. But a great many popular ideas are distorted or selective and loaded with strained evaluations; and these ideas might well be the object of special investigation. Thus, the distinction between social science and valid descriptive statements, on the one hand, and ideology, on the other, is a desirable one.

Nonempirical beliefs. By definition, the conception of cognitive distortion and selectivity requires that a distinction be made between ideology and “religious” ideas (more precisely, nonempirical existential ideas). These latter are also likely, however, to be connected with ultimate social values. As was noted in passing, the stability of a status quo may depend, in part, upon ideology; but a given value system may be compatible with more than one set of cognitive ideas, and these need not be ideological. Therefore, it is scientifically desirable, as noted above, to distinguish between a value system itself and ideology.

Needless to say, however, all these distinctions are analytical. A particular set of ideas may contain, as elements, social values, nonempirical references, various empirical facts, and some ideological distortions.

Concept of institutionalization

The concept of institutionalization involves distinguishing four levels of social structure: values, norms, collectivities with more or less specialized goals, and status-roles. These four levels are increasingly specific in the double sense that they provide increasingly specific guidance to units in the social system and have increasingly specific reference to the situations in which these units act. All the levels are normative in a broad sense of the term. Values, norms, goals, and task-oriented roles all imply directionality and an effort to realize something desirable (from the point of view of the actor, of course).

The four levels compose a hierarchy of normative control in the sense that the more general levels are sources of legitimation for the more specific levels, provide directional guidance for the content of the more specific levels, and are sources of corrective pressure if the more specific levels depart from them. A fully institutionalized value system would be carried out (“specified,” as Parsons puts it) through all the ramifications of the lower levels. This would mean that all aspects of social structure would be legitimate in the sociological sense, would be internalized in the personalities of the participants to whom they applied, would be the normative basis of operative complementary expectations in the entire interaction system, would be supported by positive and negative social sanctions, and would be the basis of legitimacy of vested interests in the system.

In fact, of course, no societal value system is fully institutionalized in this sense. Nevertheless, in any social system there is a “strain toward consistency,” in the sense that the hierarchy of normative control operates as a dynamic factor to maintain pattern consistency, to correct inconsistencies, or to extend the implications of the value pattern. A social system with conflicting hierarchies of normative control that are approximately equal in power is in extreme disequilibrium. It has a grave problem of social control; it may well undergo far-reaching structural change; and, especially if it is a subsocietal system, it may be in danger of dissolution. Short of this extreme state of affairs, most social systems, although integrated to a greater extent, still are imperfectly integrated. Any hierarchy of control in operation encounters situational obstacles; and more or less stabilized accommodations between the situation and the value system (or one or more of its specifications) are more or less common. Various kinds and amounts of alienation and deviant behavior also occur. The normative integration of a social system is a variable matter of degree. Since social malintegration tends to generate ideology, the latter may be regarded, in many cases, as a symptom of malintegration.

Sources of ideology

This section will distinguish five fairly general interrelated sources of ideological distortion and selectivity: (1) social strain, (2) vested interests and prospective gains, (3) bitterness about social change that has already occurred, (4) limited perspective due to social position, and (5) the persistence of outmoded traditions of thought.

Social strain. One of the most general sources of distortion is the presence of strain in the social system. Strain is dissatisfaction with some aspect of the functioning of the system—with, for example, the level of goal attainment or with the distribution of rewards, opportunities, authority, or facilities. Dissatisfaction with the functioning of the system is ultimately the dissatisfaction of persons in status-roles, but the extent of strain will depend upon how many status-roles are affected and how deep the dissatisfaction is. Dissatisfaction with the value system, for instance, would necessarily mean dissatisfaction with all the levels of social structure below the value level.

Even if a social system were in perfect equilibrium, with all levels of social structure securely institutionalized, strain might well arise from some change in the environment. This does not mean, of course, that the stability of social structure requires an unchanging environment; but changes in the environment do tend to pose problems and to lead to distorted views.

Probably the most important external source of strain is cultural change. Changes in religion, science, or technology may have a profound impact on people’s conceptions of what is possible and what is tolerable. Culture as an action system is, of course, interdependent with the social system, but analytically it is an independent system also, so that the impact of scientific change is technically an impact from outside the social system. The current controversy over the potential effects of automation (a result of scientific and technological change) illustrates both strain and ideological distortion. Even expert opinion ranges from the view that automation tends to increase employment opportunities to the view that, especially in the short run and in the very long run, automation threatens us with widespread unemployment and that our value system itself may have to change. It seems likely that the views being expressed cannot all be correct and that some of them express distorted conceptions even of the present society: in short, considerable ideology is involved in the discussion.

Another external source of strain and ideology is difficulty in the external relations of the social system. Frustration on a large scale is likely to be expressed, in part, in scapegoating, a particularly prominent kind of ideological distortion.

Large-scale immigration is a special case of strain arising from the environment. Persons socialized in a different social system, especially if they are numerous enough and concentrated enough to preserve a group identity and culture, may give rise to anxiety and distorted ideas. Anticipating this source of strain, an enlightened government will regulate the flow of immigration and will then take steps to forestall ideological distortion as much as possible.

Actually, of course, social systems always have some degree of malintegration, so that there are virtually always internal sources of strain. Of these, two are particularly important. First is perceived inconsistency at any level of social structure or between a higher level and a lower level or levels. An earlier section touched upon racist ideology in the United States. This ideology is in part a reaction to social pressure arising from the correction function of the hierarchy of control: Discriminatory patterns are manifestly inconsistent with the social values of equality of opportunity and equal protection of the laws, and many persons imbued with these values (whites as well as Negroes) are pressing to eliminate discrimination. This pressure and resistance to it are, of course, also connected with another source of ideology (or another aspect of the same source), vested interests and prospective gains. This point will be discussed again later.

The second internal source of strain is anomie: inadequacy of the cultural patterning of social interaction, as manifested in uncertainty and anxiety about rights and obligations and about the functioning of the social system as it affects particular social groups, categories, and persons-in-roles. In one sense of “inadequacy,” the other internal source of strain (inconsistency between levels of social structure) is similar to anomie: the program implicit in the value system has been inadequately carried out. As distinguished from anomie in a narrow sense, however, the inconsistent patterns of expectation at a lower level or levels may be definite enough but are unacceptable because they are not fully legitimate in the sociological sense. Anomie, on the other hand (in the narrow sense intended here), is connected with two possible states of affairs.

The first is an aspect of a source of strain already mentioned—the impact of the situation upon the social system. For example, a sudden rise in unemployment or a sudden threat from another social system may produce confusion about what should be done. There may be agreement that something should be done, but until the political processes have had a chance to produce binding decisions and effective measures, there is likely to be considerable confusion, manifested in distorted ideas about the causes of the situation, the extent of its seriousness, and the rights and obligations of various participants in the system.

The second general cause of anomie in the narrow sense is the fact that adjustments to social change take time. Since it is characteristic of a system that its parts are interdependent, a change in one part of the system will tend to produce a kind of transitional strain until other parts of the system have caught up with the first change. During this transitional period, which may last a long time, there will be a certain amount of anomie—that is, lack of clarity in expectations. This strain is likely to be expressed in ideology as well as in other ways.

Vested interests. Closely connected with some of the above kinds of strain is concern for vested interests or prospective gains. By “vested interests” are meant all kinds of advantages, tangible and intangible, that enjoy some measure of legitimacy and protection from the status quo at any given time. Since the value system is seldom or never perfectly institutionalized, some vested interests are more secure than others in that they are more consistent with the value system and therefore are less likely to be successfully attacked so long as the value system itself is dominant. Any proposal for social change at the second or third level of social structure will, if successful, affect some vested interests adversely and will also bring prospective gains. In other words, social change involves a new definition of legitimate interests. The greatest redefinition of legitimate interests will occur, of course, if the value system itself is overthrown and a new one is put in its place.

The likelihood that groups and individuals who have vested interests will defend them by means of distorted arguments is too well known to require extended comment. If anything, many people exaggerate the relative importance of concern for vested interests as a source of ideology.

Those who stand to gain from a proposed social change are also, of course, likely to be less than objective in their appraisal of the status quo and of the general merit of the proposed change.

Bitterness. Social change usually takes place only against opposition, and even if it is successful, those who have lost something as a result of it are, of course, likely to be embittered. Thus an important source of ideology is the bitter feeling of groups, social categories, or individuals who have lost social prestige, wealth, income, or authority. They may think they see a far-reaching conspiracy against them and perceive the value system as decaying when more objective observers may feel that it has been invigorated by the social changes in question. The loss or reduction of prestige and influence can be rather subtle. For example, cultural differentiation in recent times has meant, in part, the growing distinctiveness of the various social sciences vis-àvis the older humane disciplines, such as history and literature. The rise of sociology has meant the relative decline, in certain fields of judgment, of the influence of older literary experts. To some extent, the widespread, rather indiscriminate hostility to technical jargon expresses the status insecurity of the undifferentiated sage, who displaces his feelings by charging that dehumanization has occurred.

Limited social perspective. It may be presumed that a very general cause of distortion is the fact that everyone occupies a limited number of social positions and therefore does not have an opportunity to acquire firsthand knowledge of most of the system. Since whites in the United States have been segregated to a considerable extent from Negroes, they have also been insulated to some extent against detailed knowledge of the relative deprivation that many Negroes suffer. Consequently, many whites can innocently imagine that the value system is better realized than it actually is. This, of course, is ideology.

Outmoded science. The foregoing discussion has presented perhaps the main general sources of ideology. It is necessary to add another point. Ideology is often equated with rationalization in the psychological sense. This equation perhaps arises from the widespread and partly correct theory that ideology is essentially a defense of vested interests. Actually, however, people may have ideological ideas that are even contrary to their interests or that are related to their interests in so complex a way that experts would hesitate to attempt to calculate the net effect. Sutton and his associates (1956) pointed out this fact concerning widely held erroneous economic theories. Many people, for example, although fewer than formerly, believe that national bankruptcy is likely to occur if the national debt is allowed to get any bigger. This belief is due to misunderstanding of scientific theory or to the persistence, in popular thought, of outmoded theory. This particular belief must be regarded as ideological to the extent that it causes people to accept as inevitable problems that might be sharply reduced by appropriate government spending. In effect, these people are exaggerating the extent to which social values have been realized, by underestimating the extent to which they could be realized. Such ideology, however, is not necessarily a rationalization, for rationalization assumes that unconsciously the truth is known but cannot be faced at the conscious level.

Types of ideology

Ideologies fall fairly readily into four types: conservative, counter-, reform, and revolutionary (Parsons 1959). (We must keep in mind that the term “ideologies” means systems of doctrine that include a fairly large amount of ideology.) The four types strongly suggest the basic function of ideology, which is to define a particular program of social action as legitimate and worthy of support.

A conservative ideology cannot be identified by the content of the values it supports or advocates. It is conservative in that it is in effect an apology for the status quo in one or more of its aspects. A reform ideology favors reform; a revolutionary ideology favors change in the value system of the status quo (i.e., in the highest level of social structure); and a counterideology is an ideology that somehow by distortion or selection makes some kind of deviant behavior appear justified. A common form of counterideology is to exaggerate the extent of the deviant behavior in question and to claim that respectable people, if one only knew, practice the deviant behavior themselves but are hypocritical about it.

Perhaps it should be emphasized once more that not every conservative, reform, revolutionary, or counterdoctrine need contain a large amount of ideology. Ideology, properly speaking, is a variable element in such doctrines.

Focuses of ideology

Distorted or selective ideas tend to develop around focuses—that is, points that are crucial to the functioning of a social system. Of these, five can be usefully distinguished: (1) causes of strain, (2) extent of strain, (3) goals of social action, (4) other social systems (with which the system of reference is compared), and (5) the nature of the dominant value system and its implications.

Causes of strain. As has been noted, scapegoat-ing is probably the most common form of ideology focused on the causes of strain. Scapegoating is the displacement of blame for frustration from the true cause onto a person or persons, a group or groups, who have little or nothing to do with the frustration. For scapegoating to occur, some at least of the scapegoaters must be unaware of the irrationality and injustice of what they are thinking and doing. They, as well as the scapegoat, must be the victims of ideology. These victims—the scapegoaters themselves—may or may not also be the victims of propagandists who are deliberately deceiving them in order to mobilize or to divert their energies. Some writers focus attention mainly on the deliberate ideologists—manufacturers, as it were, of “big lies” —but in every case one should also seek to understand both the susceptibility of the audience to the distorted ideas and the vulnerability of the scapegoat. These are related. The selection of a scapegoat is not determined by its weakness alone; the scapegoat is always symbolically connected with the frustrations of the scapegoaters (Parsons 1942a; 1942b).

A separate question, worthy of analysis in each case, is the effects of an episode of scapegoating upon the social system in which it occurs. Aside from the suffering of the scapegoat, which is common, an episode of scapegoating has other consequences for the social system, including the scapegoaters themselves, and these consequences vary according to circumstances. Since each case is likely to be rather complex, the reader is referred to some cases that have been well analyzed. (See Parsons 1942a; 1942b; Bell 1955; Woodward [1955] 1966, pp. 31-109.)

The causes of strain may of course be the focus of ideology in which scapegoating is only one component. Outmoded scientific ideas and slanted ideas due to limited social perspective may or may not involve scapegoating.

Extent of strain. The second focus of ideology, the extent of strain, is tantamount to a focus on grievances or alleged grievances in the social system, although strain also occurs over goal attainment. Those who are opposed to change will tend to play down or underestimate the extent of legitimate grievance; those who favor change will tend to exaggerate grievances. This does not mean, of course, either that there are never any real grievances or that grievances are always exaggerated.

Goals of social action. Closely connected with ideas about the sources and extent of strain are ideas about how the strain might be removed. Thus, reform and revolutionary movements crystallize goals for social action. At this point also there is room for ideology. In particular, reform movements may have an exaggerated or unrealistic idea of the benefits to expect if the reforms they propose are carried through. As for revolutionary movements, their tendency to foster utopian hopes is well known.

Other social systems. An ideology often refers to other social systems. According to Myrdal (1966), many people in Europe, envying the prosperity and progress of Sweden, think that the Swedes are bored and unhappy; as evidence, these envious critics like to refer to the allegedly high suicide rate in Sweden. Myrdal suggests, however, that there is little objective evidence that the Swedes are less happy than other peoples; certainly they do not have to struggle to have enough to eat, a decent place to live in, adequate medical care, and both the time and the means for recreation. As for the suicide rate, that of Sweden is actually lower than the rates in several other countries and shows no sign of becoming higher as Sweden’s prosperity increases. Moreover, there are reasons for believing, even so, that the suicide rates in other countries may actually be higher than official statistics indicate, for in most countries suicide is a sin and a crime, and people cover up some suicides by reporting other causes of death; but in Sweden suicide is viewed as an individual right and a personal matter, and the ethical code of the country forbids newspapers to give publicity to suicides. Misrepresentation of Sweden in the United States is probably not due to envy, or not to envy alone. One aspect of American individualism is a playing down of problems of the nation as a whole, in the sense of playing down the need for coordinated cooperation of the whole nation toward attaining collective goals; there has even been a strong tradition of distrust of government, especially of the central government. One may speculate, therefore, that many Americans are disposed to think that the welfare state, as exemplified by Sweden, must destroy people’s moral fiber and individual initiative. Many foreigners are much impressed by the relative backwardness of the United States in social welfare, the more so since the United States is the richest country in the world but has enormous urban and rural slums. Speculating further, it is probable that many Americans are unaware that private enterprise in Sweden is both highly developed and highly valued.

Ideology is extremely common in international relations, probably because of relatively poor communication and mutual distrust, rivalry, or outright hostility. According to Chinese propagandists on the mainland, the so-called proletariat in the United States is waiting to be rescued from its capitalist, imperialist oppressors. Some Chinese in Taiwan, and a few people in the United States, imagine that the totalitarian government of mainland China has little or no popular support.

In a sense, the goals of a revolutionary movement are an example of focus upon another society —an imaginary society of the future. Conservative and anomic ideologies tend to romanticize the past —that is, to present a distorted favorable conception of a type of society alleged to have existed, in which people recognized truths and values now allegedly lost or being lost.

Value system. The fifth possible focus of ideology is the value system, the chief source of legitimation. Given the hierarchy of control that operates in social systems, the legitimation of social action, whether conservative or radical, is always a matter of concern. A value system is involved in the personalities of actors, and therefore in their motivation.

A radical ideology tends to exaggerate the failure of the social system to realize the dominant values. The dominant value system is declared to be a sham; those who profess the values are said to be hypocrites. The value system is pictured as a set of fake promises, issued to forestall needed social change. This negative picture of the value system of the status quo is the obverse of the utopianism involved in the picture of the ideal future society, to be realized under the guidance of a new or partly new value system. Revolutionary leaders claim legitimacy on the basis of the rightness of this new value system and their commitment to it.

Examples of conservative distortion of the value system of the status quo are likely to be more subtle. Thus, people who resist extending civil rights to Negroes in the United States have distorted the value system by ignoring its implications. A good example was the attempt, some years ago, to deny Negroes the right to vote in some southern states by claiming that the Democratic party was a private association and could make its own rules for participation in its primaries. (The Supreme Court ruled that the parties are so intimately involved in the electoral process that to exclude qualified voters from the primaries was in effect to disfranchise them, thus denying them equal rights.) Less subtle is the distortion by conservatives of the value system of the revolutionary movement or movements to which they are opposed. This distortion may be as great as the revolutionaries’ distortion of the value system of the status quo.

Importance of ideology

The fact that ideology is distorted or selective does not necessarily prevent it from having positive effects. Ideology may help a social system to achieve greater integration or greater adaptation or adaptive capacity. In this sense, it may be functional. For one thing, an ideology is likely to be a relatively simple definition of a complex situation—too simple, perhaps, by scientific standards, but for that very reason able to “explain” difficulties for a large number of people and able to activate them according to a common definition of the situation and a common plan. Even irrational hopes, if they are not so unrealistic as to cause grave disillusionment and greater strain, may help people to overcome their fear or their routine responses. The effects of earlier socialization, now inappropriate, may have to be neutralized. Participation in a movement for change may require loosening oneself to some extent from old loyalties and forming new ones. A certain kind of distortion connected with partisanship in general is usually considered to be an indicator of good morale, of identification with the group and loyalty to it. One would not wish one’s wife to be perfectly objective about the merits of her husband.

Ideology also, however, makes it easier, at times, for people to resist desirable change blindly. No judgment about functional consequences can be made without analysis of the system in which they occur and of its situation.

Since ideology is a symbol system, it may be viewed, to some extent, as if it were a work of art; and an analyst, equipped with the proper scientific perspective, might be able to infer from it a great deal about the total orientation of those who created it or to whom it appealed successfully. Like some works of art or other products of the creative imagination—dreams, for example—an ideology may reveal, to a qualified analyst, aspects of motivation that are latent or only dimly understood by the ideologist himself. Thus, the technical analysis of ideology can be a tool for the diagnosis, so to speak, of some aspects of the functioning (or malfunctioning) of the social system. The concept of ideology plays a part in the sociological theory of social stability and social change.

The analysis of ideology may also have practical value. No doubt the selection of this or that body of ideas for analysis may be determined, in part, by the social scientist’s own values. No matter : even if this is so, it does not necessarily mean that the analysis itself will be unscientific. In both domestic and international relations, rational action requires that each group expose, examine, and seek to understand dispassionately its own distortions and those of other groups. “Understanding” ideology is more than grasping the fact that distortion exists. It involves explaining why distortion exists, and why this particular distortion. For instance, in dealing with an adversary’s distortions, it is not enough to spread “the” correct facts; it is desirable (for greater effectiveness) to take into account the particular sources of the adversary’s ideology.

Control of ideology

Despite the fact that ideology may have positive functions for a social system, it is not necessary to emphasize that ignorance and error are not, generally speaking, a solid basis for the functioning of either a social system or a personality. If ideology builds up like an oyster’s secretion around strain, then anything that reduces strain will tend to limit the spread of ideology. Thus, all social mechanisms for the orderly expression and redress of grievances probably tend in the long run to reduce both strain and ideology.

Parsons believes that the professions can help to limit ideology, since they link the systematic sciences and studies, on the one hand, with the broad public, on the other. In limiting ideology, social science and law are perhaps especially important; but, since selection and distortion are the defining characteristics of ideology, probably the professionalizing of journalism, with higher educational requirements, more specialization, greater professional pride and independence, and higher standards of accuracy in analyzing, reporting, and anticipating the news, also operates to limit the spread of ideology.

Ideology, values, and evaluations

Popular thinkers, including ideologists, do not explicitly and habitually think in terms of a hierarchy of normative control comprising four levels of social structure. Therefore, the relevance of Parsons’ definition of ideology is not always evident at first glance. At the same time, careful analysis of popular ideas for their implicit ideological content in Parsons’sense, plus the attempt to explain distortion and selectivity in sociological terms, can make valuable contributions both to sociology and to practical life.

Geertz has suggested that it is hardly scientific to define ideology as distortion and selectivity. It is a fact, however, that distorted and selective ideas about social reality are extremely common, and there can be no valid objection to trying to explain why. Whether one wishes to call such ideas “ideological” is merely a matter of definition, but there is nothing unscientific about this usage. Geertz himself acknowledges that distortion does exist in social life when he attacks Edward Shils in the following way: “Shils’s tack of invoking the extreme pathologies of ideological thought—Nazism, Bolshevism, or whatever—as its paradigmatic forms is reminiscent of the tradition in which the Inquisition, the personal depravity of Renaissance popes, the savagery of Reformation wars, or the primitiveness of Bible-belt fundamentalism is offered as an archetype of religious belief and behavior” (Geertz 1964, p. 51). Neither Parsons nor Shils, however, has said that political doctrines and programs are composed entirely of ideology, or even that ideology is part of every political doctrine. In their sense, ideology is an element, present in highly variable degree, in popular ideas (and also in ideas that purport to be scientific).

Geertz also reminds us of the symbolic and often metaphorical character of polemical doctrines. They are not always intended or understood in a literal sense. Evaluative language does not necessarily involve cognitive distortion. (For an excellent analysis of the symbolic character of an ideology, see Parsons 1942a; 1942b.)

It remains scientifically and practically interesting, however, to know what Chairman Mao Tse-tung, for example, actually believes about the United States, and why, even when one makes due allowance for the fact that some of the things he and Marshal Lin Piao say contain purely rhetorical exaggerations.

It is extremely important to keep in mind Parsons’ distinction between values and cognitive conceptions. White, for example, is not to be taken as a defender of mass culture and mass-produced personalities because he showed that distortion is involved in some commentaries on contemporary American society (1961). What White and Parsons have questioned is the assumption, which many writers make, that individuality and individual initiative are less strong now in the United States than they have been in the past (Parsons & White 1961). They show that not a little ideological distortion is involved in much recent criticism of mass culture, the other-directed personality, the organization man, conformity, and the like. According to them, the progressive differentiation of contemporary society has produced more individuality, not less. This differentiation, however, with its accompanying variety of personalities, has intensified the problem of coordination and organizational integration; there is an intensified need for psychological sensitivity, and more sophistication is expected in interpersonal relations. As for the supposed disastrous decline in popular culture, Parsons and White are not out to praise comic strips and TV shows, but they do point out, as other social scientists have also done, that in times past a far larger proportion of the population could not even read, that the sources of information and entertainment were far more meager than those available today, and that far more people spent so much time in drudgery that they could hardly have cultivated their minds to any notable extent. (See, for instance, Bell 1960, chapter 1, and Bell’s footnote references.)

These are matters of fact, however difficult an exact determination of the facts may be. The work of Parsons and White in analyzing certain ideological distortions common among intellectuals of the “sage” type has added considerably to Durk-heim’s theoretical insights concerning the important processes of social differentiation and cultural differentiation.

Several writers have noted “the end of ideology” in relatively advanced societies, whose social institutions permit a constant process of orderly self-revision. Among the characteristics of what might be called a “self-revising” society are the following: a high degree of consensus with respect to societal values (the first level of social structure); a relatively clear-cut distinction between values and norms, so that attacking norms (i.e., institutions, at the societal level) does not necessarily mean attacking the values and thus proposing a new hierarchy of control (see Smelser [1962] 1963, pp. 280-281); relative absence of the cleavage causing segments of the population to be in conflict over several important issues and keeping them from being bound by compensating common interests; a stable institutional pattern for the legislative process; and effective institutionalized channels for the expression of grievance and for obtaining redress. Such writers as, for example, Shils (1955), Lipset (1960), and Bell (1960) are not only speaking for themselves; they are also reporting and commenting upon a broad trend among Western intellectuals generally. For example, there is no longer a widespread tendency to regard capitalism and socialism as necessarily radically different in social aims. “The end of ideology” certainly does not mean that ideology in the sense of this article is disappearing in the world at large, in democratic societies generally, or even in the work of professional social scientists. What is meant is that in certain advanced societies there is, or may be, a tendency for intellectuals to be less attracted to grandiose social doctrines, doctrines that contain a few simple principles purporting to explain any and all social events, doctrines that favor drastic revolution in pursuit of utopian goals. The “end of ideology” writers cannot by any means fairly be said to be opposed to social change in general or even to revolution in general.

There may well be some truth in their contention. That some such development is likely is suggested by two broad facts. First, some societies have indeed evolved social institutions that facilitate relatively orderly social change and make violent revolution less necessary and less attractive. Second, the development of social science in these same countries has revealed the intellectual inadequacy of extremist “explanations” of complex social phenomena and has also made social scientists more aware, perhaps, of the enormous social cost of revolution and of the presence, in most revolutionary thinking, of utopian elements. For these general reasons, there may be less inclination to romanticize the idea of revolution.

Among sociologists and others, however, there is not, of course, complete agreement on these points. Whatever may be said about the decline of extremist thinking among intellectuals in self-revising societies, we may certainly continue to expect a great deal of controversy over the interpretation of particular social phenomena. Ideology by its very nature does not readily yield to scientific criticism.

Harry M. Johnson

[Other relevant material may be found inAlienation; Intellectuals; Norms; Systems Analysis, article onSocial Systems; Values; and in the biographies ofMannheim; Marx; Weber, Max.]


Bell, Daniel (editor) (1955) 1963 The Radical Right: The New American Right Expanded and Updated. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday. → A paperback edition was published in 1964.

Bell, Daniel (1960) 1962 The End of Ideology: On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties. 2d ed., rev. New York: Collier.

Birnbaum, Norman 1962 The Sociological Study of Ideology, 1940-60: A Trend Report and Bibliography. Prepared for the International Sociological Association, with the support of UNESCO. Oxford: Blackwell.

Geertz, Clifford 1964 Ideology as a Cultural System. Pages 47-76 in David E. Apter (editor), Ideology and Discontent. New York: Free Press.

Gilroy, Harry 1966 Ideologies Stir P.E.N. Delegates. New York Times June 18: p. 29, col. 4.

Gould, Julius 1964 Ideology. Pages 315-317 in Julius Gould and William L. Kolb (editors), A Dictionary of the Social Sciences. New York: Free Press.

Lipset, Seymour M. 1960 Political Man: The Social Bases of Politics. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday. → See especially Chapter 13.

Merton, Robert K. (1949) 1957 Social Theory and Social Structure. Rev. & enl. ed. Glencoe, III.: Free Press.

Myrdal, Gunnar 1966 The Swedish Way to Happiness. New York Times Magazine January 30: pp. 14-15, 17-18, 20, 22.

Parsons, Talcott 1942a The Sociology of Modern Anti-Semitism. Pages 101-122 in Jacques Graeber and Steuart H. Britt (editors), Jews in a Gentile World: The Problem of Anti-Semitism. New York: Macmillan.

Parsons, Talcott 1942b Some Sociological Aspects of the Fascist Movements. Social Forces 21:138-147.

Parsons, Talcott 1959 An Approach to the Sociology of Knowledge. Volume 4, pages 25-49 in World Congress of Sociology, Fourth, Milan and Stresa, 1959, Transactions. Louvain (Belgium): International Sociological Association.

Parsons, Talcott; and White, Winston 1961 The Link Between Character and Society. Pages 89-135 in Seymour M. Lipset and Leo Lowenthal (editors), Culture and Social Character: The Work of David Riesman Reviewed. New York: Free Press.

Shils, Edward 1955 The End of Ideology? Encounter 5, no. 5:52-58.

Smelser, Neil J. (1962) 1963 Theory of Collective Behavior. London: Routledge; New York: Free Press.

Sutton, Francis X. et al. 1956 The American Business Creed. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

White, Winston 1961 Beyond Conformity. New York: Free Press.

Woodward, C. Vann (1955) 1966 The Strange Career of Jim Crow. 2d rev. ed. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Ideology." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . 27 Mar. 2017 <>.

"Ideology." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . (March 27, 2017).

"Ideology." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved March 27, 2017 from



Jennifer W. See

In the last few decades of the twentieth century diplomatic historians increasingly turned their attention to the study of ideology. Previously scholars had largely ignored ideology, choosing instead to focus upon economic or political interests in their explanations. More and more, however, historians found explanations centered on economic imperatives and geopolitical calculations insufficient, even anemic, and many began drawing on new approaches borrowed from other disciplines. The work of the anthropologist Clifford Geertz, in particular, has proven influential among historians and social scientists, offering a powerful tool for understanding the content of ideology and for uncovering its role in policymaking. Geertz's conception of ideology as part of the context within which social interactions unfold has played a significant role in the renewed interest in how ideology influences foreign policy. A rich literature has developed around this subject.

Nevertheless, scholars of American foreign policy still disagree sharply over the importance of ideology in the policymaking process and precisely how it determines outcomes. Even those who emphasize the primacy of ideology in shaping policy concede it is an elusive concept. In particular, at the level of specific policy decisionsand foreign relations historians in the United States have tended overwhelmingly to focus their attention on policymakingideology has a way of disappearing. Moreover, little consensus exists over theoretical issues such as definition.

Nowhere has the debate been more intense than among scholars of the Cold War. This dynamic in part results from the intense attention that diplomatic historians have devoted to the superpower conflicta quick glance through a half dozen back issues of the journal Diplomatic History makes clear just how overrepresented the post-1945 period has been. But the nature of the Soviet-American rivalry has also forced scholars to confront the issue of ideology, because both superpowers used strongly ideological rhetoric during the period. Did policymakers during the Cold War believe the ideological claims they made about the world in their public statements, and shape policies accordingly? Or did ideology represent an instrument of politics used to win over their publics and serve as a kind of ex post facto justification for decisions reached on other grounds? Despite the lack of consensus, the intense and ongoing debate over the Cold War highlights both the challenges and the importance of examining ideology.


According to Webster's Tenth New Collegiate Dictionary, "ideology" is "visionary theorizing." Alternatively, it is "a systematic body of concepts especially about human life or culture," or "a manner or the content of thinking characteristic of an individual, group, or culture." Malcolm Hamilton, in his article "The Elements of the Concept of Ideology," offers a more scholarly formulation, writing that ideology is "a system of collectively held normative and reputedly factual ideas and beliefs and attitudes advocating and/or justifying a particular pattern of political and/or economic relationships, arrangements, and conduct." The historian Michael Hunt, meanwhile, views ideology in more specific terms as performing a particular function: it is "an interrelated set of convictions or assumptions that reduces the complexities of a particular slice of reality to easily comprehensible terms and suggests appropriate ways of dealing with that reality." These are just a few examples of scholars' many efforts to define ideology.

Expanding upon these three examples, however, we may construct a meaningful definition. It might read as follows: Ideology is a shared belief system that may serve at once to motivate and to justify. It generally asserts normative values and includes causative beliefs. How do things happen? What does it all mean? An ideology may be utopian and progressive or protective of the status quo. It offers a way in which to order the world, defining enemies and allies, dangers and opportunities, us and them. Ideologies are formal, structured, and involve their own particular logic, often appearing in the guise of science or objective knowledge. Ideology is implicated in collective action, as criticism, goad, explanation, or promise. It is represented in symbols and beliefs held by a community and is publicly expressed. Ideology is at once philosophy, science, religion, and imagination.


The concept of ideology is generally considered to date from the early nineteenth century, when French theorists, the idéologues, sought through a science of ideas to discover truth and dissolve illusion. For the idéologues, ideology represented a neutral, scientific term. It soon, however, took on a more negative and even pejorative connotation. (The contemporary term "ideologue" derives from this history.) The nineteenth-century reaction against the French Revolution, which for conservatives represented Enlightenment rationalism taken to dangerous extremes, struck the first blow to ideology's reputation. But it was the work of a nineteenth-century revolutionary that truly sundered ideology from its rationalist beginnings.

For Karl Marx ideology had more to do with illusion than truth. In his best-known works, such as Capital, the German philosopher and revolutionary provides surprisingly little explanation of either the role or the nature of ideology. Yet Marx has had a lasting influence on the understanding of ideology. Marxist theory finds the determinants of social reality in material factors and especially in economic structures. Marx argued that human society was passing through a series of historical periods or stages. A different form of economic organizationfeudalism, capitalism, and eventually communismeach with its own dominant class defined the various stages. And this is where ideology comes in: For Marx ideology served the interests of the dominant class, whether kings or merchants. Ideology acted as a camera obscura, to use one of his many metaphors for the concept, providing individuals with a distorted view of reality. The view through the camera obscura concealed the realities of class conflict that define social relationships. It created the alienation of workers in capitalist society and slowed the inexorable revolutionary progress toward the end of history, the communist utopia. Only Marxist theory, which offered a true vision of history, was free from ideological distortion.

Marx's views proved enduring. Although subsequent theorists further developed his ideas the outlines of his view remained largely unchanged, and ideology continued well into the twentieth century to be understood as an instrument to justify power. Lenin represents perhaps the most significant and influential of Marx's successors. To Marxist theory Lenin added a revolutionary caste of intellectuals who could provide an ideology for the working class. These revolutionary intellectuals exposed the economic and social realities obscured by the ideology of the dominant class, thereby intervening in the progress of history. In Leninist theory revolution became not just inevitable but also intentional. Ideology took on a more conspiratorial aspect, since now it could be created and manipulated. The revolution of 1917 in Russia, engineered in part by Lenin's Bolsheviks, seemed to attest to the connection between ideology and revolutionary upheaval.

Marxist ideas, however, came under challenge in the early decades of the century by sociologists such as Karl Mannheim and Max Weber, who sought a more objective understanding of the term. Mannheim, for one, understood ideology as a worldview, or Weltanschauung, shared by a particular social group. For Mannheim, Marxism represented just one example of an ideology. But common usage still largely followed the dictates of Marxist theory: ideology was distorting and irrational, an instrument of power. Max Lerner, writing in the 1930s, declared that ideas were weapons. Most Americans shared this view, and influenced by the events of 1917 and the experience of World War II, identified ideology with totalitarianism. The particulars of Marxist-Leninism and the excesses of Nazi Germany linked ideology with the enemies of American ideals. It was something otherslike Hitler or Stalinhad. Students of totalitarianism such as Hannah Arendt reinforced these views. In her influential The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), Arendt wrote that totalitarian states had introduced into international affairs a new and dangerous dynamic. To these states she attributed a neglect of national interests, a contempt for utilitarian motives, and an unwavering faith in an ideological fictitious world. Terror and ideology became inseparable in her interpretation. Yet at the same time, amidst the explicitly ideological rhetoric of the Cold War, many American observers remained curiously blind to the importance of ideology in American society.

The work of realist writers such as George F. Kennan and Hans Morgenthau, however, challenged the notion that American foreign policy remained devoid of ideology. The "realists," as they called themselves to emphasize their critique of idealism in international affairs, became especially prominent in the early 1950s. For these writers ideology acted as a cover for the "real" interests that drove foreign policy. In Morgenthau's 1948 Politics Among Nations, the struggle for power that defined international politics wore an ideological disguise. This disguise might prove impenetrable to even the policymaker himself. For realists like Morgenthau ideology holds the danger of distraction and delusion while at the same time serving as justification and cover. Whereas in Marxist theory ideology provided a camera obscura image of class interests, for these writers state interests represented the "reality" that ideology distorted. The idea of ideology as obscuring power politics and "real" interests appeared in Kennan's writing explicitly tied to American foreign policy. In American Diplomacy, Kennan described American foreign policy in the twentieth century as woven with "the red skein" of legalistic moralism. Kennan argued that legalistic-moralistic tendencies had long marred American diplomacy and called on policymakers to remove their ideological blinders and pursue a policy based upon calculations of interest. Kennan never explicitly labeled this moralistic-legalistic "approach" as ideology. Yet the analogy remained clear.

Beginning in the 1960s revisionist historians and New Left critics such as William Appleman Williams further developed the idea of ideology as at once driving and distorting American policy. But for Williams the problem with American foreign policy lay not in its moralism. Rather, drawing on the Marxist link between ideology and political economy, Williams in his 1959 The Tragedy of American Diplomacy discovered the "open door." He defined open door ideology as a belief that American prosperity and security depended upon an informal empire of markets around the globe. Market capitalism underlay this ideology, of course, and Williams argued that it had served only to lead American policymakers astray. In his revised 1972 edition of Tragedy, he wrote that Vietnam offered a clear example. Williams described the war in Vietnam as a disaster born of efforts to extend the reach of America's informal empire abroad. It represented one more incident in a history of "blustering and self-righteous crusades." In the context of Vietnam, the realists and the New Left agreed on this point, if little else: American ideology served to obscure and distort American interests, drawing the United States into an endless, and hopeless, crusade against communism. Ideology thus stood reaffirmed as a corrosive blight rather than a creative force. Williams's take on ideology and foreign policy proved influential among historians and shaped scholarship during the 1960s and 1970s. The Marxist connection between political economy and ideology along with the conception of ideology as distortion remained alive and well.

But in the field of anthropology, Clifford Geertz was turning away from these ideas. No longer should ideology carry the negative baggage of distortion and concealment traditionally loaded upon it, he argued. Beginning in the 1970s Geertz began to separate it from the role of maintaining power relationships. Instead the anthropologist redefined ideology as an integrated and coherent system of symbols, values, and beliefs. Although still at times the province of a dominant class or group and able to act in the context of power, ideology takes on a broader meaning in Geertz's interpretation. Rather than obscuring social relationships, ideology both formulates and communicates social reality. Geertz's understanding of ideology depended upon his conception of culture, which offers a context within which events can be "thickly" described and which is embodied in public symbols. Within the context of culture, ideology provides a necessary symbol system to make sense of the world, especially significant in times of crisis or rapid change. And here is a crucial distinction between Geertz's understanding of ideology and Mannheim's Weltanschauung: For Geertz, ideology is publicly expressed and can be found in the rituals and symbols of a society, not just in the heads of individuals. Thus for the student of culture ideology offers an entrée into the ways in which societies understand their collective experiences, daily realities, and identities. Through the lens of ideology one can read the truth of a culture and society.

Subsequently, Michael Hunt extended the insights of Clifford Geertz to the study of American foreign policy. And for many in the field, Hunt's book proved a revelation. In U.S. Ideology and Foreign Policy, Hunt argues that three main ideas constitute American ideology: the promise of national greatness, a hierarchy of race, and a fear of social revolution. American ideology entwined the fate of liberty at home and abroad with a sense of mission and a belief in America as an agent of progress. The efforts of Woodrow Wilson in 1918 to secure acceptance of his Fourteen Points provide a case in point. In Hunt's view Wilson sought a leading international role for the United States, promoting liberty abroad and ensuring Anglo-Saxon cultural supremacy. Like the critics of the 1960s and 1970s, Hunt finds that ideology had largely led Americans astray. Significantly, however, it was the details of the ideology Americans had adopted rather than ideology in itself that had caused all the trouble. By changing the symbols and language of American foreign policy, Hunt offers the possibility of altering its substance.

Other scholars working across disciplinary lines of sociology, political science, and history have similarly turned their attention to the close study and interpretation of ideology and culture. Drawing on the work of French theorists such as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, they examine the language used by policymakers and analyze the meanings, or "genealogies," of the very words that compose policy. By placing language at the center of social reality, the "linguistic turn" reaffirms ideology's importance. For postmodernists, language constitutes reality; that is, we cannot understand the world around us outside of the words that we use to describe it. For these theorists language serves to replicate and reinforce power relationships much in the way that ideology had in Marxist theory. Postmodernist scholars of the Cold War have explored the meaning of national security and the images of contagion and disease that were often used in the context of Cold War foreign policy. Others, like David Campbell, have examined closely the ways in which foreign policy and the language used to describe it reinforce identity and serve to define a state. In Writing Security, Campbell argues that the United States represents an imagined community par excellence, which relies on the language and metaphors of its foreign policy to affirm its existence. For these scholars, the ideas and the language are the reality of foreign policy.


The renewed interest in ideology and the demand by scholars like Geertz that social scientists and historians must take it seriously has prompted a crucial question: How does ideology cause foreign policy? In Geertz's work this question was intentionally evaded. In his view ideology could not be a cause of action. Ideology is a part of culture and as such acts as the context of, and provides the language and symbols for, social action. Postmodernist theorists have proven similarly uninterested in traditional questions about the causes of the phenomena they study. But for historians, the question of causes, of how things happen, is central to their project. Critics of Hunt's work have raised just this question. How, for example, did the American belief in a hierarchy of race influence particular decisions? Neither have political scientists proved willing to abandon the question of causes. Although theorists of foreign policy increasingly accept that ideas and ideology, not just interests, matter in foreign policy, for many political scientists and historians, ideology needs a "causal mechanism"a way to act on policyin order to be useful in explaining events.

This remains a sharply contested issue. Some scholars have focused on institutions and groups of policymakers, arguing that over time these take on a shared culture and world view that influences policy. Others have taken a biographical approach, searching through personal papers in an effort to uncover the beliefs and cultural heritage of individual policymakers. The work of the theorist Walter Carlsnaes suggests one answer to the problem of causation. Like Geertz, Carlsnaes views ideology as a contextual variable in decision making. In Ideology and Foreign Policy, Carlsnaes argues that ideology does not cause foreign policy; the decisions of statesmen do. Yet those decisions are made in a particular context, in which ideology is significant. Policymakers react to a particular situation and draw on ideological and cultural resources to make their decisions. While ideology does not intervene in international politics directly, it thus remains a significant determinant of policy by influencing the participants.

This formulation suggests an important pair of insights: Foreign policy cannot be understood in terms of ideology alone, but neither can ideology be ignored. Policymakers struggle for power and respond to threats and opportunities just as realists like Morgenthau have long held. But ideology provides a contextopen to analysis in the way of Geertzthat serves to condition those responses and shape the particulars of decision making. The sociologist Max Weber, in his 1913 essay "The Social Psychology of the World's Religions," aptly envisioned ideas as determining the track along which action is pushed by the dynamic of interest. Ideas and interest are separate yet entwined. Interests come out of the context in which policymakers operate and are revealed in the language and the form of their decisions. In this way ideology, despite not serving as a direct cause of policy, remains a significant part of foreign policy.


Four themes in particular form the frame for American foreign policy during its first hundred years: independence, territorial expansion, belief in a national destiny, and commerce. Throughout, ideological visions combined with a hunger for land and territory, a healthy respect for European power, commercial interests, and fears for American security. From the vantage point of the present, American foreign policy during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries appears relatively inactive and isolationist. Compared with the global reach of American foreign policy during the Cold War and after, the Monroe Doctrine, for example, seems a small thing. Yet the experiences of the early republic contributed lasting pieces to the ideological perspective from which Americans came to view the world in the twentieth century and beyond.

The history of American foreign policy begins with the assertion of independence. One historian, Bradford Perkins, has characterized the American Revolution as "an act of isolation." Although the colonial relationship with Britain was soon severed by the Treaty of Paris (1783), the theme of independence reoccurred throughout the foreign policy of the early Republic. Americans envisioned a New World free from what they saw as the corrupting influences of the old. John Quincy Adams, for one, articulated a "Doctrine of Two Spheres," dividing the Old World and the new. And George Washington famously warned in his Farewell Address in 1796 against "entangling alliances" with Europe.

Perhaps the most significant expression of new world separatism came in the Monroe Doctrine of December 1823. The Monroe Doctrine had two main elements. First, President James Monroe asserted that the Americas were "not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers." Although the United States did not propose to challenge existing colonial territories, it pledged to resist any further extension of European power into the Western Hemisphere. The second aspect of the Monroe Doctrine asserted U.S. opposition to European intervention in New World conflicts. The president declared that his government would view any European effort to intervene in Latin American affairs as "the manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States." Monroe set up his country as the protector of the New World, though he had little power as yet to back up his claims. The Monroe Doctrine was nonetheless of lasting significance: As Bradford Perkins has written, the 1823 statement amounted to a "diplomatic declaration of independence."

The great powers of Europe, especially Britain, France, and Spain, did not acquiesce all at once to this division of the world. Following the war for independence from the British empire, the United States spent the early years of the nineteenth century in the Quasi-War with France after refusing to join Napoleon's war against Britain. Then, after an embargo on both British and French trade failed, the republic found itself again at war with Britain. The United States fought the War of 1812 to protect neutral trading rights, but most contemporaries viewed it as a second war for independence. The Treaty of Ghent (1814), which ended the war, changed little, but it did ratify American independence from Britain. Although Europeans generally denied the legitimacy of the Monroe Doctrine, characterizing it as a statement of ambition rather than reality, none of the great powers openly challenged it, allowing Americans to believe themselves successful. Throughout the nineteenth century European preoccupations such as the Crimean War (18541856) left Americans largely to their own devices, encouraging the illusion of isolation from European conflicts and a belief in a true separation of the Old World from the new.

A second theme of early foreign policy was a belief in American destiny. Few among the early generation of Americans questioned that their new nation was meant for greatness. In part this belief came from the Puritan heritage. The United States represented a "city on a hill" that God had chosen for a special destiny and mission in the world. This mission was understood over time in different ways, but the survival of America's republican government remained central. Early Americans believed that republican government was fragile, easily corrupted into tyranny from above or anarchy from below. After all, the republican experiments of the past had ended in failure. Moreover, the French Revolution raised significant questions for Americans about whether republican government could succeed elsewhere in the world. The excesses of the French Revolution, in particular the Terror (17931794) and the eventual rise of Napoleon as emperor (1804), reinforced a sense of exceptionalism and superiority in the American mind. This sense of superiority also had a racial aspect. American destiny was an Anglo-Saxon destiny. As Hunt explains, belief in racial hierarchy was part and parcel of American ideology.

The mixture of mission and race played out in a third theme of early foreign policy: expansion. For nineteenth-century Americans geography was destiny. To the west lay an empty continent, and expansion was nothing less than inevitable. For Americans at the time the same divine providence that had guided the founding seemed to sanction a right to expansion. In the 1840s the writer John O'Sullivan gave name to this impulse: manifest destiny. O'Sullivan believed in the inevitability of American greatness and the necessity of the American example for the world. Americans must "carry the glad tidings of peace and good will where myriads now endure an existence scarcely more enviable than that of the beast of the field," he wrote. The United States had a mission "to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions." The new nation would make "manifest" the virtues of freedom and Anglo-Saxon civilization. As the historian Anders Stephanson explains, manifest destiny served as a legitimizing myth of empire. Manifest destiny helped reconcile the national mythology of exceptionalism and virtue with ambition and acquisitiveness. Americans thus understood their territorial expansion in a particularly American way, drawing on ideas deeply embedded in their cultural heritage and self-identity.

And the United States quickly overspread the continent. Thomas Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase (1803) marked the first major expansion, extending the boundaries of the United States to the Mississippi River. Subsequently, John Quincy Adams became a key architect of American expansion, negotiating the 1819 Transcontinental Treaty with Spain, which extended American claims all the way to the Pacific. These claims did not go entirely unchallenged, as the British sought to retain their foothold in the Pacific Northwest and Mexico claimed significant portions of the Southwest. Moreover the issue of slavery complicated considerably the process of admitting new states into the union. And of course the continent was not empty: The Cherokee and Iroquois among others tried desperately to keep their ancestral lands. But with a combination of war and treaty the United States managed to secure hold over much of the continent by mid-century. Racial attitudes of superiority helped rationalize the bloody and dangerous work of subduing the native populations, as did the ideology of destiny and divine mission. At the same time, race paradoxically limited American expansion to the south. During the Mexican-American War (18461848), President James K. Polk turned away from conquering the whole of Mexico, believing that Latin Americans were not ready for republican government. This belief in Latin American inferiority proved lasting, though ambivalence toward spreading democracy did not.

The final ingredient of early foreign policy was commerce. Revisionist historians such as William Appleman Williams argue that the search for markets has driven American foreign policy from the beginning. Commerce and efforts to protect American trade in particular have always been an element of foreign policy. Americans have long shown a tendency to assert universalistic claims and champion neutral rights that serve American interests. The rebellion against Britain was in part over trading privileges. Even more so was the War of 1812. There were territorial issues and domestic political positions at stake in the War of 1812, but maritime rights were central to the American grievance with Britain. The United States opposed the British efforts to blockade France by decree, known as a "paper blockade," and demanded that Britain recognize the principle of "free ships free goods." Goods transported by neutral American shipping should be immune from seizure by British naval forces and American seamen free from impressment into the British navy, argued the Madison administration. The War of 1812 did not resolve these issues, though the principles of free trade and neutral shipping won some protection under international law in subsequent decades.

At the end of the nineteenth century, Secretary of State John Hay passed the Open Door Notes to the other great powers. Hay hoped to establish the principle of free trade and open markets. The subject was the China trade, but the principle involved transcended the particulars. Much as the Monroe Doctrine expressed a long-held belief in the separation of the Old and New Worlds, the open door notes signified the importance of trade and commerce to American policy-makers. Williams has argued that the open door represents the keystone of American foreign policy. Americans have throughout their history sought to secure global markets, an open door, for American goods. To Williams and other revisionist scholars, the impetus of the open door has made for an inherently expansionist U.S. policy that has in effect created an informal empire under the guise of asserting neutral rights. Revisionists exaggerate, perhaps, the dominance, the power of the open door, but trade and commerce nonetheless have remained central elements of the story.

Until the end of the nineteenth century American ideology had little influence beyond its borders. The mythology of the founding and the other tenets of American identity served to reinforce unity at home. Most Americans perceived the United States as a nation apart and clung to isolationist attitudes. But growing American power and widening commercial and political interests meant a turn to a more activist foreign policy beginning in the early years of the twentieth century. The first president of the new century, Theodore Roosevelt, proved an able champion of American power, sending his new navy around the world. Roosevelt also involved himself in Old World diplomacy, winning a Nobel Peace Prize for his role in negotiating an end to the Russo-Japanese War (19041905). Events in the Old World soon ensured that Roosevelt's successors would see little alternative but to continue the project of asserting American power.

World War I (19141918) and the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia stand together as the defining events of the twentieth century. World War I brought to an end the Habsburg and Turkish empires, opening the question of nationalism and self-determination in eastern and central Europe. The Bolshevik Revolution, meanwhile, introduced a new ideology to the world: Marxist-Leninism. The conflicts created by the combination of declining empires, unleashed nationalisms, and new ideologies proved lasting, shaping events for the rest of the century. President Woodrow Wilson, who served from 1912 to 1920, proved a pivotal figure who redefined American traditions to meet the new circumstances of the twentieth century. The growing power of nationalism, the ideological challenge of Marxist-Leninism, and the revolutions set loose by retreating empires: to these challenges Wilson brought a distinctly American response.

Wilson has remained a controversial figure. Scholars have variously seen him as a starry-eyed idealist and as a wise statesman who pursued a kind of enlightened realism. An idealist Wilson certainly was. The president believed in the perfectibility of man and his institutions and that extending democracy could make for a more peaceful world. He sought to channel nationalism into democratic direction and find an alternative to the political arrangements of the past, in particular the secret treaties and multinational empires he believed had brought about the Great War. He hoped the orderly legal arrangements of the League of Nations would prevent conflict while at the same time protect traditional American interests in free trade and neutrality.

With a liberal's fear of radicalism Wilson intervened in the Mexican revolution (19101915) to "teach Mexicans to elect good men." With equal distaste for conservatism he saw little reason to regret the breakup of the multinational Habsburg empire in central and eastern Europe. And with a traditional American ambivalence toward social change he sought to turn back revolution in Russia, fearing the challenge to property rights Marxist-Leninism seemed to represent and the instability the revolution threatened. The president believed in democracy. But he also saw spreading democracy abroad as a way to ensure the American way of life at home. In this he abandoned his predecessors' pessimism about the possibilities for republican government elsewhere. The United States should not only serve as an example, but also actively promote liberal values abroad. In Wilson, moralism, ideology, and interest entwined in an activist, universalist liberalism. That Wilson's vision ran aground against the radicalism of revolution, the impossibility of intervention on behalf of self-determination, and the institutionalized rivalries of the European great powers in no way lessened its lasting influence.

Yet despite the universalist implications of the Wilsonian vision, the United States in the interwar period limited its involvement in world affairs, refusing to join the League of Nations. This is not to say that the U.S. withdrew entirely from the world during the 1920s and 1930s. It participated in naval conferences with the other great powers and tangled with Japan in the Pacific, but not with the kind of far-reaching universalist claims and hopes of 1918. For all the importance Wilsonian ideology seemed posed to have in shaping American foreign policy in the aftermath of World War I, it was rivaled by isolationism. Prosperity at home took precedence over idealism abroad, particularly after the onset of the Great Depression in 1929.

But this aloofness from the world could not last. The 1933 Nazi seizure of power in Germany meant little to most Americans at the time, but its effects soon rippled throughout the international system. After the invasion of Poland in 1939 the United States was not entirely uninvolved in World War II but proved able to avoid direct intervention. Instead President Franklin D. Roosevelt made his country an arsenal for democracy against Germany and its allies. After Japanese pilots bombarded Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, however, events again drew the United States into a pivotal role in world affairs, and it faced the challenge of reconciling its traditions and self-image with the ways of the world.

Although Wilsonianism was held responsible by the 1940s for the failed peace settlement of Versailles, it still exerted a powerful hold on the American imagination. The bipartisan support for the United Nations, the new collective security organization proposed in 1945, and Roosevelt's wartime rhetoric testified to the continued power of Wilsonian ideals. But against these hopes the postWorld War II peace felt fragile, in part as a result of the new vulnerability that technology imposed and Pearl Harbor symbolized. The lessons of history hard learned at Munich and Versailles combined with old beliefs in American mission and exceptionalism as policymakers of the 1940s wrestled with the dilemmas of the postwar world. It soon became clear, even as World War II was coming to a close, that chief among these dilemmas was the reality of Soviet power. Within two years of the end of the war, a unique kind of conflict, soon dubbed the Cold War, was on. America's new vulnerability had an agent, Soviet communism, and a panacea, the strategy of containment.


Traditional scholarship on the Cold War assigned a central but sharply circumscribed role to ideology. The writers of the 1950s drew on the official rationales that the Truman administration had used to explain the nature of the Cold War and the necessity for the American Cold War policy of containment. This literature portrayed the Soviets as bent on expansion, driven by a combination of traditional interests and Marxist-Leninist ideology. The United States in response acted prudently and pragmatically to defend its interests against this obvious security threat. This view did not go unchallenged. Although initially an advocate of containing the Soviet Union, George Kennan soon joined another realist critic, Walter Lippmann, and turned against his creation. Kennan argued that the Truman Doctrine overcommitted the United States by defining American interests in ideological and expansive terms. For Kennan and Lippmann both, ideology influenced not only Soviet but also American policymakers. Beginning in the 1960s revisionist scholars turned traditional scholarship on its head, arguing that American, not Soviet, policy was ideological, and that the Soviet actions in the immediate postwar period were motivated by legitimate security needs.

In reaction to the sharp disjunction between revisionist and traditional scholarship, historians working in the 1970s and 1980s set aside ideology altogether and redefined the Cold War as a traditional conflict of interests between two great powers. This conflict came as the inevitable out-growth of World War II and particularly the power vacuum in central Europe resulting from the destruction of Germany. Louis Halle in The Cold War as History famously describes the two superpowers as scorpions in a bottle. They could not help but come into conflict. Writing very much in this tradition, Melvyn Leffler argues in his award-winning account of the Truman administration, A Preponderance of Power, that American policymakers were driven by national security considerations and sought to increase American power in the postwar world. In A Preponderance of Power, ideology has little to do with American policy. Instead, American policymakers acted out of fear for American security. Truman and his advisers were prudent in reacting to the possibility of Soviet aggression, yet they were foolish to seek so exaggerated a security for the United States. Although the wisdom of American policy-makers and the question of Soviet intentions remained a subject of scholarly disagreement, ideology seemed to fall out of the picture. For a time, there the debate rested.

But in the 1990s newly available archival sources from the Soviet side of the conflict reopened the question of the relationship between ideology and the Cold War. Writing in 1997, John Lewis Gaddis declared in We Now Know that the new Cold War history must of necessity concern itself with ideology. Similarly, Martin Malia in The Soviet Tragedy, an account of Soviet foreign policy, places ideology at the center of the conflict between East and West and argues that the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution virtually guaranteed the Cold War that followed. The Russian scholars Vladislav Zubok and Constantine Pleshakov also emphasize ideology in their interpretation of Cold War Soviet foreign policy, though in their account Marxist-Leninism and self-interest combined to shape Stalin's decision making.

American ideology has received less attention, but the arguments of this new scholarship implied a role for American ideology as well. Two scholars in particular, Odd Arne Westad and Anders Stephanson, emphasize the importance of American ideology during the Cold War. As Westad states in his 2000 Bernath Lecture, "It was to a great extent American ideas and their influence that made the Soviet-American conflict into a Cold War. " Meanwhile, Stephanson finds in Cold War documents a particularly American language of politics built around the opposition between "freedom" and "slavery." The kind of ideological absolutism embodied in Patrick Henry's famous "Give me liberty or give me death" lived on in America's conceptions of the Cold War world. Ideology thus seemed to have returned to a central place in the analysis of the Cold War.

Amidst this rediscovery of ideology, however, Marc Trachtenberg, in an important 1999 book, A Constructed Peace, argues precisely the opposite: the Cold War in fact had little to do with ideology at all. In Trachtenberg's view the central problem of the postwar world was power, specifically German power. Soviet and American leaders in the postwar period understood this reality, and far from being influenced by ideology pursued their interests with cool calculation. This is not to say that the superpowers did not distrust one another, or that there were not very real conflicts of interest between them. But the conflicts were precisely that: of interest, not of ideology. Trachtenberg argues that the Cold War began as a result of Soviet actions in Iran in April 1946, actions that American policymakers perceived as signaling expansive intentions. In response the United States tightened its hold on western Germany, and the Cold War rivalry ensued. The crucial question of the Cold War continued to be the problem of Germany, although much of the actual conflict took place on the periphery. Once the superpowers reached a settlement on Germany, which Trachtenberg argues occurred in 1963, the Cold War was for all intents and purposes over.

The gap between those who write in terms of national security and those who emphasize ideology remains wide. The relationship between ideology and national security is often portrayed as an either-or proposition: either ideology or national interest motivates policymaking. Ideology tends to be associated with irrational or particularly aggressive actions. And in fact the literature has tended to portray the more aggressive side of the Cold War rivalry as the more ideological. For traditionalists this meant the Soviet leadership acted according to the tenets of Marxist-Leninism, while for revisionists it was American policy that had fallen victim to the siren song of ideology. In this respect the literature treats ideology as a kind of pathology of policymaking. Moreover, national security is often treated as a given, a kind of objective truth that exists unchanging across time and space. By this logic leaders on all sides of the Cold War conflict understood the risks and opportunities they faced in much the same way. Each calculated his (and they were all men) options and reactions carefully and rationally and shared similar goals of ensuring territorial security and increasing state power. Calculations complete, policymakers reached into the same toolbox for the means to achieve their goals. Perhaps they did.

But as Tony Smith asserts in his study of twentieth-century American foreign policy, America's Mission, "security definitions arise out of particular domestically engendered perceptions of foreign affairs." Ideology acts to define the boundaries of legitimate action and to define what is dangerous and what is not. It is thus complicit in the process of creating interests and defining national security, because ideology provides the context within which policy decisions are made. As a result we must take seriously historical experience, the language policymakers use, and the very different tools on which they rely to pursue their ends. Foreign policy decisions are rarely made in a vacuum, and domestic political debates influence the process. During the Cold War, and particularly in the United States, ideological context conditioned foreign policy outcomes. Ideology defined the issues at stake.

For Americans the issue at stake became the survival of freedom, and Soviet communism became the primary threat. This view did not come all at once. Although suspicious of Soviet intentions, to be sure, Truman and especially his secretary of state James Byrnes remained open to efforts at accommodation and compromise with the Soviet Union throughout 1945 and the early months of 1946. Meanwhile, officials like Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal and George Kennan, chargé d'affaires in Moscow, were raising the alarm, prompting debate within the administration over how to deal with the Soviets in the postwar world. In February 1946, Kennan telegraphed some eight thousand words from his post at the embassy in Moscow. His Long Telegram offered one of the first interpretations of Soviet policy. Similar views were already floating around the corridors of Washington policymaking bureaucracies, but Kennan, as he would do several more times in the early Cold War, put American attitudes into articulate form.

Kennan described the Soviet Union as committed "fanatically" to the belief that there could be "no permanent modus vivendi" between East and West. In Kennan's view the Kremlin's perspective resulted from a combination of Marxist-Leninist ideology and a traditional and instinctive insecurity. Marxist-Leninist ideology and the closed society that limited contact with the out-side world had a hypnotic effect on Soviet officials, leaving them unlikely and unable to question their assumptions about the West. Kennan argued that Soviet policy could not be changed by talk; it was "highly sensitive to the logic of force." He warned that much depended upon the "health and vigor" of American society and urged his colleagues in Washington to have the "courage and self-confidence" to protect American traditions. "World communism is like a malignant parasite. This is point at which domestic and foreign policies meet."

The Long Telegram echoed earlier traditions of exceptionalism and mission, which likely in part explains its appeal to official Washington. Kennan's analysis made the rounds (it appears in the personal papers of nearly every major figure in the Truman administration), and most agreed with its analysis. The Soviet Union represented a clear threat to American values and to freedom at home and abroad. The Kremlin sought to expand communist influence throughout the world, and it would not be deterred by negotiation. The American way of life increasingly appeared under siege to many of these officials. Soviet actions in eastern Europe, particularly in Bulgaria, Hungary, and Poland, as well as the April crisis in Iran, seemed only to confirm these fears. So too did the emergence of strong communist parties in France and Italy. At the same time, however, the crisis in Iran proved resolvable by diplomacy when Iran made a protest to the United Nations. Even better, the apparent Soviet acceptance of the UN's decisions in the case suggested that the new organization was not doomed as many had feared. Moreover, in July 1946 the Paris Peace Conference began and by the end of the summer successfully concluded peace treaties with the Axis powers, though a German peace treaty and particularly the problem of reparations remained on the table. Despite the alarmist language of many administration officials in their private memos and growing public suspicion of Soviet intentions, the possibility of postwar settlement was not yet foreclosed.

But the limited diplomatic successes of the Council of Foreign Ministers and the Paris Peace Conference could not erase the growing fears of the threat Marxist-Leninism posed to American society and interests. A September 1946 report prepared by White House staffers Clark Clifford and George Elsey reveals that the perspective expressed by Kennan's Long Telegram was taking hold throughout the administration. The Clifford-Elsey report expressed the opinion of its authors to be sure, but the two officials drew on documents prepared by all of the major policymaking institutions, and their views were thus informed by the combined wisdom of the Departments of State, War, Navy, and Commerce. The report placed the U.S.Soviet relationship at the center of American foreign policy. It expressed no ambiguity about Soviet intentions: "Soviet leaders appear to be conducting their nation on a course of aggrandizement designed to lead to eventual world domination by the U.S.S.R." This aim could not be turned aside by conventional diplomacy, and the authors borrowed Kennan's interpretation that the Kremlin leadership believed in the impossibility of peaceful coexistence between Marxist-Leninism and capitalism. Like Kennan, Clifford and Elsey took Soviet rhetoric and ideology seriously. The pronouncements of Kremlin leaders such as Stalin and Vyacheslav Molotov represented the reality of Soviet policy. The United States must prepare itself for total war, the authors declared. Economic aid programs and an information policy (propaganda, like ideology, was something the other side had) articulating the benefits of American society and the goals of U.S. policy should not be neglected. But the United States should never lose sight of Soviet preparations for eventual war with the "capitalistic powers," preparations that represented a direct threat to American security. By autumn 1946 the language and content of the Clifford-Elsey report was emblematic of the emerging consensus held by official Washington.

The fate of Secretary of Commerce Henry Wallace signaled perhaps more than anything else the hardening of this new perspective. Wallace had long argued for negotiations with the Soviets, and in September 1946 he expressed his views publicly in a speech at Madison Square Garden. Wallace argued that the United States should work to allay Russian suspicions and distrust and recognize Soviet security needs in eastern Europe as legitimate. In retrospect there seems to be little in Wallace's speech that is particularly radical. But his apparent support for a Soviet sphere of influence in eastern Europe set off a firestorm of controversy. The tone of the speech created a dissonant echo amidst the increasingly hard-line atmosphere of official Washington. An embarrassed President Truman, who had upon cursory reading endorsed Wallace's address, demanded the secretary's resignation. Arguments that the United States should attempt to resolve the diplomatic disputes that separated the superpowers and that the Soviets acted in eastern Europe out of legitimate security concerns slipped increasingly to the margins of mainstream opinion. Consensus about ideological conflict in the postwar world, the expansive tendencies of Soviet Union, and the necessity for a policy of containment was taking hold, and American policy evolved to match these views.

By the end of 1946 American officials increasingly turned away from negotiating with the Soviets. When Secretary of State James Byrnes returned from a December conference of foreign ministers meeting in Moscow, where he had attempted to conclude agreements on eastern Europe and international control of atomic energy, he faced sharp criticism. To American observers Stalin showed every sign of emulating Hitler in his efforts to expand Soviet power, his allegiance to ideology, and his willingness to break agreements. Both policymakers and the informed public drew on the analogy of the Munich Conference (1938), at which British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain bargained away territory in Czechoslovakia in the hope that he could achieve peace for all time. Chamberlain failed. And the lesson Americans learned was that dictators could not be trusted, appeasement only fed greater ambition, and negotiations suggested weakness. It is striking how powerful in fact this analogy became and how often officials referred to it during the postwar period. The decision largely to renounce negotiation and the tools of traditional diplomacy held an appeal linked to the American heritage of exceptionalism and aloofness from the messiness and compromise of European politics. The failed diplomacy of 1939 fit neatly into the existing preconceptions and predisposition of American diplomacy. And the "lessons" of history seemed to lend legitimacy to the desire to contain Stalin's Soviet Union and wait for it to fall victim to its own "internal contradictions."

But containment meant more than a policy of waiting. Beginning in spring 1947 the United States turned ideas into action. In late February the British government notified the Department of State that the British would be forced for financial reasons to withdraw its support from Greece. In the midst of a civil war, Greece had become a site of a great power contest, lying as it did in a strategic corner of the Mediterranean. Anxious to prevent Soviet influence from taking hold in Greece, the Truman administration resolved to take action. The decision resulted from a combination of ideological and strategic interests: Greek geography rendered it significant from a strategic perspective. But American policymakers also feared the spread of communism into Greece and believed that from Greece the contagion would almost certainly spread to Italy and France. Greece offered a test.

It was a test that Harry Truman met with a commitment to defend freedom throughout the world. In a speech before both Houses of Congress on 12 March 1947, Truman asked Congress to fund economic and military aid to Greece and to neighboring Turkey. The president emphasized that the United States had a responsibility to protect freedom worldwide, declaring that "the free peoples of the world look to us for support in maintaining their freedoms." Continued peace depended upon American leadership. Truman drew a close connection between poverty and totalitarianism and argued that the United States must provide economic and political support for freedom. The United States should stand on the side of self-determinationby intervention, if necessary. "I believe we must assist free peoples to work out their own destinies in their own way," the president told Congress. Implicit in Truman's statement, of course, was the belief that most of the world's peoples would choose a way of life compatible, if not identical, with that of the United States. A New York Times article declared that "the epoch of isolation and occasional intervention" was over. An "epoch of American responsibility" was just beginning. The American impulse to withdraw from the world, suggested by the decision to "contain" the Soviet Union, stood alongside the Wilsonian mission to spread democracy. The tension between these two impulses determined the nature of America's Cold War policies.

In part the ideological content of Truman's speech represented a tool of politics. Truman required congressional support to put his policy into action, and the administration needed to head off any perception that the U.S. decision to intervene in Greece represented an effort to shore up the British empire. Yet the ideological content went deeper than public rhetoric, since these were terms that had appeared in confidential government documents such as the Clifford-Elsey report throughout the preceding months. Officials within the administration thought in these terms themselves, and thus public rhetoric matched private perceptions. Subsequently, with the announcement of the Marshall Plan in June 1947, the United States added economic aid to Europe to its arsenal against the Soviet Union. Secretary of State George C. Marshall declared that the policy was not aimed at any particular country but instead against "hunger, poverty, desperation, and chaos." But to most observers, the goal was clear. A rebuilt western Europe tied to the United States by a flow of dollars and trade would offer a significant barrier to Soviet expansion. The parasite of communism preyed upon societies weakened by poverty and unstable institutions. The Marshall Plan offered an answer.

The following month in an article published in Foreign Affairs, George Kennan summarized the new consensus for the educated public. The Soviet Union holds within it the "seeds of its own destruction," he declared. Despite Kennan's claims to objectivity, his analysis of "The Sources of Soviet Conduct," as the article was entitled, revealed as much about the ideological content of American conduct as it explained about the Soviet Union. Kennan declared that "the political personality of Soviet power as we know it today is the product of ideology and circumstances." Marxist-Leninism provided the ideology, which together with geography, a history of invasion, and Stalin's personal paranoia resulted in dangerous and expansive tendencies. Kennan argued that Soviet ideology taught that the outside world was hostile and not to be trusted. Capitalism and socialism could not long coexist. Moreover, in Kennan's interpretation, the Soviet Union pictured itself as a center of socialist enlightenment adrift in a dark and misguided world. The logic of history was on its side and in the long run, revolution was inevitable. Here was a rival city on a hill.

To Kennan the challenge that Soviet communism posed to the United States offered a test of faith and an opportunity for reaffirmation. In the closing paragraph of the article he wrote that the Soviet challenge offered "a test of the overall worth of the United States as a nation among nations." Kennan believed that American virtue and strength at home translated into power to meet the Soviet threat abroad. By maintaining its free society the United States could best counter the appeal and the promise that Marxist-Leninism offered. The United States stood as a model of freedom for the world, an alternative to totalitarianism, and a shining example in a hostile world. He wrote that the United States should "offer gratitude to providence," which had chosen the United States for the great task of resisting the spread of Soviet communist oppression and protecting freedom at home and abroad. For history had "plainly intended" that the United States bear the burdens of moral and political leadership. The city on a hill must become the leader of the free world. Failing to arrest the spread of communism would lead to destruction and the end of freedom everywhere. Although Kennan came to be identified as the father of containment, he came to question the implications of his creation, criticizing American foreign policy as overly ideological in 1951 in American Diplomacy. Ironically, he failed to realize the degree to which his own worldview was shot through with "the red skein" of ideology.

Realist scholars like Marc Trachtenberg are correct to emphasize that American policymakers reacted to the perceived dangers and opportunities of particular situations. In this respect external conditions drove America's Cold War foreign policy. The problem of Germany, the occupation of Japan, and the future of Europe represented real dilemmas for policymakers. And the global political and economic instability of the immediate postwar period posed a potential danger to American security and prosperity. But American policymakers' interpretations of these threats and opportunities was influenced by American concerns about freedom, independence, exceptionalism, and democracy. For them the source of both economic and political instability came from the Soviet Union and in particular the nature of the Soviet state. Truman and his key advisers defined the Soviet Union in explicitly ideological terms. The threat was not the power of the Soviet state (in fact, most administration officials considered the Soviets the weaker of the two superpowers) so much as the appeal of Marxist-Leninist ideology and the promise of revolution that it held.

Contrast this with the perspective of the British Foreign Office, which in the early months of the postwar period retained its nineteenth-century concern with maintaining a balance among the main European powers and protecting their imperial holdings. For British policymakers, at least initially, the threat to postwar peace came from an unequal division of the spoils and an extension of Soviet power. This distinction between the worldviews of the Foreign Office in London and the Department of State in Washington highlights the role of ideology in providing the context for policy decision making. For realists ideology is an instrument of policy; it serves to rationalize and justify decisions already made. Yet as Stephanson explains in "Liberty or Death," "an instrumental view of ideology as rhetorical means to strategic ends misses the question." Why did policymakers choose the particular language they did and how did they come to "inhabit" it? While the power vacuums and risks of the postwar world may have provided the occasion for a more activist foreign policy, American ideology determined the form American intervention in the world would take, defined the nature of American national interests, and informed the decisions that issued from Washington. Ideological suspicion of communism reinforced distrust of Soviet intentions. Americans viewed all dictators as the same, and all compromise as appeasement. At the same time, these fears warred with traditional American ambivalence toward European affairs and intervention abroad. American Cold War policy grew out of these contradictions. Containment drew from the ideological foundations of liberalism, anticommunism, and American mission.

The superpower conflict soon stalemated in Europe. By the 1960s Soviet and American positions had hardened, and little change seemed likely. Moreover, the ideological rivalry seemed to ease, such that some commentators such as Walter Lippmann began to believe by the early 1960s that the Cold War might be ending. Yet despite signs of a willingness to coexist in Europe and to open the way to a more "normal" diplomatic relationship through arms control and the like, the Soviet-American rivalry continued unabated in the Third World. Throughout the postwar period instability and conflict infected the old colonial areas of Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America as the imperial powers retreated. Rapid social and economic change hit the newly created postcolonial states, and they became ripe for outside intervention. Here was a crucial arena of the Cold War conflict.

At times at the invitation of local elites and at times of their own decision, the two superpowers intervened throughout the Third World, playing a violent and risky game of dominoes. And like Wilson in Mexico, American policymakers throughout the postwar period attempted to curb the radicalism of social change and to intervene on behalf of self-determination. Under the Cold War imperative of containing the spread of communism, they argued that the United States was spreading democracy abroad and acting on the side of right. Often, however, the United States supported very undemocratic regimes, such as those of Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua and Carlos Castillo Armas in Guatemala. The effort to contain communism more often than not contradicted the lingering Wilsonian heritage. A deep ambivalence toward social change and revolution conflicted with the goal of spreading democracy abroad, particularly in societies long subject to colonial control. Thus, for every Alliance for Progress, the Kennedy administration's economic development program for Latin America, there was a Somoza in Nicaragua or a Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam.

Nowhere did the contradictions among American ideals and the demands of American interests explode so spectacularly as Vietnam. And like the scholarly debate over the Cold War, the literature on Vietnam is rich with disagreement. Two studies of the Johnson administration illustrate this disjunction clearly. Lloyd Gardner in Pay Any Price emphasizes what he sees as the powerful hold that liberal ideals had over President Johnson. For Gardner, Johnson's intervention in Vietnam resulted from a deeply held belief in liberalism and an effort to promote American ideals abroad. A student of Williams, Gardner similarly finds tragedy amidst the ruins of American policy. Johnson's efforts to transplant liberalism and promote economic development amidst social revolution in Vietnam could not but end in failure.

Fredrik Logevall, by contrast, finds that liberal ideology mattered relatively little in Johnson's decision making. The president, Logevall argues in Choosing War, certainly had a vision for the future of Vietnam, a future shaped along liberal principles. But the driving force in his decision making was not that vision but rather his fears for his domestic political as well as his personal credibility. In Logevall's account the president and his advisers were gloomy realists on Vietnam in the key months following the 1964 election. Many of them were pessimistic about the prospects for success in the war, and many privately questioned whether the outcome really mattered to U.S. security. Thus Johnson's liberal rhetoric and economic development programs provided the window dressing for what was in reality a cynical and self-serving use of American power.


The disparity between these two accounts highlights the complexity of ideology and the continued disagreement among scholars over its role in the policy process. Moreover, the experience of the United States in the Third World reveals clearly how difficult it is to understand the role of ideology and how ambiguous that role can be. How, for example, do we reconcile American ideology of liberalism with the support of dictators such as Somoza? Must we see ideology as little more than a cynical tool of justification? Or did American officials truly believe in the rhetoric they used? If they believed it, did it drive their decision making? The answer to these questions seems to be an unsatisfying "sometimes." But that in itself is significant. "Sometimes" means that as scholars we must approach the empirical evidence with an open mind, willing to find ideology as a primary cause of decision making or as mostly irrelevant to the policy process. It seems reasonable to conclude that some periods of American history proved more ideological than others, and that some administrations were more influenced by it than others. Moreover, while ideology may always lurk in the background, it may be pushed aside by other considerations in the evolution of particular decisions.

In the context of the Cold War, an open-mindedness toward ideology seems especially important. The Cold War was not only a classic political power struggle, but neither was it a purely ideological conflict. The Cold War rivalry arose over the traditional problems of creating a stable postwar settlement and in particular finding a solution for the instability of central Europe. But the Cold War was also a rivalry between two states that each embraced a universalist ideology (Marxist-Leninism and liberal democracy, respectively), each made certain predictions about the future, and each held certain causative assumptions about the world. American foreign policy during the Cold War thus entwined ideology and interest. A close study of the period shows us the importance of ideology in foreign policy. To ignore ideology in the context of the Cold War is, in some respects, to miss the point.

At the same time, however, renewed scholarly interest in ideology and the continuing debate over its significance has revealed the difficulties the concept entails. For foreign relations historians, causality is a central concern. They want to zero in on why appeasement failed in the 1930s, or how the Cold War began, or why exactly the United States intervened in Vietnam. Finding the role of ideology in the context of these questions is quite a task. Little wonder that many have dismissed ideology altogether, and that even those who have embraced it have often done so with misgivings and qualifications. Yet despite these complexities, we should not too quickly consign ideology to the scholarly rubbish heap. As Geertz has pointed out, events unfold within the bounds of culture, which is open to interpretation. Thus, an awareness of the ideological context of particular decisions adds a layer of complexity and richness to our analysis. It allows us to understand why some policy options appeared more appealing than others, and why some received no attention at all.

Consider for a moment one final example. During the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, some among John F. Kennedy's advisers argued that the president should authorize a surprise attack on Cuba in an effort to destroy the Soviet missiles. It would have been a dangerous move. Moreover, it is likely that practical considerations would have prevented the plan from progressing beyond the conference table. Yet in rejecting the idea, Kennedy cited none of these reasons. Instead the president referred to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. At the time Franklin Roosevelt had called it a day that would live in infamy. For Kennedy, a surprise attack on Cuba did not fit his image of the United States, and this policy option was quickly ruled out. To be sure, ideology did not determine the outcome of the missile crisis. But an examination of the ideological context of the decision offers us a greater degree of understanding of the Kennedy White House.


Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism. New ed. New York, 1973.

Campbell, David. Writing Security: United States Foreign Policy and the Politics of Identity. Rev. ed. Minneapolis, Minn., 1998. An analysis of American foreign policy from a postmodernist perspective.

Carlsnaes, Walter. Ideology and Foreign Policy: Problems of Comparative Conceptualization. Oxford and New York, 1987.

Gaddis, John Lewis. We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History. Oxford and New York, 1997.

Gardner, Lloyd C. Safe For Democracy: The Anglo-American Response to Revolution, 19131923. New York, 1987.

. Pay Any Price: Lyndon Johnson and the Wars for Vietnam. Chicago, 1995.

Geertz, Clifford. "Ideology as a Cultural System." In David E. Apter, ed. Ideology and Discontent. New York, 1964. See also "Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture." In Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures. New York, 1973. Of Geertz's many writings, these two essays offer the clearest explanation of his views on ideology.

Halle, Louis J. The Cold War as History. New ed. New York, 1991.

Hamilton, Malcolm B. "The Elements of the Concept of Ideology." Political Studies 35 (1987): 1838. A useful analysis on the question of definition.

Hunt, Michael. Ideology and U.S. Foreign Policy. New Haven, Conn., 1987. An excellent starting place on the subject from a historical perspective. For an explanation by the same author of the complexities of ideology as a category of analysis, see "Ideology," in Michael J. Hogan and Thomas G. Paterson, eds. Explaining the History of American Foreign Relations. New York, 1991.

Kennan, George F. American Diplomacy. Expanded ed. Chicago, 1984. The classic realist critique of American foreign policy.

Larraín, Jorge. Marxism and Ideology. London and Atlantic Highlands, N.J., 1983.

Leffler, Melvyn. A Preponderance of Power: National Security, the Truman Administration, and the Cold War. Stanford, Calif., 1992. Highlights the role of national security calculations in early Cold War policymaking.

Logevall, Fredrik. Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam. Berkeley, Calif., 1999.

Lukacs, John. The End of the Twentieth Century and the End of the Modern Age. New York, 1993.

Malia, Martin. The Soviet Tragedy: A History of Socialism in Russia, 19171991. New York, 1994.

McCoy, Drew R. The Elusive Republic: Political Economy in Jeffersonian America. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1980. An analysis of the role of republican ideology in early America.

McDougall, Walter A. Promised Land, Crusader State: The American Encounter with the World Since 1776. New York, 1997.

McLellan, David S. Ideology. Minneapolis, Minn., 1986. A straightforward introduction to the subject.

Morgenthau, Hans. Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace. 5th ed. New York, 1973. See especially chapters 78.

Mullins, Willard A. "On the Concept of Ideology in Political Science." American Political Science Review 66 (1972): 498510. A helpful if somewhat dated survey.

Perkins, Bradford. The Cambridge History of American Foreign Relations: The Creation of a Republican Empire, 17761865. Vol. 1. Cambridge and New York, 1993.

Smith, Tony. America's Mission: The United States and the Worldwide Struggle for Democracy in the Twentieth Century. Princeton, N.J., 1994. Ideology, and particularly Wilsonian ideology, is central in this account of American foreign policy. For a contrasting view that examines American intervention in the Third World, see David F. Schmitz. Thank God They're On Our Side: The United States and Right-Wing Dictatorships, 19211965. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1999.

Stephanson, Anders. Manifest Destiny: American Expansionism and the Empire of Right. New York, 1995. A short but thoughtful look at how an ideology of destiny has shaped American foreign policy. An interpretation of American ideology during the Cold War by the same author is "Liberty or Death: The Cold War as U.S. Ideology." In Odd Arne Westad, ed. Reviewing the Cold War: Approaches, Interpretation, Theory. Portland, Ore., 2000.

Trachtenberg, Marc. A Constructed Peace: The Making of the European Settlement, 19451963. Princeton, N.J., 1999. A history of the Cold War written from a realist perspective.

Weber, Max. "The Social Psychology of the World Religions." In H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, eds. From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. New York, 1948.

Westad, Odd Arne. "Bernath Lecture: The New International History of the Cold War." Diplomatic History 24 (2000): 551565.

Williams, William Appleman. The Tragedy of American Diplomacy. 2d ed. New York, 1972. The classic revisionist work on American foreign policy.

Zubok, Vladislav, and Constantine Pleshakov. Inside the Kremlin's Cold War: From Stalin to Khrushchev. Cambridge, Mass., 1996.

See also Open Door Interpretation; Realism and Idealism; Revisionism .

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Ideology." Encyclopedia of American Foreign Policy. . 27 Mar. 2017 <>.

"Ideology." Encyclopedia of American Foreign Policy. . (March 27, 2017).

"Ideology." Encyclopedia of American Foreign Policy. . Retrieved March 27, 2017 from







The previous edition of this Encyclopedia contains two entries devoted to Ideology, one on its concept and function by Edward Shils, the other on Ideology and the Social System by Harry M. Johnson, which taken together well illustrate the difficulties involved in achieving a common understanding of the terms meaning. Shilss contribution is quite stipulative and opinionated. After distinguishing ideologies from outlooks and creeds, systems and movements of thought, and programs (p. 66), it asserts that all ideologieswhether progressive or traditional, revolutionary or reactionaryentail an aggressive alienation from the existing society, that participation in the routine life of the civil political order is alien to the ideological spirit (p. 68), and that no great ideology has ever considered itself obliged to respect the modern, scientific spirit in its quest for truth (p. 73). Johnson, while apparently agreeing to some extent with this final assertion of Shilss and offering some important observations about the historical role of the concept, is most concerned to explore the role of ideologies within the theoretical framework developed by Talcott Parsons. Nevertheless, however unscientific it may be thought to be, the term ideology has come to play a very prominent role in the discourses of virtually all of the social sciences, so that it is essential to attempt to clarify its meaning(s).


The simple original sense of the term, first deployed by Antoine Destutt de Tracy, was, parallel with the Greek-based names of so many academic disciplines, the study of ideas. Tracys intention, as a materialist philosopher, was systematically to map the material origins or causes of the ideas in peoples heads, and to this end he directed the short-lived Institut de France where such research was undertaken. It briefly enjoyed the favor of Napoleon Bonaparte, who later turned against it. Upon returning from his defeat in Russia in 1812, Napoleon denounced ideology, in an address to the Conseil dEtat, as a dark metaphysics, dedicated to a subtle search for first causes upon which to base laws. Rather, he urged, laws should be based on a knowledge of the human heart and on the lessons of history. Ideology, he concluded, was responsible for all the misfortunes that had befallen our beautiful France (notre belle France ). In other words, for Napoleon the problem with ideologyquite paradoxically, in light of some contemporary conceptions of itwas that it was based on an excessively scientific philosophy. Since that time, the term ideology has never entirely escaped the pejorative connotations that Napoleon imposed upon it.

Karl Marx and his lifelong colleague Friedrich Engels wrote a lengthy, highly polemical manuscript entitled The German Ideology in which this pejorative sense predominated. Although it was to be the better part of a century before this product of the mid-1840s was published in full, its core notion of ideology was reflected in other works of theirs, such as The Communist Manifesto (1848), and thus became a part of the broad Marxist tradition. According to this notion, ideologies are large thought-systems (e.g., metaphysics, morality, and religion) that in reality have their basis in human beings material life-processes, but that mistakenly come to be regarded as independent of the latter and as having a superior life of their own, as supposedly eternal verities. Just such an assumption had been central to the thinking of Hegel, the most influential philosopher during Marxs early years, who saw history itself as the work and self-realization of a supra-material reality that he called Absolute Spirit, and who tried to show in some detail just how this was so. For Marx and Engels, ideologies typically have the conservative effect of justifying existing relationships of dominance and subordination; thus, according to them, it was not surprising to find contemporary bourgeois ideologists defending the capitalist system as the highest and best possible, or in Hegels terms as the end of history. However, at a time of crisis, which they declared their own era to be, a certain segment of the bourgeois ideologists are able correctly to grasp the movement of history and go over to the side of the subordinate class, the proletariat. In this way, readers might infer, members of this enlightened group (among whom they obviously included themselves) succeed in overcoming and getting beyond ideology.


But there is sufficient ambiguity in The German Ideology to explain why some of Marxs intellectual heirsespecially so-called orthodox Marxists of the Soviet eracould employ the word ideology in a more positive sense, even referring uncritically to Marxist ideology in official textbooks of dialectical materialism. Louis Althusser, a French Marxist theorist who exerted considerable influence during a brief period in the 1960s, regarded ideology as an all-pervasive, inescapable phenomenon, one that is closely connected with Freuds notion of the Unconscious: Ideology, for Althusser, is the mechanism by which, through their imaginations, individuals relate themselves to human existence in different historical epochs. At the same time, Althusser distinguished ideology from sciencethe latter being, for him, a set of objective concepts detached from interests, the brilliant discovery of which within the domain of history he located in the later work of Marx. (In a very interesting anticipation of what is essentially the same ideato wit, that there is a strong conceptual contrast to be drawn between science and what others have called ideologyThorstein Veblen, when discussing the increasingly dominant role of science in the modern world, had also suggested that the continued coexistence, along with science, of more romantic and dramatic as well as pragmatic ways of thinking may be a human necessity.)

By contrast, in his writings of the 1920s and 1930s the Marxist psychologist and psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, at once an admirer and a strong critic of Freud, continued to treat ideologies as predominantly negative, repressive phenomena. At the margins of Marxist thinking later in the twentieth century, the French poststructuralist Michel Foucault rejected Althussers science/ideology dichotomy and increasingly distanced himself from ideology critique in favor of minute, detailed examinations of actual disciplinary and other practices in which there are uneven distributions of power. According to Foucault, relations of dominance and subordination cannot be explained primarily in terms of what neo-Marxist partisans of ideology critique, such as Reich, like to call false consciousness.

This same basic ambiguity has also pervaded much of the non-Marxist literature on the subject. Max Weber, clearer than most in this respect, identified two senses of ideology, the first consisting of a reflection of the dominant thought of a given time, the other being the pejorative sense of a manipulative distortion of reality. Johnson, in his previously mentioned Encyclopedia article, makes a small, parenthetical concession to this tradition of ambiguity by explaining that, while from his standpoint the expression ideological distortion is strictly speaking redundant (because all ideology is for him distortive), nevertheless he would continue to use the full expression, since this technical meaning of ideology is not universally established (p. 77).

Among treatments of ideology that have been of greatest importance for the social sciences is that of Karl Mannheim, who, in Ideology and Utopia (1929), asserted that, in addition to the particular concept of ideologywhich equates ideology with a phenomenon of deception, or what Mannheims Marxist contemporary Georg Lukács called the reified mind or more recent thinkers such as Herbert Marcuse often call false consciousnesswe must also recognize the rise, in modern times, of a total, more or less universal concept of it, which sociologists of knowledge can explore across various societies and social groups in an historically relativizing, value-neutral way. Mannheims advocacy of this kind of theoretically rigorous, scientific, but very broad inquiry seems ultimately to have had the unintended effect of generalizing and de-fanging the notion of ideology to such an extent that its contours have become extremely vague and open-ended in much of the more recent literature.


This tendency was well illustrated in the controversy, which reached its height in the early 1960s, over the alleged end of ideology. These words constituted the title of a book by Daniel Bell; other, mainly but not exclusively American, political scientists and sociologists, including Seymour Lipset and Edward Shils, also came to be associated with this idea, which came popularly to be regarded as a literal statement about the then-contemporary historical situation. But, as Shils himself makes quite clear at the end of his Encyclopedia article, neither Bell nor Shils nor most other end of ideology scholars intended to make a blanket statement about the demise of ideology in general, as distinguished, at best, from the demise of certain types of ideological thought such as Marxism. This point is particularly well expressed by the fiercely anti-Marxist Raymond Aron at the end of his preface to the new edition of his 1955 book The Opium of the Intellectuals. Aron admits to having previously evoked the end of the age of ideology, and then adds: But if I detest ideological fanaticism, I like little better the indifference which sometimes succeeds it. Ten years ago, I thought it necessary to fight ideological fanaticism. Tomorrow it will perhaps be indifference which seems to me to be feared. The fanatic, animated by hate, seems to me terrifying. A self-satisfied mankind fills me with horror (pp. xvxvi).

Thus it would appear that social scientists will be unable to dispense with the highly elusive concept of ideology for the foreseeable future, and that, if they ever come to feel that they can, this will probably signify something historically catastrophic.

SEE ALSO Althusser, Louis; Mannheim, Karl; Marxism


Althusser, Louis. 1971. Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. Trans. Ben Brewster. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Aron, Raymond. [1955] 1962. The Opium of the Intellectuals. Trans. Terence Kilmartin. 2nd ed. New York: Norton Library.

Cohen, Ira H. 1982. Ideology and Consciousness: Reich, Freud, and Marx. New York: New York University Press.

Lichtheim, George. 1965. The Concept of Ideology. History and Theory 4 (2): 164195.

Mannheim, Karl. [1936] 1986. Ideology and Utopia. Trans. Louis Worth and Edward Shils. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. 1976. The German Ideology. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Rosen, Michael. 1996. On Voluntary Servitude: False Consciousness and the Theory of Ideology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

William L. McBride

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Ideology." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . 27 Mar. 2017 <>.

"Ideology." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . (March 27, 2017).

"Ideology." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved March 27, 2017 from


ideology This term has a long, complex, and extraordinarily rich history. As a specifically sociological concept, it originated in the work of Karl Marx, and to this day its deployment in a particular sociological analysis remains a sign that such analysis is either Marxist or strongly influenced by Marxism. This said, it is important to bear in mind that the social phenomenon to which the concept refers—the realm of ideas or culture, in general, and that of political ideas or political culture more specifically—together with the relationship between the realm of ideas and those of politics and economics, have also been discussed at length within other sociological traditions. What is more, these other discussions (especially those amongst Weberians, Durkheimians, and structuralists), have not infrequently had a considerable impact on Marxist conceptualizations of ideology (as well as vice versa).

Much of the complexity of the concept's history, and therefore the difficulties encountered by those who are asked to define it, is a consequence of the underdeveloped and partial nature of Marx's various fragmentary and sometimes conflicting discussions of the phenomenon to which it refers. In The German Ideology (1846), Marx was concerned to explain not simply why he was no longer a Hegelian idealist of any kind, but also why he and so many others had for so long been in the thrall of such ideas. In essence, and putting to one side all the ambiguities that subsequent commentators have reasonably and unreasonably claimed to descry, his argument was that the principal substantive tenet of idealism (namely the belief that ideas were the motive force of history) was not in any sense Reason's final coming to consciousness of itself; rather, this tenet was the product of a history that had hitherto been hidden from view, especially from that of intellectuals like himself, and as such it was an ideological doctrine. This hidden history was that history of ‘real, active men’ that he was soon to refer to as the ‘history of class struggles’, and the reason it had proved to be particularly difficult for the intellectuals to discern was because, to paraphrase Marx, they tended to be concerned with the ruling ideas of the epoch, which as in any epoch were the ideas of the ruling class.

In sum, then, this argument contains the following: first, the embryo of Marx's base versus superstructure model of society, with its suggestion that the realm of ideas is distinguishable from and determined by that of the economy; and, second, the notion that what makes some (the ruling) ideas ideological is the fact that they hide things to the benefit of the ruling class.

Marx's most sustained effort to explain the nature of the link between the economic and ideational realms, as well as how the ideas of the ruling class become ruling ideas, may be found at the end of the first chapter of Capital (1867). First, he explains the basic mechanism whereby there can occur a difference between how things really are in the economy and the wider society, and how people think they are. This he does by making an analogy with ‘the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world’. He then argues that ‘in that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race’. Finally, he concludes, as it is with ideas then ‘so it is in the world of commodities with the products of men's hands. This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour (in capitalist societies).’

The net result of the occurrence of this fetishism is that what people (including, he points out particularly, bourgeois economists, Christian clerics, and lawyers) think is going on is simply the buying and selling of things whose values are intrinsic to the things themselves. In fact, Marx suggests, these values are the product of certain relations between people that are obscured from them, by all the buying, selling, litigating, and justifying which, as he states at the beginning of the following chapter, they have to engage in by virtue of the fact that ‘commodities cannot go to market and make exchanges on their own account’. Thus, people in capitalist societies necessarily come to regard apparently equal (or neutral) market exchanges as the basic relationships within their societies, whereas in fact, according to Marx, the more basic relationships are the profoundly unequal ones that occur within ‘the hidden abode of production’. In this way, then, ‘the class which is the ruling material force of society… [becomes]… its ruling intellectual force’.

The metaphor of the fetish and Marx's specification of how fetishism occurs in capitalist societies have continued to have a great if sometimes very divergent influence amongst Marxist scholars. For example, György Lukács utilizes it both in his theory of false consciousness and his proposals as to how this might best be overcome. Lukács's treatment was also influenced by Weber. By contrast, and in his case influenced somewhat by Durkheim and the structuralist tradition, Louis Althusser developed Marx's ideas to produce both a conception of the ideological relation as in a rather special sense an ‘imaginary relation’, and a specification of the mechanism whereby people or subjects are positioned within such a relation as one of interpellation.

More recently, numerous scholars, often under the influence of Antonio Gramsci's notion of hegemony, have sought to incorporate various linguistic and other concepts of discourse analysis into the theory of ideology. Their hope is that this will enable them to investigate what might be termed the internal life of the ideological realm, and so give some content to what many have termed its relative autonomy. In so doing, their hope is also that they might be able to provide more detailed and sophisticated accounts of how it is that a society's ‘ruling ideas’ are produced—more sophisticated, that is, than those explanations that are possible on the basis of the theory of commodity fetishism, and its associated notion that such ideas must necessarily be those of the ruling class. Nevertheless, the theory of fetishism still has its defenders, for whom any such dalliance with post-structuralism and post-modernism is heretical.

The sociological literature on ideology is extraordinarily dense. Jorge Larrain's The Concept of Ideology (1979) and Terry Eagleton's Ideology—An Introduction (1991) are both reasonably accessible. See also DOMINANT IDEOLOGY THESIS; DUAL CONSCIOUSNESS; GOULDNER, ALVIN; IDEOLOGICAL STATE APPARATUS.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"ideology." A Dictionary of Sociology. . 27 Mar. 2017 <>.

"ideology." A Dictionary of Sociology. . (March 27, 2017).

"ideology." A Dictionary of Sociology. . Retrieved March 27, 2017 from



The word ideology refers to the study of ideas, a form of general or abstract discourse, immobilized thought (Piera Aulagnier, Sophie de Mijolla-Mellor), or any doctrine claiming to justify a collective activity of a political, religious, artistic, or other kind. When Antoine Destutt de Tracy in his Mémoire sur la faculté de penser (vol. 1, 1796-1798) andÉlements d'idéologie (1801) coined the word as an attempt to create a science of ideas, he remained nominally a Platonist in that he did not conceive of the term as derogatory, which it has since become. However, the Platonic "ideology" Alexandre Kojève described in his Essai d'une histoire raisonnée de la philosophie païenne (vol. II, Platon et Aristote ) was not only a science of ideas but claimed to be the science of objective reality, the Cosmos noètos conceived by Plato as the real, or essential world, interposed between the One and the sensible world (Cosmos aisthètos ). Destutt de Tracy claimed to be an ideologue, as did Pierre Daunou, Constantin-François Volney, Pierre Cabanis, and Dominique Garat, but the term was used deprecatingly by Napoleon and François René de Chateaubriand.

In the work of Karl Marx, ideology assumed a critical sense that displayed the opposition between the "noble" sense given to it by Destutt de Tracy and its opposite, purely negative meaning; this opposition is itself "ideological." In the German Ideology, ideology is always the reflection of an alienation, an alienation obscured by the material conditions that determine the representations that constitute that alienation. Ideology, as an expression of alienation, is essentially incapable of grasping the dialectical relationships that unite or resist those representations. By extension any non-critical system of representation is considered an ideology, for example, Catholic ideology or even Marxist ideology understood as the dogmatization of the results of Marx's critical thought (Leninism, Stalinism, etc.). Ideology would then be seen as the discourse of a class, a party, or an association that seeks to achieve or achieves cultural, political, economic, intellectual, spiritual, or other domination over society and individuals.

The essence of ideology could therefore be to weld a "collectivity" into a defensive system of representations based on an unconscious causality, material or structural, involving realities such as the Family, the Nation, the Army, the Church, the State, and so on. These can then be understood as ideological entities, just as "fixed" as individual doctrines or representations. "System," superstructure, doctrine, dogma, and so on, then become other possible synonyms for ideology.

Sigmund Freud gathered up all these meanings to express a "vision of the world" (Weltanschauung ) whose various forms of representation philosophy elaborates in thought, which would make his research into truth the pinnacle of ideology. For philosophy is the work of sublimation while ideology, as Piera Aulagnier has shown, is an avatar of the desire for "self-alienation" (Les Destins du plaisir, 1979). Ideologyalways and everywherecorresponds to a "sublimated abandonment to an abstract idea" (Freud, Sigmund, 1921c). But as Sophie de Mijolla-Mellor has noted, "it isn't a question of sublimation but of intellectualization or desexualized abstraction; we do not give in to an idea but to its author, whether a group or an individual" (1992). Radical ideology might be a form of destructive madness to the extent that ideology tends to exclude conflict and sharply reduce ambivalence, thus resembling the discourse of schizophrenia.

Dominique Auffret

See also: Philosophy and psychoanalysis.


Aulagnier, Piera. (1979). Les Destins du plaisir. Aliénation, amour, passion. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Freud, Sigmund, (1921c). Group psychology and the analysis of the ego. SE, 18: 65-143.

Mijolla-Mellor, Sophie de. (1992). Le Plaisir de pensée. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Ideology." International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis. . 27 Mar. 2017 <>.

"Ideology." International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis. . (March 27, 2017).

"Ideology." International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis. . Retrieved March 27, 2017 from


Ideology. The organization of ideas and related practices into a more-or-less coherent belief-system, carrying with it commitment. Although the term was first used by Destutt de Tracy in 1796 to apply to the study of the way in which ideas are related to their base in sensations, it has come to refer to belief-systems which aim to achieve goals, justifying particular actions or policies on the way and vigorously excluding others. ‘Ideology’ is most naturally understood of a political system, e.g. Fascism, totalitarianism, Maoism. Although the definition lends itself most naturally to such religious organizations as Vatican Catholicism, it is nevertheless an issue whether religions can rightly be thought of as ideologies.

Far more loosely, ideology is used simply as a substitute for ‘world-view’, and in that general sense religions as ideologies are sometimes discussed in relation to secularization—with secularization taken to be a contesting worldview. Popular though that usage is, it lacks rigour in dealing with the actual processes of change in belief-systems.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Ideology." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . 27 Mar. 2017 <>.

"Ideology." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . (March 27, 2017).

"Ideology." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Retrieved March 27, 2017 from


i·de·ol·o·gy / ˌīdēˈäləjē; ˌidē-/ • n. 1. (pl. -gies) a system of ideas and ideals, esp. one that forms the basis of economic or political theory and policy: the ideology of republicanism. ∎  the ideas and manner of thinking characteristic of a group, social class, or individual: a critique of bourgeois ideology. ∎ archaic visionary speculation, esp. of an unrealistic or idealistic nature. 2. archaic the science of ideas; the study of their origin and nature. DERIVATIVES: i·de·o·log·i·cal / -əˈläjikəl/ adj. i·de·o·log·i·cal·ly / -əˈläjik(ə)lē/ adv. i·de·ol·o·gist / -jist/ n.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"ideology." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . 27 Mar. 2017 <>.

"ideology." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . (March 27, 2017).

"ideology." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Retrieved March 27, 2017 from


ideology Collection of beliefs or ideas reflecting the interests and aspirations of a country or its political system. In the 20th century, the term has been applied to various political theories, including fascism, Marxism, and communism.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"ideology." World Encyclopedia. . 27 Mar. 2017 <>.

"ideology." World Encyclopedia. . (March 27, 2017).

"ideology." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved March 27, 2017 from


ideology science of ideas XVIII; ideal or visionary speculation XIX, system of ideas XX. — F. idéologie, f. Gr. idéā IDEA + -logíā -LOGY.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"ideology." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . 27 Mar. 2017 <>.

"ideology." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . (March 27, 2017).

"ideology." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . Retrieved March 27, 2017 from


ideology •haji • algae • Angie •argy-bargy, Panaji •edgy, sedgy, solfeggi, veggie, wedgie •cagey, stagy •mangy, rangy •Fiji, gee-gee, squeegee •Murrumbidgee, ridgy, squidgy •dingy, fringy, mingy, stingy, whingy •cabbagy • prodigy • effigy • villagey •porridgy • strategy • cottagey •dodgy, podgy, splodgy, stodgy •pedagogy •Georgie, orgy •ogee • Fuji •bhaji, budgie, pudgy, sludgy, smudgy •bulgy •bungee, grungy, gungy, scungy, spongy •allergy, analogy, genealogy, hypallage, metallurgy, mineralogy, tetralogy •elegy •antilogy, trilogy •aetiology (US etiology), amphibology, anthology, anthropology, apology, archaeology (US archeology), astrology, biology, campanology, cardiology, chronology, climatology, cosmology, craniology, criminology, dermatology, ecology, embryology, entomology, epidemiology, etymology, geology, gynaecology (US gynecology), haematology (US hematology), hagiology, horology, hydrology, iconology, ideology, immunology, iridology, kidology, meteorology, methodology, musicology, mythology, necrology, neurology, numerology, oncology, ontology, ophthalmology, ornithology, parasitology, pathology, pharmacology, phraseology, phrenology, physiology, psychology, radiology, reflexology, scatology, Scientology, seismology, semiology, sociology, symbology, tautology, technology, terminology, theology, topology, toxicology, urology, zoology • eulogy • energy • synergy • apogee • liturgy • lethargy •burgee, clergy •zymurgy • dramaturgy

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"ideology." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . 27 Mar. 2017 <>.

"ideology." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . (March 27, 2017).

"ideology." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Retrieved March 27, 2017 from