by Marius S. Ostrowski
It has become customary to refer, in something like an air of hushed excitement, to a ‘renaissance in ideology studies’ that has taken place over the last quarter-century. Since the 1990s, so this narrative goes, ideology has emerged from under the long shadows of Marxism, the turn to scientism, the ‘end of ideology’, the ever-narrower self-reinforcing methodological spirals of comparative politics and cultural theory, to once again become a legitimate object of analysis in social research. Not only that, but in a way that it has never previously enjoyed, ideology has begun to move from a topic--one among many—in political philosophy, the history of ideas, social psychology, or sociological theory, to an independent area of study in its own right. The ‘renaissance’ in the study of ideology and ideologies has, in reality, been the ‘naissance’ of ideology studies as a discrete subfield.
Insofar as this ‘re/naissance’ has taken place, it has been in significant part due to the efforts of a handful of key theorists, who have battled to carve out a space for ideology and ideologies in university departments, research centres, and academic journals. One such theorist is Michael Freeden, who in the early 1990s developed the key underlying framework for the morphological school of ideology analysis. Based at the University of Oxford, then the University of Nottingham and the School of Oriental and African Studies, Freeden has played a vital role in the establishment and subsequent expansion of ideology studies through his long tenure as Editor of the Journal of Political Ideologies.
In this capacity, he stewarded the journal from its inaugural issue in January 1996, coinciding roughly with France’s final nuclear test in the Pacific, Germany’s first Holocaust Remembrance Day, the release of the programming language Java and the first Motorola ‘flip phone’, as well as the immediate aftermath of the Bosnian War, until September 2020, deep in the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic, which saw the eruption of record-breaking wildfires across the U.S. Pacific coast, the burning of Europe’s largest refugee camp on Lesbos, the declaration by the government of Barbados to remove the monarchy and become a republic, and the outbreak of renewed border conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh.
The collection of essays in Ideology Studies gathers together the majority of the editorials that Freeden wrote during the 25 years he spent at the helm of the Journal of Political Ideologies, lightly reframed into 17 substantive chapters. The chapters are grouped together into four themes that cross-cut the exact chronology of the original editorials: ‘Staking out the macro-agenda’ on what it means to study ideology and ideologies; ‘Unfolding vistas and paradigms’, covering some of the main evolving trends in ideology studies and political theory; ‘Boundaries and intersections’ on the thematic overlaps and exchanges between ideology studies and neighbouring subfields; and ‘Lived ideology’, working through some case-studies of how ideology works in society.
As Freeden acknowledges at the start of the book, these thematic division perform a dual function. They are an attempt to corral otherwise disparate “contextualised, space and time bound, reactions to events, problems, and epistemological transformations” into an overarching meta-analytic framework of ‘what has been going on’ in ideology studies since the mid-to-late 1990s. But they are also “clues to some of the concerns closest to [Freeden’s] heart” as a seminal ideology theorist, as not just observer but participant in ideology studies’ emergence.
To put it morphologically, this collection advances—by a mixture of implicit gestures and explicit statements—our understanding of the core concepts that comprise ‘Freedenism’ as a methodological outlook, as a metatheoretical map with which to navigate ideology and ideologies as objects of research. Yet even here, we already have to draw a careful distinction between several Freedenisms, of which this is only one. The chapters in this volume, even those that deal with substantive questions such as Brexit, the Afghanistan war, ‘cancel culture’, or ‘fake news’, only ever show Freeden in interpretive, ideology-theoretic mode. This is the Freeden of Ideologies and Political Theory (1996), The Political Theory of Political Thinking (2013), and to a lesser extent of Concealed Silences and Inaudible Voices in Political Thinking (2022): the conceptual morphologist, the syncretic, the diagnostician.
Yet there is another side of Freeden’s work, another branch of Freedenism, that lies far more subdued in this volume. This is the Freeden who embraces more overtly his particular commitment to liberalism, not just in intellectual-historical interpretive mode, but also in ideological, critical or prescriptive mode: the Freeden of The New Liberalism (1978), Liberalism Divided (1986), Rights (1991), and Liberal Languages (2005). Even in his chapter on ‘Liberalism in the limelight’ as part of this collection, which takes as its starting-point the difficulties liberals face in adequately theorising the context and effects of resurgent fascism, exemplified by then-British National Party leader Nick Griffin’s infamous appearance on BBC’s Question Time in October 2009, Freeden’s own liberal commitments remain firmly in the background.
This divide between ‘Freeden the morphologist’ and ‘Freeden the liberal’ reflects one of Freeden’s firmly-held commitments about what ideology studies is, illuminated by a clear description of what it is not. “Ideology studies—unlike their subject-matter—do not prescribe solutions.” Methodological theory is not substantive philosophy, ‘talking about’ is not the same thing as ‘saying that’. In order to preserve its uniqueness and independence as a subfield, ideology studies has to exercise stringent rigour to avoid betraying researchers’ ideological commitments. It has to stay always at one stage of remove: what I have elsewhere called ‘ideologology’, rather than ideology simpliciter.
This is not least a profoundly strategic necessity, to preserve the legitimacy of the fragile niche that ideology researchers have carved out for themselves among their peers in the arts, humanities, and social sciences. Part of the uphill struggle that ideology studies has faced is not just against the often instinctive view that ideology is (to put it kindly) not a very good thing, but also against far-reaching scepticism that it is possible to make sufficient space for a diagnostic or historical treatment of ideology that does not just immediately bleed into critique or prescription.
Freeden is convinced it is both possible and necessary to do exactly that. “[S]tudents of ideology should be exempted from an expectation to superimpose their personal recommendations on their findings. … They do not have an advocacy role. … [T]heirs is a different project, located in another part of a verdant wood … [that] demands of ideology students an entirely different set of skills.” What is this project? To this, Freeden’s answer is expressed in language that remains unwaveringly similar to that of his earliest interventions in ideology theory: “to explore, map, analyse, and enlarge” the conceptual frameworks we all use to make sense of what is going on in society. Not just the complex, nuanced philosophies of the elite specialist “professional formulators of ideas” but also the mass vernacular thinking of “laypeople, whether well thought-out or casual and under-formulated”. The thinking that is—not the thinking that was (history of ideas) or should be (ethics).
Ideology studies in this independent form is needed precisely because it fills a niche of vital, salutary realism that has been bizarrely bypassed in the construction of the accepted boundaries of social theory and social science. Ideology studies does what other areas of social research do all too rarely: take ideas and the connections between them seriously as objects of study on their own terms.
But it is not enough to simply affirm and celebrate the fact that ideology studies has been broadly successful in gaining a “permanent, respected, and integrated” place in academic social research. What ideology studies has begun to do, and what Freeden emphasises in some of the key chapters of Ideology Studies, is that ideology studies should now have the confidence to ask: where next? One of the most profound achievements of ideology studies, for Freeden, is to shift understandings of ideology away from “ideational products and arguments” towards the “complex cluster of practices that can be gathered under the container term ‘political thinking’.” Ideas, as combined and arranged into ideologies, do not just exist at the level of abstract universals, but also at the level of particular manifestations. Pace the traditional biases of political philosophy, all of these levels are, and of right ought to be, fair game for ideology analysis proper.
Freeden presents this broad orientation towards ideas as well as the “shared identity and action patterns of human communities” that these ideas fashion as an anti-Kantian move, a calling into question of rigid distinctions between theory and practice. The future-facing challenge that Freeden poses to the subdiscipline is how to “unpack and decide what we see and hear when human beings express and conduct themselves in political terms”. Or, to put it differently, to dig more assiduously into what happens when ideology filters through from thinking into behaviour.
Freeden frames the immediate next task for ideology studies as that of “relaxing ideology’s link with logocentrism”. For him, this includes “public rites”, “the body-language and conduct of people in positions of authority”, metaphors and tropes, the role of transmission media, “visual imagery” such as architecture and “political telecasts”, and the emotional content of language and memes—every possible form of ideological conformity and non-conformity that belongs to what he describes, evidently led by his recent focus on silence, as “non-verbal performativity”.
With that, Freeden has set ideology studies in general, and morphological analysis in particular, on the path of gradually moving beyond exclusively seeing ideology in conceptual terms. Certainly, he remains committed to “[a]dopting the ‘political concept’ as the basic unit of the language of ideology”. Yet he recognises that bridging the false Kantian divide between theory and practice entails broadening this language to include terms that articulate not just the abstract mental content of ideological concepts but also their concrete physical, physiological manifestations. What remains less clear, however, is whether this broadened language also needs to be accompanied by changing or expanding what ideology sees as the ‘basic units’ of ideology analysis: concepts, yes, but alongside them also… what? Elements? Phenomena? Realisations?
At the same time, while this certainly widens the terms of reference of ideology studies beyond the purely conceptual, it still implicitly treats the ideational aspect of ideology as primary. There is more to the social implementation, embedding, or entrenchment of ideas and ideology than communication, however generously defined. What is slightly missing is a recognition of just how deeply ideology percolates into the social reality we perceive around us, well beyond anything that could be classed as communication or discourse: our mental and physical outlooks, our routines and procedures, the groups and institutions we belong to, even the circumstances and events we find ourselves caught up in. While these are certainly implicated in morphological analysis à la Freeden, they appear only insofar as they can be deemed to be (quasi-actively) communicating ideas in a specific, narrower sense, rather than (more passively) representing or manifesting them in a broader way. For Freeden, the logocentrism of ideology studies should be relaxed, but not abolished entirely.
Nevertheless, there is a hidden radicalism contained in Freeden’s aspiration that could be pushed far further than happens in this volume. In addition to the turn against logocentrism, one of the most important contributions that ideology studies can make to the wider study of how ideas work in society is to inveigh against canonicity—especially but not exclusively in the history of ideas. Freeden’s insistence that “[t]he study of ideology will still involve individual thinkers—but as representatives of an ideological genre” is replete with possibilities for novel analysis. Rather than the model of (pale, stale, male) prominent individuals who pushed and remoulded the boundaries of ‘their’ ideologies through their promethean thoughts and herculean actions, ideology studies has the tools to foreground the collective, interactive formation of ideological maps through groups and networks—from diffuse crowds to disciplined cadres. This includes analysis of the cross-cutting publics and counter-publics that lead to dynamics of ideological hegemony and counter-hegemony (bourgeois versus proletarian, patriarchal versus feminist, and so on), and the subaltern narratives (e.g., ‘people’s histories’) that can be told about how societies change over time. But it also means sharpening the focus on ‘vernacular’ thinking and ‘ordinary’ behaviour to look at how ideologies are not just invented but also replicated and perpetuated through our thinking and behaviour in everyday life.
This ‘decanonisation’ mission of ideology studies lends an additional urgency to Freeden’s plea that “the scholarly profile of ideology studies needs to be raised substantially”. For Freeden, this is not just a matter of ensuring ideology theorists do not become complacent about how much they have achieved over the last couple of decades, but also a recognition of how much further there is still to go. To put it brusquely, a lot more ideology theorising is still needed if ideology studies (as part of ‘political studies’) is to catch up “with the parallel bodies of theory available to economics, sociology, psychology, and to the institutional side of political science”. In other words, it is all very well for social researchers who work on ideology to complain (quietly or loudly) that ideology is always the bridesmaid and never the bride—an afterthought in the later weeks of someone else’s syllabus, or in the second- and third-year options in someone else’s degree.
If they want to put ideology front and centre, they (we) will have to put in the hard scholarly graft to grow ideology theory to an appropriate scale and complexity. In part, this means keeping up the gradual process of détente towards “political and ethical philosophy on the one hand, and the history of political thought on the other”. In part, it means deepening the areas of cross-fertilisation between ideology theory and other subfields: Freeden explicitly picks out conceptual history in its Koselleckian vein and the Essex school of discourse theory, as well as theories of emotions and rhetoric. But in part, it also means relying on the exponents of “Marxist theories, critical theory, discourse analysis, attitude studies, and everyday preconceptions” to cease their frowning, obstructive reticence whenever the topic of ideology is mentioned.
The happier news, for Freeden, is that ideology studies conceived as a subfield offers a ready-made “integrated resting point” where all these fractious perspectives can be housed under one roof. Under Freeden’s scrupulously watchful eye, the Journal of Political Ideologies has acted precisely as a pluralistic forum where scholars who study ideology and ideologies can ply their trade, no matter their methodological creed—as long as their centre of gravity is overwhelmingly diagnostic or historical, rather than critical or prescriptive. But that is only half the story. Really constituting ideology studies as a subfield relies on more than “chance encounters”, and needs the emergence of cross-fertilising exchanges and hybrid approaches that start to thread together different ways of theorising ideology into various models of ideology theory. Without that, ideology studies will only remain a hollow umbrella term that describes bits-and-pieces forms of ideology analysis hived off into mutually incommunicative subfields.
Part of this consolidating process will be to thicken the terms of analysis that ideology studies (as opposed to any other subdiscipline) uses to evaluate ideologies. These terms should be autonomous and distinctive, not borrowed from other subfields, which prima facie includes “alter[ing] the assessment criteria of ideological success … from the substantive value-oriented standards political theorists have habitually applied to gauge their ideational produce”. They ought to cover characteristics that are more-or-less unique to ideologies, such as “historical contingency”, “discursive indeterminacy”, “overwhelming detail”, or “interpretative fluidity”—although even within these fairly parsimonious parameters, there is still plenty of room available for evaluative thickening.
Freeden first issued this cri de cœur in 2001, but it remains just as apposite in this reissued form over two decades later. Political theory has tried what essentially amount to theoretical half-measures to achieve something like the criteria shift that Freeden has in mind, in the form of the ‘realist’ turn and the ‘political’ turn—both of which Freeden scrutinises in this volume. But neither effort was truly geared towards modifying how ideology studies relates to its own object of analysis. Rather, they were attempts on the parts of disaffected political theorists who did not typically think of themselves as doing ideology research to come up with ways to combat the perceived ‘overreach’ of ethics into how political theory is done today.
As far as ideology studies itself is concerned, its innovations have (unsurprisingly) tended to track trends in ideologies themselves, from emerging ecological concerns and successive new waves of ideologies of identity, to “fashions and impulses” such as populism and globalism. Of course, new ideological trends will keep coming, and ideology studies will study them, und das ist auch gut so! But the insufficient depth of introspection on the topic of how we evaluate ideologies is one reason why the “journey” of ideology studies is so “slow—and still unfinished”. A key question for ideology studies as it turns to this task is how it maintains its humble, self-aware commitment to pluralism even while many of the objects it studies are relentlessly monistic and self-asserting. How, in other words, we can come up with distinctive criteria of success and failure while holding onto “a tentativeness about [our] own preferred solution and a toleration of many others”.
Besides this, Freeden names a few key areas where ideology studies can afford to delve deeper into the fertile ground it has uncovered over the last few decades. One is a better assessment of the rates at which “the different internal components of an ideology can change … a core usually altering more slowly than the adjacent and perimeter concepts and ideas that encircle it”. Paired with the destabilising and rejuvenating effects of unpredictable social crises on the content of established ideologies, this points towards a greater, more granular micro-level engagement with the moments and processes of rupture, and the essential contestations and decontestations, cooptions and divestments they carry in their wake.
Another area of deeper investigation, modelled on Freeden’s assessment of the “birth pains” of the Journal of Political Ideologies, is the “institutional story” that can be told for the key hubs of ideology research—as well, of course, as the apparatuses or dispositifs that act as sites of ideological production in wider society. In this respect, a ‘sociology of the ideology studies subdiscipline’, including a view on why it was only in the 1990s that it finally began to emerge, fits within the more general sociology of knowledge that has existed in broad alignment with ideology research since the time of Karl Mannheim.
In one respect, however, the question of ‘where next’ remains unanswered by Freeden’s volume—or rather, perhaps, one avenue of ‘where next’ is kept more-or-less resolutely closed. The relationship, or even the virtual equivalence, between ideology and politics remains a core feature of methodological Freedenism, if anything even more firmly delineated than at the start of his tenure at the Journal of Political Ideologies. “[M]y focus advanced from identifying the features of thinking ideologically to those of thinking politically.” It is not that Freeden’s definition of ideology as “a set of ideas, beliefs, opinion, and values that serves to justify, contest, or change the social and political arrangements and processes of a community” has become more overtly politicised. Rather, he has chosen to subordinate it to a more “expansive view of the ubiquitous nature of politics”. “Thinking ideologically” is the same as “thinking about politics”, and so is necessarily “intertwined” with “thinking politically”. On that basis, ideology theory is a form of political theory, ideology studies is a subfield within political studies, and the study of ideologies is the same as the study of (historical or contemporary) political thought.
This dimension of Freeden’s theoretical evolution is arguably the hardest pill to swallow against a societal and intellectual background where unmistakeably ideological dynamics have risen to the fore that sit partly or even wholly in social domains beyond the political. The explosion of (specialist and vernacular) interest in an ideology of ‘neoliberalism’ has uncovered the contestations among proponents of (e.g.) neoclassical, neo-Keynesian, Austrian, Georgist, Marxian, and Sraffian theoretical positions in economic thought that only rarely filter through to the worlds of public policy, electoral democracy, or state administration. The same is true of the running battles between defenders of formalism, originalism, realism, strict constructionism, structuralism, and textualism in legal theory—which, again, have political echoes but are not in themselves primarily political.
While it is doubtless fair and theoretically profitable to highlight the political aspects or effects of these avowedly non-political disagreements, it is unnecessarily flattening to restrict the purview of ideological analysis to only these parts of their societal impact. What is at risk of being lost here is the “social and political arrangements and processes” part of Freeden’s original definition of ideology. Even if we want to retain and pay due respect to the familiar alignment between ideology and politics, the rest of society should at least receive an equal amount of airtime too.
The broader message we should take from Ideology Studies on this point, however, is that politics is back. If the 1990s were the era of the ‘third way’, ‘post-politics’, triangulation ‘beyond left and right’, and other claims to ‘non-ideological’ pragmatism, the 2020s are a time not only of self-evident division and polarisation, but also of an increased appreciation of the role that politics in all its forms (from mass activism to state action and beyond) can play in changing the face of society. In this way, the ‘renaissance of ideology studies’ has accompanied, almost seamlessly in tandem, the steadily rising disenchantment with the ‘end of history’. As history has returned, in the form of perpetual wars, financial stagnation and collapse, ecological disasters, pandemics, and other aspects of a growing ‘polycrisis’, ideology has come back with it, firmly but quietly clasping history by the hand.
In this light, Freeden’s collection of editorials is akin to a chronicle of the journey that ideology and its study has undergone during a key period of ideology studies’ foundation. If ideology studies is, as he argues, still very much a subdiscipline in transition, then this volume represents a considerable milestone on the way to its gradual consolidation. It is a salutary reminder to students and theorists of ideology alike of where we have come from, and where we should go next.