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The Concept of Ideology in History and Politics

Mat Humphrey and Maiken Umbach discuss the meaning of "ideology" in their academic disciplines, Politics and History.
Ideologies is a really tricky concept, and academics have argued a lot about what it really means. I’m here today with Matt Humphrey to talk about how our two disciplines, history and politics, use the word ideology, why some people are reluctant to use it at all, but why we think it’s still a useful concept to work with today. So Matt can you begin by outlining for us how political scientists think about this term today in your discipline? Yeah, certainly Maiken. So the interest in ideology in political science to an important extent is about extending the range of interests beyond the traditional focus on political philosophers.
So the study of politics, traditionally, when it comes to political ideas, has looked at people like Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Nietzsche. But these are unique individuals whose political thought attains a level of sophistication and coherence, which is not really reflected if you look at how ideas tend to flow through everyday life, and how ideas are expressed in the media, and say, in public discourse. So the lens of ideology allows us to look at how ideas really flow through society, rather than how they’re articulated by these very important figures, but these figures are, as I say, unique in terms of what they actually do. It’s important to say, I think as well, that ideology in political science has a rather chequered history.
What we don’t tend to be interested in today is either the Marxist projects of ideology analysis, in terms of uncovering forms of false consciousness and revealing the truth about society and the economy. Nor do we tend to see ideologies as very rigid doctrinaire systems. So if you look back at, say political science in the 1950s, when people talked about ideology, they tended to mean things like Stalinist communism or national socialism. And now we apply the analytical lens much more broadly to, really, all forms of political thought. So for us it’s about trying to understand the ways in which ideas flow through society, the ways in which ideas matter, if you like, for ordinary people in politics.
Is that similarly with history? Yeah I would say it is. History is a very old discipline, goes back to the 19th century. And when it was first formed, it was very much about political elites, about very formal structures of political decision making, institutions, and states. But in the last 50 years or so the emphasis has moved much more towards social history, cultural history. So it’s about understanding ordinary people’s lives and how they form particular belief systems, identities, ideologies. So the term ideology in that is disputed, some of my colleagues don’t like to use it at all.
They think it’s still too elitist, it’s what political leaders might use rather than ordinary people who speak of, maybe, identities or political opinions and feelings, even, and sentiments. But I think it’s important to hang onto this concept, because I think it’s important helping us to see the connections between every day discourse and everyday practise and political discourse, political decision making, political mobilisation. It shows how these two hang together in the sense, what goes on in everyday life shapes the political language that political leaders can then draw on to articulate their projects and their ideas. So then, they’re mutually interdependent, and, ideology I think, brings out that cross-fertilization. So if I can give you an example from my own work.
My own work, at the moment, is on the history of Nazi Germany, and I’m particularly interested in photography. This is a regime that’s very attentive to the media and about projecting political images. But, again, we can see that kind of two-way process at work. My research is about looking at private photography. I look at family albums that people made in the Third Reich. And what we see there is something really interesting. It’s how ordinary people make ideology work for them. and what you see in the photos that I look at– I look at these private family albums is how people use ideology for their own purposes, in very private settings. So it’s almost like a prop, like a consumer item.
You might call pose in a photograph with a new car or the new outfit, or with an ideological artefact or setting, in front of the Olympic stadium, say, that the Nazis built in Berlin, or with the Fuhrer speaking in the background. It’s a way it’s a prop that allows you to position yourself, to define your identity, to document it for others or to live out an aspiration. To stage what you want to be and who you want to be. And the regime, in turn, is very attentive to that kind of use of ideology.
And you can see that in the visual sphere, too, where, to take an example, Heinrich Hoffman, who was Hitler’s propaganda photographer of choice, he’s very interested in vernacular, everyday photography. And his images often copy the sort of spontaneity of amateur snapshots, he even copies the mistakes that amateurs make in their snap shooting photography to give his photos that sort of authenticity, to make them feel real, because the regime is very aware of the fact that propaganda, if it doesn’t speak to lived experience, will not persuade. So how does that work in politics, how do people think about ideology, working in everyday life? Political science, nowadays, is quantitative.
So, for example, so my own work on the politics of shale gas in the UK uses survey evidence. And people will use data, such as electoral behaviour, as well, as part of an explanatory story about how political outcomes are realised. But I think there’s an increasing awareness, and that really only tells us part of the story. So there’s been what’s been referred to as an ideational turn in political science in recent years. And really a sense that ideas matter, which again, probably wasn’t so much the case maybe 20 years ago, with the rise of things like rational choice theory.
Whereas all of that interest, or maybe interest in institutions, but ideas were seen as a kind of explanation of last resort, if you like. If you couldn’t explain the outcome any other way at all, then maybe you might turn to ideas. And I think has changed now. The notion of the political idea, ideology has become more central to politics. Because that, in turn, raises a whole set of new questions, right? If ideas matter, how do they matter? How do people come to hold one set of political ideas and not another? Why do some political ideas appear to really capture the public imagination and take off and be incredibly influential, and others just seem to whither on the vine?
So the study ideology, now, is partly about trying to understand the ways in which ideas matter, if they do, and how ideas might actually operate as an explanatory variable for understanding certain kinds of political outcome. How do people come to hold one political belief or set of political beliefs, rather than another? Why do some ideas seem to pick up momentum and become very influential in a democratic society, and others just seems so wither on the vine? So if you think ideas matter, that still leaves us with an awful lot to explain. So one question might be, “Well, is the concept of audiology useful in helping us to achieve this level of explanation?”
And, I think ideology refers to something slightly different to just political ideas. People will have ideas about things like justice and freedom and the sort of concepts were talking about on this course, but they also will put those together, even at the level of the individual, into a system of ideas, which will hopefully have at least some sort of minimal level of coherence, so that people aren’t contradicting themselves every time they talk about politics. And we still tend use these labels of conservative or liberal or socialist, problematic as these labels may be, it give us a kind of shorthand for understanding the systems of political ideas that both individuals and political parties cleave to.
So that’s what, for me, ideology is doing. Is trying to understand the systematic interrelationship between these ideas, how they correlate with each other, how do they, sort of fit together into a system. Now, I think the role of political ideas today, becomes obvious if you look at some contemporary examples. So the 2016 Presidential election campaign, the success of individuals like Donald Trump, or Bernie Sanders, or even the rise of populism more generally in Western democracies. It’s very interesting to look at the role of ideas in that, I think . These candidates are presenting themselves as the authenticity candidate, right?
This is one of the important factors of their current political discourse, it’s a stand against a kind of corrupt establishment, as a stand against a kind of managerial politics, right? These people believe in something, and they’re not scared to reveal those beliefs to the public, in a way, by implication they think previous generations of politicians have failed to. So ideology remains a very important component of political life that we need to understand if we’re to understand politics fully.

In this conversation, Mat and Maiken, joint directors of CSPI, discuss how the concepts of “ideology” and “propaganda” have been used in their two academic disciplines – Politics and History. This video is the start of a series: at the end of each week, we have asked an academic from a different discipline – Sociology, Psychology, Classics, and Media Studies – to reflect on the way these concepts are understood by researchers in their fields, and what they in turn have contributed to our overall understanding.

Mat and Maiken suggest that some trends cut across disciplinary divides: ideology and propaganda used to be seen as characterisitcs of totalitarian or authoritarian regimes, while we now acknowledge that they operate in all political systems, and have deep roots in popular culture. Both disciplines have developed new methodologies – more ‘quantitative’ in Political Science, more ‘qualitative’ (or interpretation-based) in History – to understand how ideology interacts with, affects, and feeds on, everyday beliefs and practices. Maiken explains how the ‘cultural turn’ in History has drawn attention particularly to the ways in which ordinary people and political regimes co-produce ideologies, while Mat looks at the ways in which ideas are taken to ‘matter’ in political explanations, and how this resonates in a displine where analysis is increasingly quantiative. Both suggest that, while the term ideology is often associated with older understandings of anti-democratic regimes, it is still useful for understanding how everyday life and politics interact. Do you agree?

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Propaganda and Ideology in Everyday Life

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