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What is Alienation?

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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
  3. Workers are alienated from each other – they are encouraged to compete with each other for jobs.
  4. 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.

Critical points 

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.

Continuing Relevance

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).

Source

Giddens and Sutton (2017) Essential Concepts in Sociology

 

 

 

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Postmodernism – An Introduction for A-level Sociology Students

Postmodernism is an intellectual movement that became popular in the 1980s, and the ideas associated with it can be seen as a response to the social changes occurring with the shift from modernity to postmodernity.

Postmodernists claim that the classic social thinkers took their inspiration from the idea that history has a shape – it ‘goes somewhere’ and is progressive. Jean Francois Lyotard argues that this idea has now collapsed and there are no longer any ‘metanarratives’ – overall conceptions of history or society – that make any sense.

The postmodern world is not destined, as Marx hoped, to be a harmonious socialist one, and thus Marxism (along with Functionalism and Feminism) and its promise of a better future are no longer relevant to the more complex and less predictable post-modern age.

Similarly, Lyotard argues that scientific research is no longer done purely to uncover knowledge to make the world a better place (like the original Enlightenment thinkers thought was the case), but simply to empower those with the money who fund it. This could explain why we have nuclear weapons but no cure for cancer.

Lyotard Postmodern Condition.png
Jean-Francois Lyotard: A Postmodern Frenchman, or a French Postmodernist?

Moreover, it seems that the pursuit of scientific knowledge (and especially its application) has in some ways made the world a riskier, more dangerous place – nuclear weapons and global warming are both the products of science, for example.

Democracy has spread around the world, but in many developed political systems voters are apathetic and politicians reviled. In short, for many postmodern theorists, the grand project of modernity has run into the sand.

For Jean Baudrillard (1929 – 2007), the post-modern age is a world where people respond to media images rather than to real persons or places. Thus when Diana, princes of Wales, died in 1997, there was an enormous outpouring of grief all over the world. But were people mourning a real person? Princes Diana existed for most people only through the mass media, and her death was presented like an event in a soap opera rather than an event in real life. Separating out reality from representation has become impossible when all that exists is ‘hyperreality – the mixing of the two.

Zygmunt Bauman (1992) offers a helpful distinction between two ways of thinking about the postmodern. Do we need a sociology of postmodernity, or a postmodern sociology?

The first view accepts that the social world has moved rapidly in a postmodern direction. The enormous growth and spread of the mass media, new information technologies, the more fluid movement of people across the world and the development of multicultural societies – all of these mean that we no longer live in a modern world, but in a postmodern world. However, on this view there is no compelling reason to think that sociology cannot describe, understand and explain the emerging postmodern world.

The second view suggests that the type of sociology which successfully analysed the modern world of capitalism, industrialization, and nation states is no longer capable of dealing with the de-centred, pluralistic, media-saturated, globalizing postmodern world. In short, we need a postmodern sociology for a postmodern world. However, it remains unclear what such a sociology would look like.

Bauman accepts that the modern project originating in the European Enlightenment of rationally shaping society no longer makes sense, at leas not in the way thought possible by Comte, Marx or other classical theorists. However, since the turn of the century, Bauman increasingly moved away from the term ‘postmodern’ – which he says has become corrupted by too much diverse usage – and now describes our age as one of ‘liquid modernity‘, reflecting the fact that it is in constant flux and uncertainty in spite of all attempts to impose order and stability on the world.

Many sociologists reject the thesis that we are entering a postmodern age altogether, and one staunch critic of postmodern theory is Jurgen Habermas (1983), who sees modernity as an ‘incomplete project’. Instead of consigning modernity to the dustbin of history, we should be extending it, pushing for more democracy, more freedom and more rational policy. Habermas argues that Postmodernists are essentially pessimists and defeatists.

Whichever view you think more plausible, it is the case that postmodern analyses have lost ground to the theory of globalisation, which has become the dominant theoretical framework for understanding the direction of social change in the 21st century.

Sources 

Giddens and Sutton (2017) Sociology

 

 

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Marxism – A Level Sociology Revision Notes

Karl Marx and Louis Althusser are Modernist, Structural Conflict Theorists while Antonio Gramsci is  a Humanist Conflict Theorist.

Marxism for A Level Sociology
Marxism for A Level Sociology

Karl Marx: Key Ideas

  • Two classes – Bourgeois – Proletariat
  • Relationship between them is Exploitation/ Surplus Value
  • The Base (economy) determines the Superstructure (all other institutions)
  • The ruling class have ideological control through the superstructure
  • The proletariat exist in false consciousness
  • The fundamental problem with Capitalism is that it causes alienation
  • Revolution is inevitable because the iron law of Capitalism is that exploitation must carry on increasing.
  • Communism is the final stage of societal evolution (the abolition of private property)
  • The purpose of research is to find out more about the laws of Capitalism to see when revolution is ripe.

Antonio Gramsci: Humanistic Marxism

  • Criticised Marx because he thought individuals are more active, not passive
  • Introduced the concept of Hegemony – Ruling class maintain power through Coercive and Hegemonic control
  • Ruling class hegemonic control is never complete because they are too few and they have the proletariat have dual consciousness – they can see through Bourgeois ideology.
  • To bring about social change the proletariat needs its own organic intellectuals to develop a counter-hegemony – a realistic alternative to Communism, to lead people to Socialism.

Louis Althusser: Scientific Marxism

  • Criticised Marx – There are three levels of control: economic, political, and ideological. The Bourgeois maintain control on all three levels and they all reinforce each other.
  • They maintain control through the Repressive state apparatus – the army
  • More importantly – the Ideological state apparatus – everything else, most obviously education and the media.
  • Criticised humanistic Marxism – structure determines everything, people are incapable of having genuinely revolutionary ideas within the existing Capitalist system
  • Capitalism needs to collapse before socialism comes about.

Overall Evaluations of Marxism

Eight ways in which Marxism might still be relevant today

  • Transnational Capitalist Class (Sklaire)
  • Global Exploitation by TNCs (Wallerstein’s WST)
  • Evidence of elite control of superstructure – Independent schools links
  • Ideological Control – Agenda Setting and Jeremy Corbyn
  • Advertising and False Needs
  • Alienation – Amazon!
  • Contradictions in Capitalism – David Harvey
  • Marxism Conference – Organic Intellectuals?

Criticisms of Marxism

  • X – More complex class structure
  • X – Capitalism is less exploitative (welfare state)
  • X – Relative autonomy
  • X – Postmodernism – people are free, not under false consciousness
  • X – Work is less alienating for self-employed people
  • X – Scientific Marxism is economically deterministic (Interactionism)
  • X – Failure of communism in Eastern Europe
  • X – It is a metanarrative (Postmodernism)