Ideology and the Historic Moment of Production: Sociology of Knowledge: Part 3 of a 5 Part Series

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In the 1920s, the concept of ideology passed through another transformation in its quest for meaning. Karl Mannheim (1893-1947), a Hungarian-born sociologist, took on the project of developing a “sociology of knowledge.” He directly engaged the subject of ideology as articulated by Marx in hopes of developing an objective, yet interpretative, social science approach to the study of ideas. In his quest to understand “the social and activist roots of thinking” (1936: 4), he hoped to develop a theory of ideology that would guide political action and practice. He resituated de Tracy’s “science of ideas” from the domain of the natural sciences to that of sociology. As an advocate of the social science approach to understanding, he advanced a structuralist view of ideology. He theorized a distinction between “particular” and “total” ideologies. Under this framework, particular ideologies were characterized by distortion and fabrications—the intentional misrepresentation of ideas by individuals. Total ideology was thought of as the whole structure of the mind, a product of the social-historical epoch of a class or group derived from material conditions. Mannheim’s total ideology sought to engulf not only ideas and their origin but also analytic methods into the concept of ideology. In this scheme the scientist’s science and the Marxist critique of ideology were considered products of the epoch.

Mannheim’s schema of distinctions, however, became intellectually problematic because it eroded into an extreme relativism. If all ideologies were created from the same historical and social forces and all forms of analyzing ideology are subject to these same forces, then how can one make an analytic judgment? Evaluation becomes impossible. A side affect of this relativist way of thinking about ideology was the eradication of the aspect of domination made explicit in the Marxist critique of ideology. While Mannheim developed yet another duality to address the relativism issue, it was never satisfactorily resolved.

The following points can summarize the brief history of the meaning of ideology:

  • Ideology was initially thought of as the scientific study of ideas. It was thought that ideas could be subjected to the same forms of analysis that predominated in the natural sciences.
  • While ideology had political consequences it did not initially carry negative connotations until it was used as a label to silence political critics.
  • Ideology had an oppositional character because it stood as an alternative philosophy of understanding and way of explaining social and historical change.
  • Ideology took on its critical connotation when it was used as a term of opposition to develop a theory rather than a philosophy of historical change.
  • Selective reading of critical theory obscured ideology’s dialectical nature, overemphasized its materialistic basis, and focused on the concept as an intentional distort of reality.
  • Reformulation of ideology under the “sociology of knowledge” crystallized its distortion aspect and attempted to engulf the critical theory as an unexceptional case. The domination feature of ideology illuminated by critical theory was replaced by a privileged disciplinary view of the concept. Ideology masqueraded as a self-critical and apolitical “science of ideas.”

The negative connotation of ideology is used to characterize thoughts and positions that oppose prevailing views. The negative use of the term implies that ideology is something less than factual or scientific—an intentionally created illusion based on distortion. Contemporary construction of ideology implies that there is some alternative basis from which we can speak; some factual world distinct from the interplay of the material and mental. Yet, the presentation of selected facts, the differential weight given to some facts, and the values generated from what we perceive facts all flow from highly selective choices about how we see and represent reality— in other words from ideology. Regardless of our values, when most people speak they are speaking from and sustaining a particular ideological order.

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


Mannheim, K. (1936). Ideology and Utopia. London: Routledge.


1 Comment

  1. This is one of the best series on this topic of which, I’m aware. I have never read a more articulated piece historically situating and intellectualizing the term “ideology.” What a fantastic collection of “blogs.”

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