False Consciousness in Sociology: Definition & Examples


  • False consciousness is the idea that those from subordinate sectors of society systematically hold beliefs that are caused by the distortions of those in power in society and that these beliefs ultimately keep the subordinate in their subordinate conditions.
  • Although Marx himself did not originate the idea of class consciousness, he did pay attention to related ideas, such as ideology and commodity fetishism.
  • One modern example of false consciousness is the American Dream — the belief that, by hard work, anyone can increase their social status, regardless of the conditions they were born into.
  • Although influential, false consciousness has been criticized for its perceived elitism, authoritarianism, and unverifiability.

What is False Consciousness?

False consciousness is a concept from Marx’s theory of social class and refers to how the consciousness of the lower classes systematically misperceives the dominant social relations that create their oppression in society.

Although Marx himself did not use the term false consciousness, he paid extensive attention to the related ideas of ideology and commodity fetishism.

Marxists use false consciousness to explain why the working class to not revolt against their subordination but accepted the legitimacy of the power structures which opposed them.

Members of the subordinate social class — be it workers, peasants, or serfs — suffer from false consciousness because their mental representations of the social relations around them conceal or obscure their domination by the upper classes (Little, 1996).

Proletariat vs. Bourgeoisie

Marx believed that foundational to the class system is class conflict. The main class conflict of capitalist society, according to Marx, is the economic exploitation of the proletariat, the working class, by the bourgeoisie, who own and control production.

The word proletariat, deriving from the Latin proletarius, refers to a class of people, both in antiquity and modernity, who do not own the means of production — all of the tools and resources necessary to produce goods that they can sell in a way that can compete with large factories.

As a result, the proletariat must resort to selling their own labor to the capitalist, factory-owning, bourgeoisie class.

However, the capitalist factory owners seek profit, and according to Marx’s theory of economic value, this profit inherently comes from paying their workers less than the value of their labor.

Thus the proletariat, unable to reap the full value of their labor, is entrapped in an endless cycle of selling their labor to barely get by (Cohen, 1968).

Marx offered a theory of class that was based on the features of the economic relations that constituted his 19th-century social order.

According to Marx, a person’s social class is determined by their position within the system of property relations that make up an economic society.

People can also have their own thoughts, mental frameworks, and identities. These mental constructs give that person a cognitive framework in terms of what the person understands their role in the world to be and the forces that govern their life (Little, 1996).

One person’s mental constructs may correspond more or less to the social reality that they seek to represent.

Marx asserted that there exist distortions in the consciousness of the underclass, and if these distortions did not exist, then the majority underclass would quickly overthrow their dominators.

As a result, institutions are incentivized to shape the thoughts and ideas of the underclass in such a way that generates false consciousness and ideology (Little, 1996).


Commodity Fetishization

Marx believed that the phenomenon of commodity fetishism played a key role in creating false consciousness.

In short, commodity fetishization describes the relationships of production and exchange as social relationships among things — that the value of a commodity is intrinsic and not necessarily based on how much labor was put into it.

Marx believed that this commodity fetishism served to obscure the fact that the relationships that happen over the course of production are actually relationships between people and thus changeable — the working class was not destined to work under the bourgeoisie (Little, 1996).

False Consciousness in social stratification

Modern sociologists have studied numerous facets of false consciousness in modern society.

One example of false consciousness that has rung true both historically and contemporary is the belief that upward mobility is possible for everyone, regardless of the circumstances they were born under, as long as they choose to dedicate themselves to their education, their training, and to working hard for their employer.

One common articulation of this idea is the “American Dream.” (Crossman, 2020).

The consequence of this meritocracy ideal is that economic success and failure fall solely on one’s personal actions without taking into account the totality of the social, economic, and political systems that shape people’s lives and opportunities (Crossman, 2020).

Dozens of sociologists have commented on the American dream, most of whom show demonstrably that it is often contrary to reality.

As many studies have shown, a small percentage of those born into the lowest rungs of the social ladder will ascend to the highest ones, and very few of those born into society’s highest echelons will descend to its lowest points (McMurrer & Sawhill, 1998).

Additionally, it can be argued that false consciousness serves to benefit the ruling classes — those who employ the lower classes.

Believing that they will be rewarded for working harder in the form of heightened social status, productivity becomes a commodity and an ideal in a capitalist society, generating more value from workers (McMurrer & Sawhill, 1998).

Health Insurance

One trend aligned with the false consciousness described by Carl Ratner (2014) is the trend of “employee choice” healthcare in the United States.

Companies refuse to pay into health insurance plans for employees, instead giving them a fixed stipend with which they can shop for their own health coverage.

While employers claim that these programs give control of health insurance coverage to employees.

In reality, these employees neither have any input into the amount of stipend the companies give them nor the premiums that the insurance companies cause.

Because these stipends are almost always lower than the premiums which the companies formerly paid into employee health plans, employees are left paying more than before (Ratner, 2014).

Critical Evaluation

As a concept, false consciousness has been criticized as elitist, authoritarian, and unverifiable. Gaventa, for example, believes that consciousness cannot be false because “if consciousness exists, it is real to its holders” (Starks, 2007).

On the elitism front, false consciousness also implies that those who belong to certain groups hold a false perception and that they are passive in holding this perception, shaped solely by the dictation of the ruling class.

This is a view contrary to sociologists who emphasize the role of the individual’s motives and beliefs in decision-making and opinion creation.

One such school of sociologists is social action theorists, such as Max Weber (Starks, 2007).


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Saul Mcleod, PhD

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Educator, Researcher

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education.

Charlotte Nickerson

Research Assistant at Harvard University

Undergraduate at Harvard University

Charlotte Nickerson is a student at Harvard University obsessed with the intersection of mental health, productivity, and design.