Encyclopedia of Business and Professional Ethics

Living Edition
| Editors: Deborah C Poff, Alex C. Michalos


  • Scott GrillsEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-23514-1_21-1



Alienation refers to the social phenomenon where people are dominated by forces of their own creation, yet may fail to recognize their own authorship relative to institutions and processes at hand. The reification of these social constructs contributes to human alienation in all spheres of life. From a classical conflict perspective, alienation is to be found in all major institutions that comprise the superstructure of capitalist societies (e.g., religion, family, the state and state functions) and political economy. As Marx writes, “Objectification is the practice of alienation” (Marx in Bottomore 1963: 39).


Unlike more contemporary usages wherein alienation (and powerlessness and normlessness) are framed in more social psychological terms, classical conflict approaches to alienation frame the concept firmly in the relationship of people to their work and the extent to which they have control of the practice of work and the outcomes of their labors. Simply put, persons are alienated when they do not control how they work, what they produce, the value of what is produced, and its possible distribution. In this sense then, persons may define themselves as having a high quality of life and at the very same time be engaged in alienated labor. The perspective of the actor is less important within classical approaches than is the structure of work and the relationships of production.

There is a dialectical process in play here. Marx conceives of human actors as Homo Faber (human as the maker/worker/tool user). To be human is to work and by working is to gain some form of control over the state of nature, but at the same time, this work produces a history of the increasing alienation of humans from the natural world that their work attempts to control.1 As alienation pertains to the world of work, there are four keys aspects of alienation identified in Marx’s early writings: (1) alienation from the process of production, (2) alienation from the objects produced, (3) alienation from the self, and (4) alienation from the “species being” (or the community of others).2

Of alienated labor Marx writes, “Work is external to the worker … It is not part of [their] nature; consequently [they do not] not fulfill [themselves] in [their] work but deny [themselves]” (Marx in Bottomore 1963: 124). Marx frequently argues by analogy that the alienated worker is like a homeless person. But since we all seek to find home (a place where we can be who we are and find meaning and some form of comfort), the alienated worker seeks a home elsewhere – in leisure, in family, and in religion perhaps. While this may provide a home of sorts, it does nothing to resolve the homelessness of work itself. It is in this context that Marx’s famous rendering of religion as being the opiate of the masses is to be understood. For the church provides a home for those made homeless through alienated labor. Religion is not just analogous to an opiate, but it is also the heart in a heartless world.3 Religion becomes a salve to the worker who experiences his/her “own activity as something alien, not belonging to (them), activity as suffering, (and) strength as powerlessness” (Marx in Bottomore 1963: 126).

The message here for contemporary professionals and managers is not a cheery one. The relations of the means of production that are endemic to modern capitalism are inherently problematic. That is, they treat the other as a means to an end (e.g., surplus value), and alienated labor is the very real-life manifestation of relations within the workplace. As Coser (1971: 52–53) writes, “In an alienated society the whole mind-set of (people), their consciousness, is to a large extent only the reflection of the conditions in which they find themselves and of the position in the process of production in which they are variously placed.” Therefore, while alienation is not contingent upon the perspectives of individual actors, alienation is in and of itself a social determinate of knowledge. And if that is the case, then there is a whole social psychology of alienation implied in Marx’ writings that have provided a valuable point of departure for more contemporary theorists.4 Those interested in pursuing alienation and professional ethics would be well served by post-Marxian efforts to develop related concepts that extend well beyond relationships or production. These include (1) powerlessness, (2) anomie, and (3) exclusion.5 I will comment briefly on each.


Powerlessness refers to a perceived lack of ability to exercise direct control of the happenings of everyday life. It is meaningful as a source of alienation only where there is some expectancy of control. The poet might note our powerlessness against the incoming tide, but this is not alienated powerlessness, unless the person holds some expectation of control. For example, Rodman and Rodman (1991) observed that rain may be considered a socially caused phenomenon produced by those occupying the specialized role of rainmaker. In such cases, there would be a culturally based expectation of control of rain and therefore the corresponding possibility of the experience of alienated powerlessness in such a context.6

Given the potential breadth of the notion of powerlessness, Seeman (1959: 785) suggests that “in the case of alienation, I would limit the applicability of the concept to expectancies that have to do with the individual's sense of influence over socio-political events (control over the political system, the industrial economy, international affairs, and the like).” This limitation is consistent with the neo-Marxian interest in the extent to which people come to understand their role as history makers, even though the circumstances of that history making can never be of their own choosing. When embraced as a part of a worldview, powerlessness shifts the perspective of actors away from agency and toward determinacy (e.g., a sense that participation in democracy is a futile effort).

The experience of powerlessness is distinct from the matter of whether or not the actors at hand in fact have access to power or its legitimated form authority. People can and do fail to recognize the extent to which power as a social resource is available within various interactions and settings.


Emile Durkheim directs our attention to the experience of relative normlessness through the concept of anomie.7 The modifier relative is rather crucial here. For anomie is not so much a condition of the absence of norms, but rather there may be so many normative options available that participants may perceive that there are no shared expectations of behavior. Anomie addresses the breakdown in social regulation in a community and encourages an attentiveness to the individual experience thereof. Much as Marx encourages an appreciation of how alienation can be experienced within relationships of production, Durkheim focuses on how anomie is expressed through the link between the social experiences of relative normlessness and (1) how we organize our communities and our work and (2) the social aspects of suicide (and suicide rates).

Durkheim was very much familiar with the works of the French philosopher Jean-Marie Guyau, who considered himself both a philosopher and a sociologist.8 It is from Guyau’s work that Durkheim borrowed and modified the concept of anomie. Guyau and Durkheim were both influenced by positivism – holding to a greater or lesser extent that ethics based upon theology and/or metaphysics would yield, eventually, to reason based upon the human sciences (but not exclusively so). To paraphrase Guyau, the morality of future will not only be autonomous but it will also be anomic. In this sense, anomie is not an inherently problematic concept, but rather accurately captures the transition of ethics in everyday life – from the pre-industrial moral authority of the church to the more morally autonomous and scientifically informed actor. As Orru (1983: 503) suggests:

Modern people could no longer rely on religious faith or transcendental truth. Rather, they had to find a standard of conduct within themselves, in their impulse toward life. Instead of the old aphorism ‘I must, therefore I can,’ Guyau proposes the reverse: ‘I can, therefore I must.’ The essence of human life is its impulse for action, which not only creates physical fecundity, but is the fountainhead of moral fecundity as well.

Given the strong link between the concept of anomie and the moral and normative choices of actors, it is consistent with this interest that in the hands of US-based researchers, the concept proved particularly useful in the theoretical examination of deviance and deviant designations. In his essay, Social Structure and Anomie, Merton (1938) makes the case for attending to the structurally situated sources of anomie and the various adaptations that individuals may make in light of structural barriers in accessing the established cultural goals and the accompanying institutionalized means. In this context deviance is associated with innovation (e.g., drug dealing), retreatists (e.g., cult members), rebels (e.g., revolutionary leaders), and ritualists (e.g., those who “go through the motions” without embracing the beliefs associated with the role).


Merton’s work was influential in extending the study of alienation to the experiences and processes of social exclusion and isolation. As Seeman (1959: 788–789) suggests, “The alienated in the isolation sense are those who, like the intellect, assign low reward value to goals or beliefs that are typically highly valued in the given society.” This argument makes a clear link between alienation, anomie, and the social isolation and exclusion of individual actors. However, isolation is profitably to be framed as the outcome of the social process of exclusion. As Lemert (1962) has so carefully argued, the dynamics of exclusion are collectedly enacted by others toward the target so excluded. In process terms, exclusion is experienced as (1) identities are transformed, (2) information flows change, (3) there is an increasing disjunction between word and deed, and (4) the target directly experiences exclusion from interaction sequences in everyday life. In this sense isolation and exclusion are enacted, both formally and informally. As Garfinkel (1956) notes, we may usefully cast more formal rites of exclusion as degradation ceremonies. Stressing the collective nature of the exclusion of others, we thereby clearly locate the alienation that is associated with the isolation of the other as the outcome of exclusion processes. This usage of alienation holds contemporary relevance for the examination of such diverse substantive issues as employee engagement (Chiaburu and De Vos 2013), self-injury (Adler and Adler 2005), and workplace bullying (Behery and Al-Nasser 2016).


Alienation and its related concepts continue to inform discussion of quality of life, the nature of work, employer and employee relations, and the relationship between human alienation and human rights.9 The link between the social science of non-alienated work and questions of the ethical workplace are intertwined, as are issues related to management and the everyday life experiences of all in the workplace.10



  1. 1.

    For a discussion of this theme, see Tolman (1981).

  2. 2.

    See Tucker’s (1978) excellent edited volume The Marx-Engels Reader for a fine collection Marx’s writings on these themes.

  3. 3.

    This is paraphrased from Marx’s essay A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right in Tucker (1978). See the edited volume, On Religion for an extended discussion of religion in the writings of Marx and Engels.

  4. 4.

    See, for example, Archibald’s (1989) Marx and the Missing Link: “Human Nature.”

  5. 5.

    I am indebted here to Seeman (1959) however take considerable liberty with his original framing.

  6. 6.

    See Rodman and Rodman (1991). In The Court of the Rainmaker: The Willing Deviant in Longana, Vanuatu.

  7. 7.

    See Durkheim (1979) Suicide: a Study in Sociology and Durkheim (1984) The Division of Labor in Society.

  8. 8.

    Durkheim wrote book reviews of Guyau’s work that predate his own classics sourced above.

  9. 9.

    For example, Turner (1993: 493) develops a sociological approach to human rights that resists Marx’ scepticism concerning rights as being “merely an ideological mask of individual property rights” of elites (1993: 493).

  10. 10.

    See, for example, Michaelson et al. (2014).


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Brandon UniversityBrandonCanada