The Concept of Political Culture and the Turkish Case: Between “Hegemony” and “Ideological State Apparatuses”

by Begum Burak

The main concern of this piece is not to explain the basic determinants of Turkish political culture or to define what Turkish state looks like. In fact what this piece will try to do is to point out the complex relationship between the political culture and state behavior in Turkey. While shedding a light upon this relationship, the nature of the interactions between Turkish political culture and Turkish state will also be examined. While touching upon some features of political culture and the impact of state elites and institutions upon this culture, I will try to employ the Gramscian concept of “hegemony” and the conceptualization of the “ideological state apparatuses” coined by L. Althusser.

First of all, the concept of “political culture” will be defined in a refined way. Then, some basic determinants of Turkish political culture will be touched upon, because they may lead us to understand the influence of the state upon this culture better. Then the concept of “hegemony” will be briefly explained. Also the “ideological state apparatuses” will be explained briefly too. Then these concepts will be used in order to understand the nature of the relationship between the state (institutions, elites) and political culture in modern Turkey.

Political Culture: An Overview

The concept of political culture is not new. Tocqueville made political culture a theme central to stability when he wrote that

 “in order that society should exist and, a fortiori, that society should prosper, it is necessary that the mind of all the citizens should be rallied and held together by certain predominant ideas; and this cannot be the case unless each of them sometimes draws his opinions from the common source and consents to accept certain matters of belief already formed”[1]

 Above all, simply, political culture can be defined as the sum of assumptions about the political world.[2] Assumptions about the political world focus their attention on certain features of institutions, events and behavior, define the realm of the possible, identify the problems deemed pertinent, and set the ranges of alternatives among which members of the population make decisions.[3] Almond and Verba defined political culture as the ‘attitudes towards the political system and its various parts, and attitudes towards the role of the self in the system’.[4] To them, political culture is a set of individual psychological states, which can be revealed through survey questionnaires. Political culture is seen as ‘a cross between a catalyst and a fertilizer, providing the conditions for change and sustaining the product of that change’.[5]

Central Features of Turkish Political Culture

 One of the most salient characteristics of Turkish political culture is related to State “Mythos”. In Turkey, even in the field of thoughts, state has a dominant and decisive role, and the roots of that role go back to Ottoman times. According to Şerif Mardin, in the Ottoman/Turkish political and intellectual history, the ideas that stress the supremacy of the state have always been overwhelming.[6]

On the other hand, it can be stated that since the Ottoman times, the elites of the government structure and the state apparatus have been defined as a monolithic body that has a supreme voice over the society and the masses as a whole. From this point of view, this group of elites has been seen as the Center, whereas the ruled masses have been seen as the Periphery.[7] According to this center-periphery approach, there has always been a tension between the two sides so far. However, it is obvious that since the Özal rule, Turkish society and politics as well as its economic structure have changed to a considerable degree and that change has paved the way for a more democratic culture.

The Ottoman political structure, which is different from Western feudalism, had all its political authority concentrated on a single center. Besides, a civil society in Hegelian terms had been quite weak and a model of “bureaucratic empire” had been established. The perception of a (strong) state has also shaped Turkish modernization process deeply. In parallel to this understanding, a state-originated and top-down modernization process had been adopted. It must also be stated that, the forces which built a new nation-state and got engaged in modernizing were not the bourgeoisie but the bureaucratic elites.[8]

On the other hand, the process through which the bureaucratic tradition was constituted and developed has always been an obstacle against the strengthening of democracy in Turkey. The bureaucratic tradition has, from the very beginning, had an authoritarian character. The bureaucratic tradition which was firstly shaped in the Tanzimat era has kept its relatively dominant role in the Republican era too. That bureaucratic structure has been one of the leading factors that paved the way for the production of elitist and tutelary political tendencies in the Ottoman/Turkish political history.[9]

Another important dimension of Turkish political culture is the political position that the Army has been holding since the establishment of the Republic. Unlike its counterparts in other democratic countries, the Turkish Army has a considerable amount of political and institutional autonomy which ultimately leads to emphasize its role in guarding the state from “internal enemies”.[10] The term “internal enemy” refers to political Islam and the separatist Kurdish movement; the so-called “enemies” through which the military elites, from time to time, exercise direct and/or indirect political authority to a variety of extents.

It must also be underlined that the historical background of Turkey from the very beginning of the Republic experienced an evident antagonism between the state and the society. In addition to that, along with the military, the high bureaucracy of Turkey has revealed a certain amount of distrust towards the society for several decades. So, it may be stated that state-society relations until the late 1990s were quite a deterrent to democratic consolidation.

On the other hand, ultra-secularist understanding in Turkey constitutes another factor that may be seen important in shaping political culture.  An important style of secularism is İnönü-style secularism (named after the second president of the republic, İsmet İnönü). This is more about the elitist protection of Kemalism. Early Kemalism was an idealist program. Devoted Kemalists believed that the Anatolian masses would embrace their ideals.[11]

The Concepts of “Hegemony”, “Ideological State Apparatuses” and the Turkish Case

Gramsci used the term “hegemony” to denote the predominance of one social class over others (e.g. bourgeois hegemony). This represents not only political and economic control, but also the ability of the dominant class to project its own way of seeing the world so that those who are subordinated by it accept it as ‘common sense’ and ‘natural’. Commentators stress that this involves willing and consent.

Apart from that, in Althusser’s view, our values, desires and preferences are inculcated in us by ideological practice, the sphere which has the defining property of constituting individuals as subjects. Ideological practice consists of an assortment of institutions called Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs), which include the family, the media, religious organizations and, most importantly, in capitalist societies, the education system and the received ideas that they propagate.[12]

From a historical perspective, we can say that the Turkish case represents a picture that shows us that the (political) culture of the masses is in fact formed and shaped by elite maneuvers and state institutions as well as by ideological state apparatuses such as religious organs, schools and so on. For example,  the freedom of press in the early years of the Turkish Republic was blocked because the new regime wanted no rival views; or in Gramscian terms we can say that the new regime wanted to establish its own “hegemony” where not just coercion but also consent is employed (via pro-government press).

On the other hand, in times of military interventions, the military elites wanted to legitimize their activities through media organs. The 1960 coup and the post-modern coup that took place in 1997 can be treated as good examples that show us the instrumentalization of the media as ideological apparatuses of the state. In addition to that, religious institutions such as the Directorate of Religious Affairs (DRA) are also employed for promoting the type of Islam that the state wants.

Apart from that, the weekly topics that the imams have to talk about in the mosques each Friday are also determined by the DRA. It is known that, the issue of “love of the fatherland” is more repeatedly presented to the audience in the mosque than the issues of the “love of Faith”. Another ideological state apparatus in Turkey is the school where education aims some kind of indoctrination. At school, the students get a highly authoritarian education and the students do not feel free to question the official state understanding. Especially Kemalism is introduced as a quasi-religion at schools where some kind of obedience culture is reproduced. In short, the Turkish case I think presents a clear picture that shows us the significance of “hegemony” and the “ideological state apparatuses” in understanding how political culture is generally shaped as a result of state-led processes via state organs, institutions and state discourses.


[1] Quoted in Rivero, Carlos et. al. 2010. “Political Culture and Democracy: The South African Case”, Politikon, 29(2), p.167

[2] Elkins, David and Simeon Richard. 1979. “A Cause in Search of Its Effect, or What Does Political Culture Explain?” , Comparative Politics 11(2), p.127

[3] Ibid, p. 128

[4] Almond, Gabriel and Verba, Sidney.1963.  The Civic Culture: Political Attitudes and Democracy in Five Nations. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, p . 13.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Quoted in Türköne, Mümtaz’er (ed.). 2010. Siyaset [Politics] (11. Edition), İstanbul, Opus Yayınları, p. 247.

[7] Mardin, Şerif .1973. “Center-Periphery Relations: A Key to Turkish Politics?”, Daedalus, 102(1), pp. 169-90.

[8] Keyder, Çağlar.2008. Türkiye’de Devlet ve Sınıflar [The State and Classes in Turkey], İstanbul, İletişim Yayınları., p .9

[9] Türköne, Mümtaz’er (ed.). Siyaset [Politics], p. 249.

[10] Sakallıoğlu, C. Ümit. 1997. “The Anatomy of the Turkish Military’s Political Autonomy” Comparative Politics 29, pp. 151-166.

 [11] Bacık, Gökhan.2011. “The Fragmentation of Turkish Secularists”, January 2011, p.14

[12] Althusser, L. (1971). Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses. In L. Althusser (Ed.),

Lenin and Philosophy and other Essays. New York: Monthly Review Press.

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6 thoughts on “The Concept of Political Culture and the Turkish Case: Between “Hegemony” and “Ideological State Apparatuses”

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  4. I read it but nothing new. It is Academic one . But I am concluding some points from this article . The current turkish Political culture i. It showed that How difficult it is to separate Islam ( or so called political Islam?) from state, politics and probably economy . ii. Turkish political culture has a double standard . Secular Army and its supporter need to identify them clearly ‘ who are we ‘? & ! . iii. For hegemony “Commentators stress that this involves willing and consent ” . I insist that this , actually ,involves Media propaganda & imposed force on people .not only in turkey , everywhere !. It is probably correct term. [My Own Opinion for Turkish political culture and hegemony]

    • Shiblee, of course this is an academic article, and it is also of high quality! It uses theory to explain the social and political cultural situation thoughout Turkish history.. I would agree that it is difficult to completely seperate political Islam from governance but that is why previous governments failed in Turkey and this one is succesful. On your second point political cultures are full of double standards because in every society there are more than one political tendencies that shape the political sphere in history. And the term hegemony is of course applicable to every society and country. The author just used it to explain Turkey. But hegemony was coined by Gramsci to explain the interaction and the relation between the political elites and the social masses..

      • Zenonas, thnxx a lot for your thoughts regarding my piece. Well it is just a try to write something good, but of course not so big new things it puts forward. I as you say tried to employ some theoretical conceptions in order to analyze the Turkish case.

        Shiblee, yes, of course Islam is an inseparable part of politics despite the existence of secular practices and rules (in fact , despite the secular state establishment), the masses see religion as a practical tool for some pragmatic reasons, i think.. so political islam has always had some power in Turkey.. this issue is a long and contested one.. maybe some other articles are needed for further analysis..

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