Alienation refers to the process by which individuals become disconnected or divorced from their social worlds. It also operates on a broader societal level when the very forces created by human beings appear to be separate and alien from their creators. The concept is commonly used by economic and political anthropologists questioning the conditions of modernity.
Alienation is frequently used in anthropological analyses to describe the general state of estrangement that human beings may feel living in late-capitalist society. The following sample of research topics illustrates the diversity of contexts in which it is used. Ethnographic analyses have employed the concept in studies of the penetration of money-based economies into exchange/gift-based economies in African and Latin America, in acculturation studies of nonWestern indigenous people, in studies of the effects of industrialization and the implementation factory regimes, in studies of consumption in Western and non-Western societies alike, and in studies of religious evangelization. Feminist critiques argue that the split between humanity and nature and the division of reproductive and productive labor serve to alienate masculine identity. Research on the com-modification of human bodies, where buyers, sellers, and even the contributors consider their body parts commodities for sale and consumption, best illustrates how profoundly alienated humans are in the contemporary market-based society in which they live. Despite this wide use of the concept, very few studies have used alienation as a guiding theoretical perspective.
The first major discussion of alienation is by Hegel in Phenomenology (1808). He critiqued the notion that human consciousness was separate from the world of discrete objects. For him, all truth and reality is part of human thought. Even conceiving of a discrete objective, worlds of nature or culture are forms of alienation. The goal of humans is to uncover how they are connected to and how they construct these seemingly independent objects and reconceptualize them as part of their self-consciousness.
Most anthropologists draw on Karl Marx’s concept of alienation. Marx criticized the Hegelian conception, because he argued that Hegel’s notion that alienation would cease with the eradication of the external world was false. He contended that humans are part of the external world and must come to understand their relationship with it.
Marx’s concept, alienation, is similar to that of Durkheim’s concept, anomie. Both apply to the general estrangement an individual feels from their social world, but what distinguishes these terms from each other is that anomie relates to the loss of moral feelings of connectedness people experience when religious and secular rituals cease to function to reproduce the community. By comparison, Marx emphasizes the collective loss of control humans have over their material conditions. For example, workers are alienated because they lack control of production. The use of money furthermore alienates producers and consumers from the material conditions of production and obscures the real social relations that exist among individuals and individuals with the processes of productions.
For Marx, alienation within the domain of labor has four aspects: workers are alienated from the objects that are produced, from the very processes of production, from themselves, and from their community. All this occurs because workers cease to recognize their connections with the material world. What occurs, according to Marx, is that the alienated products of human labor, commodities, appear to take on a life of their own, become detached from human social relations, and seemingly dominate their creators. Marx describes this process as commodity fetishism. Through the related concepts of alienation and commodity fetishism, social relations are conceived as relations between things, which is the process of reification.
In contrast, Weber believed that Marx had erred. According to him, alienation is the result of bureaucracy and the rationalization of social life that comes with modernity. Workers become alienated when they sacrifice personal desires for those of a larger group. Losing control of the means of production is merely a consequence of large-scale rational production. Hence, because workers cut themselves off from their individual goals, they are necessarily alienated.
In general, anthropological treatments of alienation and the related concept of commodity fetishism have held sway over the Weberian conceptualization, in part because power relations between workers and capitalists are not recognized and, in addition, ALIENATION 51 because it does not acknowledge the seeming independence of commodities from their producers. For instance, anthropological research on the penetration of capitalist economies, in which money replaces local forms of exchange, has shown that commodities and money itself are perceived to attain mystical power.
Although the object of most anthropological research related to alienation has been on the effects of modernization or capitalism on non-Western tribal and peasant societies, recently anthropologists have applied the concept to the effects capitalism has on Western societies. The international adoption market estranges individuals from reproduction through the commodification of children. Online or cyberspace communities, where individuals communicate across vast distances, alienate individuals because they lose face-to-face contact with their peers and cease to regard them as fellow material beings.
As extensive as commodification has become, where all social relations are reduced to capitalistic market exchange, not all individuals have become alienated from their community, history, and means of production. Ethnic tourism research on craft reproduction has shown the opposite to happen, where the commodification of traditional handicrafts and practices have revitalized local culture and created niches within late-capitalist society to stay connected to core cultural values. In other words, these people are not alienated from the products they produce or from their history or community and family by the intense commodification of everything in the contemporary world.
- Marx, K. (1973). Grundrisse: Foundations of the critique of political economy (Rough draft,
- Nicolaus, Trans). London: Penguin Books. (Original work published 1939)
- Marx, K. (1976). Capital: A critique of political economy. New York: New Left Review Press. (Original work published 1867)
- Taussig, M. (1980). The devil and commodity fetishism in South America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.