Ideology and the Historic Moment of Production: The Symbolic Weapon Part 5

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Ideology provides meaning and explanation; it is the foundation for understanding the social world. Ideology situates us within that world by providing ready-made understandings of our roles and relationships to it. It gives “understandable meanings to all kinds of social events, activities, and trends that otherwise appear unintelligible. It places them within a frame of reference that constitutes a defined context which assigns meanings to them” (Olsen, Lodwick & Dunlap, 1992: 19). From ideology, we learn what is expected of us in a given situation, how others will respond to our words and actions, and even how to think about our experiences. Ideology aligns the world of representation with experience. This alignment is not always perfect and does not reflect all social interests equally or accurately. With our understanding of experience guided by ideology, human choice is limited to a range of behaviors that fall within prescribed bounds. Because ideology brackets out alternative interpretations of experience it creates a social order.

Ideology directs behavior by limiting choice to that which is formulated and advanced by social elites to justify their interests, but it also explains the role and place of subordinated groups often to their satisfaction. It thus legitimates the exercise of power and control and conveys privilege to selected segments of society. Ideology has both a sinister and seemingly benevolent quality. While ideology maintains the power of established interests, it also reduces conflict and the need for force to sustain the social order. Ideology not only explains the relationships within a given social order it also reduces resistance to it. By providing particular ways of thinking, ideology reduces the need to use force to control social relations because we become self-regulating. Ideology, through the proliferation of the aspirations of the powerful situated in a “common sense” understanding, manufactures consensual control (Herman & Chomsky, 2002; Gramsci, 1971; Althusser, 1971).

An effective ideology uses signs, values and language to legitimate a given social order and to direct our thoughts about the world in a way that lends acceptance to existing configurations of power and privilege. Ideology produces and reduces resistance. It produces resistance because of its oppositional nature and inability to account, reconcile or mask prevailing contradictions. One ideological order must be juxtaposed to another or a less desirable fictive order must be constructed to stand in opposition to the advancing order being privileged. Through this process of comparison and contrast, we learn what people, behavior, ideas and practices are acceptable in a generated social order. For those who acquiesce, ideology provides the parameters of approved behavior. Those who refuse consent fall into the role of criminals, deviants and dangerous persons. The criminal law is one of the most obvious forms of “consensual” ideological control.

The most important function of criminal law is not how it affects the criminal (punishment or therapy) or even the potential criminal (deterrence), but how it affects, by defining, the law-abiding citizen: criminal law defines the boundaries of acceptable conduct in a society, and in so doing it attempts to give a society an identity. The law is in this sense both a regulative and an epistemological technology: it generates the rationale for the monitoring of citizens (the prevention of crime) while its rules and decisions produce norms of behavior, the texts in which society writes, reads—and therefore knows—itself. Thus while proponents of draconian sentencing provisions inevitably claim that the new laws will “send a message to criminals,” the real recipient of the message is society itself (Ford, 2000: 150-151).

When ideology fails to regulate behavior, when we punch a hole in the ideological veil or when we begin to resist the dominant professed order, state force is brought to bear. Resistance often comes in the form of crime; control in the form of criminal justice (Quinney, 1977). When resistance threatens to alter existing power configurations, the justifications for the use of force and the rationalizations for state organized violence are all contained in ideology. The elite response to resistance comes in the form of law, police, power, coercion, and prisons (Kappeler & Potter, 2005). In short, ideology is always a symbolic weapon. When this weapon fails, we deploy the force of criminal justice.

Victor E. Kappeler, PhD

Associate Dean and Foundation Professor
School of Justice Studies
Eastern Kentucky University


Althusser, L. (1971). Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses. In Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. London: New Left Books.
Ford, R.T. (2005). Notes from the Outfield—Regarding “Three Strikes” Criminal Sentencing Proposals. Appendx, 3: 148-161.

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

Herman, E. S. and Chomsky, N. (2002). Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. Pantheon.

Kappeler, V. E., and Potter, G. W. (2005). The Mythology of Crime and Criminal Justice (4th Ed.). Prospect Heights, Illinois: Waveland Press.

Olsen, M.E., Lodwick, D.G., & Dunlap, R.E. (1992). Viewing the World Ecologically. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, pp. 13-32.

Quinney, R. (1977). Class, State, and Crime. Longman Publishing Group: New York.

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