Academic journal article
By LaCourse, Eric; Villeneuve, Martine; Claes, Michel
Adolescence , Vol. 38, No. 152
Throughout the 20th century, the concept of alienation has received substantial attention in the social sciences. Since its introduction by Hegel and Marx, this concept has been defined in a variety of ways that reflect the various disciplines and specific views of researchers who study it. Alienation research peaked during the 1970s and has received declining attention until recently. Many have criticized this concept as being too broadly used to describe nearly any kind of aberrant behavior, ranging from political manifestations to psychopathology (Mackey & Ahlgren, 1977; Israel, 1972; Williamson & Cullingford, 1997). Nonetheless, there has been a recent upsurge of interest in applying the concept to adolescents' experiences, most specifically their scholastic experience (Arnett, 1996; Dean, 1961; Mackey & Ahlgren, 1977; Mau, 1992; Roberts, 1987; Williamson & Cullingford, 1997, 1998). Theoretical and measurement issues still need to be clarified; in the present study we will try to gain a better understanding of the empirical definition of alienation and its manifestations in adolescent boys and girls.
The debates surrounding the concept of alienation are numerous and raise important questions. For example, is it a state, a trait, or a self-regulating process? Is it unidimensional or multidimensional? During the past 40 years, empirical studies have tried to determine the psychological manifestations of alienation, mostly in adults but also in adolescents (Dean, 1961; Mackey & Ahlgren, 1977; Mau 1992; Roberts, 1987; Williamson & Cullingford, 1998). In psychological and educational studies, for instance, adolescent alienation has been correlated with externalized behaviors such as drug use (Jessor & Jessor, 1977), truancy, delinquency (Williamson & Cullingford, 1998; Calabrese, 1990), and suicide (Wenz, 1979; Young, 1985). It also has been associated with internalized problems such as low self-esteem (Williamson & Cullingford, 1998), psychological distress, and depression (Abdallah, 1997). Arnett (1996) viewed adolescents' preference for heavy metal music as being related to alienation. Unfortunately, few of these studies offered an adequate empirical definition of alienation before integrating the concept into their statistical models.
Seeman (1959) undertook one of the first studies in social psychology that aimed to clarify the traditionally sociological concept of alienation by examining its multidimensionality. He identified five dimensions: self-estrangement, powerlessness, social isolation, meaninglessness, and normlessness. Subsequently, he added a sixth, cultural estrangement (Seeman, 1972). From Seeman's (1983) perspective, alienation manifests itself through these different dimensions. More recently, Seeman (1991) suggested that normlessness and meaninglessness are manifestations of anomie rather than of alienation. Although Seeman's work has been highly influential, the logical relations between dimensions remain unclear, which may undermine the cohesiveness of alienation as a global concept (Israel, 1972; Roberts, 1987).
Seeman's (1959) original five dimensions were slightly modified by Mackey and Ahlgren (1977) and Mau (1992), and applied to adolescent populations in school contexts. They can be described as follows. Self-estrangement has its roots in classical philosophy and taps humanistic ideas mostly related to a discrepancy between actual and idealized self. This dimension manifests itself in adolescents who have low self-esteem and feel bored with life, in which they perceive no purpose. Powerlessness reflects fatalism, pessimism, and a perception of losing control over one's own life. This dimension is similar to the psychological notion of external locus of control. Social isolation is salient to youths who perceive a lack of intimate relationships, such as with friends, thus leading to a feeling of loneliness. Normlessness can be defined as a belief that socially disapproved behaviors may be used to achieve culturally defined goals. …