What is ideology? – A brief introduction

By ideological debate, we mostly mean a debate about what we are or what we want. It is usually associated with some political belief or perhaps even a whole world view. However, the word ideological or ideology is often used very lightly. Its content is often simply offered as a set of values, such as justice, equality and so on. Such a statement, however, falls helplessly short. It fails to take into account the social fabric in which these values live, are born and die. In different communities, for example, justice takes very different forms. What is just in one community is a violation of justice in another. It is as if there were a surface against which these values are electrified and take on their true character. Or perhaps the values are shells whose insides can be slowly replaced.

But one is hardly alone in trying to get an all-encompassing picture of the ideology. Literary scholar Terry Eagleton has pointed out how no one has been able to create one. But he stresses that it is not that scholars are not good at their job, but that ideology has multiple useful definitions. And, of course, they are not necessarily compatible. Indeed, Eagleton has listed a number of different definitions (Eagleton 2007):

(a)the process of production of meanings, signs and values in social life;

(b)a body of ideas characteristic of a particular social group or class;

(c)ideas which help to legitimate a dominant political power,

(d)false ideas which help to legitimate a dominant political power,

(e)systematically distorted communication;

(f)that which offers a position for a subject;

(g)forms of thought motivated by social interests;

(h)identity thinking;

(i)socially necessary illusion;

(j)the conjuncture of discourse and power;

(k)the medium in which conscious social actors make sense of their world;

(l)action-oriented sets of beliefs;

(m)the confusion of linguistic and phenomenal reality;

(n)semiotic closure;

(o)the indispensable medium in which individuals live out their relations to a social structure;

(p)the process whereby social life is converted to a natural reality

But why talk or write about ideology? I became interested in the subject based on my experience of being involved in social activism. People might seem to share the same values, but when you scratched the surface, you could see that in the end there was not much left to share. On the other hand, there were socially sacred cows which, from a historical perspective, were just that, historical, but were nevertheless treated as if they were eternal. This idea that certain things are just spontaneously accepted, as if they contained some timeless truth, was what caught my interest.

So what is ideology? The philosopher Slavoj Žižek has defined it (in his book The Sublime Object of the Ideology) as a kind of fantasy that sustains the experience of reality in our everyday lives. Ideology is thus something necessary for social existence. Hence it follows that the most ideological things in our lives do not always appear to us as such. Only when we really stop to reflect and discern social phenomena can we succeed in lifting the veil of ideology. Perhaps it begins to look as if something that was once so simple or natural is beginning to take on more complex forms and its artificiality, its social and political nature, is beginning to emerge. It is as if you have discovered a shocking secret about someone close to you and now everything about them seems different, or at least there is a kind of ghostly aura hanging over them that will not leave you alone. A kind of mental chemical reaction takes place, after which the ingredients never return to the way they were. 

Slavoj Žižek has also defined the concept of ideology as follows. It can be a phenomenon that does not understand its dependence on social reality. This includes not only the ideological dimension that is essential to social life, but also the various false ideas that are used to maintain the power of the dominant political force. On the other hand, ideology can also include a set of action-oriented beliefs. (Zizek 2012.)

So it is clear that ideology is something much more sinister than one might suddenly imagine. Indeed, ideology itself is often ideologically blurred. That which is most ideological in the world may even try to present itself as completely free of ideology. Anyone who follows television talk shows can see this. An economist, for example, is dragged on to the stage to explain how this or that is just the way things are, even though history shows how the economy itself has changed many times, that is, how it is defined by various laws and practices as well as by power relations. In the end, there is not much left that is natural other than the fact that people make use-values. However, this whole package, which is only a photograph of the moment, is presented by the expert as a strict truth to which everyone must submit. The same phenomenon has too often plagued sociology, which takes a picture with the same camera and interprets it timelessly, arriving at results that take no account of the changeability of humanity. An issue that would be clarified by a little study of the history.

On a related subject, I found in my archives a remark I had once made about a statement made by Jari Lindström, the former Finnish Minister of Labour. He had made this statement in Keskisuomalainen (I apologise, by the way, for not having noted down the source more accurately). He said: ’We have no ideology. We are managers of things. We are interested in finding a smart solution’ I had scribbled in the margin how Lindström was a model example of how ideology tends to present itself as non-ideological, as a mere solution-seeker. As if there were only one right answer to social issues. But we know very well that society is not a mathematical expression to be solved. It is a thing to be lived and life itself is a fickle thing. 

Let’s end with one more example of ideology. Let us take the old bearded man Karl Marx to help us. Marx’s concept of fetishism should be approached from the point of view that it is a kind of mask or disturbance that prevents us from seeing what is really happening around us, but it is an interesting ”disturbance” in that man can live quite well on the signs and meanings it creates without thinking that it is a disturbance. Harvey uses the example of a person who can buy things in a shop without thinking much about them or the nature of money, but when something goes wrong and the shelves empty, that surface of signs starts to crack. There was more to the background than just things as such. (Harvey 2014, 4.)

This is also well summed up by Zizek in his writing on Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism. It is a kind of misrecognition between a network and one of its elements. In that network, one of its elements seems to contain something intrinsic that appears to exist without that network relationship. As an example, Zizek uses ”being a king”. In the network, the king seems to hold something ”royal” inside, why others see him as a king, when in reality it is the relationship within the network that creates his kingship. (Zizek 2008, 19-20.)


Eagleton Terry 2007. Ideology – an introduction. Ebook. Verso.

Harvey David 2014. Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism.  Oxford Univeristy Press.

Zizek Slavoj 2008. The Sublime object of the ideology. Verso London / New york.

Zizek Slavoj 2012. Introduction – The Specter Of Ideology. Teoksessa Mapping ideology. Toim. Zizek Slavoj. Verso/New Left Review. London/New York