Practice Question  – Are Social movements always influenced by ideologies? Discuss. [UPSC 2012]

Approach – Introduction, Define Social movements and the concept of ideologies, Explain how ideology is a re-requisite for starting a social movement, Illustrate with examples, Give Criticism, Conclusion.



An ideology consists of a system of views, beliefs and ideas. It may render support for a socio-economic formation (along with its political position and alignments) by corroborating the latter’s legitimacy in terms of some acceptable norms, cultural preferences and/or theoretical understanding of society and human living. Necessarily, the scope of an ideological position spreads over a wide range of human social appraisals and their choices about economic relations, ethical norms, religious faith, aesthetic appreciation, philosophical thought and political judgment.

Ideology is the lens through which a person views the world. Within the field of sociology, ideology is broadly understood to refer to the sum total of a person’s values, beliefs, assumptions, and expectations. Ideology exists within society, within groups, and between people. It shapes our thoughts, actions, and interactions, along with what happens in society at large.



Probably, the word ‘ideology’ was first used in France by rationalist philosophers to indicate what was then understood as the philosophy of the human mind. In English usage, ideology conveyed the meaning of the science of ideas. The analytical emphasis on scientific social ideas had an important role in the promotion of the Enlightenment philosophies which largely contributed to the making of the French Revolution of 1789. This revolution faced numerous difficulties in achieving popular sovereignty. By the end of the following decade, there occurred the coup d’etat of Napoleon Bonaparte (Napoleon – I), who criticised the Enlightenment philosophers for diffusing metaphysics and a critical failure to adapt their socio-political ideas ‘to a knowledge of the human heart and the lessons of history’. Napoleon’s attack imparted to ideology a sense of having unreal, impractical and even fanatical tendencies.

In their early writings, criticising the mode and content of Hegelian idealism, Marx and Engels applied the term ideology in this sense. They had the same critical approach while exposing the limitations of Ludwig Feuerbach’s materialism. Marx’s critiques of the Hegelian philosophies of the State (1843) and Right (1843-44) and his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (1844) made no explicit mention of ideology. The emphasis was on the inversions of Hegel. For example, the true relationship of thought to being is that being is subject and thoughtthe predicate; Hegel sets thought as the subject and being as the predicate.

Karl Mannheim (1893-1947), the German  sociologist, wrote in his book Ideology and Utopia (First German edition 1929, English translation 1936) that ideologies are mental fiction used to conceal the real nature of a particular society. On the country, utopias are wishful dreams that inspire the opposition against vested interests. Thus, Mannheim made a meaningful distinction between pro and anti-status quo ideologies. 

Louis Althusser’s (1918-1990) interpretation of the Marxist, as available in his Reading Capital (1970) and For Marx (1969), focuses on ‘mature’ Marx with his framework of interlocking combinations of political, economic, ideological, and theoretical structures and practices which, in their totality, can come to determine social forces and their actions. Althusser includes ideology (in addition to the economy and polity) among the main instances of history as structured social formations. An ideology then contains the meaning of the relations lived by men in a society.

Following on the heels of Marx, the Italian activist, journalist, and intellectual Antonio Gramsci offered a more developed theory of ideology to help explain why the revolution did not occur. Gramsci, offering his theory of cultural hegemony, reasoned that dominant ideology had a stronger hold on consciousness and society than Marx had imagined. Gramsci’s theory focused on the central role played by the social institution of education in spreading the dominant ideology and maintaining the power of the ruling class. Educational institutions, Gramsci argued, teach ideas, beliefs, values, and even identities that reflect the interests of the ruling class, and produce compliant and obedient members of society that serve the interests of that class. This type of rule is what Gramsci called cultural hegemony.



The origin of the sociological use of the concept of ideology can be found in Marx’s writings. Admittedly, as reminded by many commentators, the concept of ideology existed before Marx. One thus finds a particular form of this concept at the end of the eighteenth century with the French tradition of the ideologues who, led by Destutt de Tracy, saw in the Ideologie a new discipline: the science of the ideas. Further still the theory of the idola developed by the English philosopher Francis Bacon in his Novum Organum anticipates certain aspects of both science of the ideas of the French ideologues and the modern theory of the ideologies. But it is with Marx that a certain use of this concept appears.

As suggested by these examples, the sociologists use the concept of ideology to describe a phenomenon of ‘belief’: belief in the value of the absolute monarchy for the land aristocracy (Marx), belief in the morally reprehensible character of the loan with interest for the Church (Mannheim), belief in the universal vocation of the collectivist mode for the Socialists (Aron). To speak about belief is to describe an ethical or cognitive reality—principle, idea, theory, doctrines, etc.—which not only makes ‘sense’ for an individual or collective actor, but a reality about which this actor may develop a deep feeling of conviction. It also describes a factor likely to influence the behavior of this actor. Innumerable sociological and anthropological work made it possible to identify the diversity of the beliefs and their consequences according to the social systems considered. The difficulty which arises consequently is that of the specificity of the ideological phenomenon as belief compared to the various possible registers of the general phenomenon of the belief. Sociologists generally approach this specificity in terms of degree and not of nature under three interdependent aspects: (a) referent of the belief, (b) forms of the belief, and (c) value of truth of the belief.

The contemporary ideologies no longer have the width of the all-encompassing ideological systems of the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries. If it still appears illusory to regularly announce the ‘end of the ideologies’ (D. Bell and M. Lipset Seymour), it is undeniable that the form under which they appear evolves. For R. Boudon (1999), modern ideologies evoke the image of archipelago, while the old ideologies evoked rather the idea of a continent. ‘We have ideologies,’ writes Boudon, ‘as to what should be done about unemployment, educational opportunities, fighting against crime or drug addiction and on a myriad of subjects, as well as how it should be done. But these theories are weakly related to one another. We have ceased to believe that they could be derived from an all encompassing theory. We have all kinds of local ideologies; we no longer believe in general ideologies.’



Rightist ideology can be defined as one end of the political ideology spectrum which is characteristically defined by the notions of nationalism, authority, hierarchy, and traditionalism. There are various categories that are utilised to define the right ideology like conservatives right- imperialists, fascists and traditionalists each displaying varying amount fright wing politics and upholding those beliefs. Left ideology on the other hand lies on the opposite side of the spectrum and principally is opposite to exactly what right ideology stands for. Left ideology entails the principles of freedom equality, reform, and internationalism. Economically, the left ideology stands for central planning and adequate government intervention ensuring a welfare state and protectionism. Centrist ideology falls somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. It aims to highlight the pros and the cons of both extreme ideologies and tries to define itself through moderation. Centrism only arises from a very relational context and arises to strike a balance between the two extreme ideologies. 



The term ideology is often used in two different ways. In one sense, it is a set of ideas, views and beliefs which sustains an individual or a social order. It may be used to maintain the status quo; but it may also be used to oppose the system. There may be various ideologies, sometimes antagonistic to each other in a given social system. It may also differ according to classes. Various social, economic and political systems in history have been sustained by certain dominant ideologies. In another sense, ideology is also interpreted as false consciousness as opposed to the real, scientific knowledge of the world. In this sense, it is used to mislead people and influence them to support the status quo.



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