Is populism a kind of ideology, or is ideology only a part of populism’s definition?

By Franz X. Barrios Suvelza

Contemporary social science has been interested in highly charged topics such as populism. However,theses discussionhave neglected to address the pure methodological challenges that defining such topics can pose. Since debates on populism’s definition have been bogged down in discussions of content, this article proposes to explore specific formal methodological techniques of definition building, that populism experts have used without necessarily being aware ofthem, or which they considered uninteresting, or which they have simply ignored. Three of them are discussed: i) backtracking the generic formal families of analysis, ii) constructing a three-segmented definitional field, and iii) articulating a multistoried definitional procedure. These three methodologies, which draw on Althusserian and Weberian methodological works, are then tested by analysing what role the dimension of ideology plays in the whole definitional work on populism.


Defining populism has been plagued by many difficulties. Looking at the dynamics of these debates, at least three patterns can be identified. First, the discussions tend to initially focus on what specific theme should determine the definition of populism. Thus, one major issue has been whether populism should be defined as an ideology or as a strategy (Mudde, 2017; Weyland, 2017). Focusing on one theme, however, is only one option within a specific family of analysis of which those who struggle for the appropriate theme to define populism are not necessarily aware. Second, scholars often believe they are defining populism, when in fact they are defining either an aggravated version of the definiendum, i.e., an authoritarian, charismatic leader who mobilises masses to achieve his or her selfish political goals; or what counts as populism is an object that is merely adjectivised as populist. And third, the definition of populism usually culminates in an initialsentence, which provides sufficient groundwork for research, but is inevitably incomplete. Though scholars understandably want to keep their definition simple, it seems inevitable to come to terms with a follow-up sentence that includes further definitional aspects until one arrives at a more than minimal, yet compact definition of populism.

The purpose of this article is to highlight several formal definitional techniques that can help address these three shortcomings in the definitional work on populism and, on this basis, clarify the role of ideology in defining populism. Formal techniques do not care about substantive aspects of definitions, nor do they care about normative expectations associated with the definiendum. Moreover, the evidence supporting the methodological formal techniques presented here lies not in the actions of populists in reality, but in the impact of mental maps on our way of grasping the world. The formal requirements in definitional work can range from the most basic to the most complex. As for the former, the definition of populism is already in formal disarray when scholars jump from one topic to another in one and the same text (critical Mudde, 2007, p.12). So Peruzzotti (2013, pp. 62, 65, 72), who refers to populism in the same article linking it interchangeably to concepts such as ‘regimes’, ‘movements’, and ‘strategy’, or ‘form of politics’. This article will, however, focus on more sophisticated formal challenges in the definitional work.

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