Isolation, DisEngagement

Social alienation: from Wikipedia

low degree of integration or common values and a high degree of distance or isolation between individuals, or between an individual and a group of people in a community or work environment. (Civilization, BigWorld)

can refer both to a personal psychological state (subjectively) and to a type of social relationship (objectively).

In the 17th century, Hugo Grotius put forward the concept that everyone has 'sovereign authority' over themselves but that they could alienate that natural right to the common good, an early social contract theory. In the 18th century, Hutcheson introduced a distinction between alienable and unalienable rights in the legal sense of the term.

Around the start of the 19th century, Hegel popularized a Christian (Lutheran) and Idealist philosophy of alienation

posited that the self was an historical and social creation, which becomes alienated from itself via a perceived objective world, but can become de-alienated again when that world is seen as just another aspect of the self-consciousness, which may be achieved by self-sacrifice to the common good.

Around the same time, Pinel was popularizing a new understanding of mental alienation, particularly through his 'medical-philosophical treatise'. He argued that people could be disturbed (alienated) by emotional states and social conditions, without necessarily having lost (become alienated from) their reason, as had generally been assumed. Hegel praised Pinel for his 'moral treatment' approach

Marx's theory of alienation

The 'young' Marx wrote more often and directly of alienation than the 'mature' Marx, which some regard as an ideological break while others maintain that the concept remained central.

Marx's concepts of alienation have been classed into four types by Kostas Axelos: economic and social alienation, political alienation, human alienation, and ideological alienation.

economic and social alienation aspect in which workers are disconnected from what they produce and why they produce. Marx believed that alienation is a systematic result of capitalism.

Workers never become autonomous, self-realized human beings in any significant sense

Political Alienation refers to the idea that "politics is the form that organizes the productive forces of the economy" in a way that is alienating because it "distorts the logic of economic development"

In Human Alienation, individuals become estranged to themselves in the quest to stay alive, where "they lose their true existence in the struggle for subsistence"

Marx believes that after satisfying these basic needs people have the tendency to develop more "needs" or desires that they will work towards satisfying, hence, humans become stuck in a cycle of never ending wants

ideological alienation, Axelos proposes that Marx believes that all religions divert people away from "their true happiness" and instead turn them towards "illusory happiness"

Many sociologists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were concerned about alienating effects of modernization.

the loss of primary relationships such as familial bonds in favour of goal-oriented, secondary relationships

C. Wright Mills conducted a major study of alienation in modern society with White Collar in 1951

In a broader philosophical context, especially in existentialism and phenomenology, alienation describes the inadequacy of the human being (or the mind) in relation to the world. The human mind (as the subject who perceives) sees the world as an object of perception, and is distanced from the world, rather than living within it. This line of thought is generally traced to the works of Søren Kierkegaard

Many 20th-century philosophers (both theistic and atheistic) and theologians were influenced by Kierkegaard's notions of angst, despair and the importance of the individual.

Jean-Paul Sartre described the "thing-in-itself" which is infinite and overflowing, and claimed that any attempt to describe or understand the thing-in-itself is "reflective consciousness".

Geyer believes the growing complexity of the contemporary world and post-modernism prompted a reinterpretation of alienation that suits the contemporary living environment.


the expectancy or probability held by the individual that his own behaviour cannot determine the occurrence of the outcomes, or reinforcements, he seeks

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"

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.


A sense of meaning has been defined by Melvin Seeman as "the individual's sense of understanding events in which he is engaged".[26] Seeman (1959: 786) writes that meaninglessness "is characterized by a low expectancy that satisfactory predictions about the future outcomes of behaviour can be made."


the inability to identify with the dominant values of society or rather, with what are perceived to be the dominant values of society.

"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".

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

resulting in a situation where individuals rely more often on their own judgement than on institutions of authority


parental alienation

Attachment relationships in adults can also involve feelings of alienation

Social isolation

"The feeling of being segregated from one's community".

Among returning war veterans

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


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"

Mental disturbance

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


In art

Alienation is most often represented in literature as the psychological isolation of an individual from society or community.

Sociologist Harry Dahms has analysed The Matrix Trilogy of films in

See also Langman's study of punk, porn, and resistance (2008)

George Boeree

online test from George Boeree, retired psychology professor. Breaks down result by

  • Meaninglessness
  • Cultural estrangement
  • Powerlessnes
  • Normlessness
  • Estrangement from work
  • social isolation

Here is his "little" paper about it. References Melvin Seeman.

People want lives in folk societies, wherein everyone is a friendly relative, and no act or object is without holiness... Kurt Vonnegut Jr. was talking about alienation. The word comes from the Latin "to be made into a stranger," and it once refered to being deprived of your birthright. But feeling like a fish out of water expresses the feeling quite well.

The sociologist Melvin Seeman analyzed alienation into six aspects that still have meaning:

  • 1. Powerlessness: "Nothing I do makes a difference." "There really isn't much in life that the ordinary person can control." (Agency)
  • 2. Normlessness: "People today don't seem to know right from wrong." "It seems that the good die young." (Moral)
  • 3. Meaninglessness: "I can't make sense of it all anymore." "What's it all about?"
  • 4. Cultural estrangement: "My culture's values aren't mine." "Sometimes I feel like I'm on the wrong planet?"
  • 5. Self-estrangement: "My work doesn't mean much to me." "What I learn in school isn't relevant to my life."... being something less than what one might ideally be if the circumstances in society were different, and being insecure and conforming to society's expectations in all aspects of himself. (Accomplishment, continuous improvement, self-actualization)
  • 6. Social isolation: "I'm alone." "I don't fit in." "No one visits me anymore." (Loneliness)


delight depends on distress, because solving problems means first having problems

Will is putting aside present distress in order to reach future delight. Or staying hopeful, even eager, in the face of anxiety. Or taking on problems with the intention of solving them.

often refered to as delay of gratification (delayed gratification)

When we talk about will, we usually think immediately of what I shall call instrumental will. This is where the means and the ends are artificially connected: The distressful things you have to go through are not "naturally" connected to the delightful

Instrumental production -- working for money and such -- is the most obvious example

Also qualifying as instrumental production for many people is school

extrinsic motivation.

Another example is instrumental association. You find this a lot at work, too. Think of all the people you have to be friendly to, even if you don't want to be.

Another name for instrumental association is Gesellschaft. Instrumental production and association together make up the central concern of economics-style social theories such as exchange theory.

It should be obvious at this point that I have another form of will in mind as well. I call it natural will, and it involves means and ends that are "naturally," even intimately, tied together.

Natural production includes much of what we call craftsmanship, art, and even science.

The motivation behind natural production is often called intrinsic motivation.

There is, of course, also natural association. Lovers, families, friendships, clans, neighborhoods

This is also called [Gemeinschaft].

It is this natural production and association that does not operate by the economic rules of exchange theory

the instrumental side of life has always been with us.

Nevertheless, I feel comfortable calling the natural natural because it seems likely that it was far more common in our early history than it is today.

The anthropologist Robert Redfield called the hypothetical situation of our earliest ancestors the folk society.


When, in our highly instrumental society, we find ourselves without natural association and production, we feel alienation.

Normally, living instrumentally doesn't lead to alienation. After a hard day of instrumental association, I can go home and relax with family and friends -- my natural associations

Unfortunately, in a largely instrumental society, these things are easily undermined.

First, we may discover that we lack natural associations -- that we are rather lonely people.

We can also lose faith in people.

We teach our kids [to] look for hidden motives... But what happens, then, when the child decides to put Daddy in the same category he has been taught to use with the used-car salesman?

We also discover our lack of natural production -- our boredom. Again, the scarcity of natural production is a problem: How many "creative" jobs are there, really?

Further, as with association, instrumental production tends to drive out natural production

Paying an artist for creativity or a thinker for inventiveness is like paying someone for sex... the thrill soon evaporates.

But even with little in the way of natural association and production, we can get along quite well. The instrumental life still has its rewards. There has to be something that triggers alienation, that makes us aware of it

First, it can be a matter of means: If we lose our jobs, to use the obvious example, we can't pay our bills -- and our pleasures are the first things we have to sacrifice.

The failure of the instrumental can also be a matter of ends: Money can provide an opportunity for natural enjoyments, but it can't buy them. Our inclination, when life begins to bore us, is to throw more money into "entertainment." But when the entertainment fails to entertain, we ask ourselves "is this all there is?"

Back to the beginning

We can go back and review Seeman's six aspects of alienation using the preceding analysis

The solution to alienation is now clear: Correct or reverse the courses described above. First, the alienated person needs to find work that does in fact lead to rewards that are in fact rewarding

But beyond this, the alienated person needs to find and maintain sources of natural production and association -- meaningful activities and loving relationships. A part of this, too, is social and political, and often even a matter of luck.

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