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date: 16 December 2018

Summary and Keywords

The term ideology originated in 1796 and has been taken up in a variety of ways by scholars in disciplines including communication, sociology, anthropology, and economics. Generally understood as an organized set or system of belief, the term over the past 200 years has been variously situated vis à vis material relations and processes of production; has been assigned negative, positive, and neutral connotations; has been rejected as outmoded and replaced by the more sweeping term discourse; and has been revived as once again being relevant by contemporary scholars.

Ideology is closely associated with the economic theories of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who first used the concept in The German Ideology, published in 1845–1846. Marx and Engels discussed ideology specifically in terms of the economic means and relations of production and framed it largely in negative terms, as the ideas of the ruling class intended to distort or mystify processes of capitalist exploitation. Early 20th-century Marxist followers like Vladimir Lenin, Georg Lukács, and Antonio Gramsci expanded the understanding of the word to include the belief systems of either dominant or resistant groups.

Throughout the 20th century, the structuralist theories of Louis Althusser lent the word ideology a deterministic quality. Althusser and others explored how Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs), such as schools, churches, and media, constitute subject positions for individuals, leaving them little room for agency or struggle against oppressive thought systems. Structuralism’s emphasis on the primacy and force of ideology reached its apex in poststructuralist, postmodernist, and post-Marxist theories that discursified the material—that is, it made no distinction between belief systems and the real world of relations, processes, systems, etc. These theories invigorated discussions surrounding epistemology, ontology, and the role of communication in forming identities and shaping social struggles.

Critics of poststructuralist, postmodernist, and post-Marxist theories have attempted to resituate ideology within its original theoretical context of Marxist dialectical materialism. These efforts attempt to show the importance, for theory and for democratic struggle, of distinguishing between ideas and real-world experience.

Keywords: ideology, Marxism, structuralism, poststructuralism, postmodernism, historical materialism, agency, social change, communication and critical studies

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