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Social problems: Who makes them?
Social problems: Who makes them?

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6.2 Contesting ideologies

Much social science analysis has been devoted to exploring the variants and consequences of this simple view of ideology, including capitalist ideology, which legitimates the interests of owners of capital against the working class; patriarchal ideology, which legitimates the interests of men against women; and racist ideology, which legitimates the interests of dominant ethnic groups against others – most evidently in the ideology of apartheid in South Africa. However, this simple and functionalist conception of ideology has been developed in a number of ways. First, as we have already hinted, the stress on ‘dominant’ ideologies which legitimate social interests has been tempered by a recognition that there are other ideologies which challenge and contest dominant ones. For example, one might consider the conflicts between capitalist and socialist ideologies which sought to challenge or change the structural inequalities of capitalist societies; the conflicts between patriarchal and feminist ideologies over gender inequalities; or those between racist and anti-racist ideologies around inequalities of ‘race’ and ethnicity. Opening up ideologies in this way gives a more dynamic view of ideological conflict and struggles.

Oppositional ideologies are likely to try to define different sorts of social problems. Thus, socialist ideologies define inequality and its effects as social problems; feminist ideologies define gender differences in income, work and access to power (as well as issues of male violence within and outside home) as social problems; and anti-racist ideologies have attempted to construct inequalities (of income and rights) and other dimensions of racism (such as vulnerability to racially motivated attacks) as social problems. In this sense, one can treat the public agenda of social problems as one focus of ideological conflict in which competing ideologies struggle to establish their definitions of social problems, and what needs to be done about them.

Activity 8

Age is another issue around which there are contested understandings. Some would suggest that no one other than a mature adult is capable of taking full control of his or her own life. Consider, first, what might be the dominant ideologies behind this statement. Whose social interests do you think would be legitimated by it? Then try to identify alternative or counter-ideologies and the social interests which might underlie them. Finally, think about some of the contradictory common-sense views that surround the notion of growing old.


In generational terms the statement clearly supports the position of mature adults – that is, those who already tend to be in more powerful positions at home and at work. It might therefore also be seen as a statement which underpins structures of social order and minimises the risk of challenge from below – young people have to learn and accept discipline. It may also imply that those who have moved into old age need to accept secondary status. It is consistent with the view that those outside the workforce are a drain on the resources of those who are in productive employment.

Powerful counter-ideologies are also available, of course. From the young it might be argued that many people are already over the hill at 30, in some occupations at least. It might also be claimed that the young alone represent the hope of the future. Older people might emphasise the value of experience and wisdom, as well as stressing their entitlement to some support after a lifetime of supporting others. Each of these arguments would be appealing to different ‘bits’ of common sense.

One approach to the concept of ideology links it to the issue of common sense, which we discussed earlier. This approach derives from the work of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci (1971; see also Hall, Lumley and McLennan, 1978) and is concerned with the way in which conflicting ideologies contend over common-sense understandings. In this approach, ideologies struggle to establish their legitimacy and power by drawing connections with aspects of everyday or common-sense knowledge. In doing so, they try to organise and mobilise elements of common-sense knowledge as part of their world view and in support of the social interests they represent. Thus, dominant social classes will refer to, and make connections with, aspects of common-sense knowledge that reflect and support existing patterns of inequality and which legitimate the economic or political power of these dominant groups. Counter-ideologies will want to build connections with those other elements of common-sense thought that object to or are sceptical about the existing social order.

In this perspective, common sense – understood as the contradictory and complex package of ‘bits’ discussed earlier – forms a field that is selectively addressed by contending ideologies. Different ideologies will address different ‘bits’ and try to organise them into a coherent story and a particular sort of perspective on the world. The aim is to ensure that there appears to be no alternative to the vision of society being presented that is capable of winning tacit or active support from people across a wide social spectrum. Gramsci used the term hegemonic to describe a political project that achieved these ends.

A particular example of this was provided in the 1980s by the ideology of the New Right associated with the Thatcher government in Britain and the Reagan presidency in the USA. This ideology was committed to social and economic programmes that would create an increased role for market forces and a more dynamic – if more unequal – capitalism, and was addressed to those aspects of common sense which saw competition, inequality and individualism as the dominant, and desirable, characteristics of social and economic life (Levitas, 1986; Hall, 1988). Thus New Right ideology addressed the ‘natural’ state of economic competition, identifying it as an essential feature of life for individuals, companies and even nations (‘Great Britain plc’) (these issues are discussed further in Hughes and Lewis, 1998). It stressed those parts of common sense that focused on individual freedoms (to earn and spend money) rather than collective provision (the ‘nanny state’ supported by ‘excessive taxation’). Although this ideology often presented itself as common sense, it is important to recognise that it addressed common-sense thought selectively. It ignored or repressed those ‘bits’ of common sense that did not fit or could not be integrated into this ideological direction – in particular, those ‘bits’ that supported collective provision, mutual dependency, intergenerational solidarity, and so forth. Such ‘bits’ were usually demonised as ‘socialism’.

This brief sketch, simplifying a complex process of ideological work, is intended to indicate that the relationship between ideologies and common sense may be a central issue in how social issues and social problems are constructed.