This term has a long, complex, and extraordinarily rich history. As a specifically sociological concept, it originated in the work of Karl Marx , and to this day its deployment in a particular sociological analysis remains a sign that such analysis is either Marxist or strongly influenced by Marxism . This said, it is important to bear in mind that the social phenomenon to which the concept refers-the realm of ideas or culture, in general, and that of political ideas or political culture more specifically-together with the relationship between the realm of ideas and those of politics and economics, have also been discussed at length within other sociological traditions. What is more, these other discussions (especially those amongst Weberians, Durkheimians, and structuralists), have not infrequently had a considerable impact on Marxist conceptualizations of ideology (as well as vice versa).
Much of the complexity of the concept's history, and therefore the difficulties encountered by those who are asked to define it, is a consequence of the underdeveloped and partial nature of Marx's various fragmentary and sometimes conflicting discussions of the phenomenon to which it refers. In The German Ideology (1846), Marx was concerned to explain not simply why he was no longer a Hegelian idealist of any kind, but also why he and so many others had for so long been in the thrall of such ideas. In essence, and putting to one side all the ambiguities that subsequent commentators have reasonably and unreasonably claimed to descry, his argument was that the principal substantive tenet of idealism (namely the belief that ideas were the motive force of history) was not in any sense Reason's final coming to consciousness of itself; rather, this tenet was the product of a history that had hitherto been hidden from view, especially from that of intellectuals like himself, and as such it was an ideological doctrine. This hidden history was that history of ‘real, active men’ that he was soon to refer to as the ‘history of class struggles’, and the reason it had proved to be particularly difficult for the intellectuals to discern was because, to paraphrase Marx, they tended to be concerned with the ruling ideas of the epoch, which as in any epoch were the ideas of the ruling class.
In sum, then, this argument contains the following: first, the embryo of Marx's base versus superstructure model of society, with its suggestion that the realm of ideas is distinguishable from and determined by that of the economy; and, second, the notion that what makes some (the ruling) ideas ideological is the fact that they hide things to the benefit of the ruling class.
Marx's most sustained effort to explain the nature of the link between the economic and ideational realms, as well as how the ideas of the ruling class become ruling ideas, may be found at the end of the first chapter of Capital (1867). First, he explains the basic mechanism whereby there can occur a difference between how things really are in the economy and the wider society, and how people think they are. This he does by making an analogy with ‘the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world’. He then argues that ‘in that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race’. Finally, he concludes, as it is with ideas then ‘so it is in the world of commodities with the products of men's hands. This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour (in capitalist societies).’
The net result of the occurrence of this fetishism is that what people (including, he points out particularly, bourgeois economists, Christian clerics, and lawyers) think is going on is simply the buying and selling of things whose values are intrinsic to the things themselves. In fact, Marx suggests, these values are the product of certain relations between people that are obscured from them, by all the buying, selling, litigating, and justifying which, as he states at the beginning of the following chapter, they have to engage in by virtue of the fact that ‘commodities cannot go to market and make exchanges on their own account’. Thus, people in capitalist societies necessarily come to regard apparently equal (or neutral) market exchanges as the basic relationships within their societies, whereas in fact, according to Marx, the more basic relationships are the profoundly unequal ones that occur within ‘the hidden abode of production’. In this way, then, ‘the class which is the ruling material force of society… [becomes]… its ruling intellectual force’.
The metaphor of the fetish and Marx's specification of how fetishism occurs in capitalist societies have continued to have a great if sometimes very divergent influence amongst Marxist scholars. For example, György Lukács utilizes it both in his theory of false consciousness and his proposals as to how this might best be overcome. Lukács's treatment was also influenced by Weber. By contrast, and in his case influenced somewhat by Durkheim and the structuralist tradition, Louis Althusser developed Marx's ideas to produce both a conception of the ideological relation as in a rather special sense an ‘imaginary relation’, and a specification of the mechanism whereby people or subjects are positioned within such a relation as one of interpellation .
More recently, numerous scholars, often under the influence of Antonio Gramsci's notion of hegemony , have sought to incorporate various linguistic and other concepts of discourse analysis into the theory of ideology. Their hope is that this will enable them to investigate what might be termed the internal life of the ideological realm, and so give some content to what many have termed its relative autonomy . In so doing, their hope is also that they might be able to provide more detailed and sophisticated accounts of how it is that a society's ‘ruling ideas’ are produced-more sophisticated, that is, than those explanations that are possible on the basis of the theory of commodity fetishism , and its associated notion that such ideas must necessarily be those of the ruling class. Nevertheless, the theory of fetishism still has its defenders, for whom any such dalliance with post-structuralism and post-modernism is heretical.
The sociological literature on ideology is extraordinarily dense. Jorge Larrain's The Concept of Ideology (1979) and Terry Eagleton's Ideology-An Introduction (1991) are both reasonably accessible. See also dominant ideology thesis ; dual consciousness ; Gouldner, Alvin W.; ideological state apparatus.

Dictionary of sociology. 2013.


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