Secondary Students' Perceptions of School Life with Regard to Alienation: The Effects of Disability, Gender and Race

By Brown, Monica R.; Higgins, Kyle et al. | Learning Disability Quarterly, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview
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Secondary Students' Perceptions of School Life with Regard to Alienation: The Effects of Disability, Gender and Race

Brown, Monica R., Higgins, Kyle, Pierce, Tom, Hong, Eunsook, Thoma, Colleen, Learning Disability Quarterly

Abstract. Student alienation is a major cause of dropping out of school, gang activity and poor peer, school-student, and teacher-student relationships. A considerable amount of research has focused on factors that distinguish between students who are engaged in the learning process and those who are not. This study examined the relationship between students and their perceptions of school life. A survey was distributed to over 200 students at two high schools in a large, urban school district in the southern United States. Results suggest that gender, race/ethnicity, and placement in special education are all strong factors in influencing whether students perceive school and/or life in general as alienating. The limitations of the study as well as future research directions and implications for practice are discussed.


Bronfenbrenner (1986) described alienation as a lack of sense of belonging, feeling cut off from family, friends, or school. It is the inability of adolescents to connect meaningfully with other people. It is the feeling of aloneness, a feeling that no one is like them, and that they are not what others want them to be (Mackey & Appleman, 1984). Many things in an adolescent's life can trigger these feelings (e.g., changes in family structure, increased mobility of society, decreased family stability, dehumanization of the adolescent). The advent of computers and other technologies has also drawn many adolescents into a state of isolation.

Alienation is viewed as a negative aspect of an adolescent's life, associated with behaviors such as (a) violence (Ascher, 1982; Staples, 2000); (b) gang membership (Calabrese & Noboa, 1995; Shoho, 1996; Shoho & Petrisky, 1996); (c) school failure (Mau, 1989, 1992); and dropping out of school (Calabrese & Poe, 1990; Valverde, 1987; Whaley & Stayer, 1998). While alienation affects adolescents in their home and social life, it is the potential effects on their education that this study is most concerned with.

The construct of alienation has evolved through Christian doctrine, philosophical thought, contemporary sociology, and social psychology over the past 160 years (Trusty & Dooley-Dickey, 1993). Social scientists have attempted to understand the concept since the late 1950s.

In the educational literature, the models of alienation used most often are those of Seeman (1959) and Dean (1961). Seeman's model consists of five distinct categories, including powerlessness, meaninglessness, normlessness, isolationism, and self-estrangement. Dean combined isolationism and self-estrangement from Seeman's model to form four categories (e.g., powerlessness, meaninglessness, normlessness, social estrangement).

Since the 1950s, researchers (Calabrese, 1987; Clark, 1959; Horton & Thompson, 1962; Mackey, 1975; Olsen, 1969; Shoho & Petrisky, 1996) have added to and taken from the categories used by Seeman and Dean. Although many scholars have discussed constructs/categories that are loosely grouped together as alienation, few attempts have been made to measure it. Currently, powerlessness, normlessness, estrangement, and meaninglessness are the constructs most associated with alienation and are the constructs examined in this study. Table 1 includes a brief definition of each construct as well as sample items from the questionnaire used in this study. Each of the constructs will be briefly discussed below (the Student Factors Questionnaire).


Individuals who feel powerless see themselves as having no control over events in their life (Dean, 1961). Often students who feel powerless are easily manipulated and used by others (i.e., peers) because of their feeling of helplessness to control the events in their lives or the outcome of events in their social system (Fetco, 1985; Silverman, Lucas, & Gear, 1970). They feel as if others are using them, and they live in constant threat of having their lives affected by forces over which they have no control (Fetco, 1985).

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Secondary Students' Perceptions of School Life with Regard to Alienation: The Effects of Disability, Gender and Race


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