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essays

Dec 1, 1979

Ideology and Classes

“The authors reject the idea of a monistic dominant ideology in late capitalism.”

Nicholas Abercrombie and Bryan Turner
University of Lancaster (Abercrombie) University of Aberdeen (Turner)

“The Dominant Ideology Thesis.” British Journal of Sociology 29(June 1978):149–70.

The ‘dominant ideology thesis’ is the thesis that “suggests that there is in most societies a set of beliefs which dominates all others and which, through its incorporation in the consciousness of subordinate classes, tends to inhibit the development of radical political dissent.” In this paper Abercrombie and Turner attempt to show that the empirical evidence does not bear out this thesis and that the subordinate classes do not necessarily accept the dominant ideology. Rather the evidence appears to show that it is the dominant and not the dominated classes that accept the dominant belief system.

After showing that the original thesis as formulated by Marx and Engels contained two conflicting theories of ideology, the authors challenge the basic assumption of the dominant ideology thesis, which is that the dominant class “is able to force, or at least ensure that the dominated classes think their thoughts within the concepts provided by the belief systems of the dominant class.” This theory assumes that “there is a common culture in which all classes share and that the content and theories of that common culture are dictated by the dominant class.” However, empirical evidence is cited to prove that subordinate classes do not believe, share, or accept the dominant ideology. For example, official Christianity was unsuccessful in securing the rural peasantry “within the precise confines of orthodox belief and practice.” (The attempt to promote Methodism as the dominant ideology in nineteenth century Britain is given short shrift. “It is difficult to see how the churches could efficiently and effectively dispense the ‘opium of the masses’ when the working class was absent from the churches.”)

As an alternative to the dominant ideology thesis the authors argue that the dominant ideology of feudalism and early capitalism was a mechanism by which the coherence of the dominant class itself was assured. Thus the religious and moral core of the dominant ideology attempted to guarantee the family as a mechanism for the conservation of property and to provide a degree of normative coherence within the dominant class. In late capitalism, however, the changing nature of the dominant class in terms of the partial separation of ownership and control has meant that the dominant ideology ceases to be crucial for the coherence of the dominant class. The authors reject the idea of a monistic dominant ideology in late capitalism: “the ideology of owners of small capitalist firms in the private sector is frequently in opposition to the beliefs and interests of large capitalist enterprises, multinational firms, and the state industries.”