To what extent are statements of policy or the findings of academic research 'ideological'? We need to know, because we might want to separate out the technical findings from any political values that are bound up with them.
I have already implied that an ideology is some account or statement that contains political values. This is the normal common-sense way of recognising an ideology, of course. If the statement is sponsored by the Labour Party, we would expect to find it also supporting Labour policies and the claims of the Labour Party to be the best party for Britain. We might expect policies also to express the interests of other groups -- corporations and companies, specific quangos such as Sport England or the Olympic Committee. We might be able to detect these ideological bits in more or less the same ways that we can detect persuasive or 'strategic'communication, which we discuss elsewhere. We might find explicit support, or we might find some attempts to get us to agree on some general statement (such as 'Sport is a good thing'), and then to move us on to the view that a particular party or organisation also holds that view and should therefore be supported.
However, once more, there is more technical academic work available. We might start with the general sociological proposition that people's ideas about the world are affected to some extent by the social lives that they lead. They take their particular experience and assume that their way of life is superior, privileged, natural or universal. Feminist criticism tries out this argument by suggesting that male perspectives and male ways of thinking about the world tend to get generalised in academic work as the only or the best way to pursue research or policy.
One influential sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, has argued that ways of life get coded into our unconscious perceptions and beliefs, and that these affect a whole range of activities. Some of them affect our particular preferences in the fields of sport and leisure, for example. Roughly, 'working class' groups tend to prefer sport and leisure activities that guarantee immediate emotional involvement, while 'elite' groups tend to prefer sport and leisure activities that emphasise forms, rules, and a certain detachment. Even when 'working class' groups gain more disposable income, or have opportunities to participate extended to them, they still do not want to watch or take part in highly technical activities with low emotional contents. The classic example would be going to the opera, or to watch obscure Continental films, but watching or playing polo, or going sailing might be more relevant sporting examples.
These differences in taste become important when you consider that these different groups have different powers, including the powers to influence government to subsidise activities of which they approve, and possibly even ban or regulate those which they dislike. The suspicion is that government policy is therefore more likely to reflect the interests of powerful groups, even though it appears that everyone has been consulted, and 'the national interest' is being followed. This would be another example of what Habermas has called 'distorted communication' (and we discuss this a bit more in another file).
The main work in this field tends to be dominated by marxist analysis, however. As with feminist analysis, you may need to take special precautions to stay calm and objective and to resist ad hominem tendencies -- not all people using a marxist approach would support Eastern bloc or Chinese communism, not all are committed to revolutionary overthrow of the British system, they do not all wear beards and spend their time in committee meetings for some obscure splinter group.
Marx himself provides a number of examples of the ways in which ideas become contaminated with political interests. Some ways are pretty clear and obvious. For example, Marx tells us that 'in every epoch, the ruling ideas are the ideas of the ruling class', meaning that groups that are already wealthy and powerful are in a very good position to develop their particular ideas about society and how should run, and to get these ideas publicised, discussed, and laid before various governing bodies, including Parliament. Minority ideas, by contrast, are really quite difficult to get publicised, and are liable to be dealt with pretty roughly, as we have suggested in other files.
This view almost describes a conspiracy among the rich and powerful to be able to lobby for laws and practices that suit their interests. Marx's work is full of examples: if wealthy landowners and industrialists ran short of labour, they would persuade the government to permit slavery, and the Church to justify it as natural; if they required labourers to work 16 hour days, they would persuade Parliament to enforce these contracts, and find some tame intellectuals who would suggest that people only needed 8 hours' sleep, so it was quite natural that they should work for the other 16. Private interests enshrined private property at the heart of the law of England: landowners were permitted, for example, to fence off or enclose what had been common land. The state either stood by, or actively helped, as enormous social transformations swept through 18th and 19th century Britain, creating cities, industrial plant, the whole apparatus of modern society. The benefits were of course distributed pretty unequally -- substantial private wealth on one hand, and the most appalling misery ill-health and grinding poverty on the other.
There is another sense in which ideology can develop, however. It can take a more 'scientific' form, so that it does not appear to be based on the opening interests of anybody. What happens is that the society that has been created and which produces substantial inequalities and other practices that favour powerful groups is then described in a pretty uncritical fashion by various social scientists (especially economists) and philosophers. They do not simply insist that everything is 'natural', God-given, reflecting some evolutionary progress, or expressing the interests of everyone, and do develop some critical purchase. However, they also take much for granted and do not attempt a thorough critical analysis.
The famous examples in Marx turn on economics and the emergence of the commodity, but that is rather technical for a short summary like this. Let us take another example: many political philosophers insist that our system is best described as a democracy. The practice to which they point in particular is the voting system. Regardless of rank, wealth, age, or any other social status, each citizen gets one vote and they use it to elect the government. Marx's objection to this description reveals a lot about his particular method of critical analysis. He agrees that on election day, all citizens are equal, and all have an equal say in deciding who should govern them. However, the elected government then rules for a period of up to five years, and that is a period of considerable inequality. Of course, an ordinary citizen is permitted to write to the Prime Minister, or but someone who can meet him on a regular base, help him raise funds, offer him holiday accommodation, they agree to do business in a deprived region, and support his policies in the newspapers that our 'someone' controls, is likely to have far more power and influence.
So the real system is fully equal on one day, and then completely unequal for the rest of the five-year cycle. To use the one moment of equality to describe the whole system is to engage in a rather dubious abstraction, stressing the equality and ignoring or minimizing the inequality. The political scientists who claim that Britain is a democracy on this basis are not exactly simply wrong, but they are using unreliable methods offer abstraction and limited critical analysis to arrive at their conclusions. They are not deliberately propping up the political system, but their conclusions do help legitimate and justify it, even though they may see themselves as objective analysts.
To get to one implication for policy, Marx discussed the proposal in Austria to give Jewish citizens the vote. Much political discussion ensued, and advocates argued that giving all citizens to vote was clearly the best and most democratic thing to do. Marx's argument was that it was almost irrelevant, that Jews would still occupy an inferior but essential status, and still face anti-Semitism, even though they were permitted their vote every five years.
Marx's work has been developed by two writers who have had considerable influence -- Gramsci and Althusser -- and we will fillet them cheerfully elsewhere. But in general, how might we apply these arguments from Marx to current policy?
Let us take the analysis of democratic voting, for example. There are clearly moves in sport and leisure policy to give people equal rights to participate. How extensive will this equality be, and do any inequalities remain? It seems obvious to say that substantial inequalities will not be affected by such policies of equal participation. For example, we know that income, wealth, power and status will be as unequal as ever in our society as a whole -- indeed, some forms of economic inequality seem to be growing. Will the limited amount of equality overcome these inequalities? When people from different social and economic backgrounds all enter the same sports facility, will they become equal? I suggest that a marxist would reply both yes and no, but will probably insist that inequality is much more pervasive and much more powerful a force. It would certainly be misleading to imagine that we had full equality simply because people were equally entitled to participate: that would be a false abstraction, and one that carried political implications since it would appear to justify existing policies and minimise or ignore existing inequalities.
In general, contradictions between tendencies that equalise and processes that produce inequality will be found throughout society, according to marxists. We would expect to find them in the structure of sport itself, for example -- football teams would be expected to play on an equal playing field, but some would have far more resources to buy better players than others. Sport has its own governing bodies, but we would expect to find that powerful and wealthy owners of clubs would be exerting undue influence over their activities. We would expect to find some sports heavily dominated by commercial interests, to such an extent that even the rules of the game would be changed if they got in the way of television coverage, sponsorship, or advertising. We would expect to find tensions between managing clubs and teams in the interests of members or spectators on the one hand, and commercial interests on the other. We would expect to find sports persons or athletes treated as free individuals in some ways, and as commodities in others.
Perhpas the best example of all has been cited in work on social inequality. In the 100 metres sprint,. as all the athletes line up, they are completely equal. Everything depends on the performance of the individual runner on the day. No-one can really predict who is going to win. Everyone has a reasonable chance. It all looks completely fair. Only the best person on the day will win. Indeed the athletics competition is supposed to show our societies working at their best. But just as with did with voting, let us get the whole picture. What happens in the months and years before the race? This is a zone of considerable inequality, of course -- some athletes will have been much better prepared, some will have been financially supported and sponsored, some will have had a head start and others held back by their upbringing. All that inequality is forgotten or suppressed and the one moment, just before the actual race, is abstracted from the whole cycle of events and processes and used to derfine the whole apparatus of athletics or sport.
It would be fairly easy to label analyses and policies that did not pursue these contradictions as ideologies. They would be pursuing dubious methods and limited forms of analysis that would not permit them to grasp the whole picture in all its contradictory glory. Instead, they would focus on their particular neck of the woods and their particular descriptions of their activities, ignoring the wider social context. They might become ideological in a more explicit way as well, using their activities to support a particular political and economic system and lend it some credibility.