Proponents of the thesis identify ideology, a term used (in this context) synonymously with concepts such as shared belief systems, ultimate values, and common culture, as the mainstay of social order in advanced capitalist societies. The argument assumes that, in class-stratified societies, the ruling class controls the production of ideas as well as material production. It propagates a set of coherent beliefs which dominate subordinate meaning systems and, as a consequence, shapes working-class consciousness in the interests of the status quo. The dominant class effectively diffuses a false consciousness among the masses who are thus rendered incapable of defending their own class interests. In other words, a dominant ideology functions to incorporate the working class into capitalist society, thereby maintaining social cohesion.
While Talcott Parsons and other normative functionalists have long been associated with cultural accounts of social integration, it has been noted that neo-Marxists such as Louis Althusser, Antonio Gramsci, and Jürgen Habermas also relied on theories of a dominant ideology in their writings on capitalist societies. Moreover, with the possible exception of Gramsci, they give a functionalist account of the role of such an ideology in their explanations of social stability. Neo-Marxists, it has been argued, have come increasingly to depend on the concept of ideology to explain the lack of revolutionary working-class consciousness in advanced capitalist societies: the absence of revolutionary struggle is explained primarily by the ideological incorporation of the working class. Functionalist and Marxist explanations of how societies cohere have thus become rather similar over the course of the 20th century—a somewhat ironic development since neither Durkheim nor Marx neglected the role of economic and political coercion in their own accounts of social stability and instability.
Numerous theoretical and empirical problems have been identified with the dominant ideology thesis. Rarely has a dominant ideology been clearly identified and its principal characteristics properly defined. The thesis suggests that an overarching ideology dictates the way in which the subordinate classes view society, yet its proponents have consistently failed to explain the processes by which the ruling class imposes such an ideology on the masses. Instead, they proffer a somewhat derisory picture of a falsely conscious working class, easily lulled into accepting an unequal distribution of material resources and political power. It is not surprising, therefore, to find that such a vague and imprecise thesis has been almost impossible to operationalize and substantiate empirically.
Many sociologists question the importance which has been attached to the role of a dominant ideology in recent accounts of social order. For example, Nicholas Abercrombie and his colleagues (The Dominant Ideology Thesis, 1980) maintain that dominant ideologies are rarely transmitted effectively throughout social structures, and that their principal effects are on superordinate rather than subordinate classes. In feudal and early capitalist societies such ideologies functioned to maintain the control of the dominant class over wealth—but at the level of the elites themselves. Both the feudal manor and capitalist family firm depended on the conservation and accumulation of property. Private possession of land and capital required a stable marriage system, with unambiguous rules about inheritance, legitimacy, and remarriage. The dominant ideology was a complex of legal, moral, and religious values which had the required effect of preserving wealth. Among feudal ruling classes, for example, Catholicism and the system of honour provided ideological guarantees that children would remain loyal to family holdings. By comparison the peasantry (and in early capitalism the factory workforce) were co-opted by the sheer exigencies of labouring to live—the ‘dull compulsion of economic relations’. Even in late capitalism the ‘iron cage’ of everyday life offers a better explanation of working-class quiescence than does ideological incorporation. Moral pluralism and a great diversity of political, social, and cultural deviance can readily be tolerated because the compliance of subordinate strata is secured by economic constraint, political coercion, and the bureaucratic mechanisms of school, family, workplace, and prison. The persistence of conflict in capitalist societies also suggests that a dominant ideology is not functionally all-embracing.