Alienation Essay

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Alienation is related to social problems both in substance and in terms of how we look at social problems. In the context of modern everyday language and “commonsense” perspectives and views, the term alienation frequently is employed to express a feeling of separation—ranging from one’s experiences with others, work, nature, social environment, political process, and system, all the way to “the world as it is.” Yet this feeling of being separated links concretely to the prevalence of myriad social problems (unemployment, drug abuse, poverty, mental illness, domestic violence, etc.). Understood in this latter sense, alienation can serve as a means to express and describe a certain type of experience and, more important, as a tool to address and dissect the nature of everyday life and to identify its origins and causes. Depending on how the concept is employed, momentous implications result for the orientation and purpose of social research and social scientists’ perspectives on social problems.

At its most basic level, the concept served to verbalize the experience of individuals who were alienated, or “estranged,” from their social environment. Though dating back to the ancient Romans, the modern use of the concept originated, above all, in the philosophy of G. W. F. Hegel and the early writings of Karl Marx. Hegel argued that it is not possible for enlightened individuals to identify fully with a society as a concrete sociohistoric reality. Throughout history, religions purported to offer a solution to individuals’ experience of separation—solutions that had to be illusory, because religion as an institution is contingent on individuals being unable to grasp how the experience of separation is a corollary of life in increasingly complex aggregates of human beings. Yet, Hegel argued, the modern age promises the reconciliation of individuals and society through the development of institutions that reflect the values of individuals as citizens and their ability to recognize that those values cannot be translated directly into social, political, and economic reality, but instead are implemented in a mediated fashion, through a dialectical process.

In Marx’s critical theory, alienation served to capture the highly problematic condition of social life in the modern age. Marx’s use of the term alienation went beyond that of Hegel, as he argued that individuals experience in “bourgeois society” an alienation from the product of their labor, from themselves, from nature, from each other, and from the species, which is thus a new form of alienation that is qualitatively different from the past history of human civilization. Though it is widely acknowledged that Marx’s theoretical agenda began with his critique of alienation as a by-product of the economic processes that made possible the rise of bourgeois society—the price society must pay to make possible the continuous pursuit of prosperity—there is less awareness of the extent to which his entire critical project is built around his concern about alienation as a feature of modern social life. In his 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, Marx famously laid the foundation for his later critique of political economy, in whose context he reformulated his earlier critique of alienation as the critique of “commodity fetishism.”

Marx came to understand that, to grasp the nature of the link between the capitalist mode of production and alienation, as both a societal condition and a social mechanism, he had to develop the tools to identify the specific process that generated alienation and thus followed his step toward the systematic critique of political economy. In the process, he came to appreciate how successive generations of people internalize compounded levels of alienation, interpreting them as “natural” to human existence on Earth. Consequently, commodity fetishism is both a more theoretically sophisticated mode of capturing alienation and a means to capture a more subtle, historically later form of alienation—”alienation as second nature.” If it was Marx’s initial philosophical goal to conceive of strategies to overcome alienation, his later work turned around the realization that the capitalist mode of production undercuts opportunities to bring about desirable qualitative change. Marx’s critiques of political economy, from Grundrisse to Das Kapital, thus should be read as a sustained explanation for why it is increasingly difficult to reconcile norms and facts in modern society, even though the latter postures as the kind of society that makes reconciliation more conceivable and realizable than any other.

Among the implications of perspectives on modern society through alienation is the realization that we are naturally positioned neither to recognize alienation as a by-product of the pursuit of prosperity nor to conceive of the detrimental impact it has on our ability to acknowledge and make explicit the dynamics that are at the core of modern society. These implications apply in particular with regard to the relationships between, first, science—especially social science—and society, and second, individual and society. If we are not able to recognize that modern society is constituted through sedimented layers of alienation, we interpret its concrete forms as expressions of human nature and the logic of social order, independently of the social forces that may actually generate alienation: the capitalist mode of production that creates the logic of a particular social order. While we must be concerned with whether the logic of social order in complex and contradictory societies can be conceived independently of alienation, in both cases, the challenge is recognizing the sway of alienation. If we assume that modern complex societies are not possible without alienation and conclude that there is no need to acknowledge the sway of alienation, we further amplify alienation. If we assume that our nature is what it is with or without alienation and that because without alienation we would not have become who we are, it is not necessary to acknowledge alienation as a crucial force, we not only neglect its actual power, but double it. We are how we are to a large extent because of alienation. As we try to grasp how we have been shaped by the prevalence of alienation, efforts to theorize truly alternative forms of social life become all the more daunting. Can social scientists escape the vicious cycle—and if so, how?

Despite frequent assertions that the theoretical preoccupation with alienation is outdated, the agenda posed by alienation remains central to the very possibility of social science. Many of the most problematic features of modern society—the exaggerated orientation toward economic considerations, the perpetuation of path-dependent developments without acknowledging how they limit our ability to confront the actual complexity and contradictory nature of modern society, and so forth—are not becoming less pronounced under conditions of globalization, but much more so.

If we were to eliminate the concept of alienation from the sociological vocabulary, we not only would deprive ourselves of one of the most powerful tools to scrutinize the flawed character of the modern world. By default, we also would assert that the current trajectory of sociohistorical change is as desirable as it is necessary. Thus we would support, de facto, the neoliberal conceit that pushing ahead as far and as fast as possible the process of globalization will bring “the end of poverty” and increasing control over social problems. Yet this conceit is contradicted by overwhelming empirical evidence indicating that economic inequality (along with forms of social, political, and cultural inequality) is increasing not just globally, but especially nationally around the globe. We also have at our disposal theoretically grounded explanations of why and how growing inequality, within the modern framework of purportedly self-regulating market economies and democratic nation-states, does not expand the ability of citizenries and institutions to tackle (not to mention solve) the myriad social problems but solidifies their “quasi-natural” character and air of inevitability. Holding on to, and sharpening further, the concept of alienation for analytical purposes neither implies, nor must it be based upon the expectation, that eliminating alienation is a realistic goal for the foreseeable future. At best, strategies directed at “overcoming” alienation may achieve some limited successes if they are not directed at radically transforming the current system of global transnational capitalism, as this system keeps driving its ability to immunize itself against scrutiny as well as collective action to ever greater heights. Rather, endeavors to overcome alienation as a determining factor in the lives of individuals, social groups, institutions, organizations, and nation-states must be directed at identifying and preparing the necessary preconditions for efforts to reduce the prevalence of alienation to be minimally successful. Basic income-related proposals, for instance, provide an example for endeavors that are directed at creating circumstances that allow for forms of action, solidarity, and organization that point beyond alienated conditions.

From Psychoanalysis to “Socioanalysis”

Individuals cannot actively overcome alienation, because it is an inherently social condition that is at the very core of modern society. Yet we may be able to take steps toward recognizing the power of alienation over our lives and existence. Because alienation first and foremost is manifest in concrete practices, relationships, and ways of thinking, altering each and all of those will be necessary first steps. Sociologists seek to help the rest of us conceive of, and to scrutinize rigorously, who and what we are as individuals, as a reflection and representation of specific, defining features of modern society—both in general and in particular. As long as individuals are oblivious to this fact, our lives— more than not—are reenactments of practices related to values which, in the interest of social stability and integration, we must regard as our very own, but which are, in fact, imprinted onto ourselves as an integral part of the process of identity-formation, well before we become conscious of our own selves. The nature of the relationship between self and society is becoming increasingly problematic proportionately to the degree to which the configuration of modern society itself is becoming problematic. Compounded layers of alienation undermine our ability to recognize the intrinsic relationship between the growing potential for destruction that comes with the pursuit of prosperity. In analogy to psychoanalysis, sociology must embrace the possibility of and need for socioanalysis as one of its greatest yet unopened treasure troves. Socioanalysis in this sense involves therapeutically enabling the individual to recognize how, in addition to psychological limitations and barriers, there are societal limitations and barriers that both are built into and constitute our very selves as social beings. As long as these limitations and barriers are not recognizable as necessary preconditions for the possibility of social order and integration, individual efforts to achieve freedom and to engage in agency will be thwarted by the (socially imposed) imperative to interpret the disabling consequences of those limitations for individuals’ efforts to construct meaningful life histories as “personal” and “psychological” in the language of mental illness rather than of “false consciousness.” Whether sociologists in the future will make a truly constructive contribution to the lives of human beings and their efforts to overcome social problems indeed may depend on our ability and willingness to meet the challenge of circumscribing the thrust and purpose of socioanalysis, above and beyond the confines of what Freud erroneously ascribed to psychoanalysis, neglecting that many mental problems are expressions of the contradictions of the modern age.


  1. Dahms, Harry F. 2005. “Globalization or Hyper-alienation? Critiques of Traditional Marxism as Arguments for Basic Income.” Current Perspectives in Social Theory 23:205-76.
  2. Dahms, Harry F. 2006. “Does Alienation Have a Future? Recapturing the Core of Critical Theory.” Pp. 23-46 in The Evolution of Alienation: Trauma, Promise, and the Millennium, edited by L. Langman and D. Kalekin-Fishman. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
  3. Gabel, Joseph. 1975. False Consciousness: An Essay on Reification. Oxford, England: Blackwell.
  4. Ludz, Peter Christian. 1973. “Alienation as a Concept in the Social Sciences.” Current Sociology 21(1):5-39.
  5. Marx, Karl. [1844] 1978. “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844.” Pp. 66-125 in The Marx-Engels Reader, edited by R. C. Tucker. New York: Norton.
  6. Ollman, Bertell. 1976. Alienation: Marx’s Concept of Man in Capitalist Society. 2nd ed. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
  7. Sachs, Jeffrey. 2005. The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time. London: Penguin.
  8. Schacht, Richard. 1994. The Future of Alienation. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

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