Social Alienation a Sociological concept developed by several classical and contemporary theorists, is ”a condition in social relationships reflected by a low degree of integration or common values and a high degree of distance or isolation between individuals, or between an individual and group of people in community or work environment”. The concept has many discipline-specific uses, and can refer both to a personal psychological state (subjectively) and to a type of social relationship (objectively).


Alienation in the sense of a lack of power has been technically defined by Seeman as “the expectancy or probability held by the individual that his own behaviour cannot determine the occurrence of the outcomes, or reinforcements, he seeks.” Seeman argues that this is “the notion of alienation as it originated in the Marxian view of the worker’s condition in capitalist society: the worker is alienated to the extent that the prerogative and means of decision are expropriated by the ruling entrepreneurs”. Put more succinctly, Kalekin-Fishman (1996: 97) says, “A person suffers from alienation in the form of ‘powerlessness’ when she is conscious of the gap between what she would like to do and what she feels capable of doing”.

In discussing powerlessness, Seeman also incorporated the insights of the psychologist Julian Rotter. Rotter distinguishes between internal control and external locus of control, which means “differences (among persons or situations) in the degree to which success or failure is attributable to external factors (e.g. luck, chance, or powerful others), as against success or failure that is seen as the outcome of one’s personal skills or characteristics”.Powerlessness, therefore, is the perception that the individual does not have the means to achieve his goals.

More recently, Geyer remarks that “a new type of powerlessness has emerged, where the core problem is no longer being unfree but rather being unable to select from among an overchoice of alternatives for action, whose consequences one often cannot even fathom”. Geyer adapts cybernetics to alienation theory, and writes (1996: xxiv) that powerlessness is the result of delayed feedback: “The more complex one’s environment, the later one is confronted with the latent, and often unintended, consequences of one’s actions. Consequently, in view of this causality-obscuring time lag, both the ‘rewards’ and ‘punishments’ for one’s actions increasingly tend to be viewed as random, often with apathy and alienation as a result”.


A sense of meaning has been defined by Seeman as “the individual’s sense of understanding events in which he is engaged”.Seeman (1959: 786) writes that meaninglessness “is characterized by a low expectancy that satisfactory predictions about the future outcomes of behaviour can be made.” Where as powerlessness refers to the sensed ability to control outcomes, this refers to the sensed ability to predict outcomes. In this respect, meaninglessness is closely tied to powerlessness; Seeman (Ibid.) argues, “the view that one lives in an intelligible world might be a prerequisite to expectancies for control; and the unintelligibility of complex affairs is presumably conducive to the development of high expectancies for external control (that is, high powerlessness)”.

Geyer (1996: xxiii) believes meaninglessness should be reinterpreted for postmodern times: “With the accelerating throughput of information […] meaningless is not a matter anymore of whether one can assign meaning to incoming information, but of whether one can develop adequate new scanning mechanisms to gather the goal-relevant information one needs, as well as more efficient selection procedures to prevent being overburdened by the information one does not need, but is bombarded with on a regular basis.” “Informal overload” or the so-called “data tsunami” are well-known information problems confronting contemporary man, and Geyer thus argues that meaninglessness is turned on its head.


Normlessness (or what Durkenheim referred to as anomie) “denotes the situation in which the social norms regulating individual conduct have broken down or are no longer effective as rules for behaviour”.This aspect refers to the inability to identify with the dominant values of society or rather, with what are perceived to be the dominant values of society. Seeman (1959: 788) adds that this aspect can manifest in a particularly negative manner, “The anomic situation […] may be defined as one in which there is a high expectancy that socially unapproved behaviours are required to achieve given goals”. This negative manifestation is dealt with in detail by Catherine Ross and John Mirowski in a series of publications on mistrust, powerlessness, normlessness and crime.

Neal & Collas (2000: 122) write, “Normlessness derives partly from conditions of complexity and conflict in which individuals become unclear about the composition and enforcement of social norms. Sudden and abrupt changes occur in life conditions, and the norms that usually operate may no longer seem adequate as guidelines for conduct”. This is a particular issue after the fall of the Soviet Union, mass migrations from developing to developed countries, and the general sense of disillusionment that characterized the 1990s (Senekal, 2011). Traditional values that had already been questioned (especially during the 1960s) were met with further scepticism in the 1990s, resulting in a situation where individuals rely more often on their own judgement than on institutions of authority: “The individual not only has become more independent of the churches, but from other social institutions as well. The individual can make more personal choices in far more life situations than before” (Halman, 1998: 100). These choices are not necessarily “negative”: Halman’s study found that Europeans remain relatively conservative morally, even though the authority of the Church and other institutions has eroded.


One concept used in regard to specific relationships is that of parental alienation, where a child is distanced from and expresses a general dislike for one of their parents (who may have divorced or separated ). The term is not applied where there is child abuse. The parental alienation might be due to specific influences from either parent or could result from the social dynamics of the family as a whole. It can also be understood in terms of attachment, the social and emotional process of bonding between child and caregiver. Adoptees can feel alienated from both adoptive parents and birth parents.

Familial estrangement between parents and adult children “is attributed to a number of biological, psychological, social, and structural factors affecting the family, including attachment disorders, incompatible values and beliefs, unfulfilled expectations, critical life events and transitions, parental alienation, and ineffective communication patterns.” The degree of alienation has been positively correlated with decreased emotional functioning in the parent who feels a loss of identity and stigma.

Attachment relationships in adults can also involve feelings of alienation. Indeed, emotional alienation is said to be a common way of life for many, whether it is experienced as overwhelming, or is not admitted to in the midst of a socioeconomic race, or contributes to seemingly unrelated problems.

Social isolation

Social isolation refers to “The feeling of being segregated from one’s community”. Neal and Collas (2000: 114) emphasize the centrality of social isolation in the modern world: “While social isolation is typically experienced as a form of personal stress, its sources are deeply embedded in the social organization of the modern world. With increased isolation and atomization, much of our daily interactions are with those who are strangers to us and with whom we lack any ongoing social relationships.”

Since the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war, migrants from Eastern Europe and the developing countries have flocked to developed countries in search of a better living standard. This has led to entire communities becoming uprooted: no longer fully part of their homelands, but neither integrated into their adopted communities. Diaspora literature depicts the plights of these migrants, such as Hafid Bouazza in Paravion. Senekal argues, “Low-income communities or religious minorities may feel separated from mainstream society, leading to backlashes such as the civil unrest that occurred in French cities in October 2005. The fact that the riots subsequently spread to Belgium, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Greece, and Switzerland, illustrates that not only did these communities feel segregated from mainstream society, but also that they found a community in their isolation; they regarded themselves as kindred spirits”.

Among returning war veterans

Because of intense group solidarity and unique daily hardships brought by combat, many veterans feel alienated from citizens, family, and friends when they return. They often feel they have little in common with civilian peers; issues that concerns friends and family seem trivial after combat. There is a clarity of focus and purpose that comes with war that few in civilian life will ever know. Add daily doses of high adrenaline and a kind of pure loyalty among those you fight alongside, and combat is a perfect baptism into tribal brotherhood.Afghanistan veteran Brendon O’Byrne says, “We were really close. Physically and emotionally close. It’s kind of terrifying being in such an emotionally safe environment and then suddenly be expelled into an alienated, fractured society.”  Feeling alone and alienated—that’s scarier than bullets.  They know how to deal with bullets, and in combat they’re dealing with bullets together. But now they’re dealing with their loneliness, by definition, alone. It is loneliness and normlessness why so many soldiers choose to return to combat. As filmmaker and war correspondent Sebastian Junger says, “They didn’t want to go back because it was traumatic, but because it was a place where they understood what they were supposed to do. They understood who they were. They had a sense of purpose. They were necessary. All these things that young people strive for are answered in combat.”  War twists and shifts the landmarks by which combat veterans navigate their lives, casting light on darkened areas that for many people remain forever unexplored. Veterans often see their wartime experience as the most selfless and meaningful period of their lives. In a different perspective, “even in the quiet moments, war is brighter, louder, brasher, more fun, more tragic, more wasteful. More. More of everything.”

The experience of the Vietnam veteran was distinctly different from that of veterans of other American wars. Once he completed his tour of duty, he usually severed all bonds with his unit and comrades. It was extremely rare for a veteran to write to his buddies who were still in combat, and (in strong contrast to the endless reunions of World War II veterans) for more than a decade it was even rarer for more than two or more of them to get together after the war. Korean War veterans had no memorial and precious few parades, but they fought an invading army and they left behind them the free, healthy, thriving, and grateful nation of South Korea. No one spat on them or called them murderers or baby killers when they returned. Only the veterans of Vietnam have endured a concerted, organized, psychological attack by its own people. Never in American history, perhaps never in all of Western civilization, has an army suffered such an agony from its own people. The Vietnam War was a long, contentious conflict (1955–75) which in the mid to late 1960s started to lose political and domestic support, most notably in academia and film that often portrayed soldiers of this conflict as ignoble adding to their social alienation. That the Vietnam War was ultimately lost on April 30, 1975, furthered the sense of meaninglessness and malaise.  It has been demonstrated that as the perception of community alienation increases, an individual’s sense of confidence or mastery in decision making will decrease, and so too their motivation to socially engage.

Political alienation

One manifestation of the above dimensions of alienation can be a feeling of estrangement from, and a lack of engagement in, the political system. Such political alienation could result from not identifying with any particular political party or message, and could result in revolution, reforming behavior, or abstention from the political process, possibly due to voter apathy.

A similar concept is policy alienation, where workers experience a state of psychological disconnection from a policy programme being implemented.


Self-estrangement is an elusive concept in sociology, as recognized by Seeman (1959), although he included it as an aspect in his model of alienation. Some, with Marx, consider self-estrangement to be the end result and thus the heart of social alienation. Self-estrangement can be defined as “the psychological state of denying one’s own interests – of seeking out extrinsically satisfying, rather than intrinsically satisfying, activities…”.  It could be characterized as a feeling of having become a stranger to oneself, or to some parts of oneself, or alternatively as a problem of self-knowledge, or authenticity.

Seeman (1959) recognized the problems inherent in defining the “self”, while post-modernism in particular has questioned the very possibility of pin-pointing what precisely “self” constitutes. Gergen (1996: 125) argues that: “the traditional view of self versus society is deeply problematic and should be replaced by a conception of the self as always already immersed in relatedness. On this account, the individual’s lament of ‘not belonging’ is partially a by-product of traditional discourses themselves”. If the self is relationally constituted, does it make sense to speak of “self-estrangement” rather than “social isolation”? Costas and Fleming (2009: 354) suggest that although the concept of self-estrangement “has not weathered postmodern criticisms of essentialism and economic determinism well”, the concept still has value if a Lacanian reading of the self is adopted. This can be seen as part of a wider debate on the concept of self between humanism and antihumanism, structuralism and post-structuralism, or nature and nurture.

Mental disturbance

Until early in the 20th century, psychological problems were referred to in psychiatry as states of mental alienation, implying that a person had become separated from themselves, their reason or the world. From the 1960s alienation was again considered in regard to clinical states of disturbance, typically using a broad concept of a ‘schizoid’ (‘splitting’) process taken from psychoanalytic theory. The splitting was said to occur within regular child development and in everyday life, as well as in more extreme or dysfunctional form in conditions such as schizoid personality and schizophrenia. Varied concepts of alienation and self-estrangement were used to link internal schizoid states with observable symptoms and with external socioeconomic divisions, without necessarily explaining or evidencing underlying causation. R. D. Laing was particularly influential in arguing that dysfunctional families and socioeconomic oppression caused states of alienation and ontological insecurity in people, which could be considered adaptations but which were diagnosed as disorders by mainstream psychiatry and society.(Laing,[1967] 1959).The specific theories associated with Laing and others at that time are not widely accepted, but work from other theoretical perspectives sometimes addresses the same theme.

In a related vein, for Ian Parker, psychology normalizes conditions of social alienation. While it could help groups of individuals emancipate themselves, it serves the role of reproducing existing conditions.(Parker, 2007). This view can be seen as part of a broader tradition sometimes referred to as critical psychology or liberation psychology, which emphasizes that an individual is enmeshed within a social-political framework, and so therefore are psychological problems. Similarly, some psychoanalysts suggest that while psychoanalysis emphasizes environmental causes and reactions, it also attributes the problems of individuals to internal conflicts stemming from early psychosocial development, effectively divorcing them from the wider ongoing context.  Slavoj Zizek (drawing on Herbert Marcuse, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalysis) argues that in today’s capitalist society, the individual is estranged from their self through the repressive injunction to “enjoy!” Such an injunction does not allow room for the recognition of alienation and, indeed, could itself be seen as an expression of alienation.(Zizek, 1994).

Frantz Fanon, an early writer on postcolonialism, studied the conditions of objectification and violent oppression (lack of autonomy) believed to have led to mental disorders among the colonized in the Third World (in particular Africans) (Fanon, ([2004] 1961).

A process of ‘malignant alienation’ has been observed in regard to some psychiatric patients, especially in forensic units and for individuals labeled ‘difficult’ or who aren’t liked by at least some staff, which involves a breakdown of the therapeutic relationship between staff and patients, and which may end in the suicide of the patient. Individuals with long-term mental disorders, which may have originally stemmed from social alienation, can experience particular social and existential alienation within their communities due to other people’s and potentially their own negative attitudes towards themselves and ‘odd’ behavior.


Differences between persons with disabilities and individuals in relative abilities, or perceived abilities, can be a cause of alienation. One study, “Social Alienation and Peer Identification: A Study of the Social Construction of Deafness”, found that among deaf adults one theme emerged consistently across all categories of life experience: social rejection by, and alienation from, the larger hearing community. Only when the respondents described interactions with deaf people did the theme of isolation give way to comments about participation and meaningful interaction. This appeared to be related to specific needs, for example for real conversation, for information, the opportunity to develop close friendships and a sense of family. It was suggested that the social meaning of deafness is established by interaction between deaf and hearing people, sometimes resulting in marginalization of the deaf, which is sometimes challenged. It has also led to the creation of alternatives and the deaf community is described as one such alternative.

Physicians and nurses often deal with people who are temporarily or permanently alienated from communities, which could be a result or a cause of medical conditions and suffering, and it has been suggested that therefore attention should be paid to learning from experiences of the special pain that alienation can bring.

In art

Alienation is most often represented in literature as the psychological isolation of an individual from society or community. In a volume of Bloom’s Literary Themes, Shakespeare’s Hamlet is described as the ‘supreme literary portrait’ of alienation, while noting that some may argue for Achilles in the Iliad. In addition, Bartleby, the Scrivener is introduced as a perfect example because so many senses of alienation are present. Other literary works described as dealing with the theme of alienation are: The Bell JarBlack BoyBrave New WorldThe Catcher in the RyeThe ChosenDublinersOthelloFahrenheit 451Invisible ManMrs DallowayNotes from UndergroundOne Flew Over the Cuckoo’s NestThe Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr HydeThe Stranger and The Myth of SisyphusThe TrialThe CastleWaiting for GodotThe Waste Land, and Young Goodman Brown. Contemporary British works noted for their perspective on alienation include The Child in TimeLondon FieldsTrainspotting, and Regeneration (Senekal, 2008 & 2010b: 102-123).

Sociologist Harry Dahms has analysed The Matrix Trilogy of films in the context of theories of alienation in modern society. He suggests that the central theme of The Matrix is the “all-pervasive yet increasingly invisible prevalence of alienation in the world today, and difficulties that accompany attempts to overcome it”.

British progressive rock band Pink Floyd’s concept album The Wall (1979) and British alternative rock band Radiohead’s album OK Computer (1997), both deal with the subject of alienation in their lyrics.


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