The Situationist

Social Tuning and Ideology – Part 1

Posted by Al Sahlstrom on January 25, 2009

The dominant view of ideology is that it is something that individuals consciously, rationally form.  In this mold, ideology is something pure that exists for its own reasons.  It is not a means to an end, unless that end is implementation of policy that reflects the most accurate evaluation of the world around us.  It does not, or at least should not, change based on different situations.  Nevertheless, there is reason to believe that unconscious, automatic processes and social psychological factors are connected to ideology.

One theoretical perspective that sheds light on this connection is shared reality theory.  Shared reality theory proposes the idea that particular cognitions are founded on and regulated by particular interpersonal relationships, and that particular cognitions in turn regulate interpersonal relationship dynamics.  In other words, there is evidence that our associations with others might have a meaningful impact on our internal thought processes and vice-versa.  Our social interactions may in fact serve a crucial psychological function by creating a common (or shared) view of reality that lends a sense of objectivity to otherwise transitory and subjective individual experience.  One theoretical means through which we establish shared reality is “social tuning,” through which we bring relationship-relevant attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors into harmony with those of others with whom we either wish to be close or must be close.  Ideology is particularly implicated in these processes, both due to its salience and because ideologies can function as “prepackaged” sets of beliefs that are useful for establishing where we stand in relation to others and their perspectives.

While shared reality theory and the possibility that people might actually “tune” their beliefs based on their relationships does not mean that ideology is arbitrary, it does undermine traditional dispositionist assumptions about the centrality of the individual as a rational decision-maker.  Our responses to situations that implicate our religious or political views involve automatic processes that are permeable and susceptible to the influence of those around us.  Our level of commitment to a given idea can vary depending on how we are experimentally primed.  Rather than occupying a consecrated position above other opinions, trends, and inclinations, it is possible that ideology can be as unconsciously driven and impacted by situational pressures as preferences that are given considerably less weight.  The full impact of these phenomena is likely to become clearer as social psychologists continue to explore our need for shared reality with others and its relationship with our view of the world around us.

* * *

For more on the relationship between affiliative processes and ideology, read Part 2, which contains my interview of Curtis Hardin.  For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Social Networks” and “Common Cause: Combating the Epidemics of Obesity and Evil.”

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7 Responses to “Social Tuning and Ideology – Part 1”

  1. Zach said

    If you had read any critical theory, you would have written that first paragraph differently.

    Even very vulgar Marxism would have established a very different view of ideology — the suicidal synthesis of Freudian psychology and Lukacsian reification in critical theory was aimed at this very problem.

    I suppose it is quite unfortunate that (Marxist) sociologists write in such silly prose as a way to impress those within the sub-discipline. At every turn it seems that a combination of behavioral economics, social psychology and social theory could unite under a common language to explain the plethora of confusing problems that neoclassical economics leaves in its wake, i.e. current financial crisis.

  2. dk said

    very interesting. The political science conception of “ideology” sees it as essentially a collection of related ideals that are self-consciously entertained, and it might well be the dominant usage today. But the classic, sociological conception of ideology, which is what Zach I think has in mind, sees it as a system of understandings — about what should be, certainly, but also about what is, how the natural and social world work — that pervades and shapes consciousness but that is not itself consciously perceived and that impels the individuals who harbor it to behave in ways that reinforce some particular collective entity (like an economic class, but also possibly a nation, a gender, a race, etc.). This is the conception that Marx seemed to have. There are some (actually, plenty) of social scientists and other thinkers who subscribe to this model of how individual thinking and collective behavior interact. But many more nowadays reject it b/c it presents a *functionalist* account of social life, that is, one that posits individuals behave in a certain way *b/c* doing so promotes the end of some collective entity. One way to try to rehabilitate ideology, or in any case to try to make it consistent with “methodological individualism”–the tenet that the behavior of collective entities should be explained by the decisions individuals make about how to pursue their own interests–is to root ideology in various mechanisms of social psychology. See Boudon, Social Mechanisms Without Black Boxes, in Social Mechanisms: An Analytical Approach to Social theory (eds., P. Hedström & R. Swedbergpp), pp. 172-203 (1998). I gather “shared reality” theory is a version of that–although to be a successful version, the social psychological mechanisms that a theory emphasizes have to have some explanation that isn’t simply the contribution they make to the functioning of collective entities; I couldn’t tell from your description whether this was so for shared reality theory (there are definitely some psychological renderings of ideology that don’t do anything to acquit it of the functionalist critique). In any case, I am now curious about this work, with which I wasn’t familiar, and look forward to your next post on it.

  3. [...] Sunday, 25 Jan 2009 at 8:05 am Shared reality theory proposes the idea that particular cognitions are founded on and regulated by particular interpersonal relationships, and that particular cognitions in turn regulate interpersonal relationship dynamics. In other words, there is evidence that our associations with others might have a meaningful impact on our internal thought processes and vice-versa. Our social interactions may in fact serve a crucial psychological function by creating a common (or shared) view of reality that lends a sense of objectivity to otherwise transitory and subjective individual experience. One theoretical means through which we establish shared reality is “social tuning,” through which we bring relationship-relevant attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors into harmony with those of others with whom we either wish to be close or must be close. Ideology is particularly implicated in these processes, both due to its salience and because ideologies can function as “prepackaged” sets of beliefs that are useful for establishing where we stand in relation to others and their perspectives. (Social Tuning and Ideology – Part 1) [...]

  4. I see two main ideas in the post: that ideology has a function, and that our individual uptake of ideology (how sensitive we are to it, what we do with it) is influenced by the interpersonal relationships we enter into. There seems a straightforward understanding of both claims that make them no news at all, either in the social sciences (for the first claim) or in social psychology (for the second). “Shared reality theory” must, then, have something different in mind if it is to provide any kind of novel insight into ideology, individual belief, and collective cognition.

    But what exactly? I guess we might see in Part 2. I’d be curious to see if there is any connection between shared reality theory and the extended mind thesis, which comes out of philosophy of mind and cognitive science, whereby individual cognition extends beyond the head of the individual (pat example: an individual thinking with pen and paper). I think that one of the most interesting applications of this idea is to the social domain, e.g., in understanding aspects of interpersonal cognition and communication that fall somewhere between simply “other people influence what I think” and “groups have minds, just like individuals do”. The extended mind paradigm challenges a lot of dispositional thinking about social cognition, or at least it seems so to me. I wonder whether shared reality theory does so as well, and if so, whether it does so in the same way. From what’s posted so far, it’s hard to tell.

  5. Zach said

    I had in mind an Althusserian conception of ideology. For him, the constitution of a free-thinking subject is itself the very stuff of ideology. Ideology and the conscience are identical, thus, we lack agency beyond the modern and, in effect, revolutionary actions.

    Although, Dk’s comment is an excellent clarification. However, my sense is that most social-scientists posit a “no-bullshit” view of ideology and take a Cartesian subject-object divide as fundamental. For example, if you went to an economist or any rational choice theorist and tried to explain how the subject-object divide should collapse into itself, my suspicion is that one would be dismissed and laughed at for being a “silly philosopher.”

    Shared reality theory makes me think of Schutzian phenomenology. His whole work was a buildup of conscience out of intersubjective social relations which in turn “tune in” other relations to create a habitable social space, whereby each action relates to another action in a total sphere. He termed this total sphere “ideology,” as in the collection of intersubjective relations which make up a worldview that filters reality.

  6. [...] Social Tuning and Ideology – Part I [...]

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