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The word “ideology” gets thrown around a lot, and it’s one of those words I think I understand until someone asks me to explain it. I recently came across some helpful definitions and distinctions. Middleton (the author) distinguishes between “ideology” in two senses.

First, “ideology” refers to ideas that form a coherent worldview that commends or shapes specific patterns of behavior and has historically functioned to legitimate the social order or political arrangement of actual societies in history.

In other words, a society’s ideology is made up of the ideas that explain and justify the way the world works in that society. Take a specific example – homeless beggars on the street. Some in our society explain this by saying such people are simply lazy. Others object and say that they are evidence of unjust social structures that make “winners” of some and “losers” of others. Both explanations are ideological in that they aim to explain why things are the way they are, and why this is or is not acceptable or commendable.

Here’s his second definition: false or deceptive ideas that underwrite the oppressive circumstances of a people and serve as mystification or rationalization of these circumstances.

This one clearly has more of an edge to it. It carries an accusation that those providing “answers for why the way our world works as it does” are covering up their own vested interests. This is I think more how Marx used it in his critique of capitalist societies.

Sometimes you’ll hear people say that there is no non-ideological place to stand, that is, no set of ideas that are free from the label “ideology.” This is quite true in the first sense, but whether it is true in the second seems less obvious, mostly because of the accusation of dishonesty and oppression.

Anyhow, this explanation was helpful for me.

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