Alienation, or estrangement, is a concept of considerable antiquity, whose metaphysical origins have been veiled in the course of time by the progressive secularization of Western thought. Historians of philosophy trace the concept back to the writings of Plotinus, whose doctrine of emanation assumed a procession from an ultimate undefinable source or principle to a multiplicity of finite beings: the undivided One unfolds into its various manifestations by a downward process linking the supersensible Being with a hierarchy of lower spheres and ultimately with the world of nature and material existence, matter being the lowest stage of the universe and the antithesis to the One. These Neoplatonic speculations had their counterpart in certain themes of early Christian theology, the gradual fusion of Christianity and Neoplatonism forming an important aspect of the Hellenistic era. For example, the Plotinian identification of matter with the principle of evil may be said to represent a link between Gnostic speculation and the theology of Augustine, whose writings in turn were to become an important source for the Lutheran interpretation of Christianity and therewith for the German Protestant tradition, which in the nineteenth century was secularized in the philosophical writings of Hegel and Feuerbach.
By a different route the Pauline view of the Incarnation furnished a theme for Luther, whose translation of the Greek term ekenosen (in the Latin Vulgate: exinanivit) as hat sich selbst geäussert led directly to Hegel’s use of the term Entäusserung. This may be freely translated as “self-alienation” if it is borne in mind that Hegel employed the concept in the Christological sense, since he inherited a theology that enabled him to conceive world history in terms leading back to the Lutheran tradition. Later usage, however, treated “alienation” as signifying “loss of being” or “estrangement.” In Feuerbach and Marx, Entäusserung became a synonym for Entfremdung (estrangement).
In his youthful theological writings (which were unpublished until the early twentieth century), Hegel, unknown to his contemporaries, had outlined a critique of historical Christianity which on some points anticipated Feuerbach’s treatment of the subject; but the notion that religion as such constitutes the alienation of man from his true being belongs to Feuerbach. Feuerbach’s transformation of theology into anthropology (a radicalization of certain elements of Hegel’s early thought) in turn served Marx as the starting point for his own reflections on the subject. Yet Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind (1807), with its celebrated analysis of “the alienated spirit,” constitutes an important link with the postreligious view. It anticipated the secularization of an originally metaphysical concept. This process reached its critical point in the writings of the Young Hegelians, and notably in Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 (also known as the “Paris Manuscripts”).
In these writings of the young Marx, which remained unpublished until 1932 and which became genuinely influential only after 1945, the concept of “alienation” shed the metaphysical aura that it had still retained in Feuerbach and assumed a historical character. Alienation was no longer held to be inherent in man’s “being in the world,” but rather in his being in a particular historical world, that of “alienated labor.” Thus, Entfremdung was no longer seen as a particular moment in the Entäusserung of the pre-existing logos, although the notion of a “fall” from a state of perfection was retained in the concept of an anterior stage when men were not yet subject to that “alienation” which the division of labor, under capitalist exploitation, later imposed upon them.
It has been suggested that in thus emptying the Hegelian terminology of its theological content, Marx lost his hold on the philosophical dimension which sustained the thought of his contemporaries. Yet Feuerbach had already preceded him in inverting the traditional hierarchy of values that Hegel inherited from the Augustinian-Plotinian sources of Christianity. Feuerbach’s naturalism implied a rejection of the belief that matter was somehow inferior to spirit and thus signaled a reversion to the “materialist” naturalism of antiquity. The process was carried further in Marx, whose fragmentary anthropology—as outlined in the “Paris Manuscripts”—had cut its connection with religion altogether. Feuerbach’s deification of man, like Goethe’s “Promethean” poetry, was an important precondition of the Marxian viewpoint, but Marx was more down-to-earth, in a manner analogous to contemporary positivism. Where Feuerbach had sought to overcome man’s alienation by reintegrating his “split personality” through a religion of humanity, Marx emphasized the need for a radical transformation of society that would permit men to lead a “truly human” existence. The “true socialism” of Moses Hess, which by 1847 had begun to furnish Marx and Engels with a topic for their irony, may be described as the consistent application of Feuerbach’s anthropology to politics. By contrast, Marx from about 1846 onward no longer emphasized the theme of human self-estrangement, although in an important sense it remained a part of his mature thinking and even influenced his analysis of the economic process in Capital, e.g., in the well-known passage on the “fetishism of commodities.” The interest which the subject has retained for contemporary socialists is thus in the main bound up with a particular phase in Marx’s intellectual development.
The concern with human life under conditions of growing mechanization, specialization, and dependence on an “objectified,” or “reified,” external world, is a theme common to Marx and the postMarxists. Its roots may be traced back to eighteenth-century writers such as Herder and Schiller, whose reflections on history lent powerful support to the fashionable idealization of classical antiquity as a golden age in which man’s faculties developed to a totality whose conflicting elements were, for a brief moment, held in harmonious balance. The notion of “self-alienation” here acquired a meaning more in tune with the usual sense of “estrangement.” Even the Marxian critique of dehumanized proletarian existence under industrial capitalism was foreshadowed in Schiller’s remarks (in his Briefe über die aesthetische Erziehung des Menschen 1795) on the deadening and soul-destroying effect of specialization. There is a straight road from Schiller’s Aesthetic Letters of 1795 to the “Paris Manuscripts of 1844,” though Schiller’s solution—which envisaged a recovery of the lost harmony in the spheres of art and education—seemed to Marx a characteristic example of the idealist tendency to seek refuge in a realm beyond that of ordinary material existence.
From the viewpoint of contemporary sociology, Marx—specifically the Marx of 1845–1847, who was no longer a philosopher and not yet an economist—appears as the crucial figure in the process whereby “alienation” was transformed from an ontological into a sociological concept. As an element in the idealist ontology of the early nineteenth century, alienation had once signified an ultimate datum of human existence, a theme developed at length by Hegel in his Science of Logic (1812–1816), where he makes play with the self-alienation inherent in the subject-object relationship, which is the precondition of knowing the world. What Hegel called Selbstentäusserung (selfexternalization) is Spirit’s characteristic mode of presenting the world of nature and history to the individual consciousness. This consciousness is “alienated” insofar as it does not apprehend the external world as objectified Mind, and its self-alienation (Selbstentfremdung) is overcome to the extent that this gap is closed by self-awareness. The stages whereby this metaphysical doctrine was transformed into the Marxian “materialism” can be followed in the writings of the Young Hegelians, culminating in the work of the youthful Marx. The crucial importance of Feuerbach’s atheism in this context lies in the fact that his self-alienated man has only an earthly habitation and thus requires a humanized world, a world made manlike, in order for him to feel at home. Feuerbach’s contemporary Søren Kierkegaard, who retained his hold on the Lutheran faith which the Young Hegelians had abandoned, arrived at a different conclusion and thus became the founder of religious existentialism. The point here is that Marx, by traveling in the opposite direction, was necessarily driven to the “materialist” conclusion that the solution to the theoretical problem of “alienation” lay in the practical activity of transforming a world in which men do not feel at home. This was the gist of the 1845 “Theses on Feuerbach,” which set out the credo of revolutionary humanism.
But in the process of reaching this position Marx had made use of the Hegelian categories of “externalization” and “estrangement,” notably in the 1844 “Paris Manuscripts,” where he transformed Hegel’s rudimentary analysis of the labor process (in the “Lordship and Bondage” chapter of the Phenomenology) into something new and revolutionary. Man, that is to say, generic man as a “species being” (Gattungswesen), is seen to have his essential being in labor, but this essence is at the same time taken away from him, i.e., “alienated,” by a world which is a verkehrte Welt (one standing on its head), a world in which “the worker becomes all the poorer the more wealth he produces.”
With the increasing value of the world of things proceeds in direct proportion the devaluation of the world of men …
This fact expresses merely [the circumstance] that the object which labor produces … confronts it as something alien.… The product of labor is labor which has been embodied in an object, which has become material: it is the objectification of labor [die Vergegenständlichung]. Labor’s realization is its objectification.… [This] realization of labor appears as … loss of the object and bondage to it; appropriation as estrangement, as alienation.
So much does labor’s realization appear as loss of realization that the worker loses realization to the point of starving to death. So much does objectification appear as loss of the object that the worker is robbed of the objects most necessary not only for his life but for his work. (Marx  1964, pp. 107–108)
It is this state of affairs which defines the worker as a proletarian. “All these consequences result from the fact that the worker is related to the product of his labor as to an alien object” (ibid., p. 108). Alienated labor creates a world in which the real producer cannot recognize himself. Work, man’s existential activity, estranges him both from nature and from himself. This alienation (which the romantics had attributed to the increasing rationalization and specialization of the life process), Marx attributed to society, and specifically to the exploitation of the worker by the nonworker, i.e., the capitalist. This diagnosis underlay all Marx’s theorizing, although in his later writings it was no longer explicit. It had an obvious counterpart in the socialism of his contemporary Proudhon, in whom however the Rousseauist element was stronger. When Proudhon said, “Ce que I’Human-ité cherche dans la Religion et qu’elle appelle DIEU, c’est elle-même” ( 1929, p. 62), he was echoing both Rousseau and Feuerbach. The political application appears in the statement immediately following: “Pour tout le reste, nous n’admettons pas plus le gouvernement de l’homme par rhomme, que 1’exploitation de de l’homme par l’homme …” (ibid. p. 62). The difference in tone points to the subsequent disputes between socialists and anarchists, whose “libertarian” credo was adequately formulated by Proudhon in the passage cited above.
The Marxian tradition, then, sees human self-estrangement as rooted in the form given to the labor process by modern society, i.e., industrial society. But unlike the romantics and their predecessors of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, Marx attributed this dehumanization not to the division of labor as such but to the historic form it had taken under capitalism. That specialization was at the root of the trouble Marx did not doubt; but as late as 1875 he believed that “in a higher phase of the communist society” not only would “the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor” disappear but even the “antithesis between mental and physical labor” would vanish. To say that this belief could only be grounded on irrational faith is perhaps to underrate the strength of Marx’s commitment to the optimistic world view of the Enlightenment with its hope of a better future in which man would at last be master over his circumstances. From this vantage point, which Marx shared with both the French materialists and the German idealists, the impetus given to the division of labor by modern technology appeared as a means for raising mankind to a higher level where these crutches might be discarded. The manner in which Marxism, and socialism generally, have developed this theme, however, is tied to the critique of one particular form of social organization. It therefore runs up against the argument that the division of labor itself, and the resulting fragmentation of the human personality, are rooted in technological conditions which are likely to survive any conceivable rearrangement of society.
In the generation following Marx the tacit abandonment of the earlier Utopian perspective was clearly an element in the emancipation of sociology from philosophy. The notion of a descriptive “science of society,” as developed in particular by Max Weber and his school, emerged pari passu with the positivist demotion of philosophy to a purely synoptic function, as the general link between the sciences or, alternatively, as the study of concepts common to all scientific investigators. With this view prevailing, a social science not grounded in traditional philosophy or metaphysics could easily dispense with general notions supposedly derived from the study of human nature or the human essence. The role of Marxism in this process was ambiguous, the later writings of Engels forming a link with the general trend of positivism. The dominant schools associated with Weber and Durkheim cut their connection with all branches of philosophy except for the theory of knowledge. The same process occurred in traditional psychology and in the new forms developed after about 1900 by Freud and his followers, although the Jungian school attempted to conserve the romantic universalism of the “philosophy of nature,” which had once formed a bond between Goethe, Hegel, and Schelling.
The importance of this break with philosophy is exemplified by the key role played in modern sociology by the ideal of a “value-free” science, which no longer sets itself up as a judge of social institutions, let alone as an instrument for helping men to attain either freedom or felicity. This de-liberate refusal to transcend the limitations imposed by empirical description is an aspect of the progressive rationalization of life, which exacts its tribute from the scholar no less than from the worker, technician, or administrator. The disillusionment inherent in the acceptance of the situation as unalterable is experienced not sadly as “estrangement” from a better world but stoically as the endurance of reality. Positivist sociology asserts the need for scientific neutrality in the face of structures whose permanent features are indifferent to individual desires and hopes, whether religious or secular. It draws its ethos from the refusal to indulge in a modernized version of the pathetic fallacy.
The classic statement of this position is to be found in the writings of Weber, where the disjunction of fact finding and valuation is accepted as the necessary fate of science in a disenchanted universe. “Disenchantment” (Entzauberung) is a key concept for Weber, just as Entäusserung is for Hegel or Entfremdung for the young Marx and the contemporary neo-Marxians. It relates to the discovery that the world is, in the literal meaning of the term, senseless, i.e., not the seat of a divinity or some other agency responsive to human desires. Tacit acceptance of this state of affairs forms part of that process of “rationalization” which Weber saw as the underlying element in the historical process. As mankind gradually sheds its illusions, it discovers itself in a world which, owing to the progressive application of science, becomes steadily more complex and at the same time less satisfying to the romantic craving for harmony. Technology imposes fresh burdens upon men at the very moment when—owing to a parallel process of rationalization—the old metaphysical hopes and certainties have crumbled. A broadly similar analysis, likewise remarkable for its stoical pessimism, is to be found in the later writings of Freud, where the stress falls on the abandonment of religious hopes and consolations (cf. his Future of an Illusion 1927 and Civilization and Its Discontents 1930).
The transformation of socialism into sociology, under the impact of political shocks and disappointments (notably since World War II), runs parallel to this development. Its most recent manifestation, the acceptance of a totally rationalized environment as unalterable and common to all major industrial societies, relates back to a theme already present in Saint-Simon, Comte, and Marx: the belief that the study of society discloses a mechanism of causation which asserts itself with the relentless force of natural law. In nineteenth-century socialism this conviction was balanced by faith in the ability of men—when delivered from their previous ignorance—to plan their lives in accordance with innate human needs and strivings, notably the desire for freedom, understood as the unfolding of personality in every individual. This faith, which binds the socialist movement to its ancestral liberal-humanist origins, still persists in an attenuated form wherever technology has transformed the preindustrial environment, but with the significant difference that the “humanization” of work is now envisaged as no more than a palliative. In the newer centers of industrial civilization a similar degree of skepticism will presumably have to await the dissipation of the inevitable first flush of technological enthusiasm. The alienation of labor as the self-alienation of man from his essence is a concept that presents considerable intellectual difficulties, and in any case it fails to satisfy the emotional needs of societies newly launched upon the adventure of modernization.
Since intellectual life generally reflects the prevailing social situation, the prominence in modern literature and art of concern over the role of the alienated individual in a “reified” world need occasion no surprise. This phenomenon dates back to the early years of the present century, when individualism first began to look problematical in western and central Europe, even though the societal organization of existence, by and large, still followed liberal-individualist lines. The impact of totalitarianism in the 1930s and 1940s upset the traditional equilibrium between the individual and society, even in countries where the totalitarian experiment failed or was not permitted to occur. Both the official culture and the unofficial criticism of this culture show the marks of this experience, whose extreme point was the massive “liquidation” of individuals and groups in the interest of a “new order” imposed upon society by the state. This experience could not be accommodated within the traditional liberal-democratic conceptions. Hence it gave rise to critical reflections upon the probable character of a planned and centralized society in which human beings might be “alienated” en masse, not merely from their metaphysical essence but from their earthly existence, at the command of rulers raised by technology above the customary safeguards of popular control.
At a more trivial level, the situation reflects itself in the concern shown by intellectuals over the control of mass communications and the alarming possibility of an artificially contrived and predigested “pseudo culture” taking the place of creative spontaneity. Closely related are the controversies over the role of a therapeutic psychology whose conformism increasingly condemns it to the provision of spiritual tranquilizers (a function hitherto monopolized by religion).
These concerns appear to represent the contemporary form of a debate whose philosophic origins are attested by the very terms in which it is conducted. As has been shown in the preceding discussion, positivist sociology in the later nineteenth century fell heir to the unsolved problems of traditional metaphysics. These problems are related, in an obscure and mystifying fashion, to permanent human concerns which assert themselves with special force whenever a particular social and cultural integration fails to satisfy the elites of a given society. What appears at one level as the disintegration of traditional ways of life is reflected at a different level in the dichotomy of “facts” and “values.” Since the intellectuals as a group form a stratum of society in which material tension is immediately experienced in theoretical terms, their role in developing concepts which reflect their own peculiar situation is obviously crucial. Provisionally it may be suggested that the intelligentsia’s rejection of the modern world is central to the contemporary situation in philosophy. Yet this world is itself the creation of a rational science in which intellectuals have traditionally placed their faith. The paradox suggests that we may have come to the end of an important chapter in modern cultural history.
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Axelos, Kostas (1961) 1963 Marx: Penseur de la technique, Paris: Minuit.
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Feuerbach, Ludwig a. (1840) 1957 The Essence of Christianity. New York: Harper. → First published in German.
Freud, Sigmund (1927) 1960 The Future of an Illusion. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday. → First published in German.
Freud, Sigmund (1930) 1958 Civilization and Its Discontents. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday. → First published as Das Unbehagen in der Kultur.
Gurvitch, Georges 1962 Dialectique et sociologie. Paris: Flammarion.
Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich (1795–1809) 1961 On Christianity: Early Theological Writings. Gloucester, Mass.: Smith. → Written during the years 1795–1809. First published in 1907 as Hegels theologische Jugendschriften.
Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich (1807) 1961 The Phenomenology of Mind. 2d ed., rev. London: Allen & Unwin; New York: Macmillan. → First published in German.
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Marx, Karl (1844) 1964 Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. New York: International Publishers; London: Lawrence & Wishart. → First published in German in 1932. Sometimes referred to as the “Paris Manuscripts of 1844.”
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"Alienation." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 21, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/alienation
"Alienation." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved August 21, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/alienation
The notion of alienation is a very unusual one because it is at once an attempt to explain a widespread feeling—a very subjective, somewhat indefinable feeling—and a critique of the nature of any society that regularly produces it.
This was not always so. The feeling that one is not at home in the world, the sense of estrangement from one's surrounding, oneself, and other people, appears to be as old as history; for most world religions (Buddhism, most strains of Christianity and Daoism, Sufi strands in Islam) this feeling was seen mainly as reflecting a profound insight into the truth of the human condition. Hermits, monks, and meditators often actively valued or cultivated feelings of alienation as a way to something higher. Calvinism came closer to the modern conception in seeing feelings of isolation and emptiness as a sign of humanity's fall from grace, but it was really only in the nineteenth century that the modern understanding of the term came into being. This conception was closely tied to the experience of living in a vast, impersonal, industrial city. Feelings of alienation were particularly prone to strike those who in earlier generations might have been considered likely victims of melancholia: intellectuals, artists, and youth. The effects were much the same: depression, anxiety, hopelessness, suicide.
One might distinguish two main strains in the modern alienation literature: one that stressed the experience itself as an unavoidable (though possibly ameliorable) effect of the impersonal, bureaucratized nature of modern life, entailing the loss of any ability to use that experience to attain some deeper, more genuine truth about the world—since with the death of God and traditional structures of authority, most of these truths were considered definitively lost. The other, drawing on older theological traditions, saw alienation as the key to the true, hidden nature of the modern (i.e., capitalist, industrial) order itself, showing it to be an intolerable situation that could be resolved only by overthrowing that order and replacing it with something profoundly different.
The first tradition can be found in social thinkers such as Alexis de Tocqueville, Émile Durkheim, or Max Weber; novelists such as Fyodor Dostoyevsky or Franz Kafka; and philosophers such as Søren Kierkegaard or Friedrich Nietzsche. Here alienation is the darker underside of all the positive values of modernity, the experience of those sundered from all previous sources of meaning: community, hierarchy, the sacred. It is the point where individualism becomes isolation, freedom becomes rootlessness, egalitarianism becomes the destruction of all value, rationality, an iron cage.
Probably the most famous formulation within this genre was Émile Durkheim's (1858–1917) notion of anomie. Observing that suicide rates tend to go up during times of both economic boom and economic collapse, Durkheim concluded that this could only be because both booms and busts threw ordinary people's expectations so completely in disarray that they ended up in a state of lacking norms, unable to determine what they had a right to expect or even want from life and unable to imagine a time when they could. This kind of analysis could lead either to a resigned pessimism, the assumption (favored by social conservatives) that public life in modern society can never really be anything but alienated, or to a liberal approach that saw alienation as a form of deviance or lack of proper integration that policymakers should ideally be able to ameliorate or even overcome.
The other tradition can be traced to Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831), who drew heavily on theological sources. For Hegel, "alienation" was a technical term, a necessary moment in the process whereby Spirit (which for Hegel was simultaneously God, Mind, Spirit, and Human Self-Consciousness) would achieve true self-knowledge. Human history involved the same story: Mind would project itself out into the world, creating, say, Law, or Art, or Science, or Government; it would then confront its creations as something alien to it and strange; then, finally, coming to understand that these alienated forms are really aspects of itself, would reincorporate them and come to a richer self-conception as a result.
Karl Marx (1818–1883) remained true to this dialectical approach but concentrated on the material creativity of work, emphasizing that under capitalism, not only the products of one's labor but one's labor itself, one's very capacity to create—and for Marx, this is one's very humanity—becomes a commodity that can be bought and sold and hence appears to the worker as an "alien force." Insofar as Marx shares Hegel's optimism, and sees this dilemma as opening the way to a new, revolutionary society, all this is much in line with the older, theological conception in which alienation, however painful, is a realization about the truth of one's relation to the world, so that understanding this becomes the key to transcending it. Twentieth-century Marxists, though, have not been so uniformly optimistic.
While Marxist regimes officially claimed to have eliminated the problem of alienation in their own societies, Western Marxism, starting with György Lukács (1885–1971) and climaxing with the Frankfurt School, forced to explain the lack of revolutionary change in industrial democracies, gradually became a prolonged meditation on the varied forms of alienation (reification, objectification, fetishism, etc.) in modern life. This emphasis set the tone for an outpouring of literature on the subject in the mid-twentieth century, not all of it Marxist.
France in the 1950s and early 1960s saw the emergence of a particularly rich body of alienation theory, ranging from the Existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, which attempted to formulate an ethics for the isolated individual, to a variety of Marxist approaches, of which the most extravagant—and influential—was developed by the Situationist International, whose members saw modern consumer society as a gigantic "spectacle," a vast apparatus composed of not only media images but market logic, the rule of experts, and the nature of the commodity form, all combining together to render individuals passive and isolated spectators of their own lives. Like many of the radical art movements from which they emerged, the Situationists were dedicated to imagining ways to revolutionize everyday life itself as a way of overcoming the "living death" of capitalist alienation.
After the failed insurrection of May 1968 in France, this literature on alienation rapidly disappeared in the face of poststructuralist critiques that argued it was impossible to talk about a human subject alienated from society or from itself because the subject was itself an effect of discourse and hence a social construct. Over the course of the 1970s and 1980s, these critiques spread outside France and the theme of alienation has, as a result, largely disappeared from intellectual debate in the early twenty-first century.
There are two main exceptions. First, in its radical, redemptive form, the idea of alienation has remained alive in artistic and revolutionary circles largely outside the academy. Situationism, for example, is still very much at the center of the (increasingly international) anarchist and punk scenes, both of which are largely rebellions against the meaninglessness and alienation of "mainstream" urban, industrial, or postindustrial life. These themes have suddenly reemerged to public attention with the rise of the "antiglobalization" movement, though they have still found almost no echo in the academy.
Second, in its more liberal, ameliorative form, the idea of alienation became ensconced in certain branches of sociology and hence reemerged in what is increasingly called "postmodern" alienation theory. When American sociologists started taking up the theme of alienation systematically in the 1950s and 1960s, they began by making it into a factor that could be quantified. Various questionnaires and techniques of tabulating an individual's degree of alienation were developed; surveys then revealed, not entirely surprisingly, that aside from students, those who scored highest for alienation were, precisely, aliens, immigrants, or else members of minority groups already defined as marginal to mainstream American life. Over the course of the 1990s and the early twenty-first century, this sociological work has converged with an interest in identity and identity-based social movements to yield a new, "postmodern" body of alienation theory.
On the individual level, alienation is said to occur when there is a clash between one's own self-definition and the identity assigned one by a larger society. Alienation thus becomes the subjective manner in which various forms of oppression (racism, sexism, ageism, etc.) are actually experienced and internalized by their victims. As a result, where the older revolutionary conception sees alienation as essential to the fundamentally violent, antihuman nature of "the mainstream," postmodern theories now once again see alienation as a measure of exclusion from the mainstream. On the social level, the postmodern conception of alienation is said to be caused by a surfeit rather than a lack of freedom; a notion that appears almost impossible to distinguish from what were, in the late nineteenth century, called "modern" concepts of alienation. So far, these two traditions have barely come into contact with each other—except, perhaps, in recent environmentalist ideas about "alienation from nature." How or whether they will make contact remains an open question.
See also Existentialism ; Identity ; Person, Idea of the ; Society .
Geyer, Felix, ed. Alienation, Ethnicity, and Postmodernism. London and Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996.
Ollman, Bertell. Alienation: Marx's Conception of Man in Capitalist Society. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1976.
Schmitt, Richard, and Thomas E. Moody, eds. Alienation and Social Criticism. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1994.
Schweitzer, David, and Felix Geyer, eds. Alienation Theories and De-Alienation Strategies: Comparative Perspectives in Philosophy and the Social Sciences. London: Science Reviews, 1989.
"Alienation." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 21, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/alienation
"Alienation." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Retrieved August 21, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/alienation
Inscribed in the opposition between the Same and the Other, alienation describes the condition of the subject who no longer recognizes himself, or rather can only recognize himself via the Other. The philosophical background of this concept derives from Hegel and then Marx. Classical psychiatry used the term to classify any mental illness in which the subject no longer knew who he was. Thanks to Jacques Lacan's study of Hegel's master/slave dialectic, the term no longer refers only to mental alienation, but retains the meaning it has in philosophy.
For Lacan, who followed Hegel on this point, human desire is constituted by mediation: "Man's desire finds its meaning in the other's desire, not so much because the other holds the keys to the desired object, but because his first objective is to be recognized by the other" (Lacan, p. 58). Specifically, the objective is to be recognized by the Other as a desiring subject, because the first desire is to have one's desire recognized. The conclusion is Lacan's well-known formula: "Man's desire is the desire of the Other," which doesn't mean that one desires another as object, but that one desires another desire, and wants to have one's own desire recognized by the Other. This is an echo of Hegel's master/slave dialectic (a struggle for pure prestige) where each consciousness wants to be recognized by the Other without recognizing it in turn ("each consciousness seeks the death of the other").
In this fight to the death, the one who accepts death in order to win becomes the Master; the other will become the slave. But the Master is taken in a trap, for he owes his status to the recognition of a slave-consciousness. The slave, however, will be liberated by the Master as his work extracts from things the consciousness of self that was lost in the struggle. The slave will end up, in the Marxist perspective, transforming the world in such a way that there is no place for the Master.
Thus the theme of alienation in Lacan refers to what is called a forced choice, or vel, which is the Latin word expressing an alternative where it is impossible to maintain two terms at once. The vel is alienating in that it gives a false choice, a forced choice ("your money or your life," "me or you"). The Master's freedom, which must pass through death to attain consciousness of self, is no freedom. Lacan derived several consequences from this structure of alternative, particularly in his critique of the Cartesian cogito, by indicating that thought and being cannot coincide. Thus, "I am where I do not think" and "it thinks there where I am not."
Piera Aulagnier also took up the notion of alienation, but even though she borrowed from Lacan the relation of desire to the Other, her view more closely approached Freud's thinking about collective hypnosis and its relation to the ego ideal. However, she worked in an entirely different context, refusing to make alienation one of the givens of human existence, but instead seeing it as one of the ways the psyche attempts to resolve conflict. First, she defined the notion of alienation by its goal, which is "to strive for a non-conflictual state, to abolish all causes of conflict between the identifying subject and the object of identification, between the I and its ideals" (Aulagnier, 1979). Thus she connects the notion to the aims of Thanatos, as a "desire for non-desire" and it can then be used in fields as diverse as collective psychology, passionate love, gambling, and drug addiction.
Nevertheless, Piera Aulagnier insists that alienation rests on an encounter between the desire for self-alienation, on the one hand, and the desire to alienate, on the other. The process of alienation seeks to erase the tension arising from this difference, whether it involves a subject that seeks to identify himself with the object identified, or a subject that wants to bring together the self image that comes back to him from others and the others themselves. Thus alienation appears to be a pathological modality, like neurosis or psychosis, that attempts to regulate the conflict between identifying subject and the object identified. Whereas the neurotic differentiates between his self and its idealization and the psychotic posits the latter as realized in a delusion, the alienated subject idealizes an other who provides him with certainty. Unable to make these ideals a spur to progress, alienation produces a short circuit through the mediation of an idealized force. Alienation becomes even more effective when the alienated subject misapprehends "the accident occurring in his or her thought" (Aulagnier, 1979). It is as though this subject, once a prisoner, no longer has the objectivity needed to judge the situation.
In cases where a group feels alienated, not only is a group of subjects oppressed by a group of masters, but oppression infiltrates all relationships within the group. "Thus whatever the position one may occupy at the moment, every subject is both a victim and a potential murderer, given that one could always find oneself in the opposite position a moment later" (Aulagnier, 1979). If Jacques Lacan is indebted to Hegel, Piera Aulagnier leans on Aldous Huxley and George Orwell, both of whom revisit the historical experiences that have left their mark on the twentieth century, the Holocaust and the gulag.
But how does it happen that the subject chooses one outcome of alienation, rather than another? Piera Aulagnier would start from the metapsychological perspective on the conflict between the identifying subject and the object identified. This conflict is inscribed at the heart of a pathological relation to the ideal ego and to the ideal agencies in general. Alienation is characterized (as is psychosis, but in a different way) by an asymmetry between the I and its object, with no reciprocity between what the one recognizes and what the other recognizes. Thus a dominant pole is created (passionate investment in an object, the God-drug, Chance) by means of which the subject's response will be alienated from the object that is seen as invulnerable; conversely the psychotic, who also recognizes the asymmetry in the relation, is going to try to flee from it and create outside of it a delusional object of identification that others refuse to recognize.
The notion of alienation as Piera Aulagnier conceives of it allowed for a reconsideration the nosographical categories. She particularly opened up a domain for renewed investigations on the question of addictions and on the perversions.
Sophie de Mijolla-Mellor
See also: Ego ideal; I; Ideology; Imaginary identification/symbolic identification; Mirror stage; Passion.
Aulagnier, Piera. (1979). Les destins du plaisir: aliénation, amour, passion. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France
Lacan, Jacques. (2002). The function and field of speech and language in psychoanalysis. InÉcrits: a selection (Bruce Fink, Trans.). New York: Norton. (Original work published 1953)
Mijolla-Mellor, Sophie de. (1998). Penser la psychose. Une lecture de l'œuvre de Piera Aulagnier. Paris: Dunod.
Palmier, Jean-Michel. (1969). Lacan. Paris:Éditions universitaires.
Bychowski, Gustav. (1967). The archaic object and alienation. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 48, 384393.
Khan, Masud. (1979). Alienation in perversions. New York: International Universities Press.
"Alienation." International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 21, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/psychology/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/alienation
"Alienation." International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis. . Retrieved August 21, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/psychology/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/alienation
The philosophical discussion falls largely outside the domain of sociology (though Marxists might argue that these sorts of disciplinary distinctions are inappropriate). It is sometimes claimed that the three major influences on Marx's writings were German idealist philosophy ( Hegel and Feuerbach), British political economy ( Owen, Ricardo, Smith), and French utopian socialism ( Saint-Simon, Proudhon, and Fourier). Alienation as a philosophical concept is the most obvious legacy of the first of these. Hegel provided Marx with the philosophical means to overcome the Kantian dualism of is and ought, since for Hegel, the actual was always striving to become the ideal. The passage of the self-creating, self-knowing idea through history, its alienation through externalization and objectification and its reappropriation through knowledge, provided Marx with his revolutionary imperative. Turning Hegel on his head and rooting his own ideas in a materialist vision, Marx argued that humanity is lost in the unfolding historical epochs, but at the same time created and found again with the advent of communism, which represents the complete return of individuals to themselves as social beings.
This philosophical and teleological conception of alienation permeates Marx's writings. However, sociological discussion of the term relates more to his argument that estrangement is a consequence of social structures which oppress people, denying them their essential humanity. Alienation is an objective condition inherent in the social and economic arrangements of capitalism. In this sense it is the centrality of alienated labour that most clearly describes the concept. Labour-power defines humanity—the ‘species being’—wherein the satisfaction of needs develops the powers and potential of human beings. However, all forms of production result in ‘objectification’, by which people manufacture goods which embody their creative talents yet come to stand apart from their creators. Alienation is the distorted form that humanity's objectification of its species-being takes under capitalism. Under capitalism, the fruits of production belong to the employers, who expropriate the surplus created by others and in so doing generate alienated labour. Marx attributes four characteristics to such labour: alienation of the worker from his or her ‘species essence’ as a human being rather than an animal; alienation between workers, since capitalism reduces labour to a commodity to be traded on the market, rather than a social relationship; alienation of the worker from the product, since this is appropriated by the capitalist class, and so escapes the worker's control; and, finally, alienation from the act of production itself, such that work comes to be a meaningless activity, offering little or no intrinsic satisfactions. The last of these generates the psychological discussion about alienation as a subjectively identifiable state of mind, involving feelings of powerlessness, isolation, and discontent at work—especially when this takes place within the context of large, impersonal, bureaucratic social organizations.
It is impossible to extricate Marx's ideas about alienation from his wider sociological discussion of the division of labour, the evolution of private property relations, and the emergence of conflicting classes. In the Marxian terminology, alienation is an objectively verifiable state of affairs, inherent in the specific social relations of capitalist production. However, subsequent researchers have tended to neglect these structural considerations, and attempted instead to operationalize the concept in terms of a range of specifically cognitive and attitudinal characteristics. The ‘psychological state’ of alienation was said by Melvin Seeman (‘On the Meaning of Alienation’, American Sociological Review, 1959)
to comprise the dimensions of powerlessness, meaninglessness, isolation, normlessness, and self-estrangement. In a famous study of factory workers, Robert Blauner attempted to link these dimensions of subjective alienation to particular types of work situation, arguing that the technologies associated with craft, machine, assembly-line, and continuous-process production show a curvilinear association with alienation. That is, ‘in the early period, dominated by craft industry, alienation is at its lowest level and the worker's freedom at a maximum. Freedom declines and the curve of alienation … rises sharply in the period of machine industry. The alienation curve continues upward to its highest point in the assembly-line technologies of the twentieth century … in this extreme situation, a depersonalised worker, estranged from himself and larger collectives, goes through the motions of work in the regimented milieu of the conveyer belt for the sole purpose of earning his bread … But with automated industry there is a countertrend … automation increases the worker's control over his work process and checks the further division of labour and growth of large factories’ (Alienation and Freedom, 1964). At this juncture, the discussion of alienation merely becomes part of a larger debate about the subjective experience of work generally, and job satisfaction in particular.
Many of the doctrines allied to employee self-management, as in Yugoslavia during the post-war period, are linked explicitly to the task of overcoming alienation by means of collective ownership and control. Profit-sharing and employee share-ownership schemes all owe some debt to the concept of alienated labour. Paradoxically, the ownership characteristics of state socialist societies increased the sense of alienation and powerlessness, since in that property vacuum the fact that no one seemed to own state property was more demoralizing than the active ownership of the free-market variety that so troubled Marx. See also WORK, SUBJECTIVE EXPERIENCE OF.
"alienation." A Dictionary of Sociology. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 21, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/alienation
"alienation." A Dictionary of Sociology. . Retrieved August 21, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/alienation
Alienation is a term that is employed commonly in a number of disciplines to describe and explain the sense of estrangement that organizes the relationship between the subject and itself on the one hand and the subject and its relationship to history, power, and authority on the other hand: estrangement from the state in Georg Hegel, from God in Ludwig Feuerbach, from labor in Karl Marx, or from essential sexuality in Sigmund Freud. Anthropology, philosophy, economic theory, sociology, and political science all refer to the tensions that result from the sense of alienation experienced by the subject. The word alienation, however, comes from the Latin term alius, meaning “other” or “another,” from which the term alienus, meaning “of another place or person,” is derived. In this way the meaning of alienation has a spatial and existential significance. In the fifteenth century it came to mean the loss of mental faculties and thus the presence of insanity, and by the mid-nineteenth century physicians who concerned themselves with mentally disturbed patients were called alienists.
Alienation is a developmental process in Hegel’s The Phenomenology of Mind (1807) and in 1844 writings by Marx that engage two gestures: Entfremdung (estrangement) and Entáuberung (externalization). The “unhappy consciousness” of Hegel is unhappy precisely because it is conscious of its own divisions, of its alienated relationship to its world, and thus cannot attain the unity that it seeks. In the ideality of the state this unhappy consciousness materializes itself as a subject. In Marx, labor itself is an object from which the worker is alienated, a realization that becomes possible only through the development of class consciousness. This materialization of the subject in late Marx (Grundrisse  and Das Kapital [1857-1858]) through the experience of alienation from the labor process acquires a materiality that is expressed in Vergegenständlichung (reification), enabling the transformation of Hegel’s idealism into Marx’s materialism, a point that later, as reification, acquires centrality in the work of Gyorgy Lukács and the Frankfurt School.
In Marx the worker experiences the object of his or her labor as alien and threatening so that, despite the fact that it has been produced through the worker’s labor, it is not accessible to the worker. For Marx abstracted forms of consciousness such as religion are symptomatic of the alienating experiences of workers, and only through the recognition of those forms as symptomatic of a frustrated historical experience, along with the abolition of capitalist ownership of the means of production that will interrupt the alienation of the worker from his or her labor, can they be overcome and allow for the emancipation of the subject.
For Feuerbach (1841) religion constitutes the alienated form of human realization of the divided subject. This is a process in which the subject understands itself as having been alienated from its own human essence and has turned that essence into an abstracted object of worship. In Future of an Illusion ( 1975), Moses and Monotheism (1938), and Civilization and Its Discontents  1962), Freud recognizes civilization as the location where the understanding of the frustrated relationship of the subject with itself takes place. The overcoming of the sense of alienation is engendered either by the recovery of the subject’s relationship to the divine (in the theological tradition) or by the recovery of the libido (in Freud). However, since alienation belongs to the historical process of subject formation and recognition, a process that reveals as much as it constitutes the process of civilization itself, alienation is taken to be the ransom of civilization, a point of no return (to nature or essence) for the human subject.
In the work of the Frankfurt School, particularly in that of Theodor W. Adorno (Horkheimer and Adorno  1972), alienation is the result of the rationalization of the process of cultural production, a process that is analogous to the injustice that is produced through the rationalization of the market. In that sense Adorno sees alienation not as part of the process of subject formation that has within it the potential for emancipation, as Marx saw it becoming as part of the historical process, but as constitutive of the new, modern subject that rests on reason, a reason that in modernity has become bankrupt without any prospects of resistance.
SEE ALSO Alienation-Anomie; Consciousness; Frankfurt School; Freud, Sigmund; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Lukacs, Georg; Marx, Karl; Power; Religion; Sexuality
Feuerbach, Ludwig Andreas.  1957. The Essence of Christianity. Trans. George Eliot. New York: Harper.
Freud, Sigmund.  1975. Future of an Illusion. Trans. James Strachey with a biographical introduction by Peter Gay. New York: W. W. Norton.
Freud, Sigmund.  1962. Civilization and Its Discontents. Trans. James Strachey with a biographical introduction by Peter Gay. New York: W. W. Norton.
Freud, Sigmund. 1939. Moses and Monotheism. Trans. Katherine Jones. New York: Vintage.
Hegel, Georg W. F.  1967. The Phenomenology of Mind. Trans. with an introduction and notes by J. B. Baillie and with an introduction by George Lichtheim. New York: Harper & Row.
Horkheimer, Max, and Theodor W. Adorno.  1972. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Trans. John Cumming. New York: Seabury Press.
Marx, Karl.  1988. The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. Trans. Martin Milligan. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
Marx, Karl. [1857-1858] 1973. Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy. Trans. and with a foreword by Martin Nicolaus. New York: Random House.
Marx, Karl.  1967. Capital Vol. 1, A Critical Analysis of Capitalist Production, ed. Frederick Engels. New York: International Publishers.
Williams, Raymond. 1983. Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. London: Fontana Paperbacks.
"Alienation." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 21, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/alienation-0
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The state of being emotionally separated from others and from one's own feelings.
Alienation is a powerful feeling of isolation and loneliness, and stems from a variety of causes. Alienation may occur in response to certain events or situations in society or in one's personal life. Examples of events that may lead to an individual's feeling of alienation include the loss of a charismatic group leader, or the discovery that a person who served as a role model has serious shortcomings. Examples of personal events are a death in the family , a job change, divorce , or leaving home for the first time. Although most people may find that such occurrences trigger temporary feelings of disillusionment or loneliness, a small percentage will be unable to overcome these events, and will feel hopelessly adrift and alone.
Many sociologists have observed and commented upon an increase in this feeling of alienation among young people since the 1960s. They attribute this alienation to a variety of societal conditions: the rapid changes in society during this period, the increase in alcohol and drug abuse, violence in the media, or the lack of communal values in the culture at large. Some sociologists observe that individuals become alienated when they perceive government, employment, or educational institutions as cold and impersonal, unresponsive to those who need their services. Entire groups may experience alienation—for example, ethnic minorities or residents of inner city neighborhoods who feel the opportunities and advantages of mainstream society are beyond their reach.
Feeling separated from society is not the only way a person experiences alienation: sometimes the individual feels alienation as disharmony with his or her true self. This condition develops when a person accepts societal expectations (to take over a family business, for example) that are counter to the person's true goals, feelings, or desires (perhaps to be a teacher). He may appear to be successful in the role others expect him to assume, but his true wish is hidden, leaving him feeling deeply conflicted and alone.
In the workplace, jobs have become increasingly specialized since the 1700s and the Industrial Revolution. Workers may see little connection between the tasks they perform and the final product or service, and may thus feel intense loneliness while in the midst of a busy work environment. In the 1840s, American writer and philosopher Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) observed that "the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation." Thoreau dealt with his own feelings of alienation by retreating to a solitary, simple life on the banks of Walden Pond in rural Massachusetts. He felt less isolated there— even though he lived in solitude—than when he lived in a town, surrounded by people. When living in town, his feelings of alienation confronted him daily, since his activities did not reflect his true feelings and desires.
Alienation is expressed differently by different people. Some become withdrawn and lethargic; others may react with hostility and violence; still others may become disoriented, rejecting traditional values and behavior by adopting an outlandish appearance and erratic behavior patterns. As society undergoes rapid changes, and traditional values and behavioral standards are challenged, some people find little they can believe in and so have difficulty constructing a reality in which they can find a place for themselves. It is for this reason that social and cultural beliefs play such an important role in bringing about or averting a feeling of alienation.
Psychologists help people cope with feelings of alienation by developing exercises or designing specific tasks to help the person become more engaged in society. For example, by identifying the alienated individual's true feelings, the psychologist may suggest a volunteer activity or a job change to bring the individual into contact with society in a way that has meaning for him or her.
Some have proposed treating the epidemic of alienation among America's young people by fostering social solutions rather than individual solutions. One such social solution is the idea of communitarianism, a movement begun early in the 1990s by Amitai Etzioni, a sociology professor from George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Etzioni became a popular speaker and writer in the mid-1990s with the publication of his book, The Spirit of Community. Etzioni advocates a return to community values to replace the rampant alienation of contemporary culture, education to reinforce shared societal morals focusing on family values, and strictly enforcing anti-crime measures. This movement has met serious criticism, however; civil libertarian groups are concerned about communitarian beliefs that certain rights can and should be restricted for the good of the community.
D'Antonio, Michael. "I or We." Mother Jones (May-June 1994): 20+.
Foster, Hal. "Cult of Despair." New York Times (30 December 1994): A3.
Guinness, Alma, ed. ABCs of the Human Mind. Pleasantville, NY: Reader's Digest Association, 1990.
Jackson, Richard. "Alone in the Crowd: Breaking the Isolation of Childhood." School Library Journal (November 1995):24.
Upton, Julia. "A Generation of Refugees." The Catholic World ( September-October 1995): 204+.
See also Loss and grief
"Alienation." Gale Encyclopedia of Psychology. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 21, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/medicine/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/alienation
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"alienation." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 21, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/alienation
"alienation." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved August 21, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/alienation
1. see thought alienation.
"alienation." A Dictionary of Nursing. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 21, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/caregiving/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/alienation
"alienation." A Dictionary of Nursing. . Retrieved August 21, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/caregiving/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/alienation
alienation, in property laws: see tenure.
"alienation." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 21, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/alienation
"alienation." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved August 21, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/alienation