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It can plausibly be suggested that a theory of ideology is fundamental to any critical social or cultural science. However, the exact meaning of the term is often elusive or confused. Its most common use may be simply to refer to a more or less coherent set of beliefs. In Marxism and the sociology of knowledge, however, it has taken on much more subtle meanings, in order to analyse the way in which knowledge and beliefs are determined by the societies in which they emerge and are held.

Marx’s approach to ideology may be introduced through the famous observation that, for any society, the ideas of the ruling class are the ruling ideas. This is to suggest that our understanding and knowledge of the world (and especially, if not exclusively, of the social world) is determined by political interests. There are certain beliefs, and certain ways of seeing the world, that will be in the interests of the dominant class (but not in the interests of subordinate classes). While ideology in the Marxist sense, is a distorted way of viewing the world, it is not strictly false. Ideology can rather be said to be an illusory solution to a real problem. The task of the critic of ideology is therefore to recognise this – to recognise the way in which ideology inverts our understanding of real problems – and thereby identify and tackle the real problem.

The Marxist theory of ideology presupposes that ideology is a distortion. It may therefore be set against true knowledge. In the sociology of knowledge, not least in its development by the German sociologist Karl Mannheim (1960), ideology loses its links to class and to domination, and so challenges this notion of truth. Mannheim retains the link that Marx establishes between ideas and the material base of society, but in order to argue that people from different sections of society will understand the world in different ways. The difference between the bourgeois understanding of the world and the proletariat is not then the difference between the views of a dominant and reactionary class and a subordinated, progressive class, but simply the difference between two, equally valid, worldviews. For Mannheim, there is then no single truth against which all ideologies can be judged. Each ideology will have its own standards of truth and accuracy, dependent upon the social circumstances within which it is produced.