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Interdisciplinary Perspectives: The Approach of Sociologists

FILM INTERVIEW: Learning from Sociology: Communities of Belief – Daniel Ritter interviewed by Ian Cooke
Hello. In this film, we’ll look at how sociology examines the ideas of ideas in ideology. I’m joined by Daniel Ritter, a political sociologist at the University of Nottingham. Hello, Daniel. Hi. So what can sociology tell us about ideas? Well, sociologist discipline is mainly interested in society. It’s the study of how people interact in social groups, ranging from intimate relationships, all the way up to relationships on the national level, and even the international level. And one of things that sociologists look at is why groups of all sorts stick together. So why is it that a married couple stay together? And why is it that a nation remains intact and doesn’t become divided into several sub nations?
In this process, ideas play the central role, because ideas are sort of the glue that holds us together. Ideas, which we can think of as beliefs about how the world works, are the things that lead us to construct such things as values, norms, even our roles, and our identities. And we can move it all the way up to the level of culture. So whatever ideas we have as a group, we’ll dictate what we think is good, what we think is bad, how we think we should behave. And once those things become ingrained enough, we stop even noticing them, and they become part of our culture.
That culture is then handed down from generation to generation through a process we call socialisation. And at the end of this long process, we might not even know why we do certain things. So people might not know why we shake hands when we greet someone, because it’s so normal to us these days. When in fact, it started as a way of showing other people that you’re unarmed, and no threat to their personal safety. So in some ways a lot of ideas, and to an extent, ideology, can sort of go unnoticed in society. And I think that’s a really important part of what we’re talking about across this course.
But I guess one time in which people have become sensitive and aware of ideas and changing ideas– obviously at times of rapid change and revolution. So what can sociology tell us about the changing ideas in revolutionary times? Well, ideology plays a central part in moments of social change. Ayatollah Khomeini said after the Iranian Revolution that people did not do revolution for the sake of cheap melons. It’s not just about access to cheap goods or improved standards of living. But there are new ideas that come to the surface in these moments. And those ideas, again, they’re necessary, because they are what tie people together, and what bind them to a common objective.
Sociologists like to think of ideology as unifying motivations in revolution– something that is necessary in order for people to be willing to take the risks that come with a revolution. Sociologists also like to think of the role of ideology in framing processes. The way that you get people to take part in the revolution, for example, or in the social movement, is to play on there beliefs about the world– and tie it to the objectives of the movement or the revolution. So ideology in the sense of a glue that holds everything together becomes especially important when people really have to work together, as in the case of a social movement or revolution.
And your own research looks at nonviolent social changes and revelations. In your recent book, The Iron Cage of Liberalism, you deal with the Arab Spring classical movements in Egypt and Tunisia. I wondered what you thought was the role and importance of ideas in those changes, and also which ideas prove most enduring and most significant. Right. Well, what I wanted to look at and what I tried to understand is why in some countries people can rise non-violently and overthrow dictators that have been in power for decades. Whereas in other countries, similar movements parish almost immediately.
And what I found through the course of my research was that countries in which revolutions nonviolent, unarmed revolutions succeeded were countries that were aligned with the West. And that caused me to ask why is that the case. And what I found was that dictators in countries aligned with the West tend to strive to put on a democratic facade– try to convince the rest of the world that they’re Democrats and concerned about human rights. This charade has an objective of justifying relations between the democracy and the dictatorship– something that Western countries would typically not be very keen to do. What I then discovered was that nonviolent tactics and strategies are fully compatible with the Western ideology of democracy and human rights.
Meaning that when people take to the streets in the country where the leader claims to be a Democrat and concerned about human rights, then nonviolent tactics become very powerful. Because the dictator cannot at the same time repress that movement, that peaceful moment, while at the same time upholding the democratic facade on which he depends. So ideology, in this case Western ideology, becomes a bind for the dictator that he cannot escape. Thank you, Daniel. So although we may be most sensitive to ideas and ideology at times of change or political unrest, as we’ve seen, ideas and ideology effect the values and the way we behave in our everyday life.
Through this course, we’d like you to think about the change that you’ve seen in your lives and around you. And how ideas and ideologies have played a role in those changes.

In this video Daniel Ritter, a former Assistant Professor of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham, talks to Ian Cooke about ideologies and their role in holding communities together. Daniel is now based in the Department of Sociology at Stockholm University.

An ideological community need not be a nation: it could also be a city, or a particular generation, or professional group. What sort of political ideas work in this way? It is ideas, such as homeland or nationalism, that play the kind of role Daniel describes, or do communities also unite around other political values, such as freedom, equality, or a particular spirituality? And what ideology, if any, is the glue of the particular community you identify with?

The full reference to Daniel’s book ‘The Iron Cage of Liberalism’ and other further reading suggestions can be found in the Resources Bank in week 5.

And finally – well done! You’ve made it to the end of the last week. We really hope that you have found the course interesting. You can check your progress on the course so far.

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Propaganda and Ideology in Everyday Life

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