False Consciousness in Sociology: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:02 False Consciousness
  • 2:08 Examples
  • 3:55 Criticism
  • 4:56 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

This lesson describes false consciousness and provides examples of how a person might experience this condition. You will learn about criticisms of this approach and can consider whether or not you agree that false consciousness exists.

Definition of False Consciousness

False consciousness is a term that Marxist economists and philosophers use to describe a particular state of mind that prevents a person from recognizing the injustice of their current situation. According to Marxists, this state of mind prevents individuals from combining their efforts and taking action to have a better life than they currently have.

Marxism is a view that critiques the inequality of capitalist societies. The economy of capitalist societies is oriented toward rewarding private owners of companies who make greater profits. Marxism points out that capitalist systems promote the exploitation of workers. This exploitation involves mistreating or taking advantage of those who provide the labor to produce the goods and services that give the owners their profits.

So, if a capitalist system is not set up to benefit a worker, why does a worker not revolt against it? There are few business owners and many workers, so don't they have great power when combined? According to Marxists, the answer is that workers, known as the proletariat, are not conscious that their situation is as dire and unjust as it really is. They have taken on beliefs and values that benefit the ruling class, known as the bourgeoisie. This mentality is called false consciousness. From a Marxist point of view, it is a main reason why exploited workers as a group do not always resist the capitalist system.

Marxists would argue that workers need to develop greater class consciousness. This can be defined as how a person views their rank or class in society. If workers realize they have the power to make things better, they could coordinate with others in similar positions to resist the status quo and revolutionize the economic system. This could be achieved through collective efforts such as unions, legislation that emphasizes social welfare, or even a complete overhaul of the economy. Instead, false consciousness leads workers to adopt views that actually benefit those above them in social rank and economic status, which only keeps the unjust system further in place.

Examples

One example of false consciousness is when a person votes in such a way that might actually benefit those of a wealthier class rather than benefiting those in his or her own economic range. For instance, a person might vote for a tax cut for those with more wealth than he or she has, even though this tax money could have been used to benefit the individual's community. Why would he or she do this?

Voters could believe that the rich have worked hard and should keep more of what they earn. They might believe that bigger government is not a good idea overall because it means that governmental representatives have more power. Voters could also believe that if the rich receive a tax break, they may use that extra money to funnel more money back into the economy, which might ultimately benefit them.

Marxists would speculate that the proletariat votes that way primarily because they have taken on the views of those better off economically than they are. They are reinforcing beliefs that keep the system in place. Perhaps a lower-class person believes strongly in the idea, 'If I work hard enough, I will be rich too,' even though it is unlikely for a person to become a member of the super-rich without starting off wealthy.

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