Ideologies – What Are They and How Do They Come to Be?

“We are faced with the curiously appalling trend of modern thought, in which the absolute which was once a means of entering into communion with the divine, has now become an instrument used by those who profit from it, to distort, pervert, and conceal the meaning of the present.“

Karl Mannheim – Ideology and Utopia (1929) – Source:

There is so much about ideologies that we just don’t understand.

In his seminal book The Interpretation of Cultures (1973), anthropologist Clifford Geertz raises the questions of what ideologies are and whether we should be wary of them. Are ideologies inherently “shady” or bad?

There was a time, decades ago, during the rise of fascism and at the height of the Cold War, when many scholars thought so. Ideology was often equated with intellectual error or superstition. Werner Stark, for instance, claimed that ideology is “a mode of thinking which is thrown off its proper course”. In his view, ideologies are “psychologically deformed by the pressure of personal emotions” (such as hatred, fear, desire, anxiety etc.). This is probably also why famous French-Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran, in his amazing Genealogy of Fanaticism, claims that ideas do not remain neutral – they aim to demolish, convert, save, recreate.

For Mannheim (1929), ideologies, as forms of sociopolitical thought, never arise out of disembodied reflection; in fact, an ideology is, “always bound up with the existing life situation of the thinker”. Ideology remains, therefore, subjective and relative.

Some definitions

Geertz took a more nuanced view. Ideologies, he said, are “systems of interacting symbols, patterns of interworking meanings” whose capacity to give expression to attitudes incited by “sociopsychological stresses” requires additional investigation.

In the nineties and aughts, semioticians and linguists such as Hodge and Kress or van Dijk, attempted their own definitions. According to these, ideologies are a “systematic body of ideas organized from a particular point of view” (Hodge & Kress, 1993), or “basic social representations of social groups” (van Dijk, 2001). Given that a representation is a construction or interpretation of reality, it follows that ideologies are, inevitably, subjective cultural constructions that become familiar and can come to feel “natural” as a result of repetition.

A decade later, Wales (2011) defines ideologies as “any system of values based on ideas and prejudices and cultural and social assumptions, which amounts to a pervasive, unconscious worldview”.

Determinants of ideologies

But how do ideologies emerge? What causes them? According to Geertz, there are two main schools of thought in this respect: interest theory, which says that ideologies are generated (and used) to pursue power; and strain theory, which claims that ideologies are the result of people’s desire to flee from anxiety. Though fairly rudimentary in their “conception of the processes of symbolic formulation” (Geertz, 1973), they can be useful starting points in beginning to unveil the workings of ideology.

Functions of ideology

When attempting to categorize ideologies by the purpose they serve, Geertz (1973) offers four main explanations:

  1. the cathartic explanation – also called the scapegoat theory (ideologies function as a safety valve, they help displace emotional tension onto symbolic enemies)
  2. the morale explanation – also called the suffering-for-a-cause theory (ideologies help sustain individuals or groups in the face of chronic stress by legitimizing it in terms of higher values)
  3. the solidarity explanation – also known as the one-for-all theory (ideologies serve to knit a social group or class together, ‘we’re all in this together’ etc.)
  4. the advocatory explanation – ideologies and ideologists help articulate popular dissatisfaction and strain, by stating them, making them known and taking sides, thus lending them a voice in the marketplace.

We live in an age where so much seems to be at stake, be it security, environment, civil liberties, abortion rights, the treatment of (sexual) minorities etc. Social friction and the “emotional disturbances generated by social disequilibria” are inevitable, and a number of conflicting ideologies – all of which claim to be the only possible solution to an array of complex problems – are vying for supremacy. The fact that, according to psychologist Steven Pinker and others, the human brain has evolved to prefer quick fixes (“the gist”) only threatens to exacerbate the problem.

Perhaps it’s not a bad idea to dig a little deeper into what ideologies are, how they develop, how they work, what their underlying assumptions about the world are – and check our own assumptions in the process. Why do we embrace a certain ideology? Would we still feel the same and think along the same lines would our “conditions of existence” (Mannheim, 1929) be different? Complex solutions require collaboration and creativity, not closed minds or inflexible paradigms.


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