Ideology – What is it?

Ideology = System of Values

A simple explanation of ideology as an active system of values.

Values define what is seen as good and desirable within a culture. Values also define what is seen as bad and undesirable. Often, our value systems function as hierarchies where concepts exist in a spectrum or gradation.

For instance, a society’s value system might associate certain traits in men as “attractive” and formulate those traits in a fluid but generally recognizable ranking: 

  • Appearance of Health – (Visible) Fitness
  • Appearance of Wealth
  • Height
  • Apparent Strength 
  • Intelligence
  • Grooming & Facial Hair
  • Humor/Sense of Humor
  • Facial Symmetry
  • Verbal Ability

This ranked list may not be subscribed to by every individual in the society. But the fact the society values these traits is broadly true and the relative position of each trait might be also generally accepted as a description of what defines attractiveness in men. At the very least, this is an example of one area of ideology – a set of concepts that demonstrate how collective agreement on values is encoded into a schema or spectrum of traits that run from most important to least important. 

It should be fairly easy to see how this value system can be evoked in communications media – in advertisements and in movies – to invite or to create a specific response. 

If a film depicts a character who scores low marks in each of the categories listed above, the audience is expected to “read” this character as an unimportant, essentially comical, or even as evil. (There is a moral evaluation embedded in the film’s depiction and it is only because an ideology of attractiveness exists that this moral component can exist and be communicated.)

If an advertisement uses such a character, we can expect that this person will either encounter a product that changes his status in one or more categories or he will become a point of contrast with a stereotypically more attractive man who will be associated with a very specific consumption choice (an aftershave lotion, a brand of shoe, etc.). 

The example of how values play out in terms of male attractiveness is just one of many, many available examples. We could rank ethnicities in America according to how each is perceived in terms of desirability, status, and worth. We could examine values that pertain to desirable and undesirable personality traits. Again, not every individual would agree with the rankings we might create, but generally a picture would emerge of a hierarchical value system – an ideology that functions as a map of our collective values, placing worth and honor on some things and not on others. 

When we stop to think about what defines a good life, a good friend, a good husband, a good wife,or a good job, we should be able to recognize that our definitions are largely derived from the cultural world around us. Our judgements in these areas are value judgements. They reflect an ideology. We may not always be conscious of that ideology, but it is guiding many decisions and evaluations we make as we move through the world and even as we judge ourselves. 

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