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The state of being emotionally separated from others and from one's own feelings.

Compound of the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas. Feelings of alienation sometimes lead people to form small, close-knit groups such as cults. (AP/Wide World Photos. Reproduced with permission.)

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.

Further Reading

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

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaPsychological Dictionary: Abacus to Courage