Society & Us

Society & Us: Alienation

The term, very widely used to convey a sense of improper loss or detachment, was popularized by Karl Marx in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844.

The theory of alienation is an intellectual construct in which Marx explains the devastating effect of capitalist production on human beings, on their physical and mental states and on the social processes of which they are a part.


Gif Credit:

[The above is from the 1936 movie “Modern Times” directed by Charlie Chaplin wherein he plays the role of protagonist too. The movie showcases the plight of a tramp in a modern industrial society.]

Marx points out that in pre-capitalist society, the task of making objects for one’s own use or for fair exchange was properly human. However, in capitalist society, workers who do not own the means of production but are compelled to sell their labor are ‘alienated’ in four senses:

  1. From the product of their work because they have no control over the fate of the goods they produce;
  2. From the act of production itself because work is no longer a creative act but is merely a commodity that is bought and sold;
  3. From their ‘species being’ because work under capitalism lacks what should be its distinctly human quality; and
  4. From each other because what should be social relations of exchange are replaced by the market relationships of buying and selling.

Although Marxists present their analysis of labor under capitalism as a scientific theory, it rests on an un-testable assertion about what humans are really like: desirous of expressing themselves through work.

Assuming this assertion to be true, there is no reason to suppose that capitalism is any more alienating than other economic systems, as the working lives of most serfs and peasants in pre-capitalist societies were generally less pleasant than those of workers under industrial capitalism which, however alienated they might be, are markedly more prosperous.

In the 1960s, American sociologist Robert Blauner in his book, Alienation and Freedom: The Factory Worker and His Industry identified various forms of alienation that resulted from different types of modern work; each linked to the degree of personal control (or, as in the title ‘freedom’) inherent in different ways of working. He argued that as production moved from craftwork, through the use of machines, to the factory assembly line, the degree of personal control went down and that of alienation rose. However, he concluded that in the final stage – that of automated continuous-flow production – the control of the labor process returned to the worker as the job became more complex and hence more satisfying.


  • Bruce, Steve, and Steven Yearley. The Sage Dictionary of Sociology. London: SAGE Publications, 2006. Print.
  • Ollman, Bertell. “Alienation: Marx’s Conception of Man in Capitalist Society.” Dialectical Marxism: The Writings of Bertell Ollman. Bertell Ollman, n.d. Web. 11 Dec. 2016.

Author: Stuti Das, India

Click to access the other articles in the “Society & Us” series: 

Society & Us: Labeling Theory

Society & Us: McDonaldization

Categories: Society & Us

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