Practice Question: Identify the similarities and differences between Marx’s theory of ‘alienation’ and Durkheim’s theory of ‘anomie’.(20 marks) (UPSC 2014)

Approach: Introduction; Explain Alienation and Anomie, Compare and contrast the two; Conclusion.




The general idea of alienation is simple: something is alienating when what is (or should be) familiar and connected comes to seem foreign or disconnected. Because our species-being is our essence as human beings, it should be something that is familiar. To the extent that we are unable to act in accordance with our species-being, we become disconnected from our own nature. So if work in a capitalist society inhibits the realization of our species-being, then work is to that extent alienating. And since we are being alienated from our own nature, alienation is not merely a subjective feeling, but is about an objective reality.



Theory of Surplus Value

The wage covers only what is needed to maintain the labourer, his value. But what he produces is more than that. The difference is called the surplus-value. The capitalist appropriates the surplus. The capitalist tries to increase the rate of surplus value, which can be achieved in two ways: absolute and relative surplus value. Absolute surplus value is produced by “prolongation of the working day”. By such prolongation the time of surplus-labor is expanded. This method is especially applied in the earlier stages of capitalism. We find it still in the unorganised sector of industry in India.



1. First the workers alienation from the object that he produces.

2. Secondly alienation from the process of production.

3. Thirdly alienation from himself.

4. Fourthly alienation from their fellow workers. 

For Marx, “the history of mankind is not only the history of class struggle but also the increasing alienation of man”. The notion of alienation is central to Marxian thought. According to Marx, “Alienation appears not merely in the result but also in the process of production; within productive activity itself.  If the product of Labour is alienation, production itself must be active alienation. the alienation of the object of Labour merely summarizes the alienation in the work activity itself.” For Marx, the essence of human nature, what singles out humans from other aspects is their capacity to control their own environment by creative activity; they can work out a conception of what they wish to create and then put this into practice. Humans express their humanity in and through work. However says Marx, work can be the expression of human intellect and creative capacity, unless it is alienated by being either concerned with mere survival or organized in such a way that work is debarred and made into a burden. The conditions for true humanity are therefore the conditions which abolish alienated labour. The source of this alienation, Marx finds in the structure and social relations of production under capitalism.



Marx misjudged and even exaggerated the extent of alienation of the average worker. Abraham and Morgan write, “The great depth of alienation and frustration which Marx “witnessed” among the workers of his day is not typical of today’s capitalism or its worker.” Further, the workers tend to identify themselves not entirely and only with their working class group, but also with a number of meaningful groups-religious, ethnic, caste, occupational and local. This does not mean that alienation does not exist in the modern capitalist societies. It could rather be said that alienation results more from the structure of bureaucracy, and of mass society than from economic exploitation.





Anomie is a social condition in which there is a disintegration or disappearance of the norms and values that were previously common to the society. The concept, thought of as “normlessness,” was developed by the founding sociologist, Émile Durkheim. He discovered, through research, that anomie occurs during and follows periods of drastic and rapid changes to the social, economic, or political structures of society. It is, per Durkheim’s view, a transition phase wherein the values and norms common during one period are no longer valid, but new ones have not yet evolved to take their place.

Durkheim further elaborated his concept of anomie in his 1897 book, Suicide: A Study in Sociology. He identified anomic suicide as a form of taking one’s life that is motivated by the experience of anomie. Durkheim found, through a study of suicide rates of Protestants and Catholics in nineteenth-century Europe, that the suicide rate was higher among Protestants. Understanding the different values of the two forms of Christianity, Durkheim theorized that this occurred because Protestant culture placed a higher value on individualism. This made Protestants less likely to develop close communal ties that might sustain them during times of emotional distress, which in turn made them more susceptible to suicide. Conversely, he reasoned that belonging to the Catholic faith provided greater social control and cohesion to a community, which would decrease the risk of anomie and anomic suicide. The sociological implication is that strong social ties help people and groups survive periods of change and tumult in society.
Today, Durkheim’s work is also useful to sociologists who rely on his concept of anomie to study the way violence often crops up—whether to the self or others—in the midst of societal change. This concept refers to how societal change, or the perception of it, can cause one to feel disconnected from society given changes in norms, values, and expectations, and how this can cause both psychic and material chaos. In a related vein, Durkheim’s legacy also helps explain why disrupting everyday norms and routines with protest is an important way of raising awareness of issues and of building movements around them. 


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