Representation notes: Ideological Discourse

Nimen Hao,

this class adds ideology to our conceptual toolbox, deepening our ability to talk about representation.

Three kinds of constructionism: semiotics, ideological, discursive

  • Semiotics: the study or ‘signs’ and their general role as vehicles of meaning in culture.
  • Discourse: studying ways of talking about forms of knowledge and conduct on a particular topic, social activity or institution.
  • Ideological: studying representation as vehicles of general beliefs, conceptual frameworks and value systems of society (at the connotative level).

Discourse (defined)

Simple dictionary definition: passages of connected writing or speech.

Theoretical definition: By ‘discourse’, Michel Foucault (French theorist, late 20th C) meant

a group of statements which provide a language for talking about- a way of representing the knowledge about a particular topic at a particular historical moment.

For Foucault, discourses are ways of referring to or constructing knowledge about a particular topic of practice: a group of ideas, images and practices, which provide ways of talking about, forms of knowledge and conduct associated with, a particular topic, social activity or institutional.

The study of discourse is called discourse analysis. Types of discourse analysis include Foucauldian discursive analysis, critical discourse analysis (CDA) and conversational analysis. Discourse analysis is often closely connected to other forms of analysis like ideological and narrative analysis.

Foucauldian Discourse: constructing topics and how they can be talked about

  • The semiotic approach is concerned with the how of representation, with how language produces meaning-  its ‘poetics’
  • The discursive approach is more concerned with the effects and consequences of representation – its ‘politics’

Discourse, Foucault argued, constructs topics. It defines and produces objects of knowledge. It governs the way that a topic can be meaningfully talked about and reasoned about.

For example, in the 19th century in Western European countries, a scientific discourse of sexuality arose which constructed the representation ‘homosexual’ as a state of sexuality that deviated from the norm of heterosexuality, as a perversion of natural desires, as a kind of illness (that could be subject to cure).

In Michel Foucault’s terms, the scientific discourse produced ‘the homosexual’ as a problem, the medical institutions designed for its treatment. It produces something that did not exist before.

Discourse is powerful

For Foucault, discourse ‘rules in’ certain ways of talking about a topic, defining an acceptable and intelligible way to talk, write’ or conduct oneself. For example, the social idea guiding conduct (healthy normal sexuality is heterosexual).

It also ‘rules out’ limits and restricts other ways of talking, of conducting ourselves in relation to the topic or constructing knowledge about it. For example, homosexuality cannot be regarded or conducted as something normal or natural.

In producing a way of talking and thinking about a topic, it can be said to produce a kind of knowledge. That knowledge can be very powerful (guiding the governing, public views and conduct of sexuality for example). So Foucauldian theorists often talk about discourse as involving power-knowledge.

Discourses can be contested and subverted

  • The 19th century discourse of homosexuality might be described as having been a dominant discourse. At the same time some social actors might have viewed sexual relations between man and other men and women and other women in other, more positive terms, so we could say they contested it. Eventually these contests led to gay rights movements often linked to discourse of equality and rights.
  • Also, some social actors took the dominant discourse and subverted it. For example, the term “Queer” arose as a way of owning and celebrating the idea of unnatural perversion as a positive form of difference, an alternative “non-mainstream” way of talking about sexuality that involved not just celebrating homosexuality but also critiquing heterosexuality (for, for example, its own constructed unnaturalness, and its inequitable sexism).

*** This bears comparison to the way that African Americans have contested and subverted the term “Black”.

Group discussion: the discourse of homosexuality in China

Working in your small groups discuss the following questions.

  1. How is homosexuality represented in China today?
  2. Can you identify a dominant discourse on homosexuality? If so, what is it? How does it work through representation?
  3. Can you identify contesting and subverting representations or discourses on homosexuality?
  • original notion of ideology = “science of ideas” (Destutt de Tracy, late 18th century)

Materialist (Marxist) ideology

  • Karl Marx defined ideology as negative.
  • Commodity capitalism relies of ideology and false consciousness.
  • One expression of false consciousness was Marx’s idea that religion was the opium of the people’, their adherence to the fantasy of religion (including the promise of heaven) stops them from seeing the oppressive material  inequality of their own situation, and from acting on it. It keeps the docile. So Christianity is an ideology that involves form false consciousness.
  • Belief in the free exchange of labour for wages was another form of false consciousness, as this apparently free exchange disguises the material reality of value accumulation on the part of the capitalist. Belief in liberal freedom (including the freedom of the labour exchange, the idea of free labour)
  • Althusser coined the defining phrase “imagined relation to the real’ to describe the false consciousness inherent to capitalist ideology. The scientific truths of Marxism were the opposite of the fantasized/imagined version of social life that belonged to false consciousness.

Post-structuralist ideology

  • Ideologies are the fundamental, axiomatic beliefs underlying the social representations shared by a group, featuring fundamental norms and
    values (such as those of freedom, justice, equality, etc.)
  • Ideology has use values.

1. It may be used or abused by each social group to impose, defend or struggle for its own interests (e.g., freedom of the market, etc.).

2. Ideologies may be seen as the basis of the (positive) self-image of a group. Organized by fundamental categories such as the desired (valued, preferred) identity, actions, norms and values, resources and relations to other groups.

  • Ideology not necessarily negative. It is not only used to legitimate power abuse (domination), but also to bolster resistance, as is the case for the socialist, feminist or pacifist movements.
  • Ideologies (and the social attitudes and personal opinions influenced by them) are generally polarized, this also tends to be the case for ideological discourse.
  • Typically organized via the discursive strategies of the “Ideological Square.”
US = positive representations


Them = negative representations


Them = positive representations


US = negative representations




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