Unravelling Alienation: From an Omen of Doom to a Celebration of Diversity

Devorah Kalekin-Fishman. The International Handbook of Sociology. Editor: Stella R Quah & Arnaud Sales. Sage Publications, 2000.

Although the term is not novel (Schweitzer and Geyer, 1989), the topic of alienation has been on the sociological agenda for the better part of the second half of the twentieth century. Since the close of the Second World War, when “the quest for community” seemed hopeless though imperative (Nisbet, 1966), concern with our living in an “alienated society” has been rampant in the literature of the social sciences, and has often overflowed into the language of everyday life (Ludz, 1973). Events of the 1960s confirmed the conception that the disquiet of youth, which could be attributed to alienation, might present a comprehensive threat to the tide of convention. On the basis of this interpretation, sociologists and psychologists were enlisted in a sweeping effort to prevent the threatened crumbling of society (see Blauner, 1964; Erikson, 1968; Fromm, 1965; Keniston, 1967; Marcuse, 1958). Underlying most of this work was the assumption that if tools could be devised for conducting personal and social life with suitable rationality, problems of alienation would be eliminated. Recent work dealing with alienation takes a view which is at once more cynical and more charitable. Thus, there are studies which focus on evidence of what we may call local alienation—phenomena which are ostensibly curable (see, for example, references in this paper to research on drop-outs in education and studies on alienation in the field of social work); while theoretical analyses tend to deal with issues which are thoroughly entrenched and embedded in what we know as the only possible surround.

At the same time, there are still traditional debates about the philosophical underpinnings of alienation, its evolution over time, and its applicability to contemporary problems. Recent collections (Geyer, 1996; Geyer and Heinz, 1992) include discussions of alienation as a theory and refined insights into its connections with the thought of Hegel, Nietszche, as well as that of Habermas and Beck (see papers by Ahponen, 1996; Nagl, 1992; Schacht, 1996). In sociology there is continual interest in systemic alienation which is ambiguous in detail, and recurrently demands clarification. The field is also enriched by theoretical analyses of alienation and anomie which account for different aspects of social phenomena and are linked to different domains of social reality (see among others, Schweitzer, 1992; Wexler, 1998).

In the following discussion, I will point out how the study of alienation has been dismantled into diversity—in the varieties of questions which researchers ask, in the miscellany of outcomes sought in research, and in differentiated premises about its theoretical foundations. The first section relates to classic approaches to the general question of whether people are or are not alienated. The next section surveys how conceptualizations of alienation serve researchers and practitioners in different disciplines. After that, I survey theoretical approaches to alienation with a special emphasis on the work of social psychologists and sociologists. After pointing out some of the tensions between theory and research, the final section outlines conclusions on the character of alienation and on trends toward diversity palpable at the start of the third millennium.

Theoretical Distinctions and Turning Points in Research

The systematic study of alienation in the social sciences derives from Marx’s complex presentation of the human condition as shaped by capitalism. But it is safe to say that in contemporary sociology the impetus for studies of alienation came from the milestone paper in which Seeman (1959) pinpointed and tagged conditions which mold individuals as they were set out in the works of Marx, Durkheim, and Toennies, among others. Seeman developed summarizing concepts by merging distinctions among theories of alienation, anomie, and Gesellschaft/Gemeinschaft. In practice, his formulations of the dimensions of alienation (emphatically not a syndrome): powerlessness, meaninglessness, normlessness, social isolation, and self-estrangement, defined benchmarks for theoretical explorations of the construct as well as for empirical investigations, Even social scientists who criticize the social psychological orientation and the homogenization of social values implied by Seeman’s analyses, have felt constrained to relate to his terms. From the start, empiricist researchers found them convenient for operationalization as welcome additions to available repertoires of research tools.

In re-examining theoretical foundations to explain the turmoil of the 1960s, Lukes (1973; 1978) reviewed the constituent theories and re-established distinctions between alienation and anomie by examining the different footing for the validation of each construct. Lukes emphasized crucial differences between Durkheim and Marx in their implicit and explicit value judgments about human goals. Durkheim, who was certain of the existence of a conscience collective in every society as a whole, emphasized the value of solidarity and the maintenance of community as the supreme social goal. On this basis, it was clear that the state of anomie, not sharing in the notions of a collective, being at a loss to understand its norms, was a form of pathology. Marx, on the other hand, thought of true community as an apocalyptic vision under capitalism. The differentiation of capitalist society into classes with necessarily different interests prevented equity as well as efficient coping with environmental challenges (see also Schweitzer, 1996). Hence, solidarity is an aspect of false consciousness, a mode of reasoning which prevents people from recognizing the true state of things. Because such an awareness is integral to the perpetuation of capitalist dominance, alienation is inevitable (natural) in a capitalistic social order.

These distinctions raised the empirical question of how to know whether or not people are actually alienated. Assuming that alienation was perpetuated through micro-manifestations of class and power in face to face interaction, Archibald (1976) inquired into on-going relations in the work place. He pointed out the deliberate alienating mechanisms of everyday life. Lower-class workers endure implicit threat in interpersonal exchanges with people who are of higher status and more powerful. His theorization of processes of micro-stratification generalized beyond places of work, but did not clearly apply to what he called “informal status structures,” where alienation could perhaps be evaded. At about the same time, studies carried out by Seeman (1967) himself and by Willis (1977) challenged traditional interpretations by investigating alienation or its absence in informal groups.

Seeking to carry out empirical tests of the blanket assertion that alienation was inevitable under a capitalistic factory system, Seeman conducted a study of subjective appraisals of alienation among factory workers in Sweden. The research instrument was a questionnaire which focused on powerlessness, the feeling that one is incapable of carrying out actions that one considers necessary; meaninglessness, the feeling that one cannot predict the outcomes of one’s actions with any degree of accuracy; and social estrangement, the feeling that one is cut off from others in one’s social sphere. In apparent defiance of theory, the Swedish factory workers studied did not offer evidence of strong feelings of alienation. Instead, as Seeman (1967: 284) notes, they “simply come to terms, more easily than our theories imply, with the only work life they know and can reasonably expect for themselves.”

Seeman’s conclusion received oblique support from ethnographic research in schools. According to statistics, it was clear that although opportunities for advanced education were increasing, children born into the working class continue to “get working class jobs.” Through the compilation and analysis of situations, conversations, and everyday events, Willis (1977) demonstrated how class membership was validated and ratified in schools. Willis observed the behavior of pupils in the lower streams of a comprehensive secondary school, and talked to them. He traced the ways in which boys formed cliques which pedantically imitated the behaviors of adult factory workers. Among the lads he studied, pastimes and the types of fun they preferred, the emblems they adopted, the language they used, their attitudes toward girls and women, and their stance toward their peers, all bespoke their identification with forms of popularity and success modeled in the working-class culture of the neighborhood.

At school and out of it, the lads did not regret their involvement in activities which effectively got in the way of studying. The potential for school-related accomplishments was far from alluring, and future rewards were vague. Like the Swedish workers, they, too, managed to create “an acceptable life of the moment by creating occasions… for humor, sociality, decision-making, competition, argument, etc.” (Seeman, 1967: 284). Whereas Seeman was confident that these moments were “at once trivial and remarkable” (1967), Willis shows that these are exactly the events which constitute the customary substance of school life. Not at all trivial, they are the very factors in the experience of school which ensured that the careers of the pupils would not lead to meaningful changes in life patterns or help them to overcome the economic and social constraints of the milieu.

In many ways, these studies marked a turning point in inquiry into alienation. By querying factory workers, Seeman was not only testing assumptions about whether the socio-economic system tends to alienate workers and if so, how, but also proposing that people who are alienated are cognizant of their life situation. From the finding that the workers were apparently not aware of alienation, he concludes that the theory is wanting. Willis research derives from initial assumptions on the function of schooling and the future orientations of all young people. Willis assumed not only that schools were designed to contribute to de-alienation, but that working-class youngsters would naturally strive to escape the circumstances which destined them for rather dreary factory work. In both cases, the researchers found that the people were dealing with their surroundings by extracting maximum satisfaction from conditions which are not easily overcome. And there is a connection. It is exactly because factory workers manage to “create occasions…. for humor and sociality…” that working-class children can allow themselves effectively to reject the offerings of schooling, and are satisfied to accomplish imitations of such occasions in their own peer groups.

The geographical distance between the populations of the two studies and the discrepancy in their ages adds to the persuasiveness of the convergent findings. Additional significance derives from the fact that the studies were conducted with different research methods. Whereas Seeman chose a quantitative approach, using a closed questionnaire in his investigation; Willis approached his task with tools of qualitative research, accessing information as it presented itself in a natural setting.

The issues highlighted in these milestone pieces of research underlie our concerns in the survey of inquiry in the field of alienation which follows. The framework for the analysis will be the substantive issues and their roots in academic disciplines. The review will illustrate the disjuncture between most of the empirical work and the theorization of alienation.

Alienation Research and the Exigencies of Professional Practice

This section is devoted to a review of how conceptualizations of alienation in various guises have emerged to serve researchers and practitioners in disciplines hallowed by association with institutions of higher education. In institutions which train practitioners, alienation is examined by reference to concrete professional interests. For the most part, alienation is taken for granted as the generic label for imbalance, discontent, deviance, disintegration, etc., as appropriate to the terminology of a particular field of endeavor. The sociological concern with theoretical implications is far from the practitioner’s horizon; but as we shall see the practical concern with alienation in everyday life does have significance for mapping the agenda of sociological theory.

I will begin by sketching significant developments in relevant fields of practice: education, social work, psychology and psychiatry; and go on to point out typical theses prominent among researchers associated with interdisciplinary fields such as gender and family studies, as well as the study of culture. In each field the substantive focus and the methodological approach chosen will be illustrated by selected research. Although they are not usually spelled out, theoretical elaborations of alienation as a sociological, psychological, and economic construct are the foundation of these studies. Through these lenses it will be possible to appraise implied goals and values, and their encounter with sociological theory.


In research connected with the professions, educational research is most clearly committed to studies of alienation when assessed by sheer quantity. Researchers in education interpret alienation as sets of conditions open to conscious and voluntary control. There is extensive use of quantitative and qualitative measures in which dimensions of powerlessness or disempowerment, social and cultural isolation, and self-estrangement, are related to aspects of an educational system. Because of the large number of studies, it will be best to present material by focusing separately on alienation as related to students, curriculum, and staff.


Although there are a few researches which deal with feelings of alienation as a general phenomenon (Atsumi et al., 1989), most of the current research exploring alienation among students is related to a highly practical problem, that of dropouts. The perception that those who leave school before completing the official term of study suffer from a serious flaw stems from the now widespread expectation that secondary education is an existential necessity (Dorn, 1993). In this connection the very act of not completing an institutionalized program is an indicator of alienation and drop-outs are taken to be in need of remediation (Geddes and Golbetz, 1992).

Usage of the term drop-out is surprisingly broad however; the phenomenon is identified among pupils in elementary or middle schools, students of universities, even among those enrolled in doctoral studies, among adult learners in professional courses, and those involved in distance learning (Black and Sim, 1990; Brown, 1996; Golde, 1994; Romanik and Blazer, 1990). The issue in most of the studies is, then, what independent variable predicts alienation, that is, dropping out. Researchers examine predictors such as ethnicity, physical handicaps, and learning difficulties (Brady, 1996; Cohen, 1991; Lichtenstein, 1993; Nightingale, 1993). It is hypothesized that students who are at high risk for drop-out are probably to be found among the disadvantaged, an euphemism for students born into large families or into families of foreign extraction; for students of low S-E-S living in the inner-city, that is to say, the poor (Kleese and D’Onofrio, 1994; York et al., 1993). Personality traits as independent variables which cause students to drop out have also been promulgated (see, for example: Kangas et al., 1991; Trusty and Dooley-Dickey, 1993; Von-Wald, 1992).

A growing sub-field of the literature on drop-outs is comprised of research into school failure and droping-out among minority children and the children of immigrants. Bronfenbrenner’s (1992, 1979) view of the school as an alienating setting by contrast with the child’s primary developmental context, sheds light on the estrangement and suffering of Native American children placed in foster care in non-Indian families and sent to regular schools, of Aboriginal children who are mainstreamed, of Indonesian children in families who have immigrated to the United States and of African American and Latino students (Avina, 1993; Calabrese and Poe, 1991; Kaplan and Eckermann, 1996; Root, 1995; Trueba et al., 1990). Fastening on perceived outcomes of schooling, Nightingale (1993) explains alienation (dropping out) among poor Black children by their discovery at quite an early age that their dreams are incommensurable with social opportunities.

Methodologically these studies are varied. Some researchers make use of closed questionnaires in order to measure what they call attitudes of alienation (see, for example, McCaul et al., 1992; Romanik and Blazer, 1990). But a steadily growing number of studies derive their descriptions of alienation from open interviews (among others, Black and Sim, 1990; Martinez et al., 1994) or even from observation of non-reactive elements in the environment (Scheibel, 1994).

Interested first and foremost in finding remedies for the increase in dropping out (alienation), educational researchers warn that there is a likelihood of negative consequences on mental health in adulthood (Kaplan et al., 1994) and on future economic status (Elder, 1991). Recommendations are to bring the consequences of dropping out to the attention of pupils (McCaul et al., 1992). There is, in fact, evidence that awareness, social bonding, and family support have helped even students at high risk to persevere in their schooling (Barnett, 1995; Rosenthal, 1994). In a relatively small number of studies researchers propose improvements in schools and suggest community action (Bekuis, 1995; Burns, 1994; Glatthorn, 1995; Travis, 1995).


Concerted attempts to remedy alienation by repairing elements in the curriculum center on the assumption that alienation can be overcome by exercising judicious choice in learning materials. Discussions of alienation and the curriculum are, therefore, openly prescriptive.

Researchers who rely on surveys of students attitudes conclude that among the sources of student alienation are: inadequate honoring of minority languages in the school curriculum (Gonzales, 1993; Mar-Molinero, 1994), insufficient attention to culturally determined styles of learning (Hanley, 1995; Kiang, 1992), and generational differences between teachers and pupils (Sidlik and Piburn, 1993; Spencer and Barth, 1991). Incorporation of studies oriented to the cultural traditions of non-majority groups is proposed as a means to prevent alienation (Escamilla, 1996; Gayle-Evans, 1993; Leder, 1992; Van-Hamme, 1996). Topics in social studies also figure in initiatives designed to promote de-alienation (Beauchamp, 1995; Nakayama, 1996). Some investigations look at elements in the hidden curriculum which are likely to contribute to students alienation (Kalekin-Fishman, 1996a; 1996b), and even to persistent violence in schools (Hunter, 1993; Toby, 1994). Despite the varied allusions, basically the methodological strategy for examining elements of alienation in the curriculum is uniform—qualitative content analysis.


During the last several years, staff alienation has been measured with the aid of scales of job satisfaction (in Germany) and verified with scales measuring loneliness (in Canada) (Van Buer et al., 1995; Dussault, 1995; Dussault and Thibodeau, 1996). Among student teachers, questionnaires have disclosed an inverse relationship between hardiness, the capacity to cope with professional trials, and alienation (Thomson and Wendt, 1995).

In a qualitative mode, Jones (1993) sought out staff members whose life conditions were evidence of socially structured alienation. He explored feelings of alienation among professionals in college education who “deviated” from their departments norms in ethnic origin, physical traits, or gender. The interviews with “five African Americans, two Hispanics, one Native American, one Asian, two physically handicapped, and one female vocational education instructor” disclosed a range of alienated perceptions of American society with strong feelings of isolation and loneliness.

In general, there is extensive agreement with the claim that alienation is inevitable given the modes of teacher education and the structuring of pedagogy in most systems. The recommended remedies usually involve action on the part of the teachers themselves. Suggested correctives range from encouragement to develop self-trust (Krupp, 1993); enhancing student empowerment in teacher education (Vavrus, 1989); and developing a consciousness of the close affiliation of teaching and the generation of knowledge through research (Kalekin-Fishman, 1997; 1998). Recommendations for improvements in schools and in the structuring of careers are often postulated as solutions, too (see, for example, Little and McLaughlin, 1993, and their extensive references).

Social Work

The study of alienation is integral to the ameliorative raison d’etre of social work. The professional agenda of the social worker is implicitly based on Merton’s (1957) theory that alienation is evidenced in the inter-play of an espousal of normative or non-normative means and the accomplishment of normative or non-normative goals. Researchers who focus on issues in social work study non-normative behaviors, such as violence, including violence to self through suicide, or through the abuse of alcohol and drugs, and violence in interaction, i.e. crime and delinquency. Another central topic is that of how institutional structures exacerbate alienation among the elderly (Bethel, 1992; Dudley and Hillery, 1977), among already alienated young people who are in need of residential treatment (Noshpitz, 1992; see also Coughlin, 1977), and among prisoners (Bonner and Rich, 1992). The questions that confront researchers, therefore, are what causes alienation, on the one hand, and what behaviors require the intervention of social workers, on the other.

It has been found that abused youngsters are likely to develop alienating patterns of attachment in maturity and may demonstrate violent behavior (Cartwright, 1993; Lisak, 1994). Exposure to violence and crime have a similar impact (Thompson and Norris, 1992). Lack of social support has also been found to be associated ultimately with behavioral evidence of alienation (Watkins, Ward, Southard and Fisher, 1992); as has the neglect and evasion of respect for cultural difference (Van Tran, 1985; Van Tran, Wright and Mindel, 1987; Williams, 1987).

In all of these studies, alienation is defined by quantitative measures—projective tests and closed questionnaires. Different aspects of alienation, i.e., high scores on appropriate tests, are correlated with syndromes of aberrant behaviors, among them gambling (Frey, 1984), drug abuse (Shedler and Block, 1991; Singleton, 1989; Sterk-Elifson and Elifson, 1992), and homelessness (Sosin, 1992). Researchers also draw conclusions about pathological conditions. A syndrome of marital alienation has been described as a cause of clinical depression (Ettinger, Fuls, Macri, Commisso, Lamb and Soucar, 1992). Alienation from community and family is salient among young people at risk for suicide (Grossman, Milligan and Deyo, 1991; Hunter, 1993; Skegg, Cox, and Broughton, 1995); while some theorize an “expendable child” syndrome as a direct cause of the inclination to self-destruction evidenced in anti-social subcultures, such as those of the skinhead movements, Satanism, and street gangs (Clark, 1992; Woznica and Shapiro, 1990).

As research in social work perceives reality, underlying mechanisms of alienation are described overall as catastrophic learning, an unintended result of enculturation which heightens the tensions between the individual personality and the social structure (Cornelis, 1989). Events perceived to be stressful are often associated with such learning (Larose et al., 1993). Thus, in-service social workers are likely to suffer from resentment and alienation as a result of job stress and as a result of the stress entailed by exposure to the intimate problems of others (Lyon, 1993; Shinn, Rosario and Morch, 1984).

Despite recognition of the variety in the etiology of alienation, it is a condition perceived by researchers in social work to be tractable. Proposals include designs for organized programs which will change reality in social work practice with individuals (Frolich-Gildhoff, 1995; Rose, 1990) and in the community (Halpern, 1993). Professional training designed to educate radical social workers, equipping students with a historical view of social work and its accomplishments is, it is believed, a way to improve the lot of social workers by fostering activism (Hunter and Saleebey, 1977; Lee, 1992; Levine and Levine, 1992). Thus, the model of social work as a professional road to empowerment, can be applied not only to clients but also to the members of the profession. In sum, it is the broadening authority of the social workers which holds the key to deliverance from alienation for the professionals and for their clients.


Alienation as a specifically social concept has also been adopted into psychiatry, for psychiatrists are currently “seeking new ways to integrate biological, psychological, and environmental hypotheses of mental disorders” (Wenegrat, 1990; see also, Kolb, 1993; Mender, 1994). The trend follows on debates prominent in the profession since the nineteenth century (Forgas and Innes, 1989; Pichot, 1994). Today, measures of alienation are frequently combined with medical diagnoses in descriptions of mental health. Thus, researchers concentrate on tracing the interaction of personality, attitudes, and specific medical interventions, correlating different measures of the severity of psycho-pathological phenomena with alienation interpreted as depersonalization (see, for example, Coulter, 1990; Jacobs and Bovasso, 1993; Levinthal, 1988).

The idea of buttressing psychiatry with softer tools, enhancing the medical model with instrumentation from the social sciences, is necessarily making a significant difference in research and in treatment (Sokhey, Vasudev and Kumar, 1990). The combination has been of use in clarifying complexities of the (alienated) states of veterans who returned from Vietnam (Thompson, Thornby and Boeringa, 1995; see also, Figley and Leventman, 1990 [1980]). Measures of alienation have been found helpful in discriminating the mind sets and attachment behavior of people with borderline personality disorders from those of (normal) controls. They are also used to discern causes of diagnosed super-sensitivity in psychosis (Malcolm, 1992), and causes of perceived health among elderly coronary patients (Hildingh and Fridlund, 1992). Above all, the notion that alienation is entwined with evidence of mental (ill-) health has led to new approaches to treatment and counseling for adults with problems in sexual adjustment and for locating young people who are at risk for crime and suicide (Berman and Jobes, 1992; Mann-Feder, 1996; Hunter, 1995; New York Governor’s Advisory Committee for Black Affairs, 1988; Sirkin and Reuveni, 1992; Stokes and Damon, 1995; Wicks, Parsons and Capps, 1993).

In psychiatry, it is assumed that no other professionals, and certainly no laypersons, or patients, can handle alienation on their own. Remediation is cloaked in mystery; it is the exclusive prerogative of the medical practitioner, a domain to be penetrated only by certified psychiatrists.

As we have seen, the construct of alienation is currently playing a central role in research designed to clarify issues related to practice in education, social work, and psychiatry. On the whole, the approaches derive from a view of alienation as a psychological phenomenon. We will now go on to look at studies which are part and parcel of the realm of sociology.

Alienation Research in the Realm of Sociology

In sociological studies of work, politics, gender and the family, researchers seek explanations for alienation which are relevant to social structure and to the individual.


Recent research in the domain of work takes a gamut of approaches in regard to alienation. Some of the research derives directly from psychological presuppositions. Work-related alienation has been defined as an independent variable, an element in the structure of personality. Now classic studies of this kind include the work of Kohn who derived a view of alienation from investigations of stratification and its connections with values (Kohn, 1989; Slomczynski, Miller and Kohn, 1981). This perception is still prevalent. Post-office employees in Canada, for example, were judged to be derelict during an industrial crisis because they were alienated, i.e., were of a personality type which prevented requisite commitment to work (see Dent-Read and Zukov-Goldring, 1997). Among minority group professionals, the readiness to accept retirement was presumed to be meaningfully correlated with levels of alienation determined by pen and paper personality tests (Richardson and Kilty, 1992). Records of teachers strikes have also been taken to be evidence that members of the teaching profession are likely to suffer from the personality disorder of alienation (West and Palsson, 1988).

Most of the sociological studies in the field of work, however, derive from Marx’s formulation of alienation as the signal on-going outcome of a basic feature of the capitalist order, the class struggle. Whereas work as such is a natural activity in which human beings can express their interests and their talents; the organization of work under capitalism cuts people off from self-realization by depriving them of opportunities to decide what to do, how to do it, and why (Marx, 1964). Research such as Seeman’s (1967, cited above) constitutes a flat denial that alienation is inevitable under capitalism; and many activist sociologists take a similar view, searching for ways to effect de-alienation in ordinary places of work.

Alienation at work, therefore, is sometimes seen as a variable dependent on particular conditions. There are, for example, claims that it is possible to design the flow of work so as to create an “enabling” rather than an “alienating” organization (Adler and Buie, 1996). Rosner and Putterman (1992) found that with the introduction of “less alienating technologies,” it is possible to increase work satisfaction, and to ensure a process of de-alienation. Although he does not entirely accept the idea that alienation can be dodged, Morawski (1992) acknowledges that even if concessions to workers are not necessarily indicators of true de-alienation, the fact that people perceive the concessions as beneficial can, in the long run, lead to systemic change. On the assumption that alienating perceptions arise when people do not have opportunities for self-fulfillment at work, Super, Sverko and Super (1995) present diversified evidence to the effect that connections between workers value systems and the prospect that (by realizing their personal goals and values) they could avoid alienation.

Other researchers, however, insist that the class struggle has not disappeared. In her research into the garment industry in Los Angeles, Bonacich (1992) found that the class struggle has simply taken on new forms and that “alienated social relations of capitalism are prevalent at all levels” (Bonacich, 1992: 166). Inter-group struggle is evident in many work environments. Unemployment—even temporary joblessness – has been defined as a sign of objective alienating conditions which lead to low self-esteem (Goldsmith and Blakely, 1992). A related explanation of alienation may be insecurity in employment such as the instability experienced by clerical workers who are called upon to fill temporary jobs (Goldsmith, 1989). Alienation may also be the lot of minorities and of specific professional groups. Yang (1995), for example, found alienation growing among Asian Americans because of stereotypical attitudes of co-workers; while police personnel become alienated because of their constant need to struggle against discriminatory and threatening practices which they encounter on the job (Hewitt, Poole and Regoli, 1985).


Recent research on alienation in politics relates to popular rationality, on the one hand, and affect, on the other. In order to understand voting behavior among older Americans of different ethnic origins, levels of alienation have been assessed on the basis of measures of internal or external locus of control (Cox, 1980; Peterson and Somit, 1992). When alienation is defined as affect, the levels of alienation are grasped as reasons for the acceptance or non-acceptance of the logic of politics, of new political initiatives (e.g., perestroika), and the tendency toward participation or non-participation (Carter, 1991; Jrnazyan, 1990; Muller, Crandell and Christianson, 1991; Sears, 1992). With the aid of a retrospective questionnaire, Korzeniowski (1994) found that alienation, i.e. frustration with the Polish government caused many Poles to forgo voting.

There are also studies which examine the relation between macro-trends and the alienation of individuals. Political independence and economic reconstruction in the former Communist states of eastern Europe have been shown to shape conditions which are alienating for a relatively high proportion of the population. In turn, widespread alienation perpetuates tensions in civil society (Kutsar, 1998; Trumm, 1996). Attempts to establish liberal democracy in post-Peron Argentina, on the other hand, can be seen to have been undermined by already pervasive alienation (Gimenez, 1992). On the basis of her analysis, Gimenez (1992: 191) points out that “alienation from the conditions of social reproduction [is] an important and potentially destabilizing set of structural and subjective conditions” (Gimenez, 1992: 191). By contrast, Orkin (1992) shows that the African National Congress became increasingly effective in South Africa during the 1980s because of an ideology which called for what he calls agentiveness and contranomia—activism and resistance antipodal to the apathy and alienation recognized as possible in the beliefs expounded by other Black groups.

Gender and the Family

Alienation is an important focus in the fields of gender and family studies, and can in fact be seen as a life pattern in many cases (Simsarian, 1988; Zanardi, 1990). In general, problems of gender studied from historical and biographical perspectives lend themselves to explication in terms of alienation (Griffin, 1994; Lawrence, Benedikt and Valsiner, 1992; Wood, 1994). The construct of alienation is useful as a tool for analyzing the effects of the skewed gender distribution in the professions (Bagilhole, 1993; Coll and Rice, 1993; Gallos, 1992; Vianello et al., 1990). In framing a view of gender and sexual identities, constructs of alienation are deployed to measure and explain the situation of gays and lesbians (Benjamin, 1990; Lampela, 1996; Lee, 1994; Walling, 1993). An analysis of the alienating conditions of urban life, including social disorganization, unemployment, and economic inequality have been shown to interact with sexism as a functional explanation of the differential rate of rape in different states in the United States of America (Baron and Strauss, 1989).

While studies of alienation related to education or to social work emphasize the restorative potential of family for preventing and even for curing alienation; many sociologically oriented studies show that family life may actually foster alienation. In milieus where women are pressed into traditional gender molds, alienation is experienced among women regardless of class (Campos, 1998). Moreover, women who have migrated from their homelands learn that relations with their spouse, like relations with their extended family may be just as alienating as are the conditions of social adaptation to their new lands (Abraham, 1998; Ralston, 1998).

Theoretical Conceptualizations of Alienation

Conceptualizations of alienation have been formulated by theoreticians in economics and in psychology as well as in sociology. The images of alienation in each area indicate manifold approaches to explications of underlying theory.

Alienation in Economic Thought

Current writing on the history of economic thought demonstrates the significance of alienation for economists. Theoreticians in economics ignore social psychological dimensions of alienation and anomie for the most part.

Economists who relate to alienation are concerned with revising interpretations of the place of alienation in Marxian political economy and with explaining the increase of economic exploitation today in terms of structures (Archibald, 1992; Elster, 1986; Fitzgibbons, 1995; Gordon, 1994; Guidi, 1993; Henderson, 1986; Rothbard, 1995; Sherman, 1987; Smith, 1994; Stanfield, 1979; West and Hafer, 1979). Alienation is also highlighted as the motive underlying tactics adopted to perpetuate ownership and as an outcome of the denial of rights to property (Bell, 1995; Kinsey, 1992; Lundahl and Ndela, 1992; Plumley, 1992). The crossroads of economics and work—intellectual production and volunteer work—also enable a clarification of alienation in the wider societal context (Bocock, 1993; Hamrin, 1992; Stabile, 1996; Thompson and Bono, 1993; Tobin, 1992).

Alienation in Psychological Theory

In the course of the last quarter century, there have been important proposals for theorizing alienation in psychological terms. Stokols (1975) advanced a comprehensive developmental theory of alienation with an explanation of its persistence. His theory is based on a view of ongoing relationships (dyadic or group) in which the experience of being thwarted causes alienation. The interplay between the extent of deterioration in the relationships and the salience of alternatives induces different types of behavior. Hacker (1994) follows up on the developmental theory of Piaget, and proposes that alienation is an outcome of conflicts which arise when a person is at the stage of honing her capacities for abstract thought. In the sphere of psycho-analysis, Meissner (1974) interpreted alienation in the conventional terms of his field as an outcome of the devaluation of the father and his social world. The depression, narcissism, and aggression which are derivatives of disillusionment, turn into the roots of undesirable developments of alienation in society. Lacan (1986/1977), on the other hand, explains alienation as part of the language processes which structure how the subject signifies for the Other, separating out into individuality.

Historical studies of psychology have extended theoretical understandings of alienation while facilitating revisions of overarching approaches to psychological theory (Kuhns, 1993; Lewes, 1988; Rendon, 1991; Sexton and Vande-Kemp, 1991; Stern, 1993; Wertz, 1989). An inter-weaving of ideas about alienation with theories of adolescent psychology has led to an elaboration of engagement theory and attachment theory, and hence to a broader theoretical understanding of gang violence (Aberbach, 1995; Mathews, 1992; Roth and Damico, 1994; Sack et al, 1996). Theoretical explorations of alienation continue to enhance studies of culture, among them research on youth culture (Arnett, 1991; Rordam, 1992) and theories of alienation are deployed to describe the differences between the high and the low cultures of music and literature (Gorman, 1990; Pressley, 1992). Graham and Stephens (1994) have elaborated a theory of philosophical psycho-pathology by analyzing how introspective alienation (self-estrangement) is caused and how it affects human development.

The theorization of alienation in psychology is, in short, encased in the frameworks of psychological models. In these perspectives, alienation and anomie are combined with no special attention to the differences in their terms of reference or to possible variations in behavioral outcomes. Even when a psychologist declares that he is exploring the sociological implications of a deviant state, as does Mitchell (1988), he is content to list alienation and anomie together as a single type of incompetence which limits the “flow experience.”

Some researchers in the field of social work attribute the spread of alienation and anomie to social trends, especially to religious orientations which emphasize individualism (Gianetti, 1979; Roberts, 1991). But these are not the only social conditions which are considered to cause alienation. Unrecognized feelings of shame and rage are likely to develop from threats to what Scheff (1994) calls “the social bond.” He explains how unacknowledged feelings of rage lead to alienation, and provide the roots for prolonged conflict, even to outright war.

Theorizing Alienation in Sociology

As noted above, sociological theorizing on alienation has expanded in several directions, much of it in response to Seeman’s (1959) summarizing concepts. For one thing the assumption that normlessness (anomie) could be linked in tandem with the dimensions of alienation defined by Marx (powerlessness, meaninglessness, and self-estrangement) has aroused fruitful debates since Lukes work on the distinction between the two overarching constructs. In regard to alienation, theoreticians have articulated several orientations to the construct, developing among them, an interpretation in line with a neo-liberal approach to alienation, a systems analysis approach, a post-modernist and new age view of alienation, as well as an exploration of alienation in critical theory. Throughout there is an attempt to distinguish alienation from anomie. I will start from this point.

Alienation and Anomie

Sociologists have cautiously specified the many-faceted distinctions between the two theoretical constructs of alienation and anomie. Orru (1989) traces the concept of anomie and its uses from ancient times, demonstrating that anomie has taken on different meanings during different historical periods. Displaying the variability of its uses, he draws conclusions about ethical considerations and normative assumptions underlying contemporary literature on anomie. Investigating the meeting-ground of the individual and society as expressed by suicide, as well as by militarism and crime, Powell (1988) examines anomie in terms of experience and orientations toward reality. Taking as his point of departure the understanding that both anomie and alienation represent conditions that should be overcome, Schweitzer (1991; Schweitzer and Geyer, 1989) describes the differences between the two by contrasting what is required for dis-anomie and what is required for de-alienation. Because the concept of anomie as developed by Durkheim is infused with a view of human nature as debased and a view of the collective as a force for the good; social constraint on freedom and on spontaneity is the determining factor in effecting a release from anomie. By contrast, the Marxian view of alienation encourages probing for individual autonomy (see also, Orkin, 1992).

Approaches to Theorizing Alienation in Schools of Sociology

Theoretical analyses of alienation have diverse political agendas. I will discuss four of these agendas.

Neo-Liberalism and Alienation

An important stream of theoretical analysis harmonizes conceptualizations of alienation with a democratic ideology and implicitly with the ideology espoused by Durkheim. Oldenquist (1992) opposes the pressure to overcome alienation by an excessive emphasis on autonomy. A democratic ethos recognizes that political freedom must be “consistent with community.” In his view, autonomy may be interpreted to mean “freedom from social shaping and conditioning.” When this happens autonomy paradoxically becomes “a primary cause of alienation” (Oldenquist, 1992: 59). Defending sociology against dogma, Horowitz (1996) praises the pragmatic utility of alienation conceived of as a relational concept parallel to, and not necessarily opposed to integration. Ahponen (1996) questions the possibility of ensuring civil rights based as she says on the majority principle, as minorities learn to press for concrete evidence of de-alienation through political equity. Equally interested in democracy, Orkin (1996) also develops a theoretical approach to cognizing and assessing the potential for democracy and an activist civil society by applying criteria of citizenship and commitment.

Systems Theory and Alienation

Various conceptualizations of the world as system lead to different approaches to the question of alienation. As a partisan of second-order cybernetics, Geyer (1996) positions sociology among the sciences of complexity identified by Prigogine and Stenger (1984). Theorized gaps among the different systemic levels provide a dynamic description and explanation of the kinds of processes that characterize post-modernity. Geyer shows, furthermore, that it is possible to grasp the different dimensions of alienation described by Seeman (1959) in terms of the processes of complexification and the interweaving of different levels of systems, which are constantly in a state of transition. With a slightly different perception of the implications of systems theory, Misheva (1998) advances a model of systemic causes of totalitarianism, intended to be applicable universally. She is able to show that conditions for producing political evils are not restricted to modernity, were known in ancient times as well, and can, given the nature of social systems, arise again.

Post-Modernism and the New Age View of Alienation

Among sociologists who define themselves as post-modernists, alienation is theorized as the inevitable human condition in contemporary, uniquely fragmented society. The program of post-modernism: to experiment in art, to philosophize multiplicity, and to look upon the social bond as being tested in a satirized politics, is a thorough-going definition of the dominion of alienation (Lyotard, 1989: 193). From their reading of theory and of cultural reality, theoreticians of post-modernism conclude that a view of alienation as a structured phenomenon which is remediable (even conceptually) has no verisimilitude and is not viable (Crook, Pakulski and Waters, 1992; Schacht, 1996). Gergen (1991) has described the ultimate in alienation in his vision of the saturated self, the individual constantly in jeopardy because of a surfeit of information. Exposed to the mass media, with constant access to computers, we are easily shown to be “awash with symbolic representations” (Woolley, 1992: 246) and alienated from the inner self as well as from the intimate surround.

It is only to be expected that pessimistic acceptance of alienation (disguised as harsh facetiousness) which is integral to post-modernism should arouse counter-theorizing. Directly related to a post-modernist interpretation of alienation theory because it presents polar opposition to it, is the “New Age” conceptualization of de-alienation. According to this framework, alienation must be overcome by individual regeneration through the renewed encounter with religious values. On the grounds that post-modernism cannot blot out the interest in and need for overcoming alienation, Wexler (1996a; 1996b; 1998) seeks out bridges between sacred and secular solutions to alienation. His argument is that de-alienation can be achieved (by individuals) through a resacralization of culture and a resacralization of the self. This approach to alienation is shared in the large by theorists such as Castoriadis (1990–1991) who relates to the crisis of identification, Lewis (1980) who proposes culture building as a means for strengthening community, and the psychologists Kerr and Apter (1991), who propose a psychology of reversal which seems to promise a retreat from alienation (see, too, Brown, 1985).

Critical Theory and Alienation

Another response to post-modernism is the development of a theorization of alienation in the framework of critical theory. Taking issue with the playful indifference implied by post-modernist theorizing, O’Neill (1995: 195) insists, “Life-worlds cannot be subject to remorseless parody or to an unremitting gaze of alienation without this impulse turning against itself and poisoning its original desire to show how things and relations between people might have been.” Gottdiener goes back to critique the “static and unidimensional state connoted by Habermas’s Lebenswelt” which, to his mind, underlies post-modernist orientations. He reads everyday life as a “dialectical tension between alienation and self-liberation” (Gottdiener, 1996: 144). The point is that it is necessary to assess social change in terms of behavior and interaction rather than in the abstract terms of textuality and rules of discourse. Concurring with this view, Schweitzer (1996) shows that through the passive acceptance of what is, the science of sociology is implicated in the non-humanistic, even anti-humanistic practices that are easily derived from empiricistic reifications of alienation. In making a case for humanism, Langman and Scatamburlo (1996) depart from the writings of Marx and Gramsci, and defend a similar stand by reference to political urgency in a world where oppressed groups are struggling for emancipation.

Among the sociologists who theorize alienation in neo-Marxist terms, there is a pervasive concern with the fate of individuals in this world of “post” everything which verges on positivism (Markovic, 1989; Vandenberghe, 1996). This type of theorization links up with different arenas of life. In the domain of work, Archibald, (1996) is interested in postulating the conditions which make it possible for alienated workers to rebel. In the domain of socialization, Kalekin-Fishman (1981; 1991) shows how alienation is passed on from generation to generation. Macey (1996) theorizes alienation as scapegoating, marginalization, and the social exclusion of minority groups, and these cause uncertainty and insecurity, among members of majority groups throughout the world. She concludes that the displacement of alienation leads to inequality and oppression. In analyzing alienated selfhood, Langman (1992; 1998) looks at loneliness in the shopping mall, and at the negation of joy through the virtual carnivals of television and computer entertainment.

Problems in Connecting Theory and Research

In this overview of how alienation is currently figuring in research and theory, we have encountered a wide range of accomplishments. From research connected with several disciplines apart from sociology, theoretical studies of alienation which are serious explorations of meaningful issues have emerged. Yet, when all is said and done, the very diffusion presents a puzzle. In what follows I will sketch some difficulties that the many studies have not solved.

A curious paradox strikes us when we look at research in which alienation is an important factor. The more diverse the uses, the less flexible and responsive the research is and the less theoretically informed. It is worthwhile to recall that nineteenth century research on alienation (and on anomie) was distinguished by a global approach. Characteristics of the human condition were discerned and described theoretically, and they were examined obliquely on a societal scale. Marx defined macro-economic processes and analyzed them in accordance with his theoretical grasp of the problems which they shaped, including the problem of alienation. Durkheim similarly worked out a view of society and of a science of society; and then implemented a methodology to discover and explain social facts, the data pertinent to an understanding of society as a whole. In both cases the situation of the individual was understood to be a counterpart to social structures and processes. Alienation studies today show a curious detachment of method from theory.

As Schweitzer (1996) points out, empirical methods have taken a turn to uniformity. Across the various domains in which alienation is investigated, there is a remarkable consistency in the methods deployed, and concomitantly a deliberate evasion of conceptual distinctions. A complex human condition with implications for practice in all areas of life is translated into clusters of variables and correlations. Methodologically there has been a decline in the sophistication of statistical analyses of the macro-society and in the triangulation of macro- and micro-data in order to demonstrate mechanisms effects of which people may not be aware. The dimensions of alienation proposed by Seeman (1959) have turned into mechanical assessments.

In the interest of presumably precise rationality, a majority of researchers rely on aggregations of individuals responses to pen and pencil tests of anomie/anomia (Srole, 1956) and alienation (see Seeman, 1991) interchangeably. Test scores are routinely correlated with measures of psychological constructs such as self-esteem, stress, state/trait anxiety, and so on without regard for distinctions among levels of analysis (Belkin, Greene, Rodrigue and Boggs, 1994; De Man, 1990; Hoge and Hoge, 1989; Moore, Thompson-Pope and Whited, 1996; Peck and Klemmack, 1980). The issue of how probable it is that people could have a clear awareness of alienation is evaded when respondents are simply asked to describe what they feel either by means of a closed questionnaire, or in highly structured interviews (Tobacyk and Pirttila-Backman, 1992; Travis, 1993). All these techniques fit easily into the positivistic penchant for deploying neat reductive instrumentation. Such research serves a political agenda of ordering social groups on continua of deficiencies. We can judge the political implications of the trend by recalling who, in sum, the alienated are.

Relegation to the ranks of the alienated carries with it the stigma of outcast status in relation to some measure of cultural value. By noting the samples studied and the qualities to which the blemish of alienation is attached, we can detect conventional biases in social grouping. Whether fixed in the assumptions or in hypotheses and findings of the studies noted above, the alienated are regularly the poor, the non-whites, those adjudged mentally ill, those who for whatever reason do not comply with institutional requirements. These include populations of the perennially troublesome younger generation, and of course the delinquents. But these ranks also include activists in the sphere of work, and in the realm of gender. Because of their almost exclusive focus on the deprived and on those who are declared different, an overwhelming proportion of alienation research points an accusing finger at groups which surface as those who are upsetting social standards and preventing the world from conducting itself on an even keel.

The distinctions spelled out by Kaplan (1964) between hierarchical theories and concatenated theories, between monadic theories and field theories; and between theories according to the difference in their scope—contribute to an explanation of why researchers who have tried to characterize alienation unambiguously have often opted for thin description and meager elucidation. In research practice subtleties have been sacrificed, and formulaic solutions have been contrived to sidestep fundamental issues. Among these are the issues of agency and its limits, of the scope of possible relations between agency and structure, interchanges among different levels of structure, and the systematicity of everyday life. All of these are issues related to the intricacies of language and the consequentiality of meaning—arenas in which theoreticians are at work. But theoreticians of alienation are not providing the kind of support which can lead to methodological enlightenment or to the repair of research orientations. In a very real sense, the theoreticians have neglected their basic responsibility, that of pointing the way to theoretically inform-able practice—practice as research in the domain of social science and practice as action in the world.

In alienation theorizing there is much writing which is resonant and well-intentioned, but most of it is sadly sterile in the sense that theorization is disconnected from clear directives for what is involved in research. Ironically, despite the wide differences in the avowed goals of theoreticians of alienation, the multiplicity of orientations and the (let us say it) rather smug self-enclosure in a world of theory, are leading the study of alienation into a passage without egress. Still, as we have shown, alienation is indeed flourishing in research and in sectorial theory. Despite the pervasive negative grasp of alienation as a social phenomenon, the tenor of the cumulated approaches is a fulfillment of the postmodern phantasm—a total fall into alienation. Is there then even a semblance of hope? The last section proposes that slightly different conclusions are at least possible.

By Way of Conclusion: Living as Alienation

In the theoretical writings of the 1990s, the impact of theorists of all stripes who relate to experiences salient in real life, can be epitomized as the unabashed specification of political projects. Gergen (1996), who refuses to give in to the deconstruction of alienation, still insists that there are options for creating relationships in communities which can be designed to overcome alienation. The hope of drawing boundaries about a location where one can foster altruistic relationships grows out of the image of contemporary society as beset by endless variety, by competitiveness, and by permanent exposure to risks (Beck, 1992). These theoretical analyses lead us to a perception of alienation as a condition which, rather than undermining the capacity of people to deal with a complex world, makes it possible for them to find the niches in which they can flourish. A detailed attack on the view that alienation is an unmitigated danger is that of Coser (1991) who demonstrates that the multiplicity of roles that people are called upon to play in modern society can be seen as a source of emotional health, potency, and creativity rather than as a cumulative project of fragmentation. Although she elaborates on the difficulties that women encounter in the struggle for filling satisfying roles, she shows that it is not modernity or post-modernity, but rather the persistence of traditionalism which prevents half the human race, women, from coming into their own.

As we drift into a new millennium, when, as Gergen (1991; 1994), Kellner (1988; 1989; 1990; 1995), and Gottdiener (1996), among others, insist, we are overwhelmed by the availability of information, by the accessibility of media; by relationships with people at a distance whether indexed by stratum or mileage; the behaviors that converge to the practice of alienation can be recognized as sets of flexible repertoires for encountering and coping with dissimilar and often incompatible challenges.

An indicator of the successful cross between alienation and novel situations is the strength of what is called Generation X, and their capacity for “playing their strengths” against many odds (Hall, 1995). When we look back on the researches of Seeman (1967) and Willis (1977) we can see that the Generation X have done no more than re-invent a well-known form of life. The tools of post-modernity are well-known and constitute a re-connection with experienced reality. Coping with the apperception of excess structure and content is actually another way of designating the kinds of parrying that people have been doing for a very long time in places of work, in families, in schools, in leisure activities, and calling them life. It would seem that with the recognition of the ways in which it becomes possible to deal with a fragmented identity in times of post-modernity, academic circles have finally caught on to the maneuvers which the socially, economically, and politically deprived have been deploying in privacy and, to some extent, in secrecy. Instead of thinking of alienation as a state which can be wiped away, we can now grasp it as a means for exploring the wealth of diversity in human existence. The many-layered revelation of alienation has in a sense metamorphosed from an omen of doom into a venture geared for celebration. In sociology this celebration should take on the challenge of reconnecting theory with specific disciplinary practice.