How Ideologies Work: A Critical Interactionist Perspective to Ideologies-as-Texts
HOW IDEOLOGIES WORK:
A CRITICAL INTERACTIONIST APPROACH
What is an ideology? How do ideologies work? What types of empirical sociological research might be able to get at these questions? In what follows I briefly trace the evolution of my thinking about ideology. I begin with my own research in ethnomethodology, and with my fascination for how organizational records are situationally produced. I then briefly touch on three central sociological researchers who have influenced by approach to ideology-as-text--Harvey Molotch, Dorothy E. Smith and Stuart Hall--each of whom has pioneered distinct empirical examinations of how ideologies work.
I then briefly describe a series of empirical case studies through which my interpretive approach to ideology-as-text has developed. This "critical interactionist" approach marries microsociological / interpretive research methods for examining cultural discourses with critical theoretical concerns for ideological hegemony.
What is an ideology?
Sociologists often take their understanding of the concept "ideology" from Karl Marx and Frederick Engels's dictum:
"In every era the ruling ideas are the ideas of the ruling elite" (The German Ideology).
In other words, ideologies are ways of looking at and understanding the world that reflect the perspectives of the rich and powerful. A better term for this is "dominant ideology", in that working people, socialist parties, and other less powerful groups may have systems of ideas referred to as "ideologies" also.
John B. Thompson in his path-breaking Ideology and Modern Culture (1991) defines ideology as
"meaning in the service of power" (pp. 7-8).
The concept of ideology is often linked to Antonio Gramsci's notion of hegemony. Todd Gitlin (1980, The Whole World is Watching) has famously summarized hegemony as:
a ruling class's (or alliance's) domination of subordinate classes and groups through the elaboration and penetration of ideology (ideas and assumptions) into their common sense and everyday practice; it is the systematic (but not necessarily or even usually deliberate) engineering of mass consent to the established order (1980: 253).
How do the ideas and the assumptions of those in positions of power become a part of the common sense and everyday practice of ordinary people? To answer that question, I turn to ethnomethodology--a sociological approach to commonsense reasoning and everyday practice.
Ethnomethodology and Intellectual Origins of Studying Ideology-as-Text
The ethnomethodology of Harold Garfinkel provides the primary sociological framework for much of the work to be discussed here.
Garfinkel revolutionized sociology during the 1960s with the publication of Studies in Ethnomethodology (1967), a glorious book that launched several major research programs into the analysis of everyday talk, texts and interpretive procedures. I acknowledge the breath-taking insights of Garfinkel, and continue to draw much upon his pioneering work on practical reasoning and practical action.
I also acknowledge that I am taking ethnomethodological ideas into realms that Garfinkel might not find appropriate.
Garfinkel's research had a huge impact on fields other than ethnomethodology, and many scholars found in Garfinkel something useful for their own research interests. Many other interpretive approaches, including cultural studies, critical discourse analysis, and poststructuralism were influenced by these radical studies of everyday life, everyday action, commonsense reasoning, and language-in-use.
I argue that it is in this broader interpretive sociology that the intellectual roots to examining ideology-as-text are to be found. And these interpretive approaches are an essential prerequisite to developing a sophisticated approach to ideological hegemony. Because ideologies are meaning-laden events, we need approaches that are highly attuned the details of discourse and to the hermeneutics of texts -- that is, how ordinary people make sense of these discursive events.
The critical interactionist approach outlined here is based on the idea that one can best understand ideology as one understands language--as an unfolding social process, that is structured into a discursive grammar. Any singular discursive event provides and constitutes an interpretive context into which later events are understood. These discursive events "frame" what is going on.
In Frame Analysis (1974: 21), sociologist Erving Goffman defines "frames" as "schemata of interpretation" that allow individuals or groups "to locate, perceive, identify and label" events and occurrences, thus rendering meaning, organizing experiences, and guiding actions. In other words, frames are basic cognitive structures that guide the perception and representation of reality. In an oft-cited passage, Todd Gitlin defines frames as "principals of selection, emphasis, and presentation composed of little tacit theories about what exists, what happens and what matters" (1980: 6).
Three Sites of Research
Three essential sites of research stand out in the analysis of ideology-as-text:
1. Examination of how the ideological text is actually produced in real-world circumstances, for example how journalists construct news stories by following professional occupational work routines;
2. Examination of the "discursive" features of the text itself, for example, paying close attention to the narrative structure, lexical choices, metaphor, rhetoric, and visual representation of a news story;
3. Examination of the interpretive practices used to make sense of the text, for example, how an actual reader of a news story makes sense of that story in the real-world circumstances of her life.
This tripartite schema is found, in different forms, in several authors, including Dorothy E. Smith and Stuart Hall.
When I began graduate school at UC-Santa Barbara in 1983, I read a lot of work in the sociology of knowledge and sought to understand how all of the "classical" sociological thinkers (Durkheim, Marx, Weber, Simmel, Mannheim) formulated the links between knowledge and society. As my interests in ethnomethodology increased, I considered how to empirically examine the social construction of knowledge in everyday life.
Ethnomethodology and the Study of Record-keeping Activity
It was in thinking about the social construction of knowledge in everyday life that I came across an impressive literature on organizational recordkeeping activity. Inspired by Garfinkel and Bittner's (1967) "Good Organizational Reasons for 'Bad' Clinic Records", this body of research details the actual work practices involved in making and using organizational files, records, and documents.
Largely based on detailed ethnographies of organizational settings, a number of studies has created a whole subfield (Zimmerman 1969; Smith 1984; Meehan 1986; Frankel 1989; Heath and Luff 2000). In particular, my mentor, Professor Don Zimmerman, had written an insightful research report entitled "Fact as Practical Accomplishment" (1973), which pointed in helpful directions for exploring through close observation of ordinary people at work how certain "facts" are accepted or not.
My sense was that something important goes on when there are competing versions of "what actually happened" and understanding how some accounts become accepted as "facts" is crucial to understanding knowledge construction in the modern world. Based on a larger project examining 911 calls (which formed my MA thesis in 1985), I wrote "Accomplishing Fact in Police 'Dispatch Packages': An Analysis for the Situated Construction of an Organizational Record" (published in 1992). I sought to understand how some callers's complaints were accepted by the dispatcher as "facts" while other callers's complaints were framed as "mere accounts" of what was going on based on the caller's "practical epistemology" --what one knows and how one know it (Whalen and Zimmerman 1990).
This ethnomethodological literature on organizational records and recordkeeping, I argue, greatly influenced the study of media accounts as found in the work of Dorothy E. Smith, Harvey Molotch, Gaye Tuchman and other media researchers. Several interpretive researchers did ethnographic studies of the routine occupational practices of news workers, documenting in detail the specific practices involved in making news stories (Molotch and Lester, Fishman, Tuchman, Gans, Schudson, Gitlin). This "production of culture" approach has greatly increased our understanding of how ideological texts are created--the "encoding" of dominant frames into the discursive nature of the text.
I was greatly inspired by Professor Dorothy E. Smith's use of ethnomethodology and phenomenology to create a form of textual analysis able to dissect ideological messages, and their situated production and reception. In several exciting research monographs, Smith creates an approach to "textually mediated social organization" that examines the "active text". She observes that texts "intend" certain methods of interpretation and that the analyst-as-member must have knowledge of the relevant interpretive practices to read any particular text. Smith defines the concept of "ideological circle" as:
"an interpretive schema ...used to assemble and provide coherence for an array of particulars as an account of what actually happened; the particulars, thus selected and assembled, will intend and will be interpretable by, the schema used to assemble them" (Smith, Texts, Facts and Femininity 1993, p. 139).
Professor Harvey Molotch was one of my central mentors at UC-Santa Barbara, and I studied with him the role of ideology in the mass media. In a series of pioneering studies in the sociology of the mass media with Marilyn Lester, Molotch examined how news ideologies are the results of the routine behaviors of media workers. Molotch argues that the media do not simply reflect a world "out there", but reflect the practices of those having power to determine the experiences of others. Ideological hegemony is accomplished through these situated activities.
In a classic in the sociology of news, "Accidental News: The Great Oil Spill as Local Occurrence and National Event", Molotch and Lester (1975) state:
Beginning with the assumption that news is constituted through purpopse at hand, we examine the coverage given the Santa Barbara oil spill by a national sample of newspapers, determining the types of news subjects and news activities which become national events. It is found that federal officials and business spokesmen have greater access to news media than conservationists and local officials. It is found that symbolic topics and not topics with implications for distribution of wealth receive preponderant coverage. Implications of current methods of news gathering for the maintenance of ideological domination are discussed (abstract).
Stuart Hall and British Cultural Studies
In the late 1980s I became very interested in British Cultural Studies, and particulary the writings of Stuart Hall. In a series of most impressive articles Hall has laid out one of the most sophisticated theories and analyses of ideological domination. His oft-cited "encoding / decoding" model" (1980) radically transformed media studies. In "The Whites of Their Eyes" (1981), he defines ideology as:
"those images, concepts and premises which provide frameworks through which we represent, interpret, understand and 'make sense' of some aspect of social existence". This same article makes three important points. Hall argues that:
ideology is best understood as the "articulation" of different elements into a chain of meaning;
ideologies "pre-date" individuals and form part of the social formation in which we are born; ideologies work by constructing positions of identification and knowledge that allow subjects to utter ideological "truths" as if they were their authentic authors.
Later I worked through his "Race, articulation and societies structured in dominance" (1980) and considered the theory of articulation as applied to racist ideology. My encounter with the body of work of Stuart Hall was a major turning point in my intellectual thinking.
As my interests in texts increased, I read widely in post-structuralist approaches to language and discourse analysis. For several years I immersed myself in the writings of Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Umberto Eco, Frederic Jameson and Judith Butler, learning new ideas about the role of meaning and discourse in social relations. I continue to read and study these very important authors.
Another source of great inspiration was Teun van Dijk's News as Discourse (1988). Van Dijk is a systematic, empirical researcher whose analytic tools are grounded in the data of real-world news stories. In over two decades he has produced a rigorous scientific approach to the study of discourse, and is an outstanding analyst of ideology in the news. See his website listed below in the Resources. In later works van Dijk defines ideology as "the basis of the social representations of a group, its functions in terms of social relations between groups, and its reproduction as enacted by discourse" (1998, Ideology: A Multidisciplinary Approach).
It took me a while to formulate a research project on ideology. At first, I considered how one might examine instances of "ideology-in-action" in ordinary conversation. I had met this arrogant South African man who continually stated: "Actually, ...." and "In fact,...." and thought I might be on to something. Later, as I noted inanother blog entry I became interested in how some news stories are marked as "mere accounts"--"Twelve die in blasts, reports say". Studying the Ideology of AIDS in News Discourse
I found that my training in ethnomethodology and conversation analysis provided an excellent foundation to examine ideology-as-text. The Sacksian concern for "order at all levels" in talk-in-interaction allowed me to discover the nuanced ways in which ideology is subtly inserted into newspaper headlines, tourist picture postcards, and other cultural discourses. My ethnomethodological wonder at single slices of social life was helpful as I learned to study single instances of cultural discourse and representation. I urge other students of ideology to become well versed in the microlinguistic and discursive sciences.
Even before Rock Hudson died I began collecting obituaries of those who died of complication of HIV and AIDS, and this became my first completed research project on ideology. I collected several hundred obituaries from the Los Angeles Times for people who had died. Written in the late 1980s and published in 1995 (in Perspectives on Social Problems 7: 53-84), my paper was entitled: "The Anatomy of an Obituary: 'Rock Hudson Dies at 59 After Fighting AIDS'". I examined the unfolding discursive nature of the stories, including the use of narrative structure, lexical choices, metaphors and rhetoric. This project takes the close analysis of discursive particulars found in conversation analysis and applies it to news discourse. At each point in the text, I asked "why that now?".
Pictures of American Apartheid: Visual Representations of Cultural Others
My next ideologically-oriented research project concerned visual representations of African Americans in early American popular media culture. Drawing upon Stuart Hall's appropriation of Antonio Gramsci's theory of hegemony, I sought to uncover the "base-images" which compose the "grammar of race" in dominant white supremacist relations of ruling and representation. I treated racisms as "historically-specific ideological discourses which symbolically inscribe difference, marginality and exclusion into and onto the Other's body, thus defending racial advantage".
In "Postcards from the Edge of the Color Line" (1992 Symbolic Interaction) I examined racist images of African Americans found on American postcards from 1893 to World War I. This paper explored the image of African-as-beast. This degrading representation of blacks as simianized subhumans was prevalent in popular culture from this era. Using the visual metaphor of other-as-beast, European American postcard illustrators attributed to African American all the traits that were the opposite of their cherished values ("contrast conceptions" Shibutani).
African Americans were not just turned into racial 'Others' in these images, they became inferior Calibans, with grossly exaggerated prognathous facial features, enlarged lips, bug-eyes, exposed teeth, elongated limbs, and wild and wooly hair. African Americans were also portrayed as inferior through the actions they were shown performing (e.g. stealing "watah millions"), and through this type of caption, which often reduces African American English to Anglo mockings of verbal shuffling. Other images analyzed here include: the Zip Coon, the Brute, and the pickaninny.
In "Representing Blackness in the White Imagination" (1992, Visual Sociology), I examined images of "happy, plantation darkeys"--those pre-emancipation images of contented slaves, in which the Southern plantation is portrayed as a idyllic rural haven. In this "romantic conception of the Negro", African Americans had found happiness and fulfillment as slaves and were cheerful and merry. In the white imagination blacks were seen as clownish minstrels and grown-up children, who needed to be governed like children so that they wouldn't become a burden to society. Associated with this perceived childishness are the characteristics of laziness, indolence, and mental inferiority. I examined the images of the 'Mammy' or 'Old Auntie', 'Uncle Tom' or other 'Old Uncles' and the Sambo. The range of traits assigned to these three characters, including physical characteristics, intellectual differences and character or temperamental differenes were described.
These two sets of images, savage brute and happy slave, combine to provide a "double-edged defense of slavery" (Marlon Riggs, 1986 "Ethnic Notions"). The "savage brutes" are proof of Black's failure to adapt to freedom, and the "happy slaves" proof of their proper place.
In "Towards a Critical Analysis of Tourism Representations", (1994, Annals of Tourism Research), I examined photographic postcards of African Americans from the South during the period 1893 to 1917, a period that marked the "triumph of white supremacy". These photographs overwhelmingly portray stereotypical images of poor, rural, and Southern workers engaged in traditional agricultural activities. The lived reality of some African Americans is captured in some of these pictures, yet generally these photographic images are nostalgic for a simpler past.
Two sets of images were explored: (1) images of African Americans as agricultural workers, either in the plantation fields or posed in front of their humble homes; and (2) staged pictures of "stock" plantation characters, including Mammies, Uncle Toms, and Pickannies. In both sets of photograhic representations, the romantic image of the Old South--a monolithic region with broad plantations draped in Spanish moss and magnolias, and populated with gracious and aristocratic masters and happy, loyal slaves--is offered to tourists as visual souvenirs of their voyage. In these photographs, the South is portrayed as an idyllic rural haven far away from the harsh forces of modernity. What to contemporary eyes looks like a poverty-stricken shanty town of subsistence farmers was, for the eyes of an earlier era, a picturesque image of a quaint and simple rural life.
In "White Fantasies, Black Bodies" (1995, Visual Anthropology), my concern was to explore the psychosexual logic that supports and constitutes the grammar of racist discourse in early twentieth-century American popular media culture. Images of "grotesque" Black bodies represent the "Otherness" which was excluded in the process of white, middle-class identity formation in this historical period. Through examination of the visual aspects of these ethnic caricatures, I display how a re-articualted racist ideology was sustained through specific strategies of iconographic representation.
Racialized gender relations were depicted as symbolic inversions of bourgeios sexuality, with African American women masculinized and African American men symbolically castrated. The pervasive "bathroom humor" and sexual jokes of the images portray the Black body as contaminating, dirty and repulsive. These poscards made use of protuberant and repugnant bodies to transform white fantasies of racial denigration into supposedly benign humor, turn racial panic into perverse pleasure.
As I have noted above, students of ideology need to pay close attention to how the consumers of ideology-as-text interpret these cultural discourses. For example, researchers need to examine the interpretive practices and procedures of readers of newspapers, watchers of television, and other consumers of popular culture. One central point is that the "messages" that the "senders" intend to send, are not always the same message that was "received". Audience reception and "decoding" processes have been much examined in the last two decades. In addition, Dorothy Smith's work on "schema of interpretation" is a particularly insightful direction for future research.
Throughout the project on racist postcards, I examined how the senders of these postcards interpreted these images as revealed in their flip-side messages, hoping to find "resistant readings" (none were found). I learned to look beyond the "reader-text relation" for acts of resistance.
I examined resistance to these turn-of-the-century racist images by John Henry Adams, a prominent African American artist in who put forward an distinguished image of the "New Negro" (1997, International Review of African American Art). I analyzed the iconographic strategies through which he accomplished these acts.
In an unpublished conference presentation I looked at resistance to contemporary racism in the pioneering artwork of Sue Coe, a white, British-born graphic artist known for booklets, such as How to Commit Suicide in South Africa, and other anti-racist imagery.
During the same time period, I wrote "Theorizing Racisms: Modern Social Science and Postmodern Reformulations", (1994, Race, Sex and Class). Drawing upon Stuart Hall and Antonio Gramsci, I sought an understanding of historically-specific racisms, acknowledging the different forms these discourses take at different historical conjunctures. I proposed a non-reductionist, non-determinist, non-essentialist and historically-specific account of racist ideologies as grounded in their material conditions. Contemporary representations of "race" in popular media culture are best thought of as continual re-articulations and dis-articulations of these "base-images" of cultural Others.
Media Images of the "Gang Problem"
This conception of ideology was then applied to media representations of the "gang problem" in Los Angeles. In 1994 I began to collect stories concerning "gang murders" in the Los Angeles Times. I wanted to examine how we tell these stories, what images and headlines are used, and other aspects of this form of news discourse.
In "Reading the News in the Age of Postmodern Mass Media: Gang Murders in the Los Angeles Times" (1997, Cultural Studies), I created a pastiche revolving around news stories of "gang murders" in Los Angeles. My approach simulated the "channel-surfing" practices of many media consumers who inhabit postmodern metropolises like Los Angeles. I was drawn to this project because I noticed that many of LA's televised evening news broadcasts concerning "gang murders" were spectacular productions occupying up to 10 percent of the air time with gruesome stories which end with a colorful graph displaying the number of gang murders so far this year. In contrast, the stories about the same events in the Los Angeles Times were either absent or reduced to puny stories banished to the back sections, and robbed of any meaningful detail. I argued that postmodern media consumers are channel-surfers--decentered and distracted spectators who "endlessly search for a place where she or he belong". Reading the Los Angeles Times, readers become "textual flaneurs whose eyes stroll through this spectacular pagescape rapidly scanning for juicy stories, shocking images and useful information".
"As we surf through these pagescapes, public spectacles of private troubles flash before our eyes.... These ecstatic media spectacles zoom past real lives, real dramas and real news and go on recreating themselves without revision to the facts, dreams and imperatives of life among ordinary people".
"The actual content of these stories matters less than the repeated representation of the world's crises as amusing spectacles."
I argued that there was a suppression on articles about violent crime in the Los Angeles Times. Very few of the 800-900 murders that occured each year in L.A. (this was 1995) made it in the paper. "While news stories concerning violent crime used to be a part of a "moral panic" employed by agents of social control to whip up fear and build consensus concering the need for police intervention, today in postmodern Los Angeles newspaper stories concerning violent crime are systematically suppressed."
"Our media-saturated minds have become numb to the wars that are occurring in our inner cities. These wars are just another form of entertainment that will momentarily bore us. Soon we channel-surf to a new narrative and hope that his one will be a little more pleasing. Welcome to media consumption in the postmodern age!"
"In demonizing gang members, media representations fail to understand the real problem and its political economic origins. To understand this epidemic of youth violence we must acknowledge and dondemn the political economy and lived realit of poor youth in the inner city.....
In "Newz from the 'Hood: The Stephanie Kuhen Murder in the Los Angeles Times" (1997, Human Systems), I focused specifically on the front-page murder story of 3-year old Stephanie Kuhen, and the 40 other articles that appeared on her death in the Los Angeles Times. I tried to understand this "innocent victim story" and why it was news-worthy. This project presents an autoethnography / phenomenology of my reading of these "gang murder stories" and the interpretive practices I employed to make sense of them.
Ideology and the Documentary Method of Interpretation
Here are some thoughts on ideology from that paper:
"Pre-existing narratives and maps of meaning are taken from our cultural myths and assigned to a new reality so that the new reality conforms to that cultural myth. Media workers draw upon these cultural myths, discourses and images... to tell us stories we already know so that we don't forget that we know them. This is how ideologies work."
I believe that the "documentary method of interpretation" plays a central role in ideological domination. Harold Garfinkel recovered the concept from the work of Karl Mannheim and repeatedly demonstrated its use in Studies in Ethnomethodology (1967). We make sense of things (such as ideological stories in the news) by treating their actual appearance as the "document of", "as pointing to", as "standing on behalf of", a presupposed underlying pattern (Garfinkel 1967: 78). Dorothy Smith also draws upon Garfinkel's use of the documentary method of interpretation in building her critical approach to ideological texts.
The Stephanie Kuhen murder, for example, serves to constitute the underlying pattern we understand as the "gang problem" but is itself interpreted on the basis of what is already known about the "gang problem" and "gang murders".
The Social Construction of the "Meth Epidemic" A current unpublished research project is entitled “The Meth Epidemic: The Social Construction of a Drug Scare” and analyzes media stories about the “meth epidemic”, focusing on rhetorical strategies through which this “drug scare” is constructed in the news. Here is an outline of what I hope to accomplish:
A. “Drug War Ideology” – the social construction of a social problem B. “Drug Scares” 1. Conceptualization 2. History of Drug Scares C. Rhetorical Themes in the “Meth Epidemic” 3. “Epidemic” rhetoric—the numbers aren’t there—no recent surge 4. “Dope fiend mythology” (Lindesmith)—no “controlled use” possible 5. “The Routinization of Caricature" (Reinarman and Levine) – worst case scenarios are presented as the norm 6. Drug use associated with “dangerous classes” (Chomsky) 7. Scapegoating – social ills blamed on drug users 8. “Sociological denial”—linked to above structural inequality not linked to inner city desperation 9. Demon Drugs and Holy Wars—rhetoric framed as choices between absolutes (totals prohibition or total drug fest)
In the last thirty or forty years the "interpretive turn" in the social sciences has significantly increased our understanding of how ideologies work. As I have outlined in this paper, "critical interactionist" researchers have drawn upon the research methods of microsociology and discourse analysis to create a rigorous and empirical approach to ideology-as-text.
The pioneering work of Dorothy E. Smith, Harvey Molotch and Stuart Hall stands out as important exemplars of the type of research that is needed to understand how "ruling ideas" become common sense. I have highlighted three important sites of research essential to understanding how ideology works.
First, I have drawn attention to the large group of researcher who have examined how ideologies are produced in real-world situations. A number of sociologists (including Harvey Molotch, Marilyn Lester, Mark Fishman, Gaye Tuchman and members of the Glasgow Media Group) have drawn attention to how news is actually produced by a professional media elite who in their routine occupational practices embody ideological assumptions that reinforce the dominant perspective on society, how it works and how it should work. We are beginning to unravel some of the practices involved in "encoding" ideology in cultural discourses.
Second, a "linguistic turn" in the social sciences has created a massive interdisciplinary approach to study all aspects of language-in-use. Through detailed focus on a wide range of discursive particulars, the orderly nature of all types of "texts" has been examined, including, for example, newspaper stories, television news, talk shows and presidential news conferences. There has emerged a significant body of research on narrative structures, lexical choices, the use of metaphor and rhetoric. The pioneering work of Teun van Dijk stands out in this line of enquiry, demonstrating that discourse analysis of ideology can be a rigorous, empirical and critical science filled with massive insight.
Finally, the study of how ideological messages are interpreted in the real world by ordinary people has drawn attention to the role of "interpretive schema". While ideological texts "intend" particular readings, that does not mean that "readers" (and audiences) have to walk away with those interpretations. A significant body of research in cultural and media studies has emerged examining process of "decoding" and audience reception. Moreover, we must look beyond the text-reader relation for other forms of resistance to ideological messages. For example, just because most of the audience for FOX News goes along with their messages, does not mean that resistance to those messages doesn't occur in other places in the culture.
Of course, further work is still needed on how ideologies work. Yet the interpretive approach to ideology-as-text has opened up important avenues of research. What is most important about ideologies is how they become accepted as "the way things actually are" by ordinary people, and this is a topic which still needs to be further examined. We need to explore the processes through which "interpretive schema" are acquired, reinforced and change through the lifecourse, for these frameworks guide our understandings of world.