In the most general terms, this concept describes the estrangement of individuals from one another, or from a specific situation or process. It is central to the writings of Karl Marx and normally associated with Marxist sociology. There are philosophical, sociological, and psychological dimensions to the argument. (These are most usefully expounded in J. Torrance's Estrangement, Alienation and Exploitation, 1977.)
The philosophical discussion falls largely outside the domain of sociology (though Marxists might argue that these sorts of disciplinary distinctions are inappropriate). It is sometimes claimed that the three major influences on Marx's writings were German idealist philosophy (Hegel and Feuerbach), British political economy (Owen, Ricardo, Smith), and French utopian socialism (Saint-Simon, Proudhon, and Fourier). Alienation as a philosophical concept is the most obvious legacy of the first of these. Hegel provided Marx with the philosophical means to overcome the Kantian dualism of is and ought, since for Hegel, the actual was always striving to become the ideal. The passage of the self-creating, self-knowing idea through history, its alienation through externalization and objectification and its reappropriation through knowledge, provided Marx with his revolutionary imperative. Turning Hegel on his head and rooting his own ideas in a materialist vision, Marx argued that humanity is lost in the unfolding historical epochs, but at the same time created and found again with the advent of communism , which represents the complete return of individuals to themselves as social beings.
This philosophical and teleological conception of alienation permeates Marx's writings. However, sociological discussion of the term relates more to his argument that estrangement is a consequence of social structures which oppress people, denying them their essential humanity. Alienation is an objective condition inherent in the social and economic arrangements of capitalism . In this sense it is the centrality of alienated labour that most clearly describes the concept. Labour-power defines humanity-the ‘species being’-wherein the satisfaction of needs develops the powers and potential of human beings. However, all forms of production result in ‘objectification’, by which people manufacture goods which embody their creative talents yet come to stand apart from their creators. Alienation is the distorted form that humanity's objectification of its species-being takes under capitalism. Under capitalism, the fruits of production belong to the employers, who expropriate the surplus created by others and in so doing generate alienated labour. Marx attributes four characteristics to such labour: alienation of the worker from his or her ‘species essence’ as a human being rather than an animal; alienation between workers, since capitalism reduces labour to a commodity to be traded on the market, rather than a social relationship; alienation of the worker from the product, since this is appropriated by the capitalist class, and so escapes the worker's control; and, finally, alienation from the act of production itself, such that work comes to be a meaningless activity, offering little or no intrinsic satisfactions. The last of these generates the psychological discussion about alienation as a subjectively identifiable state of mind, involving feelings of powerlessness, isolation, and discontent at work-especially when this takes place within the context of large, impersonal, bureaucratic social organizations.
It is impossible to extricate Marx's ideas about alienation from his wider sociological discussion of the division of labour , the evolution of private property relations, and the emergence of conflicting classes . In the Marxian terminology, alienation is an objectively verifiable state of affairs, inherent in the specific social relations of capitalist production. However, subsequent researchers have tended to neglect these structural considerations, and attempted instead to operationalize the concept in terms of a range of specifically cognitive and attitudinal characteristics. The ‘psychological state’ of alienation was said by (‘On the Meaning of Alienation’, American Sociological Review, 1959) to comprise the dimensions of powerlessness, meaninglessness, isolation, normlessness, and self-estrangement. In a famous study of factory workers, Robert Blauner attempted to link these dimensions of subjective alienation to particular types of work situation, arguing that the technologies associated with craft, machine, assembly-line, and continuous-process production show a curvilinear association with alienation. That is, ‘in the early period, dominated by craft industry, alienation is at its lowest level and the worker's freedom at a maximum. Freedom declines and the curve of alienation … rises sharply in the period of machine industry. The alienation curve continues upward to its highest point in the assembly-line technologies of the twentieth century … in this extreme situation, a depersonalised worker, estranged from himself and larger collectives, goes through the motions of work in the regimented milieu of the conveyer belt for the sole purpose of earning his bread … But with automated industry there is a countertrend … automation increases the worker's control over his work process and checks the further division of labour and growth of large factories’ (Alienation and Freedom, 1964). At this juncture, the discussion of alienation merely becomes part of a larger debate about the subjective experience of work generally, and job satisfaction in particular.
Many of the doctrines allied to employee self-management, as in Yugoslavia during the post-war period, are linked explicitly to the task of overcoming alienation by means of collective ownership and control. Profit-sharing and employee share-ownership schemes all owe some debt to the concept of alienated labour. Paradoxically, the ownership characteristics of state socialist societies increased the sense of alienation and powerlessness, since in that property vacuum the fact that no one seemed to own state property was more demoralizing than the active ownership of the free-market variety that so troubled Marx. See also work, subjective experience of.

Dictionary of sociology. 2013.

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