Eagleton’s list

(a) the process of production of meanings, signs and values in social life;

(b) a body of ideas characteristic of a particular social group or class;

(c) ideas which help to legitimate a dominant political power;

(d) false ideas which help to legitimate a dominant political power;

(e) systematically distorted communication;

(f) that which offers a position for a subject;

(g) forms of thought motivated by social interests;

(h) identity thinking;

(i) socially necessary illusion;

(j) the conjuncture of discourse and power;

(k) the medium in which conscious social actors make sense of their world;

(l) action-oriented sets of beliefs;

(m) the confusion of linguistic and phenomenal relaity;

(n) semiotic closure;

(o) the indispensable medium in which individuals live out their relations to a social structure;

(p) the process whereby social life is converted to a natural reality.


Eagleton, Terry. “What is Ideology?” Ideology: An Introduction. London: Verso, 1991.

Eagleton points out that “not all of these formulations are compatible with each other,” and that “[o]thers . . . may be mutually compatible, but with some interesting implications” (2). He discusses how these various definitions may or may not be pejorative, ambiguous, epistemological, or sociological, in order to emphasise the need for a clear definition of which notion of “ideology” any particular discussion might be using. In this, the first chapter of the book, Eagleton clears a path through the problems involved in arriving at such a definition, and the possibilities that the problems themselves allow in understanding what ideology is and how it works in social perception and communication. He suggests that “[p]erhaps the most common answer [to the question of how ideology relates to power] is to claim ideology has to do with legitimating the power of a dominant social group or class” (5). While this claim is relatively easy to understand in the context of criticising the powers-that-be, as it were–whether observable or theoretical–, it fails when it comes to discussing non-dominant organisations that are fundamentally related to power. Examples [his] include, of course: socialism, feminism, Diggers, Suffragettes (6). What is more, Eagleton demonstrates ideological functioning at the household level:

The force of the term ideology lies in its capacity to discriminate between those power struggles which are somehow central to a whole form of social life, and those which are not. A breakfast-time quarrel between husband and wife over who exactly allowed the toast to turn that grotesque shade of black need not be ideological; it becomes so when, for example, it begins to engage questions of sexual power, beliefs about gender roles and so on. To say that this sort of contention is ideological makes a difference, tells us something informative, as the more ‘expansionistic’ senses of the word do not. Those radicals who hold that ‘everything is ideological’ or ‘everything is political’ seem not to realize that they are in danger of cutting the ground from beneath their own feet. Such slogans may valuably challenge an excessively narrow definition of politics and ideology, one convenient for a ruling power intent on depoliticizing whole sectors of social life. But to stretch these terms to the point where they become coextensive with everything is simply to empty them of force, which is equally congenial to the ruling order. (8)

There is so much more after this. The point of putting this here, for me, is to just pin down a few ideas to help me understand how to think about, talk about, and eventually write about ideology, and Eagleton’s explanations are nice and clear. I feel myself reeling somewhat with the task of writing a really good response or analysis of this excerpt, in part because I’m getting it from Google books, whose preview function means I’m skipping pages here and there. So I’ll have to see about adding this one to my library.

One thing: it does have similarly fun cover art to the Althusser.


About owl

Disordered, reckless, persevering.
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