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A critical reexamination of alienation.


This article reexamines the usefulness of the concept of alienation as it appears in sociological literature and as it is applied in the social sciences. The article's theoretical point of departure is that alienation is rooted in human society, that it is an outcome of various human activities and circumstances. Alienation, for instance, may derive from social, political, or economic interactions, from circumstances arising from communication or education, and be expressed in history, music, and literature. It should be noted, however, that not all human activity and circumstances are alienating.

The term itself has been expanded to include a variety of psychological states: loneliness, homelessness, meaninglessness, normlessness, apathy, isolation, and a disjunction between two conditions such as work and self-esteem. It possesses both subjective and objective dimensions. As a result, alienation has been used rather broadly as a psychological and sociological explanation for a wide range of human behavior. Because of this, some social scientists have suggested delimiting the concept or abandoning it.

For Johnson (1973), alienation is a "panchreston," one of those words that, while seeming to explain all, essentially explain nothing. Israel (1971) asked if alienation was still a theoretically fruitful concept? He noted that the use of the term in empirical-positivistic sociology had, if anything, revealed the ambiguity that had adhered to the concept and the vagueness with which it was applied. He suggested that alienation be discarded from sociological and psychological theorizing completely and that other, more narrowly defined expressions be used in its place. If alienation is used to embrace such concepts as powerlessness, normlessness, and meaningless, he argues, why not just use these terms in its place.

There views seemed to have been influential, at least for a time. Another critic of alienation, Wrong (1985) commented in his article on the myths of alienation that the concept had become less salient in discourse in the field than it had been, largely as a result of its excessive use in the 1950s and 1960s. As Wrong saw it, the term became vague and amorphous, coming to serve as a sort of verbal talisman connoting just about any psychological discomfort or malaise.

Nonetheless, alienation has definitely not been removed from scientific discourse over the last twenty years. Despite the often valid criticism of past commentators, the term has played a critical role in many of the debates that animate the social sciences. It has certainly not outlived its usefulness, as a review of the sociofile database journal entries from 1974 to the present show.

Literature on Alienation

This article will not survey the entire literature on alienation, nor is it necessary to explore the various meanings of the concept from its inception. Rather, my strategy is to follow the recent debate about the term by examining the works of four contemporary writers who have worked intensively with this concept and review their comments. Although these writers are by no means the only ones who have written on the subject, their work stands out for the clarity with which they describe their differing positions.

Schacht (1970) provides an extensive survey of alienation from its linguistic origins to the intellectual tradition that surrounds the term to its uses in the literature of sociology. Schacht sees operative in alienation the idea of separation, a term that poses less of a problem for commentators: "Separation" is a very useful term, with many different applications. No one supposes, however, that the term names a specific phenomenon, or that the different phenomena to which it is applicable constitute so many different "modes" or "aspects" or "dimensions" or something called "separation," or that they are interrelated in any significant way. It is understood that "separation" is merely a general relational term, that the different phenomena to which it is applicable have in common at most certain purely formal features, and that they are more often than not quite independent of each other. The term "alienation" would have a similar status. Given its breath of application today, it is incapable of functioning in any other way.

Israel (1971), as we mentioned in the Introduction, takes a less accommodating view. He notes that theories concerning man's alienation usually presuppose assumptions or theories concerning conflicts, or contradictions, between the individual and society.

These contradictions are usually considered to be antagonistic. Either the individual has to renounce some of his basic strivings in order to subordinate himself to society, or society's demands have to be changed in order to allow individual self-realization. Implicit in these theories usually are notions concerning balance and equilibrium, either strived for by the individual or being a precondition of the 'normal functioning' of a society.

Israel's point seems to be that there is little need to theorize about what could be considered a given in any normal society. His statement presupposes restricting the use of alienation.

Our third writer, Johnson (1973), provides an historical, etymological, and operational exposition of the ways alienation has been used in Western societies. As we have noted, Johnson also questions the validity of the term.

Let us now turn to Mandel (1973), who explicates the Marxist view of alienation. Mandel remarked that Marx used the term in connection with the concepts of reification and commodity fetishism. According to Mandel, Marx uses the three terms in an interchangeable manner.

As Mandel describes it, Marx identifies three stages of alienation. The first is economic alienation, which involves restricting an individual's access to the means of production and subsistence. The second stage is the alienation of labor, which comes about when a segment of society is driven from the land and cut off from the means of production and subsistence. In order to survive, this group must sell its labor on the market. The third stage occurs when a wage earner has not merely sold his or her labor power to an employer, but has sold the products of his or her labor as well. These products become the property of the employer.

Marx was the major proponent of the theory of alienation. Subsequent classical sociologists, such as Weber, Simmel, and Durkheim, have in one form or another discussed alienation in their writings. Among the contemporary sociologists who have followed their insights are Seeman (1959, 1983), whose discussion of the meaning of alienation includes powerlessness, normlessness, meaninglessness, isolation, and self-estrangement, Feuer (1963), Erikson (1986), and Berger (1967).

Alienation: Its Usefulness in Sociology and the Social Sciences

Henry Veatch (1969) cited Wittgenstein, who urges us "to treat of the network and not what the network describes" and to "look not for meaning but for use." In discussing the apparent usefulness of the concept of alienation and its persistence in scientific discourse, I will adopt the methodology implied by Wittgenstein's remarks. In doing so, I will base my conclusions on the sociofile database for the period 1974 to 1994.

The Sociofile Data, 1974-1994

The sociofile database contains 1780 abstract entries on alienation, primarily from journal articles. The database itself covers a broad spectrum of authors and topics, and interestingly this diversity characterizes the articles on alienation. Authors who discuss alienation have differing theoretical perspectives as well as different ideologies and represent different disciplines.

Generally speaking, however, these articles can be divided into two categories by type:

1. Empirical research on workers or labor, health, political participation, Soviet society, alcohol, AIDS, popular culture, urban culture, youth, economic development, violence, music, urban violence, crime, education, modernity, race relations, drug abuse, communities, literature, etc.

2. Discussions of topics including criticism, philosophy, ways of measuring alienation, the meaning of alienation, micro/macro analysis of alienation, alienation as a construct (included in this category are discussions of the concept of alienation, conceptual analysis, and methodology).

The Context of Alienation

As has been suggested above, alienation is discussed in a variety of contexts, including organizational change, worker participation, community participation, the industrial work place, the development of policy, abortion, politics and citizen participation, participation in popular culture, and the use and abuse of alcohol and drugs.

The perspective on alienation varies, from a psychological approach that focuses on individuals to a sociological view that concentrates on the feeling of individuals as they respond to societal change, changes in the nature of work, and technological change. These perspectives include subjective and objective alienation.

An analysis of this context revealed by the sociofile database reveals a number of distinct forms of alienation. These include work alienation, social alienation, race alienation, religious alienation, political alienation, colonial alienation, land alienation, youth alienation, student alienation, labor alienation, positive alienation, and the like.

Future of Alienation in Sociological theory and the Social Sciences: A Critical Reexamination

The number of articles derived from the sociofile database show that the concept of alienation has retained its appeal and usefulness for sociologists in particular and social scientists in general. It has clearly not outlived its usefulness either as a scientific construct or as a concept.

This article begins with the theoretical premise that alienation is an integral part of human existence and human activity as they manifest themselves in human society. The task of the social scientist is to study this manifestation as society changes over time. The persistence of this concept in the literature validates this premise and provides support for the idea that it will continue to be a useful process.

In his analysis of the Marxist concept of alienation, Kai Erikson (1988a, 1988b) shows how the concept might be adapted to the highly automated world of the late twentieth century. According to classical Marxist theory, alienation arises from the class structure of capitalism, from the division of labor and the physical separation of workers from the finished product. Workers no longer feel that they are the owners of their labor. This is especially true today. Production processes are now so complex that it is not always possible for workers to see the final product nor really understand what they are doing. Thus there is abundant need for sociologists to continue to study the way in which alienation leads workers to indifference, cruelty, exhaustion, vulgarity, and insensitivity.

Despite the vagueness and ambiguity attributed to the term, alienation can still provide a useful explanation for a wide range of human behavior and practices, not simply in sociology but in all the social sciences. The ever-increasing computerization and automation of work means that workers are often bystanders to the production process (Howard, 1985). It seems clear, then, that as long as social scientists are concerned with different dimensions of society, alienation will remain a concept they must address.


This article reexamines the usefulness of alienation for sociologists and other social scientists. It is clear from the copious number of articles in the sociofile database that alienation has not outlived its usefulness to explain social phenomena at almost all levels of human endeavor. No matter how imprecisely it is used, alienation provides a crucial way of talking about how human beings relate to a social setting. It enhances our understanding of human practices and helps us pinpoint ways in which these practices can be modified to lessen alienation.


Berger, P.L. (1969). The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion. New York: Anchor Books Edition.

Erikson, K. (1986). Work Alienation. American Sociological Review, 51(1).

-----. (1988). Labor and Alienation. Sotsiologicheskie-Issledovaniya, Vol. 15, Number 3.

Howard, R. (1986). Brave New Workplace. New York: Penguin Books.

Israel, J. (1971). Alienation: From Marx to Modern Sociology. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, Inc.

Mandel, E. (1973). The Causes of Alienation in The Marxist Theory of Alienation, by Ernest Mandel and George Novack, New York: Pathfinder Press.

Johnson, F. (1973). Alienation: Concept, Term, and Meanings. New York: Seminar Press.

Schacht, R. (1970). Alienation. New York: Doubleday and Company, Inc.

Seeman, M. (1959). On the Meaning of Alienation. American Sociological Review, 29.

-----. (1983). Alienation Motifs in Contemporary Theorizing: The Hidden Continuity of the Classic Theories. Social Psychological Quarterly, 46(3).

Veatch, H. (1969). Two Logics: The Conflict between Classical and Neo-Analytic Philosophy. Evanston: NorthWestern University Press.

Wrong, D. (1985). Myths of Alienation. Partisan Review, LII(3).
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Author:Affinnih, Yahya H.
Publication:The Social Science Journal
Date:Jul 1, 1997
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