Ideas and Politics

How do ideas become effective forces in history?

More than a hundred years ago, Max Weber asked himself a question that still vexes the social scientists. How, he wondered, can ideas become “effective forces in history?”1 How can things like beliefs or narratives, visions of the futures or conjurations of the past change the ways in which people act and interact?

Social scientists have long had a somewhat standoffish relationship with ideational explanations. During the cold war, the study of ideas sounded an awful lot like the study of ideology - an anathema for a new generation of self-confident social scientists who wanted to stay clear of the muddy waters of intellectual politics.2

Others believed that ideas are not explanatory variables in themselves but should be seen as “the product of circumstances and interests” or, at most, as “weapons framed for the furtherance of interests.”3 Yet others thought that ideas may well matter, but they are simply too hard to measure. Ideas, as Philip Converse famously quipped, are a “primary exhibits for the doctrine that what is important to study cannot be measured and that what can be measured is not important to study.”4

It is, of course, rather curious “that scholars, whose entire existence is centered on the production and understanding of ideas, should grant ideas so little significance for explaining political life.”5 But not only that. Why, one wonders, would businesses and politician channel so many resources into something that does not actually matter? And why would ordinary people spend so much time and energy defending and attacking things that are supposed to be ‘epiphenomenal’?

“The tens of millions of dollars that are spent on think tanks to churn out ideas and public relations firms to market them would be largely wasted. The billions of dollars spent on market research and on advertising would be unnecessary. (…) In politics, people would vote exclusively out of material self-interest. There would no longer be anything the matter with Kansas, and limousine liberals in Cambridge and Berkeley would become antitax crusaders. Job seekers would not choose careers because of their meaning; college students would stop trying to find themselves. Terrorists would not blow up buildings out of visions of religious glory or ideological triumph. There would be no such thing as a thought leader or a visionary.”6

Ideas, it should be clear, do matter, and it comes as no surprise that ideational explanations have experienced something of a comeback in recent years and decades. In my own research I build on the theoretical and empirical work done by these ‘scholars of the ideational renaissance’, who have managed to move the field from the question: do ideas matter? to: how and when do they matter? And: how can they be measured?

In my own work, I explore how ideas can both change the ways in which actors perceive their own interests (and therefore their coalitional alignments), and how actors use ideas to advance their own interests by changing how others perceive theirs. But ideas, as the figure below illustrates, are not independent of the structural, ideational, and cultural context in which they operate. Rather actors’ interests are pre-shaped by their position in the political economy, and the power and plausibility of their interpretations of an always changing world depend on their fit with existing institutional regimes and other dominant ideas.


  1. Weber, Max (2007): The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. London: Routledge, p. 48.↩︎

  2. Geertz, Clifford (1964): Ideology as a Cultural System. In David E. Apter (Ed.): Ideology and Discontent. New York: The Free Press.↩︎

  3. Carr, Edward H. (2016 [1939]): The Twenty Years’ Crisis, 1919-1939. Reissued with a New Preface from Michael Cox. London: Palgrave Macmillan UK, p. 65.↩︎

  4. Converse, Philip E. (1964): The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics. In David E. Apter (Ed.): Ideology and Discontent. New York: The Free Press, p. 206.↩︎

  5. Sikkink, Kathryn (1991): Ideas and institutions. Developmentalism in Brazil and Argentina. Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, p. 1.↩︎

  6. Mehta, Jal (2011): The Varied Roles of Ideas in Politics: From “Whether” to “How,”. In Daniel Béland, Robert Henry Cox (Eds.): Ideas and Politics in Social Science Research. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, p. 24.↩︎