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  1. an individual's feelings of estrangement from a situation, group or culture, etc.
  2. a concept used by MARX, in his early work, in reference to the core relationships of capitalist production and their human and psychological effects.
  3. (following from 2) a central term in different interpretations of Marx (see below).
  4. as operationalized in empirical research, the term has its best known use in R. Blauner'S (1964) comparison of work conditions and work satisfaction.
In religious and philosophical usage, the term dates back to medieval times and can even be found in the classical philosophy of ancient Greece. Modern sociological usage mainly derives from Marx's critique of Hegel's use of the term in Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts (EPM), written in 1844 but not published until 1932, and not widely known until the 1950s. In the EPM Marx gives several meanings and nuances to the term, but with three central elements: philosophical, psychological and sociological. Unlike Hegel, who uses alienation to contrast the ‘objectivity’ of nature with human consciousness, Marx emphasizes the importance of the relationship between human beings (in their social relations of production) and nature for social development, and therefore individual development. The psychological, or social psychological, usage is the one which is most commonly found in popular, and in many sociological, accounts. At its simplest, this refers to feelings of unhappiness, lack of involvement or only instrumental involvement with work and with others. In Marx's explanation these individual manifestations of alienation are a product of social relations. The important aspect of the concept is the sociological one. Within capitalism, workers do not work to express themselves, to develop their interests or for intrinsic satisfaction: work is essentially forced and, in work, people are subjected to the demands and discipline of others, the owners of capital. In addition to this emphasis on the relation of the worker to the act of production, Marx also stresses the importance of the relation of workers to the products which they produce. The objects which workers produce, commodities, do not belong to them, but to their employers. In effect, in work, people produce wealth and power for a class which oppresses them. Products do not belong to their producers, they are alien objects.

The philosophical element concerns a particular conception of human nature. Marx portrays human nature not as something which is ‘fixed’ or eternal, but as a social product. He writes about alienation, or estrangement from ‘species being’, by which he means those characteristics which are specifically human and distinguish human beings from other animals. These human attributes develop socially, through relations of production, and, for Marx, they have the potential for unlimited development in a favourable system of social relationships. Simply, Marx sees the process of production as central to human development. It follows that a system based upon EXPLOITATION, one in which workers are estranged from the act of production and from the products which they produce, stultifies and dehumanizes. It alienates human beings from 'S pecies being’ in the sense that it denies any possibility of the development of human potential or creativity, except for a privileged few. Alienation is thus analysed in terms of the social structure of CAPITALISM, i.e. private property, commodity production and class relations.

The ‘discovery’ of the EPM by Western scholars transformed sociological approaches to, and interpretations of, Marx's work. Some accounts have emphasized either a continuity between the humanist preoccupations of the EPM and later more scientific and less overtly philosophical work, or have argued that the earlier work contains a more satisfactory explanation of the human condition than the later. Others point out that Marx deliberately dropped the term ‘alienation’ in his later work, in part so as to distance himself from other German scholars of the time – the ‘Young Hegelians’ – but also, some argue, because of a rejection of humanist philosophical values. This interpretation is associated in particular with the work of ALTHUSSER who argues that a fundamental shift in Marx's approach, an ‘epistemological break’, occurs after 1844. This radical change involves the development of scientific concepts rather than philosophical, humanist or ideological ones. Opponents of this view argue that Marx’s notebooks, published as the Grundrisse, show a continuing preoccupation with the concept, and also argue that the concept of‘commodity fetishism’, which is used in Das Kapital Vol. 1, is in a direct line of descent from ‘alienation’.

In addition to interpretative disputes, some Marxist or Marx-influenced writers have attempted to use the concept in concert with some themes from Freud'S work, in writings on FALSE CONSCIOUSNESS and on the ways in which modern consumer capitalism creates ‘false needs’ which have important consequences for working-class politics (e.g. FROMM, 1941; MARCUSE, 1964).

Some sociologists and social psychologists have attempted to use the concept empirically This operationalization has involved the attempt to divest the concept of its political and evaluative dimensions – in effect to translate it from a distinctively Marxist to a sociological framework. The best-known example of this empirical use is R. Blauner’s book Alienation and Freedom, in which he uses a redefinition of the concept proposed by a social psychologist, M. Seeman. Seeman argued that ‘alienation’ could be operationalized in five aspects: powerlessness, meaninglessness, normlessness, isolation and self-estrangement. Blauner attempted to apply this typology, excluding normlessness, to an analysis of historical changes in the organization of work. He argued that in the shift from traditional craft production (e.g. the print industry) to factory production (e.g. cotton mills) and then to mass-production techniques (e.g. the car industry), alienation intensified and the number of alienating jobs increased. However, for Blauner, the further refinement of technology in process production (e.g. chemical works) had the effect of reducing alienation by giving workers enhanced feelings of autonomy, control, understanding and, generally, work satisfaction. Blauner's thesis has been criticized, especially by Marxist sociologists, on a number of grounds. It has been argued that his evidence is inadequate and his interpretation of data partial and one-sided. His work has also been depicted as psychologistic, focusing solely on inferred feelings of workers and ignoring the structural analysis of relations of production which is central to Marx'S conception. As a related criticism, his technological determinism is seen as problematic, as is the attempt to strip the concept of its political, critical connotations.

The debates about the importance of the concept in Marx’s work, and its usefulness or otherwise in sociology, have produced many fruitful arguments, but the adequacy of operationalizations of ‘alienation’ in empirical sociological research has not been demonstrated.

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



an objective social process, inherent in antagonistic class society and characterized by the transformation of human work and its results into an independent force that dominates and is hostile to the individual. The sources of alienation lie in the antagonistic division of labor and in private property.

Alienation is expressed in the domination of reified labor over living labor, in the transformation of the individual into an object of exploitation and manipulation by dominant social groups and classes, and in lack of control over the conditions, means, and products of labor. Historically a transitory form of man’s objec-tification of human abilities, alienation is related to the reification and fetishization of social relations. To some degree, it also finds psychological expression in the consciousness of the individual —for example, the disparity between human hopes and expectations and the norms prescribed by the antagonistic social order, the perception of these norms as alien and hostile to the individual, the feeling of isolation or loneliness, and the erosion of behavioral norms. Where there is alienation, the contradiction between individuals and social institutions, which is common to all antagonistic class societies, is accompanied specifically by a perception of society and culture as alien and hostile to the individual. This perception is intensified particularly by the rise of bourgeois relations, which leads to the decline of the traditional patriarchal social bonds that submerged the individual in the social totality. In addition, the rise of bourgeois relations engenders the phenomenon of individualism, with its characteristic juxtaposition of the individual and social institutions.

In the history of social thought, the processes of alienation were first considered in the romantic critique of capitalism. Theoreticians of the social contract, such as Hobbes and Rousseau, explained the origin of society as the action by which human beings transferred or alienated their own rights, surrendering them to the political organism. Hobbes and Rousseau were among the philosophers who viewed this action as the source of human enslavement and the loss of primordial liberty. Schiller posited modern man’s inner disunity, which he regarded as the consequence of the division of labor. He believed that aesthetics could restore the wholeness lost by man. This aesthetic criticism of bourgeois society and of the alienation associated with it was developed by German and French romantic philosophers, who contrasted the world of alienation with the ideal of the integrated life of the patriarchal community.

One of the central categories in Hegel’s philosophy, alienation is a structural support of his philosophical system: nature and history are the objectification, the alienation, of the “absolute mind.” In addition, for Hegel the category of alienation characterizes the specific relation between human beings and the reality created by them in the form of bourgeois civil society. In analyzing bourgeois society—the world “of the spirit alienated from itself”—in the Phenomenology of Mind, Hegel observed that to the individual, reality appears to be “something that is altogether and immediately alien.” Self-consciousness “creates its own world and assumes a relation toward it as toward some alien world, which it must henceforth come to master” (Soch., vol. 4, Moscow, 1959, pp. 264, 263).

Real alienation is explained by Hegel as alienation of the spirit. The overcoming of alienation is the theoretical recognition of the falseness of alienation. Marx referred to this as Hegel’s “uncritical positivism.” Hegel makes no distinction between objectification and alienation, equating the latter with the objectification of human abilities. In his critique of Hegel, L. Feuerbach offered an anthropological interpretation of alienation. Regarding religion as the alienation of the material and sensuous essence of man, he saw the causes of this alienation in certain psychological states, such as fear and a feeling of dependence. He interpreted man’s sensuous nature as the “inalienable” foundation of human life and juxtaposed it to the false world of alienation, which includes idealism and theology. This line of thought, which counterposes the “genuine” and the “unreal,” the world of alienation and the world of love, was further reinforced by the Young Hegelians (for example, B. Bauer and M. Hess) and by various petit bourgeois ideologists of the 1840’s and 1850’s, including Proudhon and M. Stirner.

The Marxist understanding of alienation took shape in a polemic against the objective-idealist concept and the anthropological-psychological interpretation of alienation. Criticizing romantic, Utopian, and moralistic ideas concerning alienation, the founders of Marxism countered them with the view that alienation is an objective social process. As the materialistic conception of history developed, the concept of alienation became more profound. Marx and Engels proceeded from an analysis of alienation in spriritual life (religion, idealist philosophy) to the study of alienation in political life (the bureaucracy, the role of the state), and later, to a consideration of the processes of alienation in economics. In works written during the early 1840’s, they analyzed the problem of alienated labor: alienation from the process and from the fruits of labor, alienation of the worker from his species being and social being, and finally, alienation of the worker from himself. In these early works, Marx and Engels still traced alienation to the worker’s attitude toward his labor. In The German Ideology (1845–46) and especially in Marx’ economic works of the 1860’s and 1870’s, profound economic changes are viewed as the sources of alienation. These changes include the capitalist division of labor, the anarchic character of the aggregate of social acitivity in the context of antagonistic social formations, the domination of private property and commodity-money relations, the transformation of labor into a means of existence, and the transformation of partial social functions into the lifelong vocations of specific individuals, social strata, and classes. Thus, the analysis of alienation was provided with scientific underpinnings—the economic theory of Marxism and the doctrine of the fetishism of commodities.

A number of the central aspects of alienation in capitalist society are disclosed in the works of Marx and Engels. Alienated from human activity, man leaves the labor process impoverished and wasted. This is the “alienation of the content of labor in relation to the laborers themselves” (Marx, in K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 46, part 1, p. 440). In addition, the conditions of labor are alienated from labor itself. “The objective conditions of labor assume a more and more colossal independence in relation to living labor, an independence expressed in the very enormity of their dimensions, … social wealth in its ever more powerful accumulated mass stands opposed to labor as an alien and overpowering force” (ibid., part 2, pp. 346–47). The intellectual conditions of labor, as well as the material ones, are in opposition to the worker, in the alienated form of capital. This is particularly evident in the alienation of science and of the management of production from the worker. “Science appears as alien and hostile in relation to labor and as a force dominating it” (ibid., vol. 47, p. 555).

The fruits of labor are alienated from the wage laborer, with the result that “the wealth created by him stands opposed to him as alien wealth; his own productive forces oppose him as the productive forces of his product; his creation of wealth, as his self-impoverishment; his social power, as the power of society prevailing over him” (ibid., vol. 26, part 3, p. 268).

The toiling masses are alienated from social institutions and the norms prescribed by them. Thus, in the state, the general interest “takes an independent form, divorced from real interests—both individual and collective—and at the same time takes the form of an illusory communality” (ibid., vol. 3, p. 32). In the course of historical development, the alienation of the exploitative state from actual individuals becomes more profound, and social institutions are transformed into hierarchical bureaucratic systems.

The gap between the values propagated by official ideology and the possibilities offered by society is another aspect of alienation dealt with by Marx and Engels. The alienation of ideology from life leads to a situation in which ideology produces in members of society a level of wishes, aspirations, and expectations that cannot be fulfilled by the opportunities offered by society. Thus, the ideological values proclaimed by bourgeois society—freedom, equality, and initiative, for example—come increasingly into conflict with the reality of bourgeois society, with economic inequality and exploitation. Alienation is also characteristic of the intellectual life of class society. Specific forms of ideological alienation arise, ranging from religion to authoritarian ideologies. The gap between “mass culture” and the culture of the elite grows deeper.

The concept of alienation as a social phenomenon was made more concrete in the doctrine of the absolute and relative impoverishment of the working class and in the doctrine of exploitation as the “actual expression” of alienation (Marx, in K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 26, part 3, p. 520). The Marxist treatment of social institutions and the individual also sharpened the concept of alienation as a social phenomenon.

A heated ideological struggle has developed around the Marxist concept of alienation. Its most typical features include a preoccupation with contrasting the young, “humanistic” Marx, who analyzed the problematics of alienation, with the mature Marx, who supposedly shifted to nonhumanistic and scientistic positions. In addition, Marxism is portrayed as a variety of irrationalist anthropology. There have been attempts to reconcile Marxism with existentialism. Also typical of the ideological dispute is a theological interpretation that tries to equate alienation with the fall from grace. Attacking the practice of socialist construction, right and “left” revisionists such as R. Garaudy and E. Fischer assert that socialism has intensified the alienation of the individual and created new forms of alienation linked with public ownership and the role of the state under socialism.

In their critique of the bourgeois and revisionist concepts of alienation, Marxists from various countries emphasize that socialism eliminates the root causes of alienation and that the prevailing trend under socialism is toward overcoming alienation—a goal that is accomplished in the fullest, ultimate sense simultaneously with the building of communism. The general means for overcoming alienation, as disclosed in the theory of scientific communism, consist in the elimination of exploitation, the comprehensive expansion of social wealth, the establishment of socialist social relations, the overcoming of the opposition between mental and physical labor and between town and country, the development of communist consciousness, and the democratization of administration and of all public life in socialist and communist society. The specific ways and means of overcoming alienation, as well as the pace at which this can be accomplished, depend on the concrete conditions in each country in which the new society is being built, on the level of development of each country, and on the level of consciousness of the working class.

The Marxist position, which stresses the sociohistorical, transitory nature of alienation, is the opposite of the viewpoint of contemporary bourgeois ideologists, who regard alienation as a perpetual feature of human life. Contemporary bourgeois philosophical and sociological concepts of alienation have in common a number of characteristics, including antihistoricism, psychologism in their treatment of the sources of alienation, and transformation of alienation into an essential aspect of human existence. Because bourgeois philosophers regard many of the phenomena of alienation from a standpoint of alienation, as ineradicable aspects of social life in general, they arrive inevitably at a tragic view of the history of society and culture. Even in his time, G. Simmel considered the contradiction between the creative process and the objectivized forms of culture to be the “tragedy of culture.” The existentialists’ philosophical writings and fiction also portray alienation in a tragic tone. Twentieth-century bourgeois sociology has analyzed several aspects of the problem of alienation (without using that term), in connection with the problems of bureaucracy (K. Mannheim and M. Weber [Germany]) and social anomie (E. Durkheim [France] and R. Merton [USA]). In the 1960’s an intensification of the romantic critique of capitalism was accompanied by a renewed interest in the category of alienation as a means of analyzing bourgeois society. The revival of interest in alienation was manifested in the ideology of the “new left” (for example, H. Marcuse [USA]).

Many bourgeois sociologists treat alienation as the only possible mode of organization of human relations, contrasting it with “small groups,” or “informal groups,” which are supposedly free of alienation. In contemporary American sociology there have been some attempts to study alienation empirically. M. Seeman has proposed five criteria for the empirical interpretation of alienation: the nonpossession of power, loss of meaning in work, absence of recognized norms, isolation, and self-alienation. These criteria have become the blueprint for sociological research by R. Blauner, for example. In general, however, bourgeois sociology and philosophy replace the analysis of real social conditions and the real causes of alienation with a description of the mind and psychology of the individual living in the world of alienation.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


The transfer of title to real property by one person to another.
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