Stuart Hall’s Definition of Ideology

by Mark Wallace

The most frequent working definition of the term ideology in contemporary cultural studies and related fields is the following from Stuart Hall:

By ideology I mean the mental frameworks – the languages, the concepts, categories, imagery of thought, and the systems of representation – which different classes and social groups deploy in order to make sense of, figure out and render intelligible the way society works.

  • Quoted in John Storey, “Introduction”, in Storey, ed., Cultural Theory, p. vvii

One interesting feature of this definition is that it avoids any approach to Marxism, notable because academically ideology is traditionally seen as a Marxist concept, and is often attacked on those grounds, such as here by Foucault. But historically the term predates Marx, and its popular usage is not usually inflected with Marxist ideas, so this academic approach towards the popular usage is to be welcomed, I think. There’s no need to subscribe to Marxist tenets like base and superstructure, etc., to use ideology.

It’s notable, as well, that Hall avoids a pejorative definition. Both most popular and academic usages, including Marx and Engels in The German Ideology, see ideology as a bad thing, an element of thought involving mystification and misperception. For Hall it’s just a feature of the way groups deal with the world. Rather than, say, “make meaning”, which would have implied a certain distance between things as they are and as they are seen by the relevant groups, he goes with “make sense of”, which has more benign connotations. Ideology thus becomes less critical and more neutral.

On the other hand, Hall’s reduction of mental operations to “frameworks” is problematic. Consciousness itself can’t be reduced to frameworks, so ideology, as a feature of consciousness, should not be either. It’s more nebulous than that, and the analysis of ideology has to be prepared for the multiform paths it could take, which cannot be pre-empted but only become clear in the course of analysis of a given text and may not correspond to any “framework”.

Ideology has a complex and interesting history, and engagement with this history is as important as any formal definition one could come up with. As for definitions, I tend to differ from many academics in that I think for key critical terms, the looser the better. Let the complexity lie in the analysis, not in the general theorizing or the definition of terms. To study ideology is to study consciousness; and consciousness, as we know, is the last mystery – it can’t yet be fully defined, but it can be studied with attention and an open mind.