What Is Ideology?

Ideology is often defined as a set of general beliefs or abstract values by which people define the social and political arrangements that they believe ought to be preferred. Ideologies thus function like generative grammars for constructing and justifying positions on specific social and political issues (Rohan & Zanna, 2001).

Van Dijk argues for ideology as ‘the interface between social structure and social cognition.

For purpose of this entry, ideologies may be very succinctly defined as the basis of the social representations shared by members of a group’ (1998, p.8; original emphasis). This definition draws attention to the cognitive and social aspects of ideology, and presents ideology as the socially shared (but individually held) beliefs that are manifest in social representations and social discourse.

In a similar vein, Stuart Hall (1996) locates ideology as being grounded in social cognition, while emphasizing the social function of ideology as a means by which different social groups account for their own and others’ positions in social structures:

  • [B]y ideology I mean the mental frameworks—the languages, the concepts, categories, imagery of thought, and the systems of representation—which different classes and social groups deploy in order to make sense of, figure out and render intelligible the way society works. (Hall, 1996, p.26).

Although questions about what ideology ‘is’ and how we should conceive of it are contested between different approaches to its study, we can nonetheless propose that when we talk about ideology we are referring to the beliefs, opinions and social practices that support certain representations and constructions of the world which, in turn, serve to rationalize, legitimate, maintain and (re)produce particular institutional arrangements, economic, social and power relations within a society.