Ideology and Anthropology Research Paper

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This research paper looks at hermeneutic and Marxist theories of ideology in anthropology that link the concept to underlying social processes and material conditions that work to sustain relations of power and dominance in a given society. It employs the example of religion as an aspect of ideology for illustrative purposes. Religion as used here does not refer to some supernatural or theological category at a universal level. Rather, it is looked at as an aspect of ideology in all of its historic and synchronic connections to an already existing society to provide the knowledge needed to constructively understand it. The research paper is arranged accordingly. Karl Marx’s approach to the study of ideology is first introduced. Next, Louis Althusser’s concept of ideology as social praxis and as part of a particular social and economic formation is given. Then a review of relevant theories on religion as an aspect of ideology in hermeneutics and anthropology is made. Included in this review are the works of three anthropologists (Talal Asad, Stephan Feuchtwang, and Abdul el-Zein) who are deemed to be exceptional. They are the only anthropologists, as research to date has shown, who have successfully combined concepts from hermeneutics, cultural Marxism, and Althusserian structuralism in their investigations of religion. This is followed by a discussion of recent trends and future directions of research pertaining to the study of ideology and society.


The French word ideologie was first used in Western academic discourses in the year 1796 by Pierre Jean George Cabinis and Destutt de Tracy who used the term to refer to the science of ideas in contradistinction to ancient mysteries. Then onward, the word was employed in epistemology and linguistics until the 19th century, when Marx and Engels used it in a new way in The German Ideology (1847/1972). Tom Bottomore (1983) explained this as a reaction to two divergent lines of philosophical thought in their exegesis, namely, that of Feurbach and Hegel, respectively. Unlike Feuerbach and Hegel who did not link religion to an actually existing society, however, Marx and Engels took the unprecedented step of referring religious inversions and metaphysical distortions back to their material and social conditions. In other words, they explicitly looked at the relationship between misplaced forms of consciousness and the material conditions of human society. They argued that most problems confronting humans are not caused by mistaken ideas but by social contradictions. That is, subjective forms of objective realities are intricately interconnected. So, distorted notions and false consciousness can be a problem and cause of human suffering but they are, in turn, caused by material conditions. Bottomore (1983) stated, “It is this relationship (between thought and material social reality) that the concept of ideology expresses by referring to a distortion of thought which stems from, and conceals, social contradictions” (p. 219). Ever since, the word ideology has been used primarily by creative Marxist scholars with a critical and negative connotation referring to distortions of thought that conceal, in obscurity, the social contradictions in which they are founded.

Marx, in his early work, criticized Hegel and Feuerbach’s thesis that thought determined the course of social change in history. Like Vico before him, Marx argued that we make our own history. Robert Murphy (1971) explained that Marx turned the theoretical perspective of Hegel and Feuerbach right side by proposing, “History was not the history of the mind but the history of humankind and its institutions, begotten by labor upon nature” (p. 98). In other words, thought is not divorced from society. Rather, it works its way through human institutions and changes them, as it is changed, in the process. Marx put it this way:

The chief defect of all materialism up to now, is that the object, reality, what we apprehend through our senses, is understood only in the form of the object of contemplation; but not as sensuous human activity, as practice; not subjectively. (Marx & Engels, 1970, p. 197)

Marx sought to demonstrate that human beings misrepresented their social practices and material conditions of existence, while thinking about them. He developed his concept of ideology on the basis of such mistaken, symbolic notions in the human mind. Marx analogized:

Consciousness can never be anything other than conscious existence, and the existence of humans is their actual lifeprocesses. If in all ideology, humans and their circumstances appear upside down, as in a camera obscurer, this phenomena arises just as much from their historical life-processes as the inversions of objects on the retina does from their physical life-process. (Marx & Engels, 1970, p. 14)

In other words, men and women interpret their human practices and circumstances in society in their thoughts, and these thoughts inform and drive social action. Hence, in a class society, Marx used the term ideology to explain how the ruling classes were able to rationalize their position of dominance and persuade the other classes to serve them. However, Murphy (1971) stipulated that this is not the only source of inverted ideas and illusions. Ideology also comes from the limited and restricted character of human relationships with nature and other humans (p. 99).

Marx first alluded to the concept of ideology in his critique of religion and of Hegel’s conception of the state. While Hegel argued that it was the idea of the political state that manifested itself in the empirical world as an absolute universe that determined reality, Marx countered that ideas were inverted to conceal the real character of society. He also challenged Feuerbach’s interpretation of religion. Although he agreed with Feuerbach that religion was a human invention and that the idea of God as our creator was really an inversion, Marx argued against Feuerbach’s conclusion that religion was therefore an illusion. Rather, Marx (1974) showed that religion served to disguise irrationalities of the system of production, and he predicted its demise once men and women enter into rational relations with one another.

From this perspective, religion acts as an opiate of the people by concealing social contradictions that bring about suffering in the world: It serves as a palliative for unintelligible life circumstances and natural calamities. It provides a solution outside the realm of the present moment to account for the contradictions in the life experiences of people, individually, and as a group. Yet, it is important to remember that Marx analyzed religion in the context of the times in which he lived. Alternatively, as is illustrated by the emergence of liberation theology in the late 20th century, religion can be used to encourage people to face their problems through direct, nonviolent means. Participants in this movement seek solutions to their problems through Bible study, prayer, and reflection. But, they also confront their social, economic, and political problems head on by using tactics such as collective planning, decision making, and pressure techniques in negotiations with employers, landlords, development agents, and government officials.

These strategies inherent in the movement of liberation theology, however, are in keeping with Marx’s basic tenet that as long as men and women do not actively work to solve perplexing problems in a practical manner, they will imagine solutions in the form of ideological distortions that conceal those contradictions. In so doing, such ideological forms of consciousness will be passed down from one generation to the next, and they will continue to further the interests of the dominant classes. For Marx, the conscious act of bringing social contradictions into the light of human awareness through debate and criticism, however, is not enough to resolve them. It is only through sustained collective action that men and women can effect real, concrete change.

Bottomore (1983) explained that Marx, later, in Capital (1867/1974), added a final element to his concept of ideology. Through his analysis of capitalist social relations he concludes that the relationship between “inverted consciousness and inverted reality is mediated by a level of appearance that is constitutive of reality itself ” (p. 220). This level of appearance is the economic infrastructure of a society that determines, in the last instance, its logic and motion. For example, in a society dominated by capitalism, the level of appearance is competition and the market. That is, it is through the sphere of circulation and exchange that the economic and political ideologies of the ruling classes in Western European and North American capitalist societies are generated. However, Marx did not mean by this that all societies are departmentalized into separate functioning parts whereby the economy becomes obviously visible, as it is the case in capitalist societies.

Under European and North American capitalism, the unity of society and economy is achieved through bureaucratic channels whereby society becomes differentiated into discretely functional and separate institutions such as the family, education, religion, politics, and business. Hence, relations of production are enacted in the economy and one can easily see how the economic instance becomes the basis upon which other spheres of social life are made possible. But, in precapitalist societies, relations of production and corresponding forces of production governing distribution and exchange are often carried out through interpersonal relations embodied in social organizations, such as the family or religious system. In other words, in precapitalist societies, the economy is not readily seen. As in capitalist societies, however, ideology works to conceal the underlying contradictions of social life in these societies by focusing on the way in which economic relations appear on the surface as will be illustrated and discussed again later in this research paper.

In summary, Marx used the word ideology to refer to a double inversion in consciousness and reality. Ideology works to conceal the hidden reasons why economic relations appear on the surface in different ways in diverse societies and cultures. For example, if in precapitalist societies kinship or religion dominates social life, then productive and redistributive networks are founded in kinship and religious systems (Godelier, 1978). That is to say, the external form that the relations and forces of production take are—themselves—constituted by the sphere of circulation and exchange, which perpetuates ideological forms. Economic, political, legal, educational, familial, and religious ideologies are all interconnected in various ways and reproduced within a total social and economic formation, and these ideologies cannot be studied apart from the particular society in which they are situated. Marx’s conceptualization of ideology provides a wide range of opportunities for further sophisticated inquiry, and it is to a discussion of Louis Althusser’s formulation that we now turn.

Louis Althusser: Concept of Ideology

Ted Benton (1991), in his article titled “Louis Althusser: An Appreciation,” suggested that a full appreciation of Althusser, who passed away in 1990, has yet to be realized. Althusser challenged dogmatic tendencies in Marxist theory. He opposed the use of Marxist dictates by communist parties and bureaucratic arms of state in communist and socialistic societies of his day. While doing so, he demonstrated that the alleged incorporation of Marx’s ideas in the politics of communism in what was then the Soviet Union and Maoist China, for example, had no real basis in the writings of Marx. Althusser chided his iconoclastic and dogmatic communist colleagues for not promoting an environment that was conducive to the development of a creative Marxist social science. He specifically blamed the ideological and repressive state apparatuses of the Soviet Union, including the Eastern European block, for initiating the repression of creative scientific Marxism.

Without going back any further, we can say that this crisis was blocked and sealed up for us in the forms of Staliniststate dogmatism, which doomed all who tried to approach the problem to condemnation and political isolation. Today— and this is a novelty of considerable importance—the forms of this blockage are breaking up, and elements of crisis are— even in their dispersion—becoming visible to the popular masses (Althusser, 1990; Benton 1991).

Indeed, Althusser was ahead of his time. He predicted the breakup of the Soviet Union, end of the Cold War, and reunification of East and West Germany more than 10 years before the actual events occurred.

Benton (1991) explained that for Althusser, the Marxism crisis in the late 20th century could only be rescued by subjecting Marx’s work to rigorous criticism. This is because leaders of anti-imperialist revolutions had used his ideas and work as politics, rather than as an impetus for developing new and innovative courses of action that went beyond Marx’s own thought. This post-Marxian stance is well supported in the work of Peter Worsley (1984) and Eric Wolf (1982), in that, they too argued that the early Soviet leaders dogmatically misconstrued Marx’s concept of mode of production as forming the revolutionary core of their theory. In so doing, party leaders set a precedent for what Worsley called “a deformed socialism” (p. 337). Althusser explained that Marx was not in a position to realize that his ideas would become twisted and stagnated in the communist party’s state apparatuses. Although he credits Lenin, the founder of the Soviet Party, for turning Marx’s dialectic into a revolutionary method by analyzing current situations, he opposes Lenin’s successors for blindly applying Marx’s formulation to preexisting content (Althusser, 1990, p. 179–180). That is, subsequent party leaders had wrongly given determinant primacy to political ideas over people, rather than to the relationship between them. This began a long line of misconceptions of ideology in theories influenced by Marx that were credibly challenged by the French Marxist anthropologists (Godelier, Meillassoux, and Terray) under the influence of Althusser.

Bottomore (1983) explained that one of the reasons why early students of Marx misconstrued the term ideology was because they did not have access to Marx’s The German Ideology until it was first published in 1920. These students (e.g., Lenin, Antonio Gramsci, Georg Lukacs) defined the term in two ways: to refer, first, to the social consciousness, or the ideological superstructure, of a society and, second, to the political ideas of particular classes. Althusser’s (1990) point was that both conceptions of ideology ran the danger of being misused to refer to ideology as a separate abstraction that could exist in isolation from a living society (p. 170). Instead, he provided the following alternative definition of ideology.

Ideology is the lived relation between humans and their world, or a reflected form of this unconscious relation (e.g., a philosophy, etc.). It is distinguished from a science not by its falsity, for it can be coherent and logical (e.g., theology), but by the fact that the practico-social predominates over the theoretical, and over knowledge. Historically, it precedes the science produced by making an epistemological break with it, but it survives alongside science as an essential element of every social formation including a socialist and even a communist society (Althusser, 1990, p. 252).

Althusser (1990) is exceptional because he argued that a preceding theory is needed before sociocultural transformation—of a domain in which a Marxist theoretical practice does not yet exist—can occur. In the study of other cultures and societies outside of Marx’s Capital, the Marxist theoretical practice of epistemology, for the most part, remains to be constituted. Marxist anthropologists of other societies are not lacking, but Althusser explained that they do not have the revolutionary practice of Capital behind them. In other words, their practice needed to be set on a correct theoretical basis that was grounded and constructed in the context of real social life. He insisted that the theory of dialectical materialism was an apt method for this task. As Althusser (1990) argued,

A real understanding of materialism reveals that the researcher’s labor is not a labor of the universal, but a labor on a pre-existing universal, a labor whose aim and achievement is precisely to refuse this universal the abstractions or temptations of philosophy (ideology), and to bring it back to its condition by force; to the condition of a scientifically specified universality. (p. 183)

That is, the use of dialectical materialism is not a matter of applying its formula to preexisting content. Rather, the method clarifies goals as it guides the researcher’s analysis of a particular subject in all of its specificities. Although Althusser’s methodological distinction between science and technology is controversial, Bottomore (1983) pointed out that, at least, he distinguished them. Moreover, since the anthropologist of precapitalist societies and cultures is essentially moving through unchartered territory in dialectical materialism, the primary research instrument is still the anthropologist, not theory.

Althusser (1990) explained that Marx’s theory was not fully developed in his youthful work. Then, Marx was concerned mainly with questions of alienation and self-realization in the newly industrializing world. Although Marx criticized Hegel’s ideas, his split from Hegel’s thought was not complete. Marx chided Hegel for being guilty of the fallacy of abstraction. He argued that the egocentric individualism existing in the bureaucratic arms of European society obviated the Hegelian notion that the bureaucracy of the modern state was a universal class whose purpose was to realize the universal interest (Jessop, 1982, p. 4). However, Marx’s basic proposition that humanity was the author of its own history and destiny was still very similar to Hegel’s fundamental thesis that the world created itself according to some universal spirit (Bottomore, 1983).

Later, however, Marx (1964, 1982) radically broke away from Hegelian epistemology to develop a science of dialectical materialism. The mature Marx was interested in the theory of social formations and their histories in all of their conceptual and structural variations. From this time forward, Marx never again viewed history as a series of stages unfolding along some unilinear pathway. Instead, he saw history everywhere as variable and subject to tireless investigation. Althusser (1977) was one of the first Marxist thinkers who emphasized the importance of this epistemological break with Hegel’s thought in the development of Marx’s ideas. Even Carl Boggs (1984) in his review of Gramsci’s two revolutions in Marxism (scientific and revolutionary) does not mention Marx’s key shift from Hegelian thought as Althusser does in his work. Neither does Jay (1984), in his exegesis on the concept of totality in Marxist theories, adequately differentiate Althusser’s concept of the social whole from that of his predecessors Gramsci and Lukacs. This is because Jay concentrates only on Althusser’s aversion to collective notions of the social whole, which is an aversion, shared by Gramsci and Lukacs, rather than on the detailed differences in their respective theories of social change. However, Althusser argued that Gramsci and Lukacs were Hegelian Marxists precisely because they aimed to recenter humanity as the megasubject in their theories. In contrast, Althusser’s theory emphasized that the social whole was actually decentered, even under the ruling class of communism. Althusser was more focused upon the use of Marx’s theory as an impetus to research new possibilities for social change than to use it as some sort of political weapon to be placed in the hands of a class, or coalition of classes, to forge another society along communist lines.

In other words, Marx’s concept of the social whole departed in a revolutionary way from Hegel’s concept of totality. Hegel’s dialectic was dependent on the presupposition of a simple original unity that unfolded within itself by virtue of its own negativity in order to realize its original unity in some ever more concrete totality. However, Marx developed a very different thesis of the social whole. Althusser (1977) explained how Marx insisted that the simple can only exist within a complex structure of dominance. According to Marx, the structure of a given society is made up of two levels: the infrastructure or economic base and the superstructure or political, legal, and ideological aspects. He used the metaphor of an edifice to show how the economic base in the last instance determines the superstructure of a society. Althusser does not reject this metaphor; rather he argues that the classical metaphor of an edifice merely represents Marx’s descriptive theory and should not be misconstrued. As Marx (as cited in Althusser, 1977) explained,

The concrete totality as a totality of thought, as a thought concretum, is in fact a product of thought and conception; but in no sense a product of the concept of thinking and engendering itself outside or over institutions or conceptions, but on the contrary, a product of the elaboration of intuitions and conceptions into concepts. (p. 182)

Thus, Althusser cautions to look beyond descriptive theories and rethink them anew in terms of the particularities and specificities of different cultures and societies. Once this is done, it becomes clear that Marx’s model is not reductionist in regards to the relationship between the economic base and superstructure. That is, ideology cannot be thought of in abstraction to its positive and negative connotations and relationships to a dominant mode of production in relation to other modes of production in an actual social formation.

Althusser (1977) defined a social and economic formation as a decentered totality made up of the forces and relations of production, the economy, superstructure, state, and ideology. He refers to ideology as the imaginary relationship that people have to their real conditions of existence. In other words, ideology is inscribed through human practices, and its existence is material. Even when a person’s ideas do not exist in those practices, they give credence to other ideas that correspond to those actions. In Althusser’s words, “ideology has no history” (1977, p. 150) because particular ideologies express class and regional positions that always pertain to particular histories. That is, in contemporary societies, ideology is realized as a result of a continuous and bitter struggle between classes with the ideology of the ruling class exercising its hegemony in and over the repressive and ideological apparatuses of state.

Many anthropologists and social theorists (e.g., Baudrillard, 1975; Sahlins, 1972; Ulin, 1984) are critical of theAlthusserian perspective for being functionalist and outdated. They fault him for being too rigid in his theory of a social formation as having an economic base and political, cultural, and ideological superstructure. However, Althusser’s theory is anything but economistic and iconoclastic. He does not eliminate men and women from his theory and, aptly, defends himself from such accusations in his Essays in Self Criticism (1976). Moreover, he paved the way for the emergence of postmodern cultural Marxism. Was it not Althusser who showed how culture might be seen in institutional terms? Did not the culture theories of his critics arise in debate with him?

Later in this research paper, the work of several anthropologists of religion who have significantly advanced Althusser’s theory of ideology (Asad, 1983; el-Zein, 1977; Feuchtwang, 1984) will be reviewed. Before doing so, a discussion of the theoretical work of Ulin (1984) is provided because he brought together late 20th-century Marxist and interpretive ideas in anthropology. His scheme provides a way to transcend the ideology of positivism in anthropology, which is an important first step to study ideological variation in diverse cultures.

Hermeneutics and Ideology

Robert Ulin (1984) explained how hermeneutical approaches to the study of historically remote texts are equivalent to the anthropological method of fieldwork in that an anthropologist also seeks to make the customs and beliefs of distant peoples intelligible (p. 92). Both the anthropologist and the textual scholar seek to understand what is essentially foreign to them. Although anthropologists can enter into dialog while questioning their subjects, deciphering the meaning of cultural products, behaviors, rituals, and codes resembles the process of interpreting an alien text. This complementary relationship between the hermeneutical problem and anthropological problem rests upon the disguised nature of appearances—they are not always as they seem and need interpretation to understand them.

The interpretivists—Hans-George Gadamer (1975, 1979), Paul Ricoeur (1979, 1986), and Jurgen Habermas (1971)—contend that the old, positivist notion that the social scientist should remain neutral and free of bias in the field is neither practical nor possible. Anthropologists should be aware that their traditions, including academic ones, filter into dialogs with subjects of study. By recognizing the inexplicable nature of their own traditions, anthropologists can better come to grips with the traditions of their subjects. Gadamer (1975, 1979) suggested that anthropologists can only come to know their subjects through language. That is, it is only through language that human existence can be made intelligible. However, Ricoeur (1979, 1986) stipulated that only a small part of human existence is reflected in language.

Roger Keesing (1979) also pointed out that it is fallacious to make a dichotomous distinction between linguistic knowledge and cultural knowledge. Linguistic knowledge includes more than knowledge of linguistic rules; it also includes knowledge about the culture of its speakers. That is, to communicate competently in a conventional sense, the people involved need to understand social rules, apperception of contexts, and of what is not— and need not—be said. At the same time that Ricoeur and Keesing challenge Gadamer, they also call into question Clifford Geertz’s (1973) thesis that symbols exist in the mind of the actor to provide an individual with strategies for possible courses of action. They suggest that Geertz’s theory ends by dividing thought and action.

According to Ricoeur (1979), symbols find their origin in some prelinguistic bios, rather than in culture or convention. He refers to bios as energy or desire in Freudian terms, and to the sacred in religious language. Ulin (1984) further explained that Ricoeur seeks to transcend a positivist tradition that divides nature from culture by rethinking them dialectically (pp. 105–109). Gadamer (1975), likewise, criticized Western positivism, which has developed an absolute notion of the science of reason. Ricoeur slightly diverges from Gadamer’s view, however, in that he argues that symbols are not merely cultural constructions arrived at through intersubjective consensus, rather they unite individuals to cosmic space. His method of looking at metaphors from this double view can be distinguished from Gadamer’s theory of the meeting of horizons through discourse. Like Gadamer, however, Ricoeur contends that it makes no sense for the social sciences to follow the methods of the natural sciences, for it is in the science of semiotics that human activity becomes objectified in the external world. In contrast, the anthropologist Maurice Bloch (1977) arrived at a somewhat different conclusion than that of Gadamer or Ricoeur. He considers that it is within the relation between nature and culture that new conceptions are developed since they cannot come from a social structure defined as a shared system of meaningful categories. That is, it is not in language-like processes that human activity becomes externalized. Bloch (1991) brought forth an alternative theory of connectivism to show how new ideas result from a process of associating visual and mental images with a rapidity far greater than a mere sentence-logic model would allow.

Despite individual differences and shortcomings, Ulin (1984) found hermeneutic theories to be liberating because they offer alternative views of humankind. They can be used as a kind of guide to policy because they provide a wide range of possibilities for the future. However, he suggests that interpretive anthropology is lacking something that creative Marxism has to offer (p. 104). For example, the theories of Ricoeur and Gadamer do not account for how underlying historical processes within a social system are produced. Ulin explains that neither one of them accounts for how power relationships can confine human interaction and behavior, which is a point of contention also made by Habermas (1971, pp. 105, 108). Jay (1984) explained that Habermas improved upon theories of Ricoeur and Gadamer by integrating hermeneutics and critical theory. For example, in Knowledge and Human Interest (1971), Habermas expanded interpretive descriptions of the whole to include room for a study of oppressive dimensions. He challenged positivism in Western Marxism and the Frankfurt school’s weak notion of Hegelian reason. Habermas borrowed techniques from psychoanalysis to develop a socioanalysis that could uncover meanings in communication processes found in situations of dominance and exploitation. He synthesized ideas from many of the social sciences in his call for a dialogic enlightenment of society. However, Habermas’s theory is shortsighted because he concentrates only on the intersubjective realm of human experience and communication. Jay (1984) explained that by making the goal of speech perfect communication, Habermas’s theory runs the risk of becoming an abstract philosophical anthropology divorced from its concrete basis in a given society (p. 497).

Ulin (1984) amended the hermeneutic theories of Gadamer, Ricoeur, and Habermas by way of what he called a materialist dialectic of social being. He develops his approach by criticizing and revising Althusserian structuralism to include concepts from cultural Marxism and interpretivist anthropology. In his scheme, the reproduction of inequalities in communicative action take place within the repressive and ideological apparatus of state. Ulin’s model is sophisticated theoretically, and supplements Althusser’s work. Many of Ulin’s ideas are repeated in the following discussion of the works of Asad, Feuchtwang, and el-Zein. As mentioned in the introduction, their works are selected for consideration because they have successfully brought together a combination of concepts from hermeneutics, cultural Marxism, and Althusserian structuralism in their perspectives.

Religion as an Aspect of Ideology

Talal Asad, in his 1983 essay “Anthropological Conceptions of Religion: Reflections on Geertz,” took Geertz to task for misdefining religion. He suggests that Geertz is guilty of the fallacy of equating religion to culture. Culture, which can take the form of religion, stated Geertz (1973) is “an historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men and women communicate, perpetuate, and develop knowledge about their attitudes toward life” (p. 89). Asad critiques this view of religion as culture (system of shared meanings) for being one sided in considering only how people communicate and develop their attitudes toward life, rather than looking at how the conditions of life also affect human experiences (p. 239).

In place of Geertz’s paradigm, Asad (1983) offered an alternative approach for the study of power and religion to account for the ways in which religion is conceived, reproduced, and transformed as a result of historical processes. He exemplifies his mode of inquiry by focusing on the history of Christianity, selecting Christianity for study because he claims that Geertz conveniently ignored this in his theoretical discourse on religion. Asad suggests that Geertz’s omission of a discussion of Christianity is symptomatic of a general tendency in anthropology to view Christianity as irrelevant, or marginal, to the study of other religions (p. 238). However, to Geertz’s credit, he did allude to Christianity upon occasion (see Geertz, 1973, pp. 110, 125). Also, since writing his exegesis on religion, Geertz (1980) has changed his views and become less positivistic and more antiscience.

Asad (1983) criticized Geertz for looking at religion in terms of modernization theory. Geertz’s scheme for looking at religious experiences of non-Christians resembles that of unicentric development theories of the 1960s. He seems to exhibit an ethnocentric prejudice when he concludes that the degree of the articulation of the religious experience is less in modern societies. He presents a picture of religion as if it were some amorphous whole that is destined to be surpassed eventually by modern science (see Geertz, 1973, p. 125). However, this part of his theory is an easy straw man to knock down because it derives from now defunct modernization theory. Asad’s analytical critique is most interesting when he explores an alternative way of looking at religion (p. 237). He wants to explain how power constitutes the conditions that formulate religious ideology. He raises the important question of how certain symbols become established and how they are changed. Asad’s point is that the dominant symbols and classifications accepted in society are part of the ideology of the leading classes, or leading fraction of a class in a classless society such as a hunter-gatherer society. That is, according to Cricks (1982), dominant symbols are “constructions which are imposed and pass as knowledge only because the symbolic imposition is accepted as an act of power” (p. 303).

Asad (1983) focused on the history of  Western Christianity because it provides a rich store of documented sources from which to formulate questions to study other religions. His basic argument is that the many varied denominations and assemblies that Christianity takes today are quite different from the form it took in medieval times. In those days, power was defined differently and it had different results. Religiosity worked its way through different human institutions and notions of self that constructed, legitimated, and distributed different categories of knowledge. One of the effects of this variable distribution of power is that religion is a result—not a cause—of the historical processes that shape, perpetuate, and transform it. Thus, there can be no universal definition of religion. In other words, religion needs to be investigated in all of its historical specificity.

Asad (1983) indicated that there were no real attempts to systematize a universal definition of religion until the 17th century, precisely, because the attempt was an expression of the repressive and ideological conceptions of certain relations of power and knowledge. Religion then came to be abstracted from its context and universalized with subtle and explicit force. However, in actuality, the definition of religion was a mere referent to established rules and practices that were developed to screen, oversee, and authorize certain relations of power and knowledge from a singular papal source.

Asad’s thesis is supported by el-Zein in his 1977 essay “Beyond Ideology and Theology: The Search for the Anthropology of Islam.” In it, he reviewed five different studies of Islam, by Geertz, Crapanzano, Gilsenan, Burjra, and Eickelman, respectively, Here, we look exclusively at el-Zein’s review of Geertz’s Islam Observed (1968). However, it is noteworthy that Asad faulted all five case studies for beginning from the point of a singular definition of Islam as if it were some abstract category of meaning that existed at a universal level. He argued contrarily that there is no such unity of religious meaning in the category of Islam as expressed locally in context. From this perspective, religion—whether Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, or Hinduism—cannot be viewed as an amorphous, theological, or ideal category divorced from its relationship to a particular society and culture.

Supporting Asad’s contention that Geertz mistakenly begins from the false premise of an overriding notion of religious experience and meaning within an Islamic tradition, el-Zein (1977) simultaneously focused on the variability in the context of religious experience acted out in daily life. Geertz mistakes religion as referring to a system of shared symbols and meanings, which synthesizes a worldview and ethos. Worldview and ethos are then seen as constitutive of the essential reality of nature, self, and society. They are transmitted from one generation to the next through the agency of powerful, sacred symbols.

As el-Zein (1977) explained, for Geertz, religion is not static, and religious symbols react to the constant ebb and flow of history (p. 230). He defines history as a perpetual process of the sedimentation and change of meaning. There are certain restrictions placed on the continuum of meaning in history that are learned during the formative stages of human growth and development. Religion reflects an underlying tension, namely, between humans striving to create new symbols and meanings and their intention to solidify meanings in symbolic forms. The power of religious beliefs can lessen in the face of change, or it can be increased to abnegate change. Religion is a form of culture that can be understood by a so-called higher-order culture: science. In other words, Geertz reifies both culture and science. He reduces the Indonesian and Moroccan social formations in his study to two different versions of the culture of Islam (orthodox and folk). Islam can be understood in all of its variations through a process of thick description that Geertz refers to as science, but the type of science that Geertz refers to is the spirit of positivism or scientism. That is, through thick description, an anthropologist holds his own cultural biases in abeyance in order to look at the whole process of human experience to explain religion in context. Therein, the researcher discovers the intricacies of human expression and makes them intelligible to others. However, Geertz’s reduction of religion to mere reflections and local variations of a universal category of religious meaning is not a satisfactory explanation for the diverse expressions of Islam.

Instead of assuming Islam to be a set of positive terms from which to begin to study it locally, el-Zein (1977) proposed an alternative way to study religion. He recommends that scholars conduct their research by first thinking of religion as a result of articulations of structural relations. This approach to the study of religion is a variation on Marx’s second-level scheme. It would allow the researcher to start from an indigenous framework of Islam to investigate the relations that produce its meaning. There would be no separate, analytical category of Islam, and no autonomous entities (e.g., religion, economics, history) from which to start with; rather, researchers would begin their studies from a hermeneutic perspective. He forwards a viable premise that anthropologists and their partners of study inevitably share in an underlying logic rooted in both culture and nature. The anthropologist’s job is to uncover this logic in the different contents of specific religions in various cultures and social formations. There are no strict standards of truth against which to study religious expressions in other societies and cultures. Instead, objectivity is grounded in the dialogic mode of both the anthropologist and her local partners of study. However, there is more to religion than making logical sense of religious content. The researcher also needs to account for the subjective realm of religion in connection to its concrete material conditions and structural relations in a given social and economic formation.

Feuchtwang, in his 1984 “Investigating Religion,” provided a useful model for the empirical study of religion as ideology at the concrete level. Following Althusser, he refers to ideology as part of a specific social practice and part of a particular social formation (p. 68). As Althusser (1971) put it, “Ideology represents an imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence” (p. 162). That is, it is through ideology that individuals are constituted as subjects, and they are called into action in relation to a cluster of relationships in the concrete society of which they are part. Fuechtwang critiques the work of several 20th-century anthropologists (Dumont, 1970; Firth, 1964; Spiro, 1966; Worsley, 1970). He chides Firth for being guilty of the flaw of functionalism, even though Firth aimed to improve upon earlier functionalist theories (p. 64). That is, not only does Firth continue to look at religion as an institution alongside other institutions, in terms of its fit in relation to a Western conception of a departmentalized society, but Firth also commits the double fallacy of assuming that a postulate of suprahuman action is a universal text.

Likewise, Spiro (1966) is faulted for incorrectly defining religion as “an institution consisting of culturally patterned interaction with culturally postulated human beings” (p. 96). Spiro begins his definition from the basis of the projected existence of supernatural beings and defines religion as consisting of subjective ways in which different cultures and their peoples enter into relation with them. Spiro mistakenly takes the reality of supernatural beings as a given in his definition, rather than as a postulate that needs to be explained. He tries to be obviously logical, but this leads him to oversimplify the world into distinctly separate variables of analysis. Spiro reduces religion to an institution that functions to fulfill a universal, psychological need to explain what seems to be unexplainable, but he does not do this psychoanalytically. Furthermore, as indicated by Feuchtwang (1984), some people need no such explanations (p. 63).

Worsley (1970) was taken to task by Feuchtwang (1984) for using categorical distinctions from Western science to define religion—distinctions that may not be in the minds of the individual believers. Mary Douglas (1978), however, cautioned that the question of whether, or not, anthropological categories can be valid if they imply meanings not implied by their actors and actresses remains a subject of controversy in anthropology. Worsley, to his credit, confronted many of the problems inherent in earlier functionalist theories of religion by looking at what religion means to believers in local contexts, and at its indigenous effects. Fuechtwang’s point is that Worsley’s proposal to look at the believer’s subjective ideas about the existence of the supernatural realm, and at how that supernatural realm, in turn, influences their behaviors, is an empirically untestable proposition. It is not that Worsley refers to religion as the belief in the realm of the superhuman powers and spirits. Rather, he borrows Western notions such as the nonempirical and technical domain to distinguish the supernatural realm from the earth-bound world of human experiences and meanings (pp. 310, 311).

In contrast, Dumont (1970) is criticized for reasons pertaining to method, not theory. Dumont does not make the same kinds of mistakes in his study as Firth and Spiro by employing some universal category of religion. Rather, Dumont begins his investigation of religion from the ground of an ideology specific to a given society. However, he commits some of the same misnomers in his methodology that Firth and Worsley do in their theories. Dumont divides for analysis the ideological (conscious ideal) aspect of society from its nonideological (social) part. Although he can be credited for seeking to understand the relation between ideology and its exterior expressions, locally and contextually, he falls short due to the determinant primacy he gives to ideology over society. Feuchtwang (1984) stated, “No sooner is the contemplating subject separated out as part of the independent variable or social life, then social reality becomes an appearance to this subject, not a system of a social formation” (p. 67). That is, Dumont proposes that the order of India comes from ideology, rather than from the human combination of relationships that make up the Indian social formation. In other words, Dumont takes a literal interpretation of the religions of India, without considering that ideology often takes on a life of its own in the minds of theologians that has no connection to infrastructural phenomena.

Instead of looking at religion in terms of subjective idealism, Feuchtwang (1984) argued, “The peculiar property of ideological practice is the formation of subjectivity” (p. 81). That is, the researcher of religion in other societies and cultures needs to look at religious ideas not only as thought, but behavior. Ideas and thought are inscribed in practice, and help to shape as they are shaped by what has been produced before, and this process unfolds in relation to the existing relations of production.

Feuchtwang (1984) called for a Marxist theory of social practice to research religion because it is a theory from which all other forms in a society are derived. Such an analytical technique can differentiate between different social formations. That is, practices are repeatable and so too are societies in all of their detailed variations. Since Marxist analysis neither seeks nor starts from the basis of some universal categories existing at a supreme level, it can explore different social and economic systems to produce knowledge needed to understand them in a constructive manner. He defines religion as ideology and its set of shared symbols and meanings. That is, religion as a form of ideology is always attached to the category of the subject. Men and women think and act in relation to their circumstances as they define them, and it is by means of ideology that they are culturally constructed as individuals or some other subject. Feuchtwang elaborates on his concept of religion as ideology by way of the following example of ritual toasting behavior from Taiwan (p. 72).

Ritual feasting is a common means through which collective decisions and bargaining are made in contemporary Taiwan. The feast serves to ritually bind members in association and seal their agreements. An association becomes formally recognized by means of a toasting ritual, but a person drinks only when they recognize in another a common identity of name, ancestral village, work, school, or military service. In Taiwan, they usually toast one another before an incense burner that they believe acts as a medium to a patron deity (e.g., an ancestral craft, scholar, or heroic military god). There is a given deity who represents the unity of the association and before whom partners are sworn in solidarity.

The ritual of toasting between humans and their gods in Taiwan finds its counterpart in the guilds of late Imperial China. Feuchtwang (1984) explained that the present religious ideology of ceremonial feasts reflects some of the ideology of the dominant division of class in late Imperial China, which defined the conditions of hierarchy for the rest of society (p. 69). An ideology, at another level, represented their moral order of heaven as emperor and its consortium of landlords, military generals, and government literati over a purgatory of disarrayed spirits. The religious ideology and its ceremonies are the obverse side of real positions within the hierarchical and geographical array of the Chinese imperial empire. Even though contemporary Taiwanese ritual feasts are related to other ideologies such as capital, Feuchtwang finds their underlying logic is continuous with a Chinese past.

Late-imperial China was an agricultural society, which formed a pyramid-like social structure with a large peasantry at its base and the gentry at its peak. Peasant farmers needed to maintain the minimum unit of land necessary for their own reproduction, while gentries concerned themselves with owning enough land to support their livelihoods from the rent they collected. Although the social organization of the peasantry was contiguous with the boundaries of their particular village, the associations of the gentry cut across many villages and cities. Villages were linked together by exchange networks in an extensive and periodic system and through commercial centers for accumulating and processing surplus products. Merchants organized the market, while the imperial bureaucracy controlled large tax monopolies. Landlords organized public works.

The reproduction of the collaborating elites, unlike the peasantries, did not depend on the reproduction of the basic agricultural unit of production. Rather, it depended on the reproduction of the political order. Elites constituted themselves into extended families and lineage organizations— to ensure the survival of their next generation—needed to withstand threats from partitioning inheritance rules and competitive succession into office. They strategized through such means as affinal networking, extended-family budgeting, and setting up trusts that were excluded from laws of partition. Since small farms, once they reached a stage in the domestic cycle of the stem family, were divided between sons it was unlikely that small farmers could ever move up the hierarchy. However, they could join a lineage association to increase their family’s opportunities over the long run. By means of a lineage association, a small farmer could send his son to school, and even hope to see his child sponsored under its auspices. These kinds of opportunities for the advancement of small farmers reinforced their acceptance of the descent organization and its ideology (Feuchtwang, 1984, p. 75).

It was in the lineage organization that the forms of feast ceremonies connected to a common ancestor were formed. These feasts were used by the powerful for their nonideological projects (infrastructural development, trade, and political mobilization) in explicitly ideological ways (marriage customs, ancestor worship, filial piety). The lower class aspired to the ideology of the leading class, largely, by modifying it. Otherwise, they could not afford the high costs of dowries and feasts to promote their alliances and lines of descent. Even though the living conditions for the masses, during Imperial times, did not change substantially as a result of their participation in the lineage associations of the elite, they were sustained ideologically due to their hope for upward mobility.

In short, Feuchtwang (1984), Asad (1983), and el-Zein (1977) all recommended that researchers begin their studies from the viewpoint of the underlying conditions and assumptions that allow subjective expressions of religion. Their approach challenges many of the categorical assumptions born of Western science. Like many of the traditional units of study in anthropology such as ethnicity, kinship, and the individual, supernatural categories that exist at some superhuman level are not universally given. Rather, their definitive existence needs to be determined through analysis of the historical and structural context of the subject of study and in relation to a particular social formation.


Interpretive anthropologists and cultural Marxists continue to argue for a materialist and dialectical approach to the study of ideology into the 21st century. The concept of ideology is not an abstract category of meaning that exists at some universal level. Rather, it is grounded, contextually and structurally, in the contemporary globalized world in which we live. For example, religion as an aspect of ideology needs to be examined in its historic and synchronic relations to an already existing social and economic formation to provide the knowledge needed to understand it constructively. Otherwise, students of ideology run the risk of losing contact with their subjects of study by creating theories that have no concrete relation to them. Or, they risk identifying with their subjects of study to the point of misconstruing their indigenous beliefs and philosophies in terms of an abstract theory. Finally, a lasting insight from anthropology for the study of ideology is to begin from the point of view of the defining social subjects themselves who are the makers of their own history. Ideology cannot be defined definitively because human communities are constantly changing and adjusting to their changing circumstances in a global world.


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