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Discourse, Power, and Ideology. (or, why we think how we do, speak how we do, and act how we do). Discourse, Power and Ideology. These definitions are a particular interpretation of these terms, not set in stone. But … defining these terms allows us to analyse how they function in society.

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Discourse power and ideology

Discourse, Power, and Ideology

(or, why we think how we do, speak how we do, and act how we do)


Discourse power and ideology1
Discourse, Power and Ideology

  • These definitions are a particular interpretation of these terms, not set in stone.

  • But … defining these terms allows us to analyse how they function in society.


Defining and naming confucius 551 bc 479 bc
Defining and Naming: Confucius (551 BC – 479 BC)

  • If names are not right, words are misused. When words are misused, affairs go wrong. When affairs go wrong, courtesy and music droop. When courtesy and music droop, law and justice fail. And when law and justice fail them, a people can move neither hand nor foot.

  • So – if you don’t know what you’re chatting about, you risk drawing the wrong conclusions. And if you do that, you cannot change things which are wrong.



Marx and ideology
Marx and Ideology

‘Base’ is the economic system; the people who buy labour and own capital and those who sell their labour in capitalist system (relations of production between bourgeoisie and proleteriat); factories, raw materials etc. needed to produce (means of production)

‘Superstructure’ the roof and walls of a house, with the Base at the bottom. Not ‘natural’ but socially-constructed and organised, to protect the base. Institutions such as the media, churches, the police, etc. Ideological structure: conspires to ‘hide’ relations of exploitation between bourgeoisie and proleteriat.


http://www.hewett.norfolk.sch.uk/curric/soc/EDUCATIO/marx.htmhttp://www.hewett.norfolk.sch.uk/curric/soc/EDUCATIO/marx.htm


Marx and ideology1
Marx and Ideologyhttp://www.hewett.norfolk.sch.uk/curric/soc/EDUCATIO/marx.htm

  • Proleteriat accept the idea that they are free to sell their labour and that they will get a fair wage for it.

  • Is this true? No, we are forced to sell our labour, in Marx’s view, and we do not get a fair price for it because bourgeoisie extract excess profit from proleteriat labour under the capitalist system

  • Why do they accept this if it is not true?

  • Because, Marx says, the dominant ideas (or ideology) in society are the ideas of the ruling class. The ruling class want to protect their capital and their privileges (exploiting the workers) and the dominant ideology creates a ‘false consciousness’


Althusser and ideology
Althusser and Ideologyhttp://www.hewett.norfolk.sch.uk/curric/soc/EDUCATIO/marx.htm

  • Ideology not ‘false’ as it forms the systems and structures by which people ‘make sense’ of their world – lived experience

  • But still, not true as it merely confirms their status in society as workers.


Ideology as lived experience
Ideology as Lived Experiencehttp://www.hewett.norfolk.sch.uk/curric/soc/EDUCATIO/marx.htm

  • Ideology not ‘false’ – it is actual lived experience and thus for people it is ‘true’

  • It is a way in which people ‘make sense’ of their lives (as working class, as workers)

  • But, ideologies can ‘make sense’ of the world for them, by giving them the appearance of choice, but this is not really freedom, as the choice is limited.

  • Ideologies are ‘shared experiences’ (not just eg. opinions or attitudes)


Criticism of marxist althusserian conceptions of ideology
Criticism of Marxist/Althusserian Conceptions of Ideologyhttp://www.hewett.norfolk.sch.uk/curric/soc/EDUCATIO/marx.htm

  • Only related to economic and class relations, not racist or sexist ideologies.

  • Who can be outside of ideology? If ideology is false, how would we know?

  • Who has the ability to see the ‘truth’?

  • Couldn’t Marxism itself be an ideology?


Foucault s notion of discourse
Foucault’s notion of Discoursehttp://www.hewett.norfolk.sch.uk/curric/soc/EDUCATIO/marx.htm

  • Discourses are ‘statements’ which dictate what can or cannot be said about a subject.

  • But, unlike ideology, are not just explanations of the rationale of the relationship between workers and ruling class.

  • This allows for discourses to create ‘multiple subjectivities’ (or multiple identities)


  • Dismissive of Marxism a single ‘truth’ or sciencehttp://www.hewett.norfolk.sch.uk/curric/soc/EDUCATIO/marx.htm

  • Dismissive of ideology as a conceptual tool to distinguish ‘ideology’ (falsehood) from ‘science’ (truth)

  • Dismissive of Marxist conception of ideology as ‘standing in the way’ of something which is ‘true’

  • Dismissive of single, unitary conception of the ‘unified’ subject

  • Does not see domination as binary (dominator/dominated) but as many forms of domination


  • So, an ideology just says that you are University students gaining a degree to get a job.

  • A discourse says that you can be a black, white, gay, lesbian, bisexual, working class, upper class, University student, attending University for all kinds of reasons.

  • Multiple identities, which is A Good Thing

  • But, discourse also provides a structure for how we behave, and what we discuss.

  • Prescribes limits of discussion, codes of behaviour.

  • What can we [not] discuss in a Sociolinguistics seminar?


  • But the problem: discourses construct regimes of truth. gaining a degree to get a job.

  • Regimes of truth not ‘true’ but are understood to be ‘true’ (so similar to ideology)

  • Regime = hierarchy = order = ordering of knowledge and forms of knowledge

  • E.g. We don’t shoot ‘creationists’, they are just marginalised in mainstream discourses




  • Both discourse and ideology are based on the relationship between power/knowledge

  • We tend to think of ‘knowledge’ as empowering ourselves. (Sarup 1993:67)

  • But equally useful to understand knowledge as the ability to exercise power over others.

  • Or, as other people’s knowledge exercising power over us?

  • So, power is productive (creating identities) not just negative (making us go to work)



  • E.g. Early feminism relied on this notion of ‘ideology’ : not necessarily economically based, but power was something which men had, and should be taken back from men.

  • Fair enough, but risks seeing women as ‘powerless’, reproducing the same ideas as patriarchal systems.

  • And if successful, risks men becoming powerless, and wanting that power back (e.g. Fathers for Justice – limited success)

  • A power-sharing system has much more emancipatory potential


  • Thus, where there is power, there is always resistance : not necessarily economically based, but power was something which men had, and should be taken back from men.

  • We might not say certain things in certain situations, but there is always the potential for us to do so

  • So, by ‘breaking the rules’ we have the potential to re-define the limits of discourse

  • By playing by the rules, we re-affirm the ‘truth’ in discourse

  • This re-definition of the limits of discourse is what is productive about power: it enables us to redefine ‘truth’ and what is valid (and valuable)


Criticisms of Foucault: : not necessarily economically based, but power was something which men had, and should be taken back from men.

  • The fashion for Foucault in the 90s meant that one could discuss ethnicity and gender but not class; the role of the media but not the ‘means of production.’ (Eagleton, 1983)

  • If the advancement of the unified human subject through scientific ideologies of progress was impossible (and ‘untrue’) how did we get here nattering about discourse when we should all be down the mines?

  • Despite what Foucault says about rejecting Marxism and the relations of production, the fact is that a University degree gets you a better-paying (or at least less back breaking) job.

  • For Foucault, ‘freedom’, ‘justice’ or ‘equality’ are just ‘transcendental signifiers’: i.e. the guiding principles of certain discourses. If they don’t exist, per se, what was Foucault trying to teach us? (Eagleton, 1983)


Summary: Why we should be careful with ‘ideologies’ and ‘discourses’

  • Nowadays, few people bother to understand what ‘ideologies’ and ‘discourses’ are: ‘language ideologies’ are not just ways of explaining language and language use for economic reasons, but are the language ‘ideas’ of the dominant groups in society. They may equally be inter-changed with ‘discourses about language’

  • Foucault rejected the notion of a ‘universal truth’ and so his ideas should be treated with the same caution as we look at other ‘claims’ or ‘regimes’ of truth

  • Ideologies are not ‘untrue’ – indeed, like stereotypes, there may be a degree of truth in them.

  • Discourses are no more ‘untrue’ than ideologies: they just happen to be a method of analysis which perhaps suits our purposes better.


Ideological vs repressive state apparatus isa vs rsa
Ideological vs Repressive State Apparatus (ISA vs RSA) ‘discourses’

  • RSAs for Althusser were the Government, the Police, the Prisons, the Army etc. – like Marx it was seen as one unified apparatus as the ‘State’

  • RSAs functioned by force or the threat of force primarily, by ideology secondarily. E.g. arrest, imprisonment, corporal punishment, ultimately exile from the state.

  • (No such thing as purely repressive apparatus: the threat of force was often enough)


Ideological vs repressive state apparatus isa vs rsa1
Ideological vs Repressive State Apparatus (ISA vs RSA) ‘discourses’

  • ISA’s for Althusser were religious, educational, family, cultural institutions.

  • ISA’s functioned by ideology primarily. E.g. cleanliness is next to Godliness. Violence or threat of violence secondarily (often symbolic, eg. being expelled from school or excommunicated from Church)

  • Unlike RSA’s, ISA’s form multiple systems, not one unified system, but all systems related to the State and the maintenance of economically-determined power relations

  • (No such thing as purely ideological apparatus)


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