Ideology and the Historic Moment of Production: Method, Meaning and Social Order: Part 4 of a 5 Part Series

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Ideology is a well organized and highly selective pattern of ideas about the social order transmitted through groups of people and expressed in the creation, arrangement and presentation of seemingly natural symbols derived from the period in which a people subsist. The purpose of ideology is to explain the social order, social relations, institutions and practices as well as the desired methods and techniques for understanding social and historical change from the position and perspective of the groups generating it. Ideology is used to create the conceptual space in which people think and act. It is the marching order of a society (Gramsci, 1971) or the invisible chessboard of ideas on which social figures are allowed to think, act, and move. An effective ideology has within its content an internal logic that allows contradictions to be masked, refuted or reconciled, creating a formidable system of thought and meaning for its adherents. These collections of thought provide values, attitudes and wills; plus the means of characterizing and refuting challenges. So ideology is always oppositional.

Since groups living in particular moments produce ideologies, they can vary in content across history as well as by the analytic methods used to study those generative groups. The transmitters and adherents of an ideology can be nations, classes of people, professionals, religious factions or political parties. So we find variations in ideology based not only on the content of discourse or in the “understood” interests of groups but also as a product of the methods by which we make distinctions between groups and the connotations we give to the concept of ideology. This observation is important for several reasons.

While studying ideology we may uncover petite ideologies that evidence differences between groups. When distinctions are drawn between occupations, for example, we uncover variants in ideology not immediately reconcilable. The police may adhere to a “professional” ideology that at first appearance seems very different from the ideas embraced by lawyers. We must be mindful that the differences alleged could be artifices of the analysis by which groups are extracted from, and then re-situated in, the social order and a particular construction of ideology. These observations require a healthy skepticism of the variations detected between professional or petite ideologies and calls for a consideration of the unifying characteristics of the ideological variations uncovered. A comprehensive understanding of any ideological order requires a considered reconciliation of divergences to avoid conceptual and analytic reductionism. In the case of differences between police and lawyers, we might look to the domain of law to uncover the coherence of the variations detected, or shift the analytic construction from professions to institutions. In this case unified characteristics may not be found in either the ideology and practices of police or lawyers alone, but rather in the shared institutional interests associated with the domain of law as expressed in discourses and institutionalized practices. Likewise institutional differences need to be connected and reconciled. We must look for the conceptual mortar of material interests and ideas that bind seemingly divergent groups and institutions—the connective features of ideology, which include our analytic practices and definitional differences.

Ideology can have connective features, creating overlapping ideas that bridge differences between social groups and define social relations in configurations that establish a dominant order. When ideology is shared across large groups as a natural view of the social world, when it assigns meaning for social relations within and across groups, when it provides personal identity within a specific configuration of social relations, and when it becomes a binding together of groups with a shared vision of the social order, it becomes a hegemonic ideology (Gramsci, 1971). In this case, the rich and the poor, the laborer and the professor and the criminal and crime-fighter are bound together in a “totalizing” ideology. Totalizing, however, does not mean fixed, frozen, permanent, or in the interests of everyone. Rather it dominates in its opposition to the many challenges it may face at a particular moment in history.

Victor E. Kappeler, PhD
Associate Dean and Foundation Professor
School of Justice Studies
Eastern Kentucky University

Gramsci, A. (1971). Selections from the Prison Notebooks. Hoare, Q. & Smith, G. N. (eds. and Trans.) New York: International Publishers.


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  1. Ideology and the Historic Moment of Production: The Critical Turn: Part 2 of a 5 Part Series | Uprooting Criminology : A Reasoned Plot

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