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Alienation in Marx’s Sociological Views Essay


The theme of alienation is the most significant in Marx’s sociological views (Wendling 1). In his works, the great philosopher and sociologist pays much attention to the issue of people’s place in society and their relationships within and with it. Marx believes that labor is what makes people human. As such, he considers that all people should be provided with conventional work norms so as to avoid alienation.

Marx defines alienated labor as the estrangement of workers from the product of their work (Wendling 13-14). Alienation, according to Marx, becomes possible in the society where people are divided into classes. A crucial concept in this relation is exploitation (Burawoy and Wright 471). In Marxist theory, exploitation is a complex issue that is aimed at creating a specific form of the interdependence of people’s material interests based on the following criteria:

  • the principle of inverse interdependent welfare;
  • the principle of exclusion;
  • the principle of appropriation (Burawoy and Wright 471).

The second principle is associated with the concept of alienated labor since this “inverse interdependence of welfare” is contingent on the prohibition of the exploited people’s access to particular productive resources (Burawoy and Wright 471). As a result, it is possible to remark that exploitation is a “diagnosis” of the process with the help of which the disparities in incomes are provoked by the disparities in powers and rights over productive resources.

A close interdependence between the exploiters and the exploited, according to Marx, makes exploitation a rather tense form of social connection. Firstly, exploitation establishes a social relation that puts in opposition the interests of two groups and demands their constant interactions. Secondly, it provides the exploited with the kind of power with which they can confront the concerns of the exploiters (Burawoy and Wright 471-472).

According to Marxist theory, such inequalities appear when the exploiters become able to confiscate the excessive results produced by the work of the exploited (Burawoy and Wright 471). The alienation from productive resources is one of the several kinds of alienation. The most typical alienation of labor occurs when people from lower social classes cannot afford to consume the products of their work.

According to Marx and Engels, labor division establishes the relationships between classes in terms of instrument, material, and product of their labor (43-44). In this relation, three forms of ownership are distinguished: tribal, communal, and feudal (Marx and Engels 44-46). In a relationship where one class of people is ruling, and the other has to obey the rules, alienation of labor is inevitable. An example of such process is people’s work at a factory in the times of industrial capitalism.

Most often, plant or factory employees were poor, and their work allowed them to satisfy only basic needs. Spending many hours doing strenuous work, such people had almost no pleasure from life, their major concern being the ability to provide for their families. Those employees did a monotonous job the product of which constituted a part of a large mechanism. The employers considered such workers not as creative individuals but as the elements of a huge scheme of gaining money.

The alienation of labor occurred when people could not afford to buy the final product of their work. Another serious implication of such work was that it alienated people from each other. Hard work depressed workers, and as a result, they had no time or desire to communicate with their families, their major wish being to have some rest before another tedious day at work.

Marx criticizes the alienation of labor by arguing that labor involves not only physical but also mental capacity. The sociologist considers the ability to produce ideas “the language of real life” (Marx and Engels 47). Therefore, he disapproves of the alienation by remarking that it deprives people of the possibility to be the masters of their own destiny. Marx emphasizes that every individual should have the right to self-realization and should be able to consume the products of their labor. Under the conditions of industrial capitalism, however, being autonomous individuals does not give people an opportunity to set their own goals and work towards reaching them.

Max Weber’s contribution to the development of sociology cannot be overestimated. Not only did he introduce the concept of legitimacy but he also differentiated between three types of social order, one of which – bureaucracy – is still widely discussed and analyzed (Sica 487-490). According to Weber, bureaucracy is an essential feature of industrial capitalism. Weber compares bureaucracy to machine and regards it as the counterpart of rational and scientific perspective (Weber 82). Weber remarks that for capitalism to be successful, it should be grounded on such criteria as calculability, control, efficiency, and predictability (82). As a result, the philosopher considers bureaucracy crucial for capitalism since it is able to increase productive capacity.

The bureaucratic order, as Weber defines it, is synonymous with legal order. In this order, rules and commands are issued by those who are in authority. Law applies these regulations to particular cases in order to reach the organization’s goals in a rational way. In Weber’s analysis of bureaucracy, office members should be obedient to their superiors not as people but as the embodiment of impersonal order (Weber 82-83).

In addition, incumbents are obliged to carry out only those commands that fall under their job description requirements. According to Weber, business relations are carried out in accordance with formal regulations. An important aspect of this system is hierarchy (Weber 84-85). Each lower rank of an office falls under the supervision and control of a higher rank. Also, every office has a defined sphere of activity and competence. What is more, Weber emphasizes the significance of employees’ qualifications and appropriate conduct in the office (Weber 85-86). A crucial component of the bureaucratic system is the protection of the employees.

The bureaucratic system has a number of benefits and limitations (Weber 82-87). The following advantages are outlined:

  • bureaucracy is based on the division of labor;
  • it is grounded in technical knowledge, which allows better accuracy, objectivity, and agility of administrative arrangement;
  • bureaucracy guarantees that the most suitable people are chosen for each post through hiring people in accordance with their expertise and experience;
  • it enables career growth in case an employee adheres to all regulations and demonstrates excellent performance;
  • bureaucracy gives an opportunity for personal responsibility;
  • it has the power to strengthen the process of social leveling;
  • bureaucracy provides a high level of stability;
  • it is the most adequate kind of administration (Weber 83-87).

However, along with a number of positive features, bureaucracy also has some disadvantages:

  • sometimes, the stability of a bureaucratic organization is too rigid, which disables the potential development; such a process is called bureaucratic inertia;
  • in the conditions of bureaucracy, the power is concentrated in the hands of a limited number of individuals who are at the top of the hierarchy;
  • bureaucratic organizations are not able to accommodate to the environmental changes quickly;
  • innovation and creativity are highly unlikely to occur in the bureaucratic organizations due to the concentration of power in the hands of one person;
  • bureaucracy discourages employees from taking risks and expressing individualism (Weber 83-87). However, despite these limitations, bureaucracy is valued for its discipline, stability, and opportunity to accomplish many tasks within a short period of time.

Weber’s model of bureaucracy is compared to some modern sociological paradigms. One of such principles is called McDonaldization (Hausbeck and Brents 102-103). In their article researching the bureaucratization of sex industries, Hausbeck and Brents compare McDonaldization to bureaucracy (102-117). McDonaldization is defined as the process by which the regulations of the fast-food restaurants are beginning to govern more and more domains not only of the American society but also of the whole world (Ritzer 4). Hausbeck and Brents remark the following features of the sex industry that may be correlated to McDonaldization:

  • sexual efficiency is detached from human spirituality and does not presuppose any long-term emotional attachment between the participants;
  • the organizations involved in the sex business have a high level of arrangement and are based on hierarchical structure (Hausbeck and Brents 103);
  • workplaces in the sex industries pay much attention to the efficiency of their employees;
  • the sex industry breaks its services into several components each of which suggests “maximum profitability” (Hausbeck and Brents 104);
  • at the same time, the services and foods are accessible to the customers (Hausbeck and Brents 104-105).

Therefore, Hausbeck and Brents demonstrate the connections between the sex industry and McDonaldization (102-117). In its turn, McDonaldization is considered to be a contemporary form of bureaucracy.

Works Cited

Burawoy, Michael, and Erik Olin Wright. “Sociological Marxism.” Handbook of Sociological Theory, edited by Jonathan H. Turner, Springer, 2006, pp. 459-486.

Hausbeck, Kathryn, and Barbara G. Brents. “McDonaldization of the Sex Industries? The Business of Sex.” McDonaldization: The Reader, 3rd ed., edited by George Ritzer, Pine Forge Press, 2010, pp. 102-117.

Marx, Karl, and Frederick Engels. The German Ideology. Edited by Christopher John Arthur, International Publishers, 2004.

Ritzer, George. “An Introduction to McDonaldization.” McDonaldization: The Reader, 3rd ed., edited by George Ritzer, Pine Forge Press, 2010, pp. 3-25.

Sica, Alan. “Weberian Theory Today: The Public Face.” Handbook of Sociological Theory, edited by Jonathan H. Turner, Springer, 2006, pp. 487-508.

Weber, Max. “Bureaucracy.” Social Theory: Roots and Branches, 4th ed., edited by Peter Kivisto, Oxford University Press, 2011, pp. 82-87.

Wendling, Amy E. Karl Marx on Technology and Alienation. Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

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IvyPanda. 2020. "Alienation in Marx's Sociological Views." December 25, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/alienation-in-marxs-sociological-views/.

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