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Alienation is the social and psychological separation between oneself and one’s life experiences. Alienation is a concept originally applied to work and work settings but today is also used to characterize separation from the political sphere. To be alienated is to live in a society but not to feel that one is a part of its ongoing activities.
Theories of alienation start with the writings of Marx, who identified the capacity for self-directed creative activity as the core distinction between humans and animals. If people cannot express their species being (their creativity), they are reduced to the status of animals or machines. Marx argued that, under capitalism, workers lose control over their work and, as a consequence, are alienated in at least four ways. First, they are alienated from the products of their labor. They no longer determine what is to be made nor what use will be made of it. Work is reduced to being a means to an end – a means to acquire money to buy the material necessities of life. Second, workers are alienated from the process of work. Someone else controls the pace, pattern, tools, and techniques of their work. Third, because workers are separated from their activity, they become alienated from themselves. Non-alienated work, in contrast, entails the same enthusiastic absorption and self-realization as hobbies and leisure pursuits. Fourth, alienated labor is an isolated endeavor, not part of a collectively planned effort to meet a group need. Consequently, workers are alienated from others as well as from themselves. Marx argued that these four aspects of alienation reach their peak under industrial capitalism and that alienated work, which is inherently dissatisfying, would naturally produce in workers a desire to change the existing system. Alienation, in Marx’s view, thus plays a crucial role in leading to social revolution to change society toward a non-alienated future.
Today, the core of alienation research has moved away from the social philosophical approach of Marx, based on projecting a future that could be, and toward a more empirical study of the causes and consequences of alienation within the world of work as it actually exists. The contemporary approach substitutes measures of job satisfaction for Marx’s more expansive conception of alienation. Related concepts include job commitment, effort bargaining, and, conversely, resistance. In the political sphere voting behavior and a sense of political efficacy have emerged as central empirical indicators of underlying alienation from society’s power structures. Theories of alienation, as exercises in social philosophy, help to keep alive questions about the future of society by envisioning possible alternatives that do not yet exist. Such exercises are necessary if the social sciences are to retain a transformative potential beyond the tyranny of what is and toward what could be.
- Hodson, R. (2001) Dignity at Work. Cambridge University Press, New York.
- Marx, K. (1971)  The economic and philosophic manuscripts of 1844. In: Jordon, Z. A. (ed.), Karl Marx. Michael Joseph, London.