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Relationship Between Ideology and Political Theory

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History of the concept of ideology Idea-ology, a science of ideas The word ideology is a child of the Enlightenment and would have been used for the first time by Antoine Destutt de Tracy (Knight, 2006, p. 619), in a lecture on April 21, 1796 for the Institut National des Sciences et des Arts, a lecture that was later published in Mémoire sur la faculté de penser. From 1802 he worked on a multi-part work entitled Eléments d’Idéologie (1802-1815), a kind of textbook for education (ibid.). With ‘ideology’, Tracy envisioned a new, empirical science (such as biology, sociology), namely an idea-ology, a science of ideas that could, for example, distinguish false from true ideas.

Life, according to the Tracy’s reasoning, can be improved if we gain a scientific insight into the relationship between ideas and real needs. De Tracy wanted to spread the ideas of the Enlightenment together with a group of philosophers within the Institut de France. From a rationalistic point of view of illumination, this science would objectively study the origin and content of ideas and examine their relationship with the real world.

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Shaped at (extreme) positions of fault lines

The concept of ideology plays a central role in social science, especially in political science. After all, politics is about reconciling conflicting visions about what needs to be done and about realizing ideals. Conflicting views arise, among other things, because there are conflicts of interest and because values, norms and opinions differ on the right and good. Political contradictions usually have a fixed structure if we talk about fault lines. Ideologies are often formed at (extreme) positions of those fault lines. The ideas that people keep about what to do with this society are therefore not arbitrary. They cluster together in larger, coherent sets of views about the organization of society, which we call ideologies. They speak out about all kinds of social issues, and all those positions must show a certain coherence. Often they start from a shared underlying image of man: some believe in the strength of the individual, while others believe that people can only live in solidarity and still others who believe that man needs all sorts of rules.

Little unanimity about the concept

Although ideology was studied in thousands of publications, “its definition is as elusive and confused as ever” (van Dijk, 1998, p. 7), but on the other hand it is “hardly more vague than a similar Big Terms in Social Sciences and Humanities. […] Definitions generally are difficult to capture all the complexities of such notions” (ibid., p. 11). David McLellan also states in Ideology (1995) that ideology is “the most elusive concept” of the social sciences (p. 1). There is little unanimity about ideology, except for the statement that “there is little agreement on the nature of ideology” (Adams, 1995, p. 1). There is agreement about the fact that it is a concept with many meanings.

Reference to intellectual content of political movements

In political science, ideology is usually used to refer to the intellectual content of political movements such as socialism, nationalism, personalism, liberalism, ecologism or conservatism. Discussion is, for example, about whether feminism, populism or militarism can also be called (full-fledged) ideologies. These -isms, with all their variants, intermediate forms and combinations, want to ‘shape society’ in the tradition of the Enlightenment on the basis of ideals, values, norms, philosophies, etc. Society can be made into many of these ideologies, the future is not a repetition of the past. For other -isms, man and his society are not or only slightly modifiable as the future is no more than the continuation of proper conventions, traditions, etc. that should not be questioned. Social design, however, is not merely the product of ideas, values, basic principles, etc., but includes at least the same amount of practical and political action. Ideology and power go very closely together. Ideology is often used to legitimize certain actions or practical proposals and as such is also a power instrument.

Study in quite different ways

Research into ideology exists in many forms. In political philosophy, one concentrates primarily on the development and cohesion of an ideology and on the meaning of each component for the whole. Other research traditions pay particular attention to the organizational design and translation of ideologies: Which social movements and parties have shaped an ideology in which way? How does an ideology manifest itself in programs of parties or in their daily actions in political topicality? Political scientists then consider which population groups or individuals hold ideology, norms and values and how that goes along with certain characteristics such as education, age, profession or class position. Ideology is thus studied in quite a number of ways in political science. This study gave rise to various publications that clearly map the existing ideologies. This includes introductory overview works such as Introduction to Political Ideologies by Hoffman and Graham (2006) or Political Ideologies and the Democratic Ideal by Ball and Dagger (2011). In the own language area, the fascinating Political ideologies in Flanders or Politieke ideologieën in Vlaanderen (Sanders & Devos, 2008) appeared, which, in addition to an overview of the ideologies, also included the description of the party history through which these ideologies were put into practice. Hoffman and Graham (2006) make the distinction between classical ideologies (liberalism, conservatism, socialism, anarchism, nationalism and fascism) and new ideologies (feminism, multiculturalism, ecologism, fundamentalism). Ball, Dagger and O’Neill (2016) also incorporate radical Islamism in their list of “ideologies today and tomorrow” (p. 336).

What is ideology?

Set of ideas with respect to political systems. As previously mentioned, there are many definitions and descriptions of ideology and none is adequate in itself. The concept stands for a wide range of meanings. In that context, ideology is firmly established, inter alia, for verbal images of the good society and the way in which it can be constructed. No scientific theory Ideology is not a scientific theory. The difference between the two is not always that clear, because supporters of an ideology sometimes claim that their vision is scientifically founded or because social scientists sometimes fail to realize how their own ideological bias influences their theories. However, scientific theories are empirical in nature, they must describe and explain what is, not prescribe what should be. That scientific theories can have consequences for human behavior, therefore, does not mean that they are ideologies: the scientist, as a scientist, is not primarily interested in these consequences, the ideologist does. We can describe ideology as a neutral concept that refers to an action-oriented thought system to a set of ideas that posit, motivate or explain the goals and means of social action, regardless of whether that action wants to confirm the social order, overthrow it or slowly adjust to it. Ideology is neither good nor bad, neither false, open nor closed, liberating nor oppressive. Ideology can take different forms.

Looking for the crucial concepts

This description has the advantage of being inclusive of all ‘isms’. On the other hand, this neutrality is also a disadvantage, because the concept becomes so general that it becomes interchangeable with other terms, such as doctrine or worldview. Ideology can be aimed both at preserving the existing social situation and at changing it – gradually or suddenly, evolutionary or revolutionary. The latter is relevant, for example, in the distinction between social democracy and communism, two members of the large and heterogeneous socialist family. Ideologies also exhibit a certain degree of coherence or consistency. An ideology, however, does not say anything about anything and there are of course overlaps with other ideologies, whereby we have to look for the essence or the most characteristic of a particular ideology in comparison with another. There are all kinds of mixed forms, for example socialist feminism, liberal conservatism etc. Of course there are limits to this malleability. Ideologies must limit internal heterogeneity and certainly contradiction, as well as contain some recognizable and unique key points that make one ideology different from the other. In other words, to study ideology, we have to divide the whole, the coherent set of ideas and propositions, and identify the crucial concepts. There is so much internal discussion about a few peripheral elements that it must be disregarded in order to capture the essence of an ideology. Once it has been determined, it is possible to examine how and why, for example, Trotskyists, Maoists, Stalinists or Leninists differ from each other.

What is political theory? Ideology consists of three types of ideas and insights: an ideology (1) puts an analysis framework first on current society, (2) determines what the ideal society should look like and (3) tells us which strategies and tactics lead from (1) to (2).

Theory formation and analysis

A sub-discipline of political science is political theory. This could give the impression that other disciplines within the political sciences, such as ‘international relations’, ‘public administration’ or ‘comparative political sciences’ do not engage in theories. However, this is not true. It lies at the core of political science to do theory-building and analysis. What distinguishes political theory from the other sub-disciplines are the kind of questions one tries to answer and the methods one uses, rather than focusing on theory formation. Today we de facto establish a resurgence of nationalism and religious fundamentalism worldwide. Again, it appears that ideologies are flexible and able to adapt to new situations and problems. Furthermore, the old ones do not completely disappear. In this way the capitalist economy continues to generate social inequalities, so that ideological debate and conflict on that basis are far from closed. The multicultural society creates challenges on which ideologies react differently. Political parties, even those that have arisen on the traditional 19th-century fault lines labor capital, church-state or center-periphery, continue to mobilize on the basis of ideologies.

Protestant ethics: The set of values embodied in the first period Protestantism, which is controversially associated with the development of modern capitalism, especially with Max Weber’s classical essay-The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, first published in 1905. At first sight, the relationship between Protestantism and capitalism seems paradoxical, because Protestant beliefs do not accept the idea that man is making economic gains on his behalf; nevertheless, this relationship is clearly the main (and new) combination of capitalism (Weber & Parsons, 2003). The source of the most important bond established by Protestantism is the call to the believers of the Protestantism to fulfill the tasks of God against the day-to-day life (ibid.). The relation between Protestantism and capitalism is considered one of the selective closeness by Weber. This interpretation of the origins of the capitalist capital has led to a tremendous reaction and continues to lead to controversy even today. Of course, this interpretation was not intended to give an alternative to Marxist evaluations, which, as claimed, were based on economics. Weber was opposed to simple, unilateral or reducible explanations of the rise of capitalist society. Protestantism did not lead to the emergence of modern capitalism, but it was one of its obligatory preconditions.

Bourgeoisie: Owners of private property and means of production. As far as Marxist politics is concerned, Marxists see the world as a struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat (workers), with the economy as the foundation on which the rest of society is built (Merleau-Ponty, Pool, & O’Neill, 2000). Marxists believe that the state is the arena in which people with property and people without possessions enter into battle with each other. That is why Marxists find a democratic state or republic undesirable, especially in a capitalist economic system.

Interest groups: According to Hague and Harrop (2010), interest groups are non-governmental organizations that try to influence public policy. Dür and de Bièvre (2007) point to the difference between specific interest groups and diffuse interest groups. Specific interest groups represent concrete, short-term interests. Diffuse interest groups stand for abstract, long-term goals. The principles defended by the European Women’s Lobby, eg gender equality, are an example of diffuse interests. The interests that a diffuse interest group strives for are often secondary, which means that they cannot collect the same financial and other resources as specific interest groups.

Political party: A political party is a group of people who have united on the basis of common political principles, with the aim of taking part in the administration (ACE Electoral Knowledge Network, 2012). Political parties try to win seats in parliament, the city council, the provincial states or the water board through elections. In this way they want to try to influence government policy. A political party is therefore primarily an electoral association: in order to participate in elections, a party draws up a list of candidates.

Autocracy: These political systems are characterized for having one prevailing leader figure or presence of a high soldier who has come to power through a coup d’état (St. Thomas University, 2018). The political system is arbitrarily a government or junta, which also consists largely of military personnel and the public are not involved in any way. Many autocrats justify their assumption of power by stating that their country is in a political and economic chaos and that it is necessary to put things in order with great force. They promise that a transition to democratic relations will take place in the future. The road to a well-functioning democracy, however, proves difficult. Often the main purpose of a military dictatorship is to protect a small, powerful elite, which usually consists of a few wealthy families and the military top. The population is being oppressed, but because there is no ideology, religious freedom and economic leeway exist to a greater or lesser extent. Nowadays we see the autocratic dictatorship form in North Korea (Kim Jong II), Syria (Assad family), Libya (Muammar Gaddafi) and Zimbabwe (Robert Mugabe).


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