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Since 1844, when Karl Marx (1818–1883) first used the concept, alienation has been an important instrument for social critique. Marx saw alienation as inevitable in a capitalist social order where workers were paid for the time they spent producing commodities whose value for market rests on the labor congealed within, but the worker gets very little of the market price. For the capitalist who sells the goods for profit, the accumulation of wealth is the primary value. When, however, workers sell their time as a commodity, they too become commodities—they become alienated, that is, both objectified and estranged. In producing commodities, workers are rendered powerless and their lives meaningless. They are estranged from their “species being,” the innate human ability to see themselves as members of a species. Their creativity and humanity are thwarted and their social world is fragmented. Marx understood alienation as a multidimensional concept with implications for the social structure and for groups and with psychological consequences for individuals.
The discipline of sociology emerged with the tumultuous changes consequent on the French Revolution (1789–1799), industrialization, and urbanization. Avoiding a political stance, sociologists explained the upheavals in different ways. Max Weber (1864–1920) explained the process of modernization as one of relentless rationalization that trapped people in the “iron cages” of bureaucratic organization. For Georg Simmel (1858– 1918), people could have little concern for one another in the superficial anonymity of urban life. For Émile Durkheim (1858–1917), the erosion of social bonds meant that people were isolated and lonely. When they could not adjust to the emergent values of a modern society, with its high division of labor and advanced technologies, they were subject to anomie, normlessness.
Sociologist Robert K. Merton (1910–2003) explored modes of response to anomie and alienation by devising a typology for different kinds of fit between cultural goals and the institutionalized means available for realizing them. When goals and means are upheld, a group demonstrates conformity, while rejection of both signals retreatism (a withdrawal into mental illness or addiction). Two additional types of adaptation are innovation, developing new means to attain agreed-upon goals, and ritualism, remaining fixated on means while rejecting culturally sanctioned goals. Rebellion is the name Merton gave to the search for new goals and means. Stemming from alienation and unrest, rebellion can feed into movements for a different kind of society.
In the late twentieth century, there was a renewed interest in alienation as a tool for critiquing globalizing late capitalism and for seeking out alternative visions of a de-alienated society. Displaced from their social moorings by global changes while facing assaults on their values, alienated people tend to resort to religious fundamentalisms and resurgent nationalisms to gain a sense of stable identity, community, and meaning. For others, consumerism and popular culture feed upon alienation, at once containing discontent and reproducing the conditions that lead to this discontent. This is not new, for the advertising industry has long exploited feelings of loneliness and frustration in order to sell goods that promise to ameliorate alienation. But there are some indications of how alienation can be overcome. Many people unite to effect liberation in movements that celebrate, for example, feminism, environmentalism, and global justice.
Formulated in the nineteenth century, the concept of alienation remains a fruitful tool for understanding the contemporary world. Rooted in Marx’s critique of wage labor, the concept has been expanded to consider culture, political trends, and grassroots movements, as well as aspects of everyday life. As long as changing social conditions sustain unequal power and wealth, alienation and loneliness are likely to thwart creativity and neutralize people’s power to change. And sociologists will be there to chart the expression of alienation and how we may try to overcome it.
- Langman, Lauren, and Devorah Kalekin-Fishman, eds. 2005. The Evolution of Alienation: Trauma, Promise, and the Millennium. Boulder, CO: Rowman & Littlefield.
- Merton, Robert K. 1968. Social Theory and Social Structure. Enl. ed. New York: Free Press.
- Mészáros, István. 2005. Marx’s Theory of Alienation. 5th ed. London: Merlin.
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