Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters


  • Manuel Anselmi
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_225


Ideology is a very wide and polysemous concept that can have different definitions depending on the theoretical frame of reference. Generally, we speak of an ideological phenomenon when there is a conditioning of action of one or more individuals by a social power on the basis of objectives and criteria which are not critical and rational but rather in compliance with the objective of power domination.

Studies on ideology got under way in the 1920s and became widespread in the 1960s by means of the spread of Marxism. In the 1980s and 1990s, it was taken up again in the anthropological field with Geertz’s research and in the field of political science with Freeden’s work.

One of the milestones in this field was the volume Ideology and Utopia by Karl Mannheim (1936). This work, even before having the merit of giving a new definition of the concept of ideology in opposition to the concept of utopia, delineated a genealogy of the concept of ideology for the first time enumerating the different preceding meanings and establishing authors such as Machiavelli and Bacon as the philosophical antecedents, Destutt de Tracy as the founder, Napoleon Bonaparte as the first great detractor, and Marx and Vilfredo Pareto as the classical critics. This book particularly underlined the fact that speaking of the ideology form of thought meant to speak of the historical social formation of knowledge, thought, and cultural processes in general. Mannheim’s objective was to demonstrate the existence of what he defined as “nontheoretical” elements of thought, in disagreement with the logical mathematical approach inaugurated by the Vienna circle and by authors such as Russell and Wittgenstein.

Mannheim’s theories and the theories of the sociologists of knowledge laid the groundwork for the future sociology of education, to which discipline Mannheim himself later dedicated some important essays.

During the Second World War, a work was written that contributed to a first revision of the historiographical formulation of the problem of ideology which had been advanced by Mannheim. It was entitled Wahrheit und Ideologie. It was written by the philosopher Hans Barth and had a first ill-fortuned German edition in 1945, followed by a second edition also in German in 1961 which made it famous and eventually made it a benchmark for successive studies. The novelty of this essay was the way it dealt more attentively with the single phases of the formation of the concept of ideology – the important role of Destutt de Tracy, creator of the term ideology, the clash between the ideologues and Napoleon Bonaparte, the political implications of Helvétius’ and Holbach’s sensationalist theory, and Marx’s criticism of ideology in regard to the concept of alienation – but especially Barth examined the theme of ideology in relation to the thought of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, defining Schopenhauer a “critic of reason.”

Nietzsche had already been referred to by Mannheim in Ideology and Utopia but only regarding the theory of resentment. Barth’s writing, on the other hand, bolstered by the Nietzschean interpretations of Heidegger and Jaspers, emphasized the operation of criticism of occidental metaphysics which Nietzsche had promoted, as, for example, in the work The Twilight of the Idols.

Norberto Bobbio wrote an important essay on Pareto entitled Vilfredo Pareto and the critique of ideologies (Bobbio 1973) in which he explained the Paretan term “derivation” with the term of ideology.

At the beginning of the 1960s, authors like Daniel Bell with his work The End of Ideology and Jean Meynaud in 1961 with Destines des ideologies announced the end of ideologies. But instead of the promised end, those years saw a genuine renaissance, both on the social historical level with the formation of collective protest movements of western societies and on a strictly theoretical level with the igniting of a debate which involved almost all of the philosophical and sociological currents of the time.

After the Second World War, Marxism was undoubtedly the thought movement most greatly involved in the debate on ideology.

The benchmark definition is the passage from German Ideology in which Marx and Engels equate ideology to a camera obscura, identifying it with this process of overturning and even falsifying reality. Within the Marxist scene, there were many important attempts at clarification of the Marxist concept of “false conscience” as well as important revision work. Analyzing this theme, we get the clear impression from a distance of many years and with a critical historiographical observation that we cannot speak of an Italian Marxism as if it were a single and homogeneous block, but rather we must instead speak in the plural of Marxisms, each one of which with its own identity, its own history, and its own destiny. As to the Marxist interpretation that stuck the closest to the negative formula of ideology as a “false conscience,” the meticulous analyses of Georges Gurvitch, who found another 12 meanings of the term ideology in Marx’s work, stood out from the innumerable studies that constituted the Marxist exegesis of the period.

Two heterodox interpreters of Marxism who both proposed a positive understanding of ideology, Gramsci and Althusser, represented a novelty. Gramsci, whose prison writings were published postmortem starting with his Letters from Prison in 1947 up to the critical and philological edition of The Prison Notebooks, edited by Valentino Gerratana in 1975, described ideology as a “conception of the world” fundamental for the organization of the masses (Gramsci 1975).

Althusser, on his part, felt the effects of a stronger Hegelian ascendancy and defined ideology as a cultural system with its own internal coherence characterized by a practical social function.

The Althusserian positions were held in great consideration in the empirical studies of the sociologists of education, also called the theorists of social reproduction. It is opportune to mention Bourdieu and Passeron from among them, who wrote one of the classics of neo-Marxist criticism of bourgeois ideology and of scholastic institutions of the bourgeois State, Les héritiėres, in which they denounced how in French schools there were selection mechanisms that were independent from the skills acquired by the pupils but instead dependent upon their social membership.

The Institute of Social Research of Frankfurt, known as the School of Frankfurt, dedicated one of its famous sociology lessons to the concept of ideology in 1954. The Frankfurt analysis dwelt upon the ideological aspects that were intrinsic to mass communications and to the process of Hegelian and Marxist-type alienation produced by these phenomena. It was a denouncement of the implicit, latent, and negative training of the individuals of mass society on the part of postindustrial capitalistic production structures.

The School of Frankfurt warned against a negative, noninstitutional pedagogy that was intrinsic to the very form of postindustrial society and highlighted the spread of alienating nondemocratic models of behavior. These themes are to be found to some extent in almost all of the works of the thinkers who were, each in his own way, animators and protagonists of this thought orientation, such as Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Erich Fromm, or Herbert Marcuse. This last was the author of a work, One-dimensional man, which proposed the controversial task of reopening the question of ideology of advanced postindustrial society. Just as the subtitle suggested, the work opened with a denouncement of the paralysis of social criticism that had begun in the period after the war, which for Marcuse had led to a society without opposition. Thus Marcuse exhorted the reader to oppose with criticism the specious mechanisms of ideology of the society in which he found himself living.

One of Horkheimer’s young students, Gerhard Vinnai, published a work entitled Football Mania: The Players and the Fans: the Mass Psychology of Football. The work stirred up a great debate because it analyzed the phenomenon of soccer underlining the mechanisms through which the dominating classes exerted their control over the masses by insinuating a politicalness and an unexpected ideological reality into the sport experience so important in the values of the young.

On the semiotic studies front during the 1960s, Umberto Eco’s works tried to analytically characterize the ideological forms inherent in some products of mass culture, combining instances of Frankfurtian, Gramscian, and structuralist origin. This is the case, for example, of Superuomo di massa. Retorica e ideologia nel romanzo popolare, a 1976 study. In this work he drew from one of Antonio Gramsci’s intuitions about the presence of a superman rhetoric in the serial novels of the nineteenth century. This can be seen first of all with Dumas, who had a determining effect in the development of vitalism in the first decades of the century. Umberto Eco brought out a new individualistic ideology promoting pedagogical values that took inspiration from a rough supermanism and a populistic vitalism in the contemporary pulp fiction heroes like James Bond or the comic book heroes like Superman and Batman (Eco 1976).

In the field of psychology of that period, Erik H. Erikson highlighted a typical function of the ideological cultural process in his work Identity: Youth and Crisis. It is the reinforcement of a group’s social identity. There is in fact a profound relationship between ideology, social identity, and institution. Erik Erikson defined ideology as “the guardian of identity.” For Erikson ideology is able to cement the relationships of social actors making up a group because first of all it allows them to elaborate their common needs and difficulties at a superior level of rationality and with a clear and usable discourse. On the basis of this analysis of reality, which is already discursively aggregating because it is clear and persuasive, ideology furthermore offers a general practical solution to individual problems whose ability to be solved is rationally founded, shared, and convincing. Definitively for Erikson it deserves a more extensive explanation. Ideology cements identity due to its high degree of coherence which is expressed on an individual as well as a social level (Erikson 1968).

Later the scientific works on ideology began to diminish, both within the science of education field and in the more general field of social sciences. Nevertheless two noteworthy contributions on the part of two social scientists of different extraction are to be mentioned. The first in chronological order is the essay by the American anthropologist, Clifford Geertz, entitled Ideology as a Cultural system, which received its due attention at the beginning of the 1980s as an alternative to the structuralist approach in decline by that time. Geertz’s texts were translated into Italian during those years, and his positions on the theme of ideology reported a resumption of studies and an evaluative theory (Geertz 1973).

In 1986 the book by Raymond Boudon, Ideology, Origin of Prejudice, came out. It returned to the theme following the methodology of methodological individualism with a Weberian ascendancy particular to the author. It resumed the classic concept of ideology as a false judgment or self-interested judgment (Boudon 1989).

Another important French contribution came from Michel Foucault’s work which constitutes a fundamental reference point for the studies of ideologies. Even if he does not approach this theme explicitly, Foucault develops an analysis and a genealogy of widespread power that can be considered a critique of ideology. Foucault particularly elaborates concepts such as “disciplinary society,” “power devices,” and “total institutions” which open profound study perspectives of the individual’s social conditioning.

In the last few years, in light of the end of the soviet socialist systems and of the ideological greats, Michael Freeden has elaborated new theories on ideology, particularly “thick-centered” ideology which explain the new contemporary ideological forms. These forms are more strategic and less long term, often to be found in contemporary political populisms (Freeden 2003).

Recently the philosopher of language, Teun Van Dijk, defined a “strategy of ideological discourse” which he outlined in a series of prepositional pairs:
  • Speak about Us in a positive way.

  • Speak about Them in a negative way.

  • Don’t say negative things about Us.

  • Don’t say positive things about Them.

  • Stress the positive things about Us.

  • Stress the negative things about Them.

  • Play down the negative things about Us.

  • Play down the positive things about Them.

In every ideological discourse, we may observe this integral opposition which may be evident to a greater or lesser degree. We may note, for example, a high degree of this opposition in racist ideologies where the controversy with regard to the dimension of Them reaches the maximum degree: the will to eliminate (Van Diik 1998).

The reasons for this expressive characteristic have their roots in the nature of group dynamics. To belong to an ideology means in fact to identify oneself with a social group which expresses itself though the cultural apparatus which the name of the ideology designates, but it also means to place oneself in a condition of exclusion and the refusal to have anything to do with whoever does not identify himself with that group.



  1. Bobbio, N. (1973). Pareto e il sistema sociale. Firenze: Sansoni.Google Scholar
  2. Boudon R (1989). The analysis of ideology. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  3. Eco, U. (1976). Il superuomo di massa. Retorica e ideologia nel romanzo popolare. Milano: Bompiani.Google Scholar
  4. Erikson, E. H. (1968). Identity, youth and crisis. New York: W. W. Norton Company.Google Scholar
  5. Freeden, M. (2003). Ideology: A very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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  9. Van Teun, D. (1998). Ideology: A multidisciplinary approach. London: Sage.Google Scholar
  10. Vinnai, G. (1973). Football mania: The players and the fans: The mass psychology of football. London: Ocean Books.Google Scholar

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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of PerugiaPerugiaItaly