This and the subsequent entry examine the theoretical development referred to as “ideology critique”. I need to make it clear that the target for analysis is this particular phrase “ideology critique”, though I will also discuss briefly the various meanings of “ideology” and indeed of “critique”. Let me explain why I think this focus on “ideology critique” is justified.

The phrase “ideology critique” most obviously refers to the critique of ideology and many analysts happily describe what they do as “ideology critique”. The phrase, however, is commonly used by researchers who wish to distance themselves from the forms of analysis associated with this term. As Freeden (2020: 15) describes, the term “ideology critique” is used in the “context of a sphere of mainly hostile intellectual and scholarly activity”. That is, the term “ideology critique” is often used by those who wish to criticise it – those who wish to critique “ideology critique”. For example, you are likely to encounter the term in the work of analysts who specify that they offer a form of critical analysis that goes beyond “ideology critique”, with the distinct implication that “ideology critique” is limited in its ability to analyse sociopolitical relations (Sum and Jessop 2015). 

To indicate the target of their critique, these researchers put the phrase in quotation marks (“ideology critique”), use a hyphen (“ideology-critique”; Markus 1995) or use the German word ideologiekritik, which combines the two terms in one concept. Poststructuralists are most likely to use these shorthands to signal a theoretical position they consider to be limited. Indeed, I have done so myself on occasion. Unfortunately, just what the phrase refers to often goes unspecified. There are, as we shall see, many forms of ideology critique (Strickland 2012: 56). I hope in this entry to clarify what it is about “ideology critique” that concerns poststructuralists, why they feel the need to go beyondit. Put briefly, poststructuralists resist interpretations that describe “ideology” as a distorted view of the world imposed on subjects by powerful “interests” (elaboration below). 

Why is this topic relevant and, specifically, why is it relevant to engagement with WPR? I felt the need to explore this topic because it seemed to me that many analysts who offer applications of WPR accept the premises of a form of “ideology critique” that sits uncomfortably alongside a Foucauldian-influenced analysis such as WPR. Specifically, there is the tendency to want to use the WPR questions to explain the ways in which “vested interests” control social arrangements, often through the manipulation of “ideas” and “beliefs”. For Foucauldian-influenced forms of analysis, such as WPR, such arguments oversimplify the ways in which governing takes place and paint an overly bleak picture of whether or how social change may be possible. In the subsequent Research Hub entry I will discuss the new wave of theoretical interest in “ideology” and will consider if the “new ideology critics” (Sankaran 2020) offer a form of ideology critique compatible with poststructuralism. 

Readers may recall that on other occasions I have adopted Tanesini’s (1994: 207) approach to concepts that places an emphasis on their political implications. That is, Tanesini insists that concepts have no intrinsic meaning but that they are “proposals about how we are to proceed from here”. Elsewhere I have suggested that WPR can be applied to theoretical premises and to concepts since in both cases they put forward forms of proposal (Bacchi 2018: 7). Hence, it would be possible to apply WPR to various forms of ideology critique. I do some of this analysis in this and the subsequent entry, with the WPR questions integrated into the analysis. I focus in particular on Question 5 and the political effects or implications that accompany specific understandings of ideology and ideology critique (see Chart in Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 20). 

In effect, then, this entry follows the argument in the previous entry on “mixed methods” (31 August 2021), where I suggest that it is necessary to reflect on the paradigmatic distinctions in our research approaches (see Bacchi 2016). I contend that it is possible to do this without being obstructionist and that it is useful to open up conversations about the political implications that accompany specific theoretical positions. 

To begin, the term “ideology” features in political theory is two quite different ways. Nowicka-Franczak (2021) helpfully distinguishes between a descriptive and a normative usage (see also Geuss 1981). Approached descriptively, ideology refers to clusters of ideas or political positions/views. These can be associated with particular groups, such as liberals, conservatives or neo-liberals. Or, more expansively, ideology is seen as the “general sphere of consciousness of all humans” (Strickland 2012: 48).

The second, normative meaning carries a pejorative connotation. Ideology is used to refer to false ideas, misleading perceptions, a mask that distorts our views of the world. In classical Marxist theory, these ideas are the ideas of the ruling classes. They are the product of material economic arrangements, specifically the “modes of production” (Herzog 2018: 402). The phrase “false consciousness” is commonly adopted to refer to these “distorted” views. 

These two meanings of ideology, the normative and the descriptive, fit the distinction Eagleton (1994) draws between what he calls “two lineages of ideology”, one “preoccupied with ideas of true and false cognition” (the pejorative meaning), and the other “concerned more with the function of ideas within social life rather than with their reality or unreality” (the more descriptive meaning). Whereas in the first lineage the focus is on ideology as “necessarily repressive and as an instrument of a ruling class or group to uphold a status quo to its advantage”, in the second, ideology is a “phenomenon that exists in marginalised as well as hegemonic groups” (Sarkowsky and Stein 2020). In this more general meaning, ideology is not just negative; rather, it serves an integrative function. As Nowicka-Franczak (2020: 173) points out, however, all statements about ideology usually have a normative character (and I would say pejorative), “which the speaker may not be aware of, but which may still be identified by a critically-minded addressee”. When we say that someone is spouting “ideology”, it is hardly intended to be a compliment! 

The pejorative meaning of ideology is associated with classical Marxist ideology critique. This negative sense of ideology as “false consciousness” was “the most common usage in the Marxist tradition until the last part of the twentieth century” (Strickland 2012: 112). Each society, in this account, develops only one ideology that “serves the interests of dominant classes and capital” (Luke 2017: 177). 

The focus on “false consciousness” was, among other things, an attempt to “understand how relations of domination or subordination are reproduced with only minimal resort to direct coercion” (Purvis and Hunt 1993: 474). However, “false consciousness” is interpreted in a variety of ways. Marx and Engels target the “distorted beliefs intellectuals held about society and the power of their own ideas” (Eyerman 1981: 43). By contrast, post-Marxists, including Gramsci, Althusser and the early Frankfurt School (Daldal 2014: 157) are more concerned with the “false consciousness” of the working class. In the latter explanation, “false consciousness” served as a convenient explanation “for the reluctance of oppressed workers to rise in revolt” (Strickland 2012: 48).  Ideology, in this account, hampers the capacity of subjects to detect relations of domination and induces them to “cooperate in their own subjection” (Bianchin 2020: 314).

The role of the researcher in classical Marxist accounts is to find a way through “false consciousness” with “rational, scientific inquiry” (Simons and Billig 1994: 1).  Relatedly, in his dream of “some kind of power-free analysis of society”, Althusser insisted that Marxism is a science, “able to function through the relative autonomous scientific rationality that breaks with ordinary and ideological knowledge” (Simons 2015: 70-71). In Gramsci “organic” intellectuals had to work to “re-educate and transform the false consciousness that makes hegemonic rule possible” (Eyerman 1981: 47). In each case Intellectuals are presumed able to see through the mask of ideology. 

Let us turn now to those who engage in the critique of “ideology critique”. They have two main objections to classical Marxist ideology critique and to the early post-Marxists: first, that the notion of “false consciousness” presumes the existence of a “true consciousness”; and second that certain analysts are presumed to occupy a privileged epistemic position from which they are able to identify “true consciousness” and “a smarter take on what’s really going on” (MacLure 2015: 6).

Both these concerns about “ideology critique” are relevant to WPR applications. If at some level there is the impression that the researcher has access to a better “truth” and indeed is located such that access to “truth” is possible, these contentions sit uncomfortably alongside a Foucauldian approach. The pivotal place of self-problematization in WPR, indicated in Step 7 of the approach, counters any such impression of epistemic privilege: “Apply this list of questions to your own problem representations” (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 20).

In the remainder of this entry I will elaborate the qualms that postructuralists harbor about ideology critique, as articulated in the examples above. In the discussion I will touch on the following themes: conceptions of power, conceptions of the subject, governmentality, the question of epistemic privilege, and the political implications of specific theoretical stances. 

At the risk of oversimplification, I’d like to suggest that Marxist uses of ideology critique and Foucauldian analyses start from different questions – the first is primarily concerned with why there was no proletarian revolution (which had been predicted by Marx); the second, Foucauldian perspective is concerned with how governing takes place. While it would be useful to discuss possible overlaps in these starting points, I will be emphasizing the importance of the distinctions between them. 

Coté (2007: 52) suggests that a contrast can be drawn between the Marxist emphasis on the “false” – that is, on the practice of distortion by powerful groups – whereas in Foucault the emphasis is on “fabrication”, referring to the processes by which the “real” is produced. Fabrication is a tricky word given its common understanding as a form of invention. For Foucault, fabrication (borrowing Coté’s term) means solely “production”, how something is made, or how something comes to be. 

These two stances conceive of power quite differently. Classical Marxist ideology critics conceptualise power as “control over a given group of people by bodies that have certain moral norms as well as legal, institutional and material resources at their disposal, thanks to which they can exercise power and influence social sentiments” (Nowicka-Franczak 2021: 174). By contrast, the poststructuralist concept of power is understood as “dispersed constellations of technologies and practices which are correlated with knowledge and which help produce specific models of subjectivity”, commonly described as “governmentality” (Nowicka-Franzak 2021: 174). Whereas the focus in classical Marxist accounts is on power as repressive, in Foucault one examines how power relations produce “the real”. In a paper with Malin Rönnblom (2011: 9), I elaborate this point:

“What Foucault wants to show is that things we take to be ‘real’ and ‘true’ (hence ‘knowledge’) is not something transcendental but the product of human practices. The specific practices he identifies as forming ‘a discursive practice’ are the set of historically contingent and specific rules that produce forms of knowledge. He (1972: 102) explains that what is going on here is not a matter of manipulation or distortion, and hence is ‘both much more and much less than ideology’. What is going on is that ‘the real’ is produced through ‘technologies of truth’ (de Goede 2006: 7).

In these different accounts, the subject is conceptualized in sharply contrasted ways. The focus in classical Marxism is on the ways in which subjects are misled by those in power so that they end up, unknowingly, supporting regimes that oppress them. By contrast, in Foucault, subjects are not dupes of repressive power; rather, they are produced as particular kinds of subjects through processes of subjectification. For example, Miller and Rose (1997: 2) argue that “making up the subject of consumption” has been a complex technical process: 

“… less a matter of dominating or manipulating consumers than of ‘mobilising’ them by forming connections between human passions, hopes and anxieties, and very specific features of goods enmeshed in particular consumption practices”.

The role of researchers in the two approaches is also sharply contrasted. Whereas in classical Marxism researchers deploy scientific methods to discover suppressed “truths”, in Foucault (2000) researchers display an “ethic of discomfort”, always prepared to put in question their own analyses.  Recognizing their location within governing practices, they display heightened sensitivity to the ways in which emancipatory programs can be involved in oppression (Popkewitz 1998). McLeod (2011) contrasts this stance with those “critical pedagogists” who are trapped within a model in which they are the leaders and students are the followers. As Lather (1991: 15) explains:

The suspicion of the intellectual who both objectifies and speaks for others inveighs us to develop a kind of self-reflexivity that will enable us to look closely at our own practice in terms of how we contribute to dominance in spite of our liberatory intentions. 

In Foucauldian-influenced analyses, such as WPR, there is a shift in focus from the grand theorizing of a force called ideology to the minutiae of routine and mundane practices (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016). Returning to the question of how governing takes place, government (read broadly) is seen as “a practical and technical domain not reducible to philosophy or ideology” (Dean 2002: 119-120). The suggestion here is that, while conceptualizing power as the distortion of truth and focussing on the deformation of subjectivity can provide important insights into the working of capitalism, patriarchy, racism and the like, these perspectives are less helpful “in visualizing the detailed workings of the forms of thought and practice that shaped our contemporary existence and experience” (Rabinow and Rose 2003: 3). Marxist explanations, it is argued, could not address the new forms of liberal governmentality, their associated technologies of power, and new forms of subjectivation – hence, the determination to move beyond “ideology critique” (Jessop 2010: 4). At a minimum, Rose and Miller (2008) feel essential the need to go beyond the economic reductionism of Marxism signalled in the focus on the accumulation and distribution of capital to “explore the accumulation and distribution of persons and their capacities” (in Jessop 2010: 18). 

 As I signalled at the outset, I believe it is important to consider these contrasting perspectives on forms of rule in terms of their political implications (Question 5 of WPR). By this I mean how particular theoretical positions “shape our readings of the scope and content of possible political interventions” (Larner 2000: 6). The major point here is that poststructuralists offer a more hopeful picture for change. In an evaluation of the poststructural theoretical position described as “performativity”, John Law (2008: 637) explains how this happens:

“It is to refuse to be overawed by seemingly large systems, and the seeming ontological unity of the world enacted by large systems. It is, instead, to make the problem smaller, or better, to make it more specific.”

While Foucault “espouses a clear commitment to unravelling domination”, he is “concerned to avoid any homogenization of domination” (Purvis and Hunt 1993: 487), creating room to move. To this end Foucault practices a style of research in which the “grand complexes” of conventional sociology – classes, institutions, cultures, beliefs, ideologies – are studied through the “mundane practices of the prison, the hospital, the school, the courtroom, the household, the town planner and colonial governor”: “The new problems and connections that come into view, precisely because of the level of detail at which they are described, seem to become more amenable to action and transformation” (Rabinow and Rose 2003: 9-10).

In the following entry I consider the relationship between conceptions of ideology and the notion of discourse. I also comment on a wave of “new ideology critics” to see just what is new in their accounts and if these accounts offer a version of ideology critique compatible with poststructuralism. 


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