Interview Analysis: Ideology and Coerced Accommodation to Sociocultural Contradictions

This paper argues that ideological beliefs are part of a dynamic, cognitive-affective process serving important conflict-managing aims for individuals living within sociocultural contradictions.  Taking the clash between hierarchical and democratic-egalitarian relational forms as an example, it uses interview material to present a psychoanalytically-informed interpretation of this process of conflict management. Developing a line of criticism I’ve directed at the work of  Jennifer Silva and Arlie Hochschild elsewhere on this site, it urges a more thorough appreciation of the complexity of a subject’s response to coercion; here I briefly extend this charge to the survey research methods that have become so central in informing, and misinforming, ourselves about the beliefs and potential motivations of those around us.  And, in similar terms, it shows that the false/true consciousness controversy would benefit from an appreciation of processes of internalized constraints on the expression of suffering.

The ideological containment of suffering

To see why ideology must be thought of in terms of a process of conflict dynamics rather than simply as a set of formal beliefs, the social context of ideology, the force field within which subjects struggle, must be adequately acknowledged.  As an example, I’ll consider a sociocultural contradiction of capitalist democracies, that between hierarchical social forms of the workplace, archetypically the factory or office, and more democratic-egalitarian social forms.

Clearly, to the extent that subordinated workers interpret the regulations of the factory as a violation of status, rights, deserved forms of reciprocity, etc., that they have lived out in other social sectors, the command structures of work and capital accumulation will be threatened and rendered less effective. Our focus will be on how the sphere of work is ideologically delimited as one in which hierarchical relations are appropriate and/or necessary, thereby excluding democratic-egalitarian forms from consideration as alternatives.  I argue that this process of circumscription is not simply a discrete learning process,  in which subjects are “socialized” to a fixed orientation to social facts as propounded by capital.  Rather, the process of circumscription entails an ongoing, never finalized containment of their discontent and subversion of their capacity for reflection upon alternative social forms. To demonstrate the applicability of psychoanalytic theory to ideology criticism in these terms, I will use it below in the analysis of interviews with an autoworker.

Hierarchical work in capitalist democracy

The contradiction under investigation is historically integral to capitalist democracies and is continually manifested by worker suffering and discontent. 1  To see this we only need refer to the history of labor-management conflict, an important source of which has been continuing resentment over the subordination of labor within a society in which an ethos of mutual respect and egalitarianism persists. Variously expressed as a protest against the progressive intensification and degradation of work or the general “despotism” of the factory, worker resistance to hierarchical relations of production reflects their experience of those relations as routinely violating rights and privileges they have lived out in other spheres. Two political scientists, Robert Dahl and Charles Lindblom, put it straightforwardly: “…workers cannot accede to control of management without damaging their own sense of self-respect. In a culture like that of the United States, where the goal of reciprocal control is highly valued, there is bound to be a deep-seated conflict between the control exercised by a ‘private’ management and the ordinary citizen’s conception of legitimate control.”  2 The poignancy of the conflict does not simply stem from a mere cognitive dissonance between the social relations of the plant and personal values derived from other sources, but from the fact that those values are part of an individual’s social identity and sense of self-worth that they are required to sacrifice in order to work.  Thus, given the nature of capitalist democracies, the experience of suffering and discontent by subordinated labor is unavoidable.

A “mandated reinterpretation” of this experience of suffering is essential to its toleration; indeed, it is central to the reproduction of capitalist democracy.  By mandated reinterpretation I refer to a process that cannot be conceived of as a simple translation or reformulation of the categories through which the contradictory experience is reflectively understood. The nominally “free” contractual surrender of rights and recognition in return for a wage masks a reinterpretation carried out under threat. Rudimentarily, management wants to maintain control of the workplace; workers must somehow sufficiently accommodate themselves to management control so that they can make a required contribution to the work process or else they are fired. The hierarchical power relations behind the mandated reinterpretation do not remain external to reinterpretation. Even outside of the workplace – including the interviews I will present – the evocation and recall of life within the contradiction evokes the threats workers face. Far from simply being acknowledged as objective obstacles to alternatives, power relationships assert themselves in the midst of the individual’s  attempt to formulate their wishes and associated frustrations. Drawing on Joyce McDougall, we can say the subject is not alone in their reflection on their experience, but rather that it occurs within a “theater of the mind” populated by contending forces (McDougall, 1991).  As we shall see, the forms of this contention are often not fully recognized by the subject; to grasp this side of the ideological process, we are obliged to employ psychoanalytically-informed categories and procedures that allow us to track these struggles.


The following interview sections are from the first and fourth of eight interviews done with Pat, a 20 year old auto assembly worker.  3 Within the sections we discover not the direct expression of an attitude or position regarding his life at work, but an instance of a characteristic dynamic process, wherein Pat’s ability to stably represent his suffering and reflect upon ways to resolve it is subverted.

I will begin in the middle of a passage, about five minutes into the first interview, in which we talked about the pace of his work:

Pat: They. have a rate set up … [denotes pause] you know for normal production and how many parts a person can run an hour, and if run over that…Like the rate on my machine is 3189 [parts per day]. If I hit 3189 two hours early I don’t have to work anymore and if they make me work they have to pay me time and a half for and hours worked …so I just quit when I hit production.

Interviewer: So you work a varying number of hours per day?

P: Yeah, there’s a lot of people who work like five hours a day, everyday.

I: You mean you can go in there and really work hard for five hours…

P: Yeah, and then you go sit in an air-conditioned cafeteria, or out in the sun.

I conveyed some surprise that people had to remain at the plant after they met their quota. Pat replied:

P: Yeah…it strikes me as funny but, I don’t know, I suppose it’s to keep down cheating and things like that ’cause a lot of people would like to leave early…

I: Let me follow this up some. How would you cheat if they know you’ve done 3189?

P: They really can’t tell because the parts I make don’t really go directly to somebody.  They sit in a bin and some one else puts parts on top of those so they couldn’t tell if it was mine or theirs or somebody else’s. My counter, I push the counter by hand, so … there’s lots of jobs like that.

I asked him if he minded hanging around the plant after he’s done his quota.

P: Not really. You know there’s people always saying  “Boy, I wish we could leave after we got done,” but they really can’t bitch because they. get paid for doing nothing … you know …I mean the work isn’t really that hard. I mean, most places, if you hit the… like Ford’s, if you hit the production you’re on call even if you are done.

Deciding to see how he would assess a justification for leaving the plant upon reaching the quota, I referred to the time and motion studies by which output is nominally determined:

P: Yeah, well it’s supposed to be no more than a normal pace, is how it reads, the contract … Yeah, it does sound reasonable, but… uh, yeah …I don’t see why they don’t work it that way-It’s just the way it’s been since I’ve been there.

I: I see.

P: Sounds, yeah, they’re just confining people.

I: Hmm…

P: That’s what they’re doing.. I don’t think they like the system they have there, really.

I asked if people planned to finish early.

P: People do that with the remainder of their time…there’s always a card game you can get into…I used to get done everyday but. they raised my rate and I won’t …I won’t run it.  I mean, you know it’s inhumanly possible so I start slowing down.

To recap: Pat first focuses on the possibility of getting off .as much as two hours early. When I ask about why people are kept at the plant Pat momentarily questions the policy, then shifts to consider management’s standpoint, speculating about the cheating that would occur if people were allowed to leave.  Passing over the likelihood that people who would be inclined to cheat would probably do so. even if only to sit in the cafeteria, Pat goes on to talk about the possibilities for cheating, starting off at a general level and then focusing on how his own job situation offers him the possibility.

I then ask if he minds staying around the plant after he has finished.   His “Not really. I’m getting paid for it,” again suggests an affirmation of management’s contractually-framed perspective.  It is other workers who complain about staying, but do not form arguments Pat  seriously considers; he simply devalues them as people who “bitch.” He then goes onto implicitly claim that they have no reason to argue because the work “isn’t really that hard,” an absolute argument which he then relativizes through the reference to conditions at Ford.

I then start to set up a possible counterargument, couching it in terms of time and motion studies. He picks up on the notion of contractual limits to work and begins to wonder whether management is “confining people.” He decides they are, but then immediately separates act and actor by claiming management doesn’t like their own system. I would argue that this sets up the possibility of criticizing work without confronting management’s responsibility. Temporarily sidelining management then allows him to begin to articulate an ongoing problem, the fact that the production rate, which he had earlier suggested was low enough for him to quit early, is actually so high that it cannot be met, that it is, as he puts it either with wit or in an ironic and contradictory slip, “inhumanly possible.”

This surprising statement, closely following Pat’s claim that management doesn’t like their own system, sheds light on earlier portions of the section. We can now say that before the denouement of a more complete and direct acknowledgement of his suffering Pat’s grievance is suppressed, not repressed, in that he seems to remain preconsciously aware of his grievance even as he affirms notions which occlude it by invoking the standpoint of management as it contends with Pat’s coworkers.  His experience of his grievance becomes mediated by his account of contention between management and other workers, a contention he critically observes.  An earlier section illustrates this well:

P: Yeah..[1] it strikes me as funny

       [2] but, I don’t know

       [3] I suppose it’s to keep down cheating and things like that because
a lot of people would like to leave early.

My asking why people are kept at the plant after they finish their quota now appears to have resonated with his own objections, which are voiced equivocally in [1]. But in [2] Pat cuts off a further articulation of his grievance with the objecting “but,” followed by “I don’t know.” The latter phrase might be understood as reflecting his uncertainty regarding management’s rationale – “I don’t know [for sure]. I suppose…” In light of what follows, it seems more plausible to regard it as a self-effacing statement, tilting toward “Who am I to say?” It reflects Pat’s “reorientation” to his experience, a blotting out of his grievance, which then reappears in criticized form in [3], conflated with the behavior that it might motivate in other employees, “cheating.”

Pat maintains this orientation, which in light of the shift occurring across segments 1, 2, and 3 and his statement at the conclusion of the final section, can be regarded as suppressive. Thus he adopts the management-backing “pay for time spent” rationale over the “pay for work done” rationale, talking of other workers “bitching” about “work that really isn’t all that hard,” at least better than at Ford. When I rearticulate a critical standpoint, not explicitly justifying it but offering it as another perspective, a move which likely casts our relatively unpressured conversations in sharp contrast to the coercive context of the plant, Pat’s grievance begins to well up again. However, when he does articulate it, it is only after management has effectively disappeared as a responsible agent – “I don’t think they like the system they have there really.” Thus Pat’s final statement of his suffering is abstracted from the social relations of the workplace. It hangs in midair, as much one of the unavoidable discontents of coordinated productive effort as it is of the capitalist workplace.

Routine dynamics of internalized coercion

In this passage we have seen how certain experiences – the “inhumanly possible” rate, the post-quota “confinement” – are not allowed to gain a status that make them relevant to the overall characterization of the social relations of the workplace. Instead, this experience, constituted through the clash of systems of representation and rights – one geared to management prerogative and the rights of property owners, the other based upon what we might call Pat’s conception of “human rights” – is suppressed. The onset of a critical attitude, both fueled by his negative experiences and potentially serving as a vehicle for elaborating them, sets off a counteracting process of self-disqualification in Pat that reflects, on one level, a fantasied confrontation with management that is inescapably evoked in his process of reflection. Ultimately, suppressed experiences do attain a certain salience, but essentially in a manner that is abstracted from the very social relations within which they are constituted in the first place – after all, management doesn’t like their own system.  Pat’s emerging grievance and its affective charge fuzzes out into a moment of empathy with management.

My “second reading” of this interview section is informed by the psychoanalytic theory of defense.  4 However, I would emphasize that those concepts will serve to deepen our understanding of a dialogue that is already mundanely problematic. Just as Freud, in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, would ask why a name could not be remembered, we need to ask why Pat’s route to the articulation of his grievance is so circuitous, beginning with his initial rosy perspective, then self-effacement, criticism of other workers, a show of sympathy for management rationales, and the final absolution of management. In posing this question, we are not asking the more clumsy and arrogant ones, such as “Why is Pat so muddled?” or “Why is his consciousness false?” that Hochschild and Silva think are inescapably tied to the concept of ideology criticism. Instead, we are inquiring into the nature of his intra- and interpersonal processes of representation and how those processes are shaped and deflected by intertwining subjective and objective constraints.

Democracy delimited

I posed the question of democracy at the beginning of the fourth interview by asking Pat what he thought was most important about it:

P: I think the freedom to do anything you want.  That’s about it, or the most important…

I: Could you expand on that?

P: It’s just that, you know, in nondemocratic countries people are oppressed and aren’t able to say what they feel whereas in this country you can. We can also go just about any where we want at any time, or just about anywhere, more places than any nondemocratic country. That’s about all.

I then shifted into a discussion of workplace democracy by asking him how he would characterize the way things were run at the plant. He said it wasn’t a democracy:

P: Far from it, I think. At [factory name] you mean? Na, I mean you can voice your opinion to the union but the company can only hear so much. I mean if all the employees were for something and the company were against it the company would win unless everyone went out on strike for it. It seems close to the way democracy is running right wow, you know, where people have to go to extremes to get their way, but I don’t think it’s run as a democracy, the company has the final say, really the major say. Employees can only gripe to a certain extent. Suppressed…

I: How do you feel about that?

P: Seems like that’s the only way they could run the company and still make any money. I mean, if they let the employees decide everything they wanted to do they could probably decide not to work or work two days a week or something, so they have to. ..Company prides itself, well, it doesn’t pride itself but their way of getting things done is to be strict on the rules. That’s the only way the company could run smoothly, because if a democracy was used in the company the employees would be voting on everything.. bringing up their proposals on the way they want the company run.

I asked him why he thought the employees would work only two days a week:

P: ‘Cause it seems like everyone there gets everything they want and still doesn’t have enough…Bad example…People are never satisfied with what they have, they always want more…

Pat went on to speculate about the causes of the “crazy” behavior of other employees, wondering at their challenges to rules, at how they would “take things to the limit.” I asked when he had first met people like that:

P: I suppose when I started working for [plant owner], you know, that’s the first place I really noticed it work-wise, you know, union companies in general. [plant owner] was the first place I ever worked where they kind of pushed things to the limit.

I: And that struck you as crazy… Were there any other feelings that you had towards them at that time?

P: Yeah, well when I first noticed it when they were voting on a new contract and everyone seemed dissatisfied with what- they had, you know,\to me it sounded like a really good,. a great contract.  And I thought they were all crazy; that they were pretty greedy at that point.

Another. recap:  Pat responds impulsively to my question about democracy – it is the freedom to do anything you want.  Then, via a reference to nondemocratic countries, he tones this down by first referring to the freedom to say what you feel and then the freedom to move anywhere you want, a more limited “freedom from” formulation. Via a geopolitical comparison we are already starting to glimpse a dialectic between impulse and containment that will continue throughout the interview segment.

Discussion of democratizing work, despite Pat’s grievances, leads to a “realistic” recognition of the company’s power, and then an identification with its standpoint.  This identification entails not  only Pat’s taking up the company’s perspective concerning the aims of the enterprise, but also engaging in criticism of the other employees.  In his criticism Pat attributes naturalized traits of craziness and greed to his coworkers, simultaneously declaring his own satisfaction with the contract. To Pat, his coworkers’ inability to control their impulses necessitates the guidance of the company.

I want to emphasize here that naturalization, a principal mode of reification that here also expresses an elitist moment of the ideology of managerial prerogative, also ties in with Pat’s own defensively determined, and thus naturalized and inflexibly one-sided, approach to regulating his impulses.  This achieves an interpenetration and a mutually reinforcing mediation of ideology and personality.  Ideological statements are transformed from simple propositions about the  social order to an orienting truth that “feels” right to him, a kind of lived truth. Reciprocally, his private defensive maneuvers are ratified by an external morality play portraying social dynamics that appear inescapable. Finally, because internalized coercion asserts itself unconsciously via defense, it is more likely that Pat can believe he freely believes, thereby fulfilling the socially established requirement of free assent that justifies his granting legitimacy to management control.


The coercive environment of the plant and, more generally, interclass relations work to mobilize Pat’s defenses in a project of “self-management.” From the store of available ideological rationales Pat can select those that make sense to him, in part because they are compatible with private meanings reified by defensive processes. In other words, within this coercively bounded process, ideology becomes “defense syntonic” and defenses, “ideology syntonic.”  5 Conflicts formed within sociocultural contradictions are caught up in forms of thinking charged not only with fearful concern about the likely real consequences of opposition — getting fired or otherwise penalized — but also with ill-defined anxieties related to impulse control that the subject, if they recognize it at all, finds hard to address and allay.

Proposals for alternative social arrangements that would revise both inter- and intrapersonal relations, are more likely to seem impossible, absurd, and disturbing; accordingly, appraisal of objective obstacles to forming a contentious social coalition is made more difficult.  To be sure, further discussion with Pat might have succeeded in relaxing barriers to his consideration of discontent. After all, away from the plant he was actively opposing nuclear power, and so was relatively comfortable with a contentious stance in certain contexts.  And, he might have been encouraged by the literature on worker control of production proving that workers are capable of controlling their supposed impulsivity and running a factory (for example see Blumberg, 1973).  But this sort of informed critical reflection generally does not occur; the individual’s self-protective “certainty” is left undisturbed as social criticism is caught up in the dialectic of social coercion and defensive routines.  Habits of thought, clichés, come to offer a kind of security that theory only seems to threaten.

Survey research: collecting testaments of coerced adjustment

Jane McAlevey has recently argued that union organizers must concretely address the suppressive effects of workplace coercion.  As noted elsewhere on this site, she  gives particular emphasis to the importance of meeting with workers in their homes instead of at the workplace in order to escape an oppressive, management-dominated atmosphere.  Her idea is strongly resonant with my emphasis on the persistent influence of raw power relations on worker consciousness.  My conversations with Pat in his apartment were something like the discovery phase of an organizing conversation that never transpired.

Analogously, I conclude by pointing to implications for standard survey research approaches to the study of attitudes regarding contradictory core social relations.  To the extent surveys propose to gauge mass interests and desires regarding such relations, forms of questioning that assume a monochromatic, resolved quality to “public opinion” only help to integrate both the method and object of study into the ideological project of discontent suppression. Instead of encouraging presentation of the full scope of subjects’ ambivalence and the  experience of coercion that produces it, conventional survey research presents internally divided subjects to each other as free and whole.  Survey results tend to convey to one and all the suppressive achievement of subjects’ defensively bolstered concessions to dominant institutions.  Survey researchers, distractingly preoccupied with refining sampling methods to pursue statistical truth, confirm the ideological process and hide their own ideologically-mandated social psychological naiveté.  Resonant with  Adorno’s discussion in “Opinion Research and Publicness,” such unreflective investigations can only facilitate the ideological project,  conceal social tensions and possibilities, and obscure the relationship between personality and ideology outlined here.  But they need not do so, and Adorno’s conclusion to his essay is fitting:

Opinion research easily assists the manipulation of consciousness at the expense of objective reality. But it shows through this to the same dialectic as the sphere of the political, to which the idea of opinion was indigenous and to which it still adds. It is an ideology that, once it achieves critical competence, will be able to dissect ideology and to change its conclusions of existence. (Adorno et al, 2005/1964, p. 123)


1.  The literature on this is extensive. See E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class. (New York: Random House, 1963), esp. chapter 14.; Herbert Gutman, Work, Culture, and Society. (New York: Random House, 1977), esp. chapter 1; David Montgomery, Worker’s Control in America,  (New York: Cambridge, 1977), passim.   It is possible, as anyone familiar with the history of critical social theory can wearily attest, to overplay this observation and to smuggle in teleological assumptions.  Here I will try to address them en masse by saying that there is no underlying historical movement that necessarily presses for the “resolution” of such a contradiction.  More modestly, I think it is possible to persuasively argue that a tendency exists for human beings to prefer to exercise control or at least influence over conditions significantly affecting their lives.  However, as I shall develop below, I wish to avoid the implication that a “democratic-egalitarian interest” is something on the order of a “true consciousness.”

2 Robert Dahl and Charles Lindblom, Politics, Economics, and Welfare. (New York: Harper and Row), 1953, p. 480. Paul Blumberg’s extensive review of the literature on worker participation and worker management found a consistent increase in job satisfaction associated with more participation. Paul Blumberg, Industrial Democracy: The Sociology of Participation. (New York: Schocken), 1973.

I have decided against the often valid convention of providing a thorough historical context for the interviews. The interviews illustrate forms of conflict management that are ubiquitous within capitalist democracies and should not be geographically or temporally localized. I present more examples of workers ambivalently struggling to manage sociocultural contradictions in the Silva review and also there refer to the work of Sennett and Cobb, who in their The Hidden Injuries of Class were drawn to themes closely related to those taken up here.

4 Psychoanalytic theory as I employ it here appears only as defense analysis, and associated object relations are not considered.  From a clinical standpoint, it would correspond the “close process analysis” phase of dialogue with the patient in which their curiosity can be drawn to relatively evident manifestations of underlying conflict that will  eventually be linked to conflicted object relations (Gray, 1996).  Instead of jumping into what the patient would likely experience as an omniscient account of childhood relationships, the analyst asks them to think about the elisions and contortions that are readily evident in their presentation.

In an organizing context, the manifestations of conflict reported here could be summarily acknowledged by the organizer as indicating the worker is torn about how to think of their grievances and unsure if their coworkers and the union can successfully fight management.

5 Writers such as Erich Fromm and Christopher Lasch have discussed syntonicity between defensive maneuvers and ideological rationales as involving an isomorphic complementarity between character and social role requirements (Fromm 1932; Lasch 1979). In my view they go too far by assuming a broad, character-level integration.  First, they lose track of the fact that capitalist management only requires behavioral compliance, not a thoroughgoing isomorphism between personality and social structure.  Management demands surrender, not Borgist subsumption. Second, the isomorphic assumption implies a harmonization of sociocultural contradictions that simply has not transpired.  (It is worth considering the extent to which a theory of character-social structure isomorphism relies on political economic theories postulating stable forms of capitalism.)  That discontent is managed routinely does not mean it has disappeared. Any theory that proposes to add a depth psychological element to ideology analysis without taking into account the central importance of fear of reprisal risks becoming a recipe for integration.  In going “deep,” theory misses how the subject simply has to keep their head down.  It will be blind to the countervailing, disruptive potential of contentious solidarity.


Adorno, T. W.,  Andrew J. Perrin and Lars Jarkko (2005/1964) “Opinion Research and Publicness,” Sociological Theory, Vol. 23, No. 1, pp. 116-123.

Blumberg, Paul (1973) Industrial Democracy: The Sociology of Participation. New York: Schocken.

Dahl, Robert and Charles Lindblom (1953). Politics, Economics, and Welfare. New York: Harper and Row.

Freud, Sigmund. (1990/1901)  The Psychopathology of Everyday Life.  New York: W.W. Norton.

Fromm, Erich.  (1978/1932)  “The Method and Function of Analytic Social Psychology.”   New York: Urizen.

Gray, P. (1996). “Undoing the Lag in the Technique of Conflict and Defense Analysis.” Psychoanal. St. Child, 51:87-101

Gutman, Herbert. (1977) Work, Culture, and Society.  New York: Random House.

Lasch, Christopher. (1979) The Culture of Narcissism.  New York: Norton.

McAlevey, Jane (2014)  Interview with Doug Henwood . The relevant text is available here 

McDougall, Joyce. (1991) Theaters of the Mind: Illusion and Truth on the Psychoanalytic Stage.  London: Routledge.

Thompson, E.P. (1963) The Making of the English Working Class. New York: Random House.