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In the social sciences, alienation is generally applied to descriptions of (a) a state of mind; and (b) the conditions of workers in the capitalist system. In Kelly's theory, alienation is objectively generated. He interprets psychological alienation in terms of relationships, and can, furthermore, account for misconstruals of alienating social conditions by his explanation of constriction.

Writing on therapeutic uses of PCP, Kelly (1965, pp. 768-769) recommends that to help clients achieve change, psychologists should collect evidence as to whether the client is "incorporated" or "alienated" by others. The construct indicates that people are "incorporated" when others identify them as similar to themselves and are likely to give their constructions a favorable reception. People are alienated when located by associates in domains of daily living as different to the point of being strange. In Kelly's view, it is important for the psychologist to learn what groups of people are ready to accept the client as "somewhat like themselves", and in what areas the client is defined as "other". Such knowledge of the degree to which the client may be alienated provides clues as to the types of validation that a client may access as he reworks his construct system, and thus indicate paths of healing. A persistent failure of validation was found to present particular problems to depressives. Among clients who suffered from depression, Makhlouf-Norris and Norris (1973) found a particular form of alienation, "self-isolation". This was evidenced in clients' construals of themselves as objectively unlike others, and increasingly unlike their ideal selves. Invalidation of the self constitutes a form of alienation the sting of which may sometimes be blunted by the adoption of a "neurotic device" such as obsession-compulsion.
According to sociologists, social structures can also cause alienation. Although Kelly does not explore the social dimension of alienation, aspects of Personal Construct Theory shed light on how social conditions can impact construct systems. From Marx's analysis of industrialization, it can be deduced that the effects of the capitalist system on the quality of human life are necessarily alienating. Under this system, the owners of the means of production plan what will be produced and how; they also decide how the products will be disseminated. As a consequence, workers are estranged from their capacity for thinking and making decisions about their own behavior, and estranged from the social arrangements that make their labor useful. They are, in Marx's terms, estranged from their "species-being", from the crucial constituents of humanity. When social structure imposes alienation, however, there is no reason to conclude that people are aware of their circumstances, or that they construe their situation realistically. Indeed, research has shown that workers, who are objectively alienated, manage to function satisfactorily in the very frameworks (industrial and quasi-industrial) that create alienating conditions (Seeman, 1965; Willis, 1977). According to Personal Construct Theory, the research findings noted here lead to the hypothesis that laborers who are the victims of social alienation are unaware of their state because they resort to constriction - narrowing the "perceptual field in order to minimize apparent incompatibilities" (Kelly, 1965, p. 564). This type of misconstrual of one's objective socio-economic impasse discloses a flight from dealing with the irreconcilable conditions presented by alienation as surveyed by Seeman (1959): powerlessness, social isolation, self-estrangement, normlessness, and meaninglessness.
By contrast with the definitive plea to therapists to alleviate the alienation that is a consequence of a client's relations with others, or relations with one's self (as in "self-isolation"), it is ultimately a moot point whether or not the psychologist should help a client overcome the constriction that enables her to cope with the objective alienation consequent on social structure.  


  • Kelly, G. A. (1965) The psychology of personal constructs. Vol. 2. New York: W. W. Norton.
  • Makhlouf-Norris, F. & Norris, H. (1973) The obsessive compulsive syndrome as a neurotic device for the reduction of self-uncertainty. British Journal of Psychiatry, Vol. 122: 277-288.
  • Seeman, M. (1959) On the meaning of alienation. American Sociological Review, 24(6), pp. 783-791.
  • Seeman, M. (1965) On the personal consequences of alienation in work. American Sociological Review, 32(2), pp. 273-285.
  • Willis, P. (1977) Learning to labour: How working class kids get working class jobs. Westmead, Farmborough, UK: Saxon House.

Devorah Kalekin-Fishman

Establ. 2003
Last update: 15 February 2004