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Journal of Political Ideologies

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From core to sore concepts:

Ideological innovation and
conceptual change
Terence Ball

Department of Political Science , Arizona State University ,

Tempe, AZ, 852872001, USA
Published online: 19 Nov 2007.

To cite this article: Terence Ball (1999) From core to sore concepts: Ideological
innovation and conceptual change, Journal of Political Ideologies, 4:3, 391-396, DOI:
To link to this article:


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Journal of Political Ideologies (1999), 4(3), 391-396

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From 'core' to 'sore' concepts:

ideological innovation and
conceptual change
Department of Political Science, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ 85287-2001,

'Ideology' remains a hotly contested concept. Few analysts agree on any single
definition; indeed, there are many rival and competing conceptions of ideology
in the social sciences.1 But on one point there is virtually unanimous agreement.
Ideologies are action-oriented; they move or motivate people to act in one way
or another.2 As the unhappy history of the twentieth century attests all too
clearly, these actions are often violent and sometimes genocidal. But before
ideologies inspire or motivate people to do things with weapons, they must first
do things with words. Or, rather, in political struggles words are incorporated
into ideologies, where they become weapons. These weapons may be crude or
complex, simple or sophisticated; but they are wielded by members of one group
or party against those whom they perceive to be enemies.3 As my fellow
symposiast Michael Freeden notes, ideologies are, as it were, community
property and are deployed by the members of one ideological community against
those of other, rival communities.4
Just what sort of things an ideology motivates the members of an ideological
community to do depends on what wordsor concepts5are central to the
ideology in question. We can, for convenience's sake, divide these into two
categories. The first, following Freeden, I shall call core concepts;6 the second
I shall, for want of a better term, call sore concepts. A core concept is one that
is both central to, and constitutive of, a particular ideology and therefore of the
* An earlier version of this debate took place at the round table on ideological communities and political contexts
at the 1998 meeting of the American Political Science Association, chaired by Terence Ball. The four contributors
wish to thank each other, and several members of the audience, for criticism and commentary.
1356-9317/99/030391-06 1999 Taylor & Francis Ltd

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ideological community to which it gives inspiration and identity. For example,

the concept of 'class' (and of course 'class struggle') is a key or core concept
in Marxism, as 'gender' is in feminism, and 'liberty' (or 'individual liberty') is
in liberalism, and so on through the list of leading ideologies.
A sore concept is a core concept whose meaning is unstable, undecidedin
short, contested7from either or both of two directions. As Richard Dagger
notes, it may be contested intramurally, from within the ideology, by its own
adherents; or it may be contested extramurally, from outside the ideology, by
other, rival ideologies, or even by events in the external environment.8 These last
might include cataclysmic socio-political or economic events (e.g. revolution, or
economic depression) or even new scientific discoveries or developments (think,
for example, of the ideological impact of Darwin's theory of natural selection).
To be sure, these external events or developments require interpretation as a
prelude to their (i) recognition and possible incorporation into the ideology or
(ii) rejection or dismissal as unimportant or irrelevant to the ideology in
question. One sees this quite clearly, for instance, in debates within Marxism
regarding the (ir)relevance of Darwinian theory.9
Let us look a little more closely at contestation within an ideology. Sore
concepts typically rouse disagreements among adherents of an ideology. Sometimes these disagreements are so severe and protracted as to lead to splits within,
and from, the ideological community. Consider, for example, contests over the
concept of 'revolution' in Marxism. One such contest was mat between orthodox
and 'revisionist' Marxists at the turn of the last century. Eduard Bernstein
insisted that revolution was not a core concept within Marxian theory; that
economic and political developmentsthe emergence of trades unions and
working-class political parties in particularhad rendered revolution obsolete;
that these developments suggested that a peaceful, piecemeal and 'evolutionary'
path to socialism was now far more plausible; and that the 'immiseration of the
proletariat' predicted by Marx had not been borne out by events, but, on the
contrary, English and European workers were becoming better-off because of
legislation regulating workers' wages, hours, and working conditions. To take
these empirical facts into account and revise Marxian theory accordingly was,
Bernstein insisted, in keeping with Marx's own 'scientific' outlook.10
Bernstein's proposed revision of Marxian theoryand his suggested scrapping
of the concept and the prospect of proletarian revolution in particularled to him
and other Revisionists being derided and drummed out of the ranks of orthodox
Marxists. Karl Kautsky, Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht and, most vociferously
of all, V. I. Lenin, denounced Bernstein as a 'bourgeois' traitor to 'true' Marxism,
which was necessarily and had to remain a radical and revolutionary ideology.11
Other splits within Marxism revolved around the perpetually sore concept of
revolution. Leon Trotsky understood 'revolution' one way, Stalin in another. For
Trotsky, proletarian revolution was to be 'permanent revolution'the revolution
of all social, political and economic relations in all countries and at the same


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time, varying in accord with their level of socio-economic development.12 Stalin,

by contrast, held that 'revolution from above' and 'in one country'the Soviet
Unionwas the 'true' or 'real' form for revolution to take in the twentieth
century. That debate ended abruptly when one of Stalin's secret agents buried an
ice-axe in the back of Trotsky's head.
The foregoing illustrations should not be taken to mean that sore concepts are
characteristic of Marxism only and/or always lead to splits within an ideological
community. Far from it. More typically, sore concepts continue to foment debate
within an ideological tradition. And these debates help to keep that tradition vital.
Consider the concept of liberty in liberalism. There is a long-standing debate
between the proponents of 'negative' and 'positive' liberty. Against Bentham's
and Mill's 'negative' viewthat liberty means the absence of obstacles to the
pursuit of one's own preferences and principlesT. H. Green formulated the
'positive' view that the truest liberty is that of the higher self to pursue its higher
non-selfish goals.13 That debate continues today within liberalism and between
(roughly) those who agree with the late Isaiah Berlin's defence of negative liberty
and those who lean toward a more positive or 'communitarian' conception of
liberty.14 There has also of late been a revival of and renewed interest in earlier
'republican' political thought, and attempts to incorporate its hybrid view of
liberty, which shares affinities with both the negative and positive views.15
These and other conceptual contests sometimes become defining or identifying
features of an ideology. This would seem to be the case with liberalism and its
ongoing debate about 'liberty'. It also appears to be true of debates within
feminism, in which 'gender' remains a sore concept. Are gender differences
natural or artificial, i.e. are they the result of unchanging nature or of changeable
nurture? Are they biologically innate or historically contingent?16 Should traditional gender differences be downplayed oras some 'lipstick feminists'
contendemphasised as a matter of female identity and pride? Versions of and
variations on this debate continue to characterise feminist discourse to such a
degree that this may well be a defining feature of feminism as an ideology.
An ideology is, amongst other things, a conceptual construct: it is constituted by
its core (and sometimes sore) concepts. These do not of course stand alone in
splendid isolation; they figure in ongoing and sometimes divisive debates and
arguments. The history of any ideology is in important ways the history of these
arguments and debates. Within any argumentand therefore within any ideologythere is the perpetual possibility of 'cognitive dissonance' and a corresponding and countervailing 'strain towards consistency'.17 One of the most
damning things a critic can say is that my ideology is incoherent or internally
contradictory. Philosophical inquiry, one might say, is merely the most sophisticated version of ideological thrust and parry. It persistently probes for weaknesses in the logical structure and supporting arguments of rival ideologies even


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as it defends its own favoured ideology from criticism. To the degree that such
criticism is deemed justifiable, it calls for adjustment within the conceptually
constituted framework of its favoured ideology and thus of the ideological
community of which it is a defining part.
Such philosophical analysis and criticism is the elan vital of any ideology.
And any ideological community which eschews philosophy and embraces
contradiction and thus the threat of ideological incoherence is already well on its
way to becoming moribund. We see this quite clearly in Stalin's infamous
embrace of internal contradictions in Marxism-Leninism:
We stand for the withering away of the state. At the same time we stand for the
strengthening of the dictatorship of the proletariat, which is the mightiest and strongest
state power that has ever existed ... Is this 'contradictory'? Yes, it is contradictory. But this
contradiction is bound up with life, and it fully reflects Marx's dialectics.18

Notably missing from this startling assertion is any recognition that Marx in
good philosophical fashion always advocated exposing contradictions as a
prelude to overcoming, not accepting (much less celebrating), them. There could
have been no clearer announcement than Stalin's statement of the intellectual
bankruptcy of his brand of Marxism-Leninism.
Such admissions are relatively rare, however. Most ideologists, most of the
time, are acutely sensitive to charges of contradictoriness or incoherence and are
prepared to make the necessary adjustments in arguments and the concepts that
figure in them. These adjustments often take the form of altered meanings of
core (and/or sore) concepts. Ideological debates, internal and external, are apt to
result in challenges toand alterations ofsuch concepts as 'revolution' or
'liberty' or 'gender'. Which is another way of saying that ideologies contribute
to and are in turn affected by conceptual change.19 The history of the concepts
constitutive of political discourseliberty, justice, equality, authority, obligation, also the history of the ideologies that have rallied to, relied upon,
redefined, and sometimes rejected these very concepts. Ideologiesor, more
precisely, ideological debates and disputesare the engines of conceptual
change. The history of these concepts is therefore in important ways the history
of ideological disputation and philosophical argumentation.
As Andrew Vincent observes, the social sciencesand the academic discipline of political science in particularhave not attended very well (if at all) to
the part played by ideologies in inspiring and motivating the members of
ideological communities.20 Ideologies have largely been viewed as rationalisations of, or post hoc justifications for, the pursuit and promotion of non-ideological interests (although this appears to be changing, albeit slowly).21 The
centrality and importance of this legitimating function has been gravely underestimated, as Quentin Skinner's seminal studies have shown.22 For the need to
present one's programme of policies as legitimate imposes constraints upon the
course of action that actors can rationally pursue. Not just any course of action
is open to a rational actor at any given time. S/he must operate within the
conceptual constraints imposed by the concepts available to him or her. And


typically these will prove to be sore concepts whose meanings have changed
over time and in the course of ideological disputation and debate.
One particularly sore conceptthat of rightsis absent from my preceding list
of political concepts. The omission is intentional, however, for I now want to turn
the discussion over to Richard Dagger, who will discuss 'rights' as an illustration
of themes to which I have alluded in an all too abstract and schematic way.

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Notes and references

1. For one listing amongst many, see Malcolm B. Halperin, 'The elements of the concept of ideology',
Political Studies, 35 (1987), pp. 18-38.
2. I do not of course mean to suggest that this is the only feature common to all conceptions and/or formal
definitions of 'ideology'.
3. This, it seems to me, is the core of truth in Schmitt's otherwise too-simple and overblown 'friend'/'enemy'
(freund/fiende) dichotomy as the main defining feature of 'the political'. See Alfred Schmitt, The Concept
of the Political [translated by G.Schwab] (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1976).
4. See Michael Freeden, 'Ideologies as communal resources', in the present symposium.
5. I take it that words are used to designate concepts. The best indication that a society has acquired a concept
is that its language includes a word to designate it. See Quentin Skinner, 'Language and political change',
in Terence Ball, James Farr and Russell L. Hanson (Eds.), Political Innovation and Conceptual Change
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), ch. 1, at pp. 7-8.
6. See Michael Freeden, Ideologies and Political Theory: A Conceptual Approach (Oxford: Clarendon Press,
1996), pp. 62-3 & 77-84.
7. Not necessarily in W. B. Gallie's sense in his now-classic essay, 'Essentially contested concepts', Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 56 (1955-56), pp. 167-98. See, further, the illuminating discussion in
Andrew Mason, Explaining Political Disagreement (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), ch. 2.
8. See Richard Dagger's contribution to the present symposium.
9. For competing views of Darwinian theory within Marxism, see Terence Ball, Reappraising Political
Theory (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), ch. 10; for a wide-ranging survey of Darwin's influence on other
ideological traditions, see Mike Hawkins, Social Darwinism in European and American Thought,
1860-1945 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).
10. Vide Eduard Bernstein, Evolutionary Socialism (New York: Schocken Books, 1961; first German edition
11. See e.g. Lenin, 'Marxism and Revisionism' in V. I. Lenin, Selected Works, I Vol. edn (Moscow: Progress
Publishers, 1968), pp. 25-32.
12. Leon Trotsky, The Permanent Revolution (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1969).
13. T. H. Green, 'Liberal legislation and freedom of contract' [1880], in The Works of Thomas Hill Green
(London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1888), Vol. 3, pp. 370-6. Green was not, of course, the first to
articulate the idea of 'positive' liberty, which is as old as Plato and has echoes in Aquinas, Rousseau, and
Hegel, amongst many other thinkers.
14. Isaiah Berlin, 'Two concepts of liberty', in Four Essays on Liberty (Oxford: Oxford University Press,
1969). Amongst Berlin's numerous 'communitarian' critics, see Charles Taylor, 'What's wrong with
negative liberty', Philosophical Papers, 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), ch. 8.
15. Vide Quentin Skinner, Liberty before Liberalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998); Philip
Pettit, Republicanism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), Part I.
16. See, e.g., Alison M. Jaggar, Feminist Politics and Human Nature (Totawa, NJ: Rowman & Allanheld,
17. See Leon Festinger, When Prophecy Fails (New York: Harper & Row, 1964). Cf. Terence Ball,
'Contradiction and critique in political theory', in John S. Nelson (Ed.), What Should Political Theory be
Now? (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1983), pp. 127-50; and the attempted application
in Terence Ball, 'Ideology and consistency: a dialogical approach', Journal of Political Ideologies, 1
(1996), pp. 97-102.
18. Josef Stalin, 'Political report of the Central Committee to the Sixteenth Party Congress', in Stalin, Selected
Works (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1952-55), Vol. 12, p. 381.
19. See Ball, Farr and Hanson, op. cit., Ref. 5; and Terence Ball, Transforming Political Discourse (Oxford:
Blackwell, 1988).
20. Andrew Vincent, 'Ideology and the community of politics', in the present symposium.



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21. There is a small but growing literature on the explanatory primacy of 'ideas' (and thus presumably of those
systems of ideas that we call ideologies) over 'interests'. See, inter alia, Judith Goldstein, Ideas, Interests,
and American Trade Policy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993).
22. Vide Quentin Skinner, 'Some problems in the analysis of political thought and action', in James Tully
(Ed.), Meaning and Context (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988), ch. 5.