We need to talk about ‘alienation’

It was all the rage in the 1960s and 1970s …

Alienation is one of the most frequently encountered concepts in social science. Indeed, the amorphous, global concept of alienation has been used as a catchword to explain nearly every kind of aberrant behavior from drug abuse to political demonstrations.” (Mackey & Ahlgren, 1977).

And Jimmy Reid expressed it better than anyone else. So well, in fact, that it is very tempting to simply copy out his 1972 speech, updating a few passages here and there with contemporary examples. I’ll spare you that (you can read it in full here), but to paraphrase his opening sentence: alienation is the precise word to describe the major social and environmental problems we face, and it is (probably) more widespread and pervasive than ever before.

But who talks about alienation now? It’s a concept that has gone out of fashion, seen as antiquated or irrelevant when explaining social problems. It has been largely rejected by academics, possibly because it’s a word that carries implicit moral and political force. Basically, “there seems to be much evidence for a fading romance with alienation in the social sciences.” (Heinz, 1991).

This is a romance that needs to be rekindled, because alienation is as relevant today as it’s ever been. We can understand everything from the riots, to Scottish independence, to the rise of UKIP, through its lens.


‘Alienation’ 30 years on from Jimmy Reid – by Bec Sanderson

So, first off, what does alienation mean? There are many definitions – Seeman (1959) talks about powerlessness, meaninglessness, normlessness, social isolation & self-estrangement – but I’m going to bypass this complex psychological and sociological literature (cheers, Karl Marx) by pulling out two that seem particularly relevant:

  1. A feeling that you are different or separate from society; your explicit rejection of society’s dominant values or norms (Bernard, Gebauer & Maio, 2006).
  2. A reduced cognitive ability to apply your own values and moral reasoning to situations (Thompson 2013).

These two ideas can be intimately connected, because it takes effort to swim against the tide. If society constantly offers you values and frames you don’t share, in other words, then it’s tempting to give in and go with the flow.

Let’s backtrack a little: what’s a frame?

A frame, or ‘schema’ as it’s sometimes called, is a collection of associations (ideas, memories, emotions and values) that accompany a given concept. Frames exist in our heads, but play an important role in helping us make sense of the world. As cognitive linguist George Lakoff puts it:

“The more often the frame is activated, the stronger it gets. When it gets strong enough, the frame will define your common sense. Common sense is simply the collection of fixed frames that you use to understand what you experience and what you hear.” (Lakoff, 2011)

Over time, if your common sense is being strongly pulled in one direction, you might even find that your own priorities have shifted in that direction as a result.

Thompson, who provided the second idea of alienation above, explains it in terms of cognitive repression:

“Alienated moral cognition is operating when the values an individual possesses are not the product of their own reflection but rather dependent on external value schemas that are accepted as valid.” (Thompson, 2013)

Another way of saying ‘external value schemas’ is ‘ frames in society’. And ‘repressed cognition’ basically means ‘less able to think, understand things and make reasoned decisions.’ In other words, Thompson is saying that frames in society can make us less able to make moral sense of the world. While this may not be a necessary feature of alienation (indeed, some people are very capable of maintaining their own moral compass despite what’s going on around them), it definitely seems to be the case that ‘frames in society’ are out of step with what people really care about.

People, by and large, are compassionate, social creatures. And if you ask anyone what they value most in life, they will tend to say just that: across diverse cultures, languages and regions, people consistently rate kindness, compassion and autonomy the most important values. These are also the values associated with better social and environmental outcomes. But what do we think our society values? Many of us think, and indeed operate, on the assumption that ‘other people’ are generally selfish. “It’s a dog eat dog world out there.” “Give her an inch, she’ll take a mile.” “Nice guys finish last.” If you ask people to rate the values of their society or a ‘typical’ British citizen, they will often reflect these sentiments and overemphasise achievement, power and security values (e.g. Bernard et al., 2006). The graph below shows what happens if you look at the difference between what people value, and what they think other people in their society value. We’ve minused the perceived ‘society’ rating from people’s personal ratings –  so if these ratings were the same the bars would be zero (rather like Conservation, in this case). On average, people care about Self-transcendent and Openness values more (e.g. compassion, autonomy and equality), but people think their society values Self-enhancement values like wealth, authority and power.

Values discrepancy between self and society

Figure 1: Values discrepancy in Cardiff University students, n = 45 (Bernard et al. 2006). Key: ST = Self-transcendence, CO = Conservation, SE = Self-enhancement, OC = Openness to Change

Indeed, we’d be forgiven for thinking that society values these things highly, as they are strongly endorsed by many institutions and people in power. The media deem economic growth so important that quarterly reports for Marks and Spencers qualify as news; more column inches describe what politicians wear than their actual policies; and zero-hour contracts that disrespect workers, encourage competition and enshrine existing inequalities give us all less job security.

In the same way that Homo Economicus (the rational, selfish actor) is the story of human nature at the heart of our economic system, frames based on values like competition, power and wealth are increasingly seen as valid – and often more valid – than frames based on compassion. We can see it in our education system for a start: most parents want their kids to turn out to be rounded, ethical beings that do good in the world, but most kids think their parents care more about their academic achievements than anything else. They’d be forgiven for thinking that, given the values of performance, competition and success that schools, teachers (and, often, parents) actually encourage.

So if, as the evidence suggests, the discrepancy is wide between our values and the values we perceive in society, then it’s likely that many of us feel alienated too.

Alienation carries psychological consequences. Researchers in the US and in Iran have found that that culturally estranged people have lower self-esteem, life satisfaction and sense of meaning in life (Cozzarelli & Karafa, 1998; Joshanloo, 2010), and a research team in Britain has linked estrangement to higher levels of anxiety and depression (Bernard et al., 2006).

It all sounds pretty bleak. But alienation works in mysterious ways. The same UK researchers found that culturally estranged people weren’t anxious or depressed if they felt like they shared values and outlook with friends and family. In other words, they were ‘shielded’ by their immediate community. We seem to see this in activist communities: alienated people that are part of a strong subculture or group can feel very happy and satisfied with life. No real surprises there. For some people, particularly activists, feeling alienated provides the motivation to react against the very injustice and political inequality that alienation breeds.

The campaign for Scottish independence can be understood as a story of alienation from Westminster politics, and that is how it was picked up by some of the press (e.g. here and here). The Yes campaign reflected this with its strong rhetoric of asserting values and visions that weren’t shared south of the border.

UKIP has a similar creation story, its success feeding off voters’ widespread alienation from a political system they find unrepresentative and untrustworthy. It’s an impressive feat, given that its leader is a public-school-educated banker sharing values and opinions with many in Westminster. Stories about alienation are constantly retold in politics, whenever a party manages to capture the public imagination with the promise – honest or otherwise – to deliver greater representation. But alienation doesn’t always manifest this way. The riots of 2011, though described by many as gratuitous and opportunistic, can also be understood as symptomatic of profound alienation. The targets of the lootings – phones, shoes, laptops – reflected the values and expectations that a consumer society has forcibly thrust on young people. If consumerism is the antithesis of belonging to a group, then disconnection breeds consumption and consumption breeds alienation. Unicef and Ipsos Mori summed this up in a research project that concluded that children were ‘trapped in a materialistic culture‘, calling on the UK government to back the living wage, protect public spending on children’s outdoor play areas and ban television advertising to the under 12s.

There’s a recent ad that illustrates the alienating effects of consumer culture quite nicely, O2’s #whywaitnominate campaign. It encourages people to take to twitter to highlight the embarrassingly out of date phones of their friends so that they might have a chance of winning an upgrade. This public shaming aspect is a declaration of social norms around consumption, status and appearance. The ‘reward’ (for a lucky individual) is a gadget that supposedly elevates their status in the eyes of their peers, at least until the next upgrade is available. It has nothing to do with friendship or belonging, and everything to do with social norms that alienate.


Shaming your friends with the #WhyWaitNominate campaign

So, ‘alienation’ shouldn’t be a dirty word. Although it’s a loaded term, it’s still a useful one. If we come to understand the world through values that do not represent us, allow our participation or require our activity, this can have unpredictable results. It throws down the gauntlet to political parties to try and persuade an increasingly sceptical public that they can offer an alternative. And it affects our personal motivations in different ways, more often than not leaving us apathetic and disconnected from politics.

We can fight alienation by building our institutions and civic structures in our own image, to meet our social values and needs. We can form communities that share our values, support and nourish us. But, perhaps more importantly, we can fight for our values to be echoed outside of our communities, in our wider civic institutions: our education system, media and politics.

The naming and recognition of widespread alienation should be taken not so much as a condemnation of our system, but as an affirmation of faith in humanity. To borrow a line from Jimmy again:

“All that is good in our heritage involves recognition of our common humanity, an unashamed acknowledgement that we are good by nature.”

The successful restructuring of our society must start with this acknowledgement.

Bec SandersonWe need to talk about ‘alienation’


Join the conversation
  • Jo Chamberlain - November 27, 2014 reply

    A great read – I think the idea of alienation as some kind of cognitive dissonance with society works, and understand that if you are in a group which shares your values you can be very happy with your “alienation”.
    But on this analysis, most people are alienated from society. This doesn’t quite add up. If we’re all alienated, then we’re not alienated – we agree with each other. Why don’t we rise up against the consumerist values we are railing against inside? (I ask myself this question on an almost daily basis!) Or are we all quashed by the media, business and Westminster, brow beaten to accept our lot, or deceived into believing we are the only ones who feel this way?
    Do we really value the self-transcendent and openness to change values? What makes me ask is the example about parents and schools. Parents say they want their children to be well rounded, ethical citizens, but then choose schools on the basis of their exam results…
    Really, what I’m asking is, if we feel so at odds with the kind of society being pushed at us, why hasn’t the revolution already started?

    Bec Sanderson - December 5, 2014 reply

    Good questions, I wish I knew the answers! Two plausible ideas spring to mind – one is that alienation doesn’t necessarily motivate us to rage against the machine; we are probably more prone to taking the path of least resistance. If we’re being asked to interact with institutions as a consumer rather than a citizen (take university education or railway travel for example) and we know the rules of those consumer interactions, then it is quite easy to go along with that, rather than break the rules.

    The second is that alienation doesn’t necessarily bind people together. It may do in some cases (I cited activist communities as a lazy example of that), but I think we have another social problem you could call ‘atomisation’, which is the tendency to respond to social problems as individuals rather than in groups. I think we can very easily feel alienated in our alienation (even if everyone’s in the same boat).

    This isn’t a very positive response, I’m sorry, but I guess I see alienation being only one important part of the puzzle, and we need to address it with a full-on recongfiguration of values in our cultural institutions, which involves a systematic take down of consumer framing in places it doesn’t belong, and growing recognition and support for alienated people within our smaller communities.

    There is utility in naming the problem ‘alienation’ I think, because it expresses the need for us (people and organisations across all sectors and in all levels of power) to model our society in the image of our own values by whatever means we can.

  • Seb Rattansen - December 1, 2014 reply

    That O2 campaign is terrible! Thanks for the article, very interesting.

  • Roger Hicks - December 15, 2014 reply

    Alienation is a consequence of society’s perverted Darwinian nature, which goes unrecognised because of the taboo against viewing human societies from a human-evolutionary, i.e. Darwinian perspective (see my blog on The Perverted Darwinian Nature of the State and Civilisation itself.

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