Last Updated on June 5, 2023 by Karl Thompson
Working definition: the separation or estrangement of human beings from some essential aspect of their nature or from society, often resulting in feelings of powerlessness or helplessness.
Today, the concept of alienation has become part of ordinary language, much used in the media. We may be told, for example, that who groups are becoming alienated from society, or that young people are alienated from mainstream values.
With such usage of the concept we get the impression of the feeling of separation of one group from society, but the concept has traditionally been used in sociology, mainly by Karl Marx, to express a much more profound sense of estrangement than most contemporary usage (IMO).
Origins of the concept
Sociological usage of the term stems from Marx’s concept of alienation which he used to develop the effects of capitalism on the experience work in particular and society more generally.
Marx developed his theory of alienation from Feuerbach’s philosophical critique of Christianity – Feuerbach argued that the concept of an all powerful God as a spiritual being to whom people must submit in order to reach salvation was a human construction, the projection of human power relations onto spiritual being. Christianity effectively disguised the fact that it was really human power relations which kept the social order going, rather than some higher spiritual reality, thus alienating from the ‘truth’ of power was really maintained.
Marx applied the concept of alienation to work in industrial capitalist societies, arguing that emancipation for workers lay in their wrestling control away from the small, dominating ruling class.
Later, Marxist inspired industrial sociologists used the concept to explore working relations under particular management systems in factories.
Marx’s historical materialist approach began with the way people organise their affairs together to produce goods and survive. For Marx, to be alienated is to be in an objective condition which as real consequences, and to change it we need to actually change the way society is organised rather than changing our perception of it.
Work in the past may well have been more physically demanding, but Marx argued that it was also less alienating because workers (craftsmen for example) had more control over their working conditions, work was more skilled and it was more satisfying, because workers could ‘see themselves in their work’.
However, in 19th century industrial factories, workers effectively had no control over what they were doing, their work was unskilled and they were effectively a ‘cog in a machine’, which generated high levels of alienation – or feelings of powerlessness, helplessness, and of not being in control.
It doesn’t take too much of a leap to apply this analysis to late-modern working conditions – in fast food outlets such as McDonald’s or call centers, for example.
Marx’s theory suggests capitalist production creates alienation in four main areas:
- Workers are alienated from their own labour power – they have to work as and when required and to perform the tasks set by their employers.
- They are alienated from the products of their labour – which are successfully claimed by capitalists to be sold as products on the marketplace for profit, while workers only receive a fraction of this profit as wages
- Workers are alienated from each other – they are encouraged to compete with each other for jobs.
- They are alienated from their own species being – according to Marx, satisfying work is an essential part of being human, and capitalism makes work a misery, so work under capitalism thus alienates man from himself. It is no longer a joy, it is simply a means to earn wages to survive.
Marx’s well known (but much misunderstood) solution to the ills of alienation was communism – a way of organizing society in which workers would have much more control over their working conditions, and thus would experience much less alienation.
Marx’s concept of alienation was very abstract and linked to his general theory of society, with its revolutionary conclusions, and as such, not especially easy to apply to social research.
However, in the 20th century some sociologists stripped the concept from its theoretical origins in order to make the concept more useful for empirical research.
One example is Robert Blauner’s ‘Alienation and Freedom (1964) in which he compared the alienating effects of working conditions in four industries – focusing on the experience of the four key aspects of alienation: powerlessness, meaninglessness, isolation and self-estrangement.
Blauner developed ways of measuring these different types of alienation incorporating the subjective perceptions of the workers themselves, arguing that routine factory workers suffered the highest levels of alienation. However, he found that when production lines became automated, workers felt less alienated as they had more control over their working conditions.
Blauner’s work ran counter to existing theory that technological innovation and deskilling would lead to ever greater levels of alienation. It also suggested alienation could be reduced without destroying capitalism.
While the collapse of Communism suggests that Marx’s general theory of alienation is no longer relevant, many firms today seem to have taken on board some aspects of the theory – for example, it is well establish that increasing worker representation and participation reduces worker ‘alienation’, as outlined in the Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices. Another example of how firms combat alienation is the various media and tech companies which design work spaces to be ‘homely and comfortable’.
Other sociologists have attempted to apply the concept of alienation to criminology (Smith and Bohm, 2008) and even the study of health and illness (Yuill 2005).
You might also like to consider the extent to which many jobs today do seem to be alienating in the sense Marx described. Working in Mcdonald’s for example certainly seems to fit all four types of alienation, as do many other production-line type jobs, along with many call centres.
Alienation is one of the key concepts of Marxism, one of the main sociological perspectives taught across the A-level sociology specification. This post should be most relevant to the Theory and Methods module, usually taught in the second year.
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Giddens and Sutton (2017) Essential Concepts in Sociology
Marx originally developed his theory of alienation in his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, when he was just 26.