Alienation Research Paper Starter


This article provides an overview of the concept of alienation in social theory. It begins with a detailed discussion of the origins of alienation in the work of Karl Marx, including the relationship of alienation to wage labor and the industrial system. Next, it provides a summary of different theorists' opinions on whether or not alienation can be overcome, and if so, how. Finally, it presents views on alienation from a number of other classical and contemporary social theorists, including postmodern thinkers. Theorists discussed include Arendt, Berger, Baumann, Baudillard, Durkheim, Simmel, Adorno, Bourdieu, Harvey, and Sartre.

Keywords Alienation; Anomie; Capitalism; Class; Communism; Dehumanization; Enlightenment; Empirical; False Consciousness; Fragmentation; Ideology; Modernity; Norms; Objectivity; Postmodernity; Rationality; Rationalization; Reification; Religion; Self; Theory; Wage Labor; Work

Population, Urbanization


According to the Oxford English Dictionary, alienation means the "action of estranging." What the object of estrangement is, however, can vary. Throughout the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries the term was used frequently in legal discussions to refer to the separation of affections between two people, the transfer of ownership or property, or the illegitimate use of some good. Though it is easy to see how the sociological use of the term might derive from this etymology, alienation has quite a different meaning to sociologists and social theorists.

The theorist mostly closely associated with the notion of alienation in the social sciences is Karl Marx. Today, Marx is best known as a theorist of capitalism, history, and economics; he used the term alienation to explain some of what he saw as the more problematic outcomes of the transition to a capitalist economy. He argued that alienation stemmed from the engagement in wage labor in the capitalist economy. Prior to the emergence of factory labor during the industrial revolution, people were intimately and directly connected to the products of their labor. For instance, a farmer knew the land he worked, and the farmer and his family consumed the produce that grew on that land. Similarly, a shoemaker knew the details of every pair of shoes he made, including who bought them and for how much money. In the factory system, this was no longer true. Individual workers were responsible for only one small step in the production process, leaving them distant from the ultimate product. Observing this shift, Marx argued that alienation occurs when workers, through participation in wage labor, become estranged from the products of their labor (in other words, the goods they are producing).

In fact, the notion of alienation is quite a bit more complicated than this simple tale would show it to be. The worker's estrangement from the product of his or her labor leads the him or her to see this product as an alien object. Whereas farmers or shoemakers would have seen the product of their labor as an essential part of their daily lives, factory workers or wage laborers see the product of their labor as just another object. Thus, life and labor become in some sense separate and distinct, even as labor becomes a larger and larger part of workers' lives. Marx noted that industrial workers spend two-thirds of the time that they are awake engaged in labor for someone else-labor that is nothing more than meaningless activity. While contemporary labor laws provide for a minimum wage and, in some countries, define the maximum hours a person can spend at work, the difference is only one of extent. Today, we still spend a considerable percentage of our lives at work, thinking about work, and commuting to work. A worker, for instance, who sleeps eight hours a night, works forty-five hours a week, and spends one hour per day commuting will spend roughly half of his or her waking life at work (and that is counting the weekends). Ultimately, Marx argued that the objectification of the product of work combined with the all-encompassing nature of wage labor leads workers to view their own labor power, too, as nothing more than an object.

Alienation is not just about the separation of people from the products of their labor. It is also about the separation of people from their own essential nature. Therefore, the essential distinction underlying Marx's notion of alienation is the distinction between labor that is undertaken by an individual for his or her own benefit, in order to express his or her own personality, relationships, and ideals, and labor that is one for the satisfaction of external motivations, most particularly to secure the means of subsistence, or the money and other material goods necessary to people for survival. Marx sees this latter form of labor as a form of self-sacrifice and the cause of the estrangement between people and their essential beings. To Marx, in other words, industrial laborers have not only sold their labor power to the capitalist, but have also lost their souls.

Marx identified four different types of alienation: the individual can be alienated from his or her self, from his or her fellow person, from his or her labor, or from the product of that labor.

• Alienation from the product of one's labor occurs when one does not control the product. Rather, it is under the control and ownership of the capitalist, and the worker cannot use the product no matter how much he or she needs it. • Alienation from one's labor occurs when one does not have control over the conditions of that labor. Whereas in the traditional mode work could be a creative enterprise, within an industrial context it instead becomes a space of oppression wherein the capitalist, or the employer, tells the worker what to do and how to do it. • Alienation from fellow people results from two cause. First, Marx argues that the capitalist economic system inherently produces class conflict and that this conflict leads us to be alienated from others. Second, human relationships to a great extent become defined by economic exchange rather than by personal interest or affection. • Finally, we become alienated from ourselves when the domination of the capitalist system eliminates our essential human nature as conscious shapers of the world.

In summary, Marx argues that alienation develops out of the emergence of capitalism. According to him, private ownership of industry leads to the development of factory wage labor systems in which individual workers sell their labor power to capitalists in return for a cash wage. The fragmented and depersonalized labor process then results in the estrangement of the worker from the product and from his or her essential self. In sum, wage labor leads directly to alienation.


Resisting and Reversing Alienation

Some authors argue that alienation is an irreversible process, or at least that reversing it would be extremely difficult and unlikely. For instance, Jean-Paul Sartre suggested that the estrangement between individuals that arises from alienation makes the coordination of resistance to oppression difficult and unlikely, thus perpetuating our alienation from one another. Similarly, David Harvey's argument that individuals have become fragmented and without the ability to pursue a better future suggests the lack of the spark that would lead to social change. Baudrillard similarly suggested that individuals can no longer perceive alternatives in societies in which alienation has become pervasive. Yet other theorists have presented arguments on how alienation could be limited or reversed.

In his writings on alienation, Karl Marx continued his well known advocacy for communism, arguing that the communist revolution would end alienation. This end would occur, he though, because, under communism, each worker would own a portion of the industry and would therefore be able to exert control over the process of production, thus enabling all workers to reconnect with the products of their labor. Hannah Arendt proposed a less political response to alienation. While she believed that alienation comes from the removal or withdrawal of the individual from public life, she believed that individuals could potentially continue to reveal their true selves in individual, face-to-face interactions. Alienation is not a central part of Arendt's thinking, but it is worth noting that if, as she believed, it is possible for an individual's true self to emerge under capitalism, collective resistance may yet arise.

Zygmunt Bauman saw still another way for humanity to resist alienation. To Bauman, it is the critical potential of creating new ways of thinking and being that provides the opening for possibility and thus the escape from alienation. Such transformations are possible because humans retain the capacity to build ethical relationships with one another. Alienation, he argues, is not natural, and we can always do something about it.



While Marx is the theorist with whom the notion of alienation is most closely identified, a variety of other social theorists have refined the concept...

(The entire section is 4064 words.)