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A glossary for the social epidemiology of work organisation: part 2 Terms from the sociology of work and organisations
  1. C Muntaner1,
  2. J Benach2,
  3. W C Hadden3,
  4. D Gimeno4,
  5. F G Benavides2
  1. 1Social Equity and Health Section, Center for Addiction and Mental Health University of Toronto, Ontario, Canada
  2. 2Occupational Health Research Unit, Department of Experimental and Health Sciences, Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona, Spain
  3. 3US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics, Hyattsville, Maryland, USA
  4. 4International Institute for Society and Health, Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, University College London, London, UK
  1. Correspondence to:
 C Muntaner
 CAMH, Social Equity and Health Section, 250 College Street, Toronto, Ontario M5T 1SS, Canada; carles_muntaner{at}

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This is the second part of a three-part glossary of terms from the social epidemiology of work organization. The first part presented terms related to the social psychology of work.1 The third part will describe terms from the sociology of labour markets.2 The concepts in this glossary have been drawn mainly from the sociology of organisations, business and management literatures. Most of the concepts deal with how work organisations are structured and the consequences such structures pose to the health of workers.


The term “alienation” is derived from the Marxian concept that work is central to the well-being of all people. When Marx perceived that, under the conditions of nascent capitalism, workers were being de-skilled and psychologically disinvested in their work, he described them as being alienated.3

In the narrowest sense, the term describes the relationship between the worker and her work. However, the concept may more broadly be applied to the self and others.

Two elements are pertinent to the definition of alienation from work. Firstly, there is a structural condition where the identity of workers is submerged in the overall division of labour and the individual is deprived of autonomy and opportunity. The second element involves workers’ individual and collective responses to such conditions. Workers can internalise their alienation and develop various forms of mental and physical suffering. In investigating this response, Seeman4 developed scales to measure individual feelings of alienation along the dimensions of powerlessness, meaninglessness, normlessness, isolation and self-estrangement. But workers can also express their disaffection through various forms of resistance, protest or withdrawal, and work alienation can be moderated or ameliorated through several strategies both at work and in outside activities.5


Autonomy refers to personal liberty that allows people to determine their own courses of action. The degree of autonomy …

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  • Funding: Study partly funded by Red de Centros de Investigación de Epidemiología y Salud Pública, Barcelona, Spain

  • Competing interests: None declared.

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