Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Mythology, Ideology and Politics

That is the title of a paper I Presented at the annual meetings of The Society for the Advancement of Socio-Economics in July 1994, in Paris, France. I found many parallels between ideology and mythology. Click here to read it. It is an MS Word file, so you might get a dialog box asking you if you want to open it. It is about 20 pages long.

I got started thinking about these parallels after seeing what Joseph Campbell said about the functions of myth and what economist Robert Higgs said about the functions of ideology. I saw some similaritiess.

The four functions of mythology according to Campbell are:

1. Mystical-Realizing what a wonder the universe is, and what a wonder you are and experiencing awe before the mystery. Myth opens the world to the dimension of mystery, to the realization of the mystery that underlies all forms.
2. Cosmological dimensions-This is the dimension with which science is concerned-showing you what the shape of the universe is, but showing it in such a way that the mystery comes through.
3. Sociological-This supports and validates a certain social order. These myths vary from place to place.
4. Pedagogical-How to live a human life under any circumstances.

Although not identical to, these are similar to the aspects of ideology mentioned by Higgs. The sociological function is akin to Higgs's solidary aspect while the pedagogical function is akin to Higgs's programmatic aspect. The cosmological aspect can be seen as similar to the cognitive aspect in that they both aim at explaining why the world is as it is. The pedagogical function can also be seen as similar to the affective aspect of ideology in that it can communicate morals.

Given that the world is full of uncertainty, everyone has an ideology or lives by a mythology. One can never scientifically "prove" that their ideology is the correct one. Furthermore, how does one choose and then adhere to an ideology? There must be some emotional, irrational attachment to it. As mentioned earlier, people are swayed by the emotional and symbolic rhetoric of issue entrepreneurs. They often do this with poetry (as Higgs mentions) or stories. Every ideology has within it a myth or mythology. This provides it with the necessary emotional foundation, without which no political movement would be successful.

The following is a summary of how ideology works in politics according to Higgs:

1. There are few ideologies. This is because ideology has to be coherent and comprehensive.
2. They are produced by opinion leaders and the public or masses consume them. Most people get their ideas from reading or hearing politicians speak and we agree or disagree.
3. Ideologies constrain and propel change (political action)
4. Ideology becomes prominent during social crises.
5. Leaders cause consumers to act through rhetoric.

For Higgs, an ideology is successful because of its rhetoric.

"Ideological expression aims to persuade, but not in the cool dispassionate manner celebrated by the rational ideal of science and philosophy. Of course it may be rational, at least in part, and it may appeal to indisputable facts. But the persuasive power of ideological expression arises for the most part from neither logic nor facts. It arises mainly from the unabashedly polemical character of the rhetoric employed."

Here is more from Higgs on ideology:

Ideology has four aspects:

The first is the cognitive aspect, which determines our understanding and perception of the world.

The second is the affective aspect, which tells us what is good or bad in a moral sense.

The third and fourth aspects are the programmatic and solidary. These propel a person to "act in accordance with his cognitions and evaluations as a committed member of a political group in pursuit of definite social objectives." Higgs uses the last aspect, the solidary aspect, to justify the introduction of ideology into the standard utility function used by economists. These usually contain the commodities that people consume because of the selfish wants and desires that individuals are said to have according to neoclassical economic theory. But ideology is added because of two additional desires human beings have: the desire to belong to a group and to have a self image or identity that arises from group membership.


  1. Have you ever read The Flight of The Wild Gander by Joseph Campbell?

  2. Mr. Silliker:

    Thank you for stopping by and commenting. How did you happen to come across my blog?

    I do have a copy of that book but I have not read it (I have read some of Campbell's books but definitely not all). Do you think this particular book is especially related to the topic here?

    Have a great day.


  3. Okay, I saw your name at another blog "overcoming bias." Joseph Campbell got mentioned there

  4. Cyril:

    I feel you could not go wrong if you were to read this book.

    This book has turned out to be a favorite and I will continue to read it as my life unfolds.

    Considering the amount of exposure I have had to Joseph Campbell via books and videos I would recommend this book as a starting point for anyone interested in the works of Campbell.

    Question. Would you consider a myth as a symbol and an ideology a sign?


  5. "Question. Would you consider a myth as a symbol and an ideology a sign?"

    That sounds good, although I have not tried to look at that question in particular. But it does seem consistent with what I had to say in this paper:

    The Intersection of Economic Signals and Mythic Symbols

    Here is the abstract:

    "Mythic symbols and economic signals represent more than what they are. Symbols represent universal ideas and themes and evoke feelings and emotions while economic signals are simple, efficient signs that stand for a more complex set of costly to learn characteristics and information. Symbols deal with the irrational and economic signals deal with the rational. Many of the signals cited in the economic literature work well because they have a symbolic element that speaks to people's emotions. By evoking emotions, a signal makes the receiver feel more confident about the truthfulness of the information it represents. The intersection of symbols and signals illustrates the relationship between the rational world of facts and irrational world of emotions and values, a relationship which needs to be explored as part of the development of the ideal type of homosocioeconomicus, the selfish yet value and community driven person."

  6. And I do have a littel bit on ideology in that paper.