Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-17, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 2 January, 2017 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2017.


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core definition

Alienation refers to the process by which a social being is disengaged from the social processes or structures that constitute that person's milieu.

explanatory context

Alienation plays a central role in Marxism (particularly early Marxism). For Marx, alienation means the subjugation of people by their own works, which have assumed the guise of independent things.

Alienation occurs when people are unable to relate to the world in which they live. As a philosophical concept alienation referred to the estrangement of people from themselves. It was brought into sociological analysis by Karl Marx and used in the sense of the worker being alienated from capitalist society; in particular, as being alienated from the products of his or her own labour. Marx saw creative, productive labour as the essence of human activity. Capitalism involves the labourer selling his or her labour to the capitalist for a wage. The capitalist owns the product of the worker’s labour. Labourers, under capitalism, are alienated in four ways. First, workers do not own the product of their labour nor have any control over its fate. Second, the actual work of production is undertaken in alien and unsatisfying settings (for example, factories). Third, workers are alienated from themselves because they are deprived of the essential creativity through having to produce goods for others in alien circumstances. Fourth, workers are alienated from other workers because labour has become a commodity and people relate to each other in terms of the product of their labour rather than as individuals.

Of key importance, particularly in his social and economic analyses, is the idea that people are alienated from the products of their own labour in a capitalist system because such products are commodified. The products of their own labour, in a capitalist system, are not their own but belong to the capitalist who employs them. In short, the product of the worker's labour is turned into a commodity. More importantly, labour itself is turned into a commodity, bought by capitalists.

Alienation is not a product of mind or false consciousness. Alienation is grounded in social relations. In Marx's materialist conception of alienation, people are not alienated because they feel no affinity with their work (or their world in general) or because they cannot cope. The capitalist system which denies labourer's the fruits of their own work alienates them from their own labour. What is more, workers are paid a wage rate for their labour power. This turns labour power into a commodity itself and this further alienates workers from the work process and the product of their labour.

For Marx, alienation of labour has operated through history to produce the working class who are the agents of the destruction of alienation. This destruction will manifest itself in a communist society.


analytical review

The Online Dictionary of the Social Sciences defines alienation as:

A separation of individuals from control and direction of their social life. The term was used widely in German philosophy in the 18th and 19th centuries, but it has become important for sociology through the ideas of Karl Marx. Marx claimed that human alienation was created by a socially structured separation between humans and their work. This separation reached its highest intensity in capitalist society where the great mass of the population depended for subsistence on working under the direction of others. In the capitalist workplace, individuals were separated from ownership, control and direction of their work and were unable to achieve personal creative expression. The competitive nature of the workplace also alienated, or separated, workers from each other.


Raynet Sociology Glossary (undated):

Alienation: Following Marx and Tonnies (thus treating alienation as a sociological concept) and defined in a sentence, alienation is those social structural - social processual forces that accentuate and create "the false separation of individual and society" or do not promote the dialectical interrelation of individual and society.


Elwell's Glossary of Sociology (undated) states:

Alienation: The sense that we have lost control over social institutions that we have created. Often characterized as estrangement from the self and from the society as a whole. Marx believed that general alienation was rooted in the loss of control on the part of workers over the nature of the labor task, and over the products of their labor.


The McGraw-Hill (2004) Sociological Theory site Glossary defines alienation as:

The breakdown of the natural interconnection between the following: people and their productive activities, the products they produce, the fellow workers with whom they produce those things, and with what they are potentially capable of becoming. (Marx)

associated issues


related areas

See also

relations of production

Researching the Real World Section 2.4


Elwell's Glossary of Sociology, undated, available at, ©Frank Elwell, last updated January 1998, page not available 20 December 2016.

McGraw-Hill, 2004, Sociological Theory: Glossary , originally but no longer available at, accessed 14 May 2013.

Online Dictionary of the Social Sciences, 2002, 'Alienation', available at, copyright Robert Drislane, Ph.D. and Gary Parkinson, Ph.D, Athabasca University and ICAAP, last updated 2002, accessed 12 December 2016.

Raynet Sociology Glossary, undated, available at, no longer available 20 December 2016.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2017

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