Understanding Alienation and Social Alienation

Theories of Karl Marx and Contemporary Sociologists

A woman sitting alone and looking bored at a party where others are having fun symbolizes social alienation.
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Alienation is a theoretical concept developed by Karl Marx that describes the isolating, dehumanizing, and disenchanting effects of working within a capitalist system of production. Per Marx, its cause is the economic system itself.

Social alienation is a more broad concept used by sociologists to describe the experience of individuals or groups that feel disconnected from the values, norms, practices, and social relations of their community or society for a variety of social structural reasons, including and in addition to economy.

Those experiencing social alienation do not share the common, mainstream values of society, are not well integrated into society, its groups and institutions, and are socially isolated from the mainstream.

Marx's Theory of Alienation

Karl Marx's theory of alienation was central to his critique of industrial capitalism and the class stratified social system that both resulted from it and supported it. He wrote directly about it in Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts and The German Ideology, though it is a concept that is central to most of his writing. The way Marx used the term and wrote about the concept shifted as he grew and developed as an intellectual, but the version of the term that is most frequently associated with Marx and taught within sociology is of the alienation of workers within a capitalist system of production.

According to Marx, the organization of the capitalist system of production, which features a wealthy class of owners and managers who purchase labor from workers for wages, creates the alienation of the entire working class.

This arrangement leads to four distinct ways in which workers are alienated.

  1. They are alienated from the product the make because it is designed and directed by others, and because it earns profit for the capitalist, and not the worker, through the wage-labor agreement.
  2. They are alienated from the production work itself, which is entirely directed by someone else, highly specific in nature, repetitive, and creatively unrewarding. Further, it is work that they do only because they need the wage for survival.
  1. They are alienated from their true inner self, desires, and pursuit of happiness by the demands placed on them by the socio-economic structure, and by their conversion into an object by the capitalist mode of production, which views and treats them not as human subjects but as replaceable elements of a system of production.
  2. They are alienated from other workers by a system of production which pits them against each other in a competition to sell their labor for the lowest possible value. This form of alienation serves to prevent workers from seeing and understanding their shared experiences and problems--it fosters a false consciousness and prevents development of a class consciousness.

While Marx's observations and theories were based on the early industrial capitalism of the 19th century, his theory of the alienation of workers holds true today. Sociologists who study the conditions of labor under global capitalism find that the conditions that cause alienation and the experience of it have actually intensified and worsened.

The Broader Theory of Social Alienation

Sociologist Melvin Seeman provided a robust definition of social alienation in a paper published in 1959, titled "On the Meaning of Alienation." The five features he attributed to social alienation hold true today in how sociologists study this phenomenon.

They are:

  1. Powerlessness: When individuals are socially alienated they believe that what happens in their lives is outside of their control, and that what they do ultimately does not matter. They believe they are powerless to shape their life course.
  2. Meaninglessness: When an individual does not derive meaning from the things in which he or she is engaged, or at lest not the same common or normative meaning that others derive from it.
  3. Social isolation: When a person feels that they are not meaningfully connected to their community through shared values, beliefs, and practices, and/or when they do not have meaningful social relationships with other people.
  4. Self-estrangement: When a person experiences social alienation they may deny their own personal interests and desires in order to satisfy demands placed by others and/or by social norms.

    Causes of Social Alienation

    In addition to the cause of working and living within the capitalist system as described by Marx, sociologists recognize other causes of alienation. Economic instability and the social upheaval that tends to go with it has been documented to lead to what Durkheim called anomie -- a sense of normlessness that fosters social alienation. Moving from one country to another or from one region within a country to a very different region within it can also destabilize a person's norms, practices, and social relations in such a way as to cause social alienation. Sociologists have also documented that demographic changes within a population can cause social isolation for some who find themselves no longer in the majority in terms of race, religion, values and world views, for example. Social alienation also results from the experience of living at the lower rungs of social hierarchies of race and class. Many people of color experience social alienation as a consequence of systemic racism. Poor people in general, but especially those who live in poverty, experience social isolation because they are economically unable to participate in society in a way that is considered normal.