What Is Ideological Criticism?

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  • Written By: G. Wiesen
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 11 September 2014
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Ideological criticism is a form of criticism that usually targets ideographs within a particular work or speech in order to better understand the ultimate substance of the work. Ideographs are “artifacts” within a work, often either particular words or images, which have a greater, symbolic meaning that is understood and observed on a cultural level. Words in American English such as “justice” or “freedom” are ideographs that have more meaning to them than merely a dictionary definition. Ideological criticism often targets political discourse or written works as a way to identify greater meaning within a work and then determine the validity of that secondary meaning.

The underlying principal behind ideological criticism is that there are certain artifacts within language and visual symbolism called ideographs. These ideographs convey greater meaning within a particular cultural context than they may have on a purely denotative level. For example, the word “freedom” is often used in American political discourse, and has been used throughout the entirety of American history. Yet the meaning of this word has changed through the decades and has had certain cultural contexts and meanings that surpass the basic idea of “freedom” as a dictionary definition.


Ideological criticism is used to identify these types of ideographs and consider how this cultural meaning is used within a particular piece of communication. When an American politician uses the word “freedom” during a speech, for example, someone can use ideological criticism to first identify that this is an ideograph and then consider why it was used. In the instance of “freedom,” its usage is often intended as a way to rally Americans behind a common cause or ideal, since “freedom” is often seen as the highest political “good” that can be performed. As an ideograph, few words are more powerful in American political dialogue and convey greater meaning, yet like other ideographs its meaning has changed over time and should be considered in a larger context for the sake of ideological criticism.

In 1776, for example, “freedom” may have meant “freedom from tyranny” in the form of the British monarchy and its power over the American colonies. Modern uses of “freedom,” however, have nothing to do with British power and so ideological criticism considers how the ideograph “freedom” has changed over time. It is now, typically, used to promote the idea of spreading “American freedom” to other countries. Through ideological criticism, someone can identify that “freedom” has functioned as an ideograph for hundreds of years, though its meaning has changed, and may mean something very different to a citizen of France, Germany, or Iraq.


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