Depression as a social phenomenon: Alienation and apathy
Professor II, Sociology, Deree-The American College of Greece

Colloquium of “Encephalos” Association
May 13 2011

Depression can be studied from many viewpoints. The present paper approaches the understanding of depression as a social phenomenon and not as an individual condition. Traditionally, Sociology refers to such issues through the examination of alienation. One of the consequences of alienation is apathy. As such, the use of civic apathy is suggested as the quantifiable characteristic representing depression from a societal point of view. The paper begins with a review of the use of these concepts as well as a reference to the social context that defines them. Following, the paper connects the concepts of civic apathy and alienation. In conclusion, the increase of apathy marks a higher level of alienation and, by extension, depression. The paper closes with suggestions for quantification of these arguments. Encephalos 2011, 48(4):143-145.

Key words: Alienation, apathy, participation, depression.


Many opinions and attempts for explanation are written or voiced lately concerning the crisis that is infesting Greek society like a plague. One of the effects of this crisis is the significant increase in depression. This connection is well documented in the bibliography (Giotakos, 2010, Kyriopoulos & Tsiantou, 2011). There are others in this colloquium with higher expertise than me to talk about depression as a psychiatric phenomenon on an individual basis. My position here as a sociologist is to refer to depression as a social phenomenon and relate to its social consequences.

As such we have to set the context of this presentation to a societal level. I will start with an evaluative critical reference to the use of the word “crisis.” I will continue arguing that “crisis” in the way it is presented and experienced under the present conditions leads deterministically to the alienation of social groups. This is the most important and dangerous consequence at the societal level of the present conditions. The ways that alienation makes itself appear are many. This presentation refers to only one: political apathy and indifference towards public issues. Therefore, this presentation supports that the apathy that we notice is a result of alienation.

Society and crisis

The story of a crisis cannot be written in one or two years after its beginning. A long time has to pass by for social scientists to record and explain with a dispassionate eye the causes and effects of what today we call crisis. Crises do not appear out of nowhere. They are the results of interactions through complex social structures. The researcher of this issue is called to interpret the conditions leading to such a situation so to understand the dynamics of a crisis.

Additionally, the term “crisis” is problematic because it is value laden. (Becker, 1967, Weber, 1958). If we define something as a crisis, we are automatically introducing a personal element: the extent to which it affects us personally and, accordingly the importance or definition we give to it. This refers to another dimension: is what we are going through a crisis? The answer depends on the person. Definitely, it is a change that is experienced in a massive way by virtually everybody in society. So, I am asking for the permission to call this condition not a crisis, but utilize a more dynamic term: social change.

The specific period of social changes that we are going through is not an economic crisis. It is presented and described as such by the Mass Media. Actually, it is a deeply societal challenge that is experienced as an economic crisis. What we are experiencing today is what science calls a paradigm shift. (Kuhn, 1996). These paradigm shifts were always taking place and are structural components of social change. Let us consider the 1960s, a decade that brought serious challenges to the status quo, through constant questioning of very powerful institutions. Political, military, and racial practices that were taken for granted for decades were challenged. We do not need to go very far back in time. The beginnings of the decade of the 1990s brought the open challenge of communism in its application to Easter Europe, through an abrupt and sometimes violent paradigm shift which had huge political, cultural and economic changes that we are still experiencing today.

Alienation as a social phenomenon

The situation today is probably the most serious challenge of capitalism as a social and economic system. It essentially results in a massive critique of globalization. This critique is socially meaningful and extremely difficult. Individual persons as well as whole social groups accept that the economic system is too large and too powerful to receive a serious blow from the critique against it. Consequently, an increasing number of social groups are giving up the attempt and remain passive, accepting the futility of the effort. This is the onset of alienation. Karl Marx described first this term as “powerlessness due to isolation” (Blauner, 1964). Illustrations of this alienation is the increase in the number of suicides (Wenz, 1979), the increasing personal and social isolation and the changes in the work environment that tend to isolate the workers (Waring, 1991).

These illustrations converge to the following practical and substantive outcome: the workers are alienated from the ones around them. They work to maintain themselves and their families, not because they draw satisfaction from their labor. This takes the form of a selfish search, increasingly distancing itself from the quest of the benefit for the wider community. This selfishness takes on an increasingly important role in comparison to the interest for the social group or community. The result is a discrepancy that leads to alienation from the colleagues and comrades. (Macionis, 2008:100).

The determination of the human being as a being without meaning is another dimension of alienation. This relates to a condition where the individual is unable to control the results of his/her actions at the personal level. Consequently, the person is accepting that more powerful, external factors determine any development at a societal or individual level. This acceptance of an external locus of control results in even higher level of alienation and in the following feeling: “whatever I do it does not count, since others decide.” Consequently, the individual loses the meaning of his/her autonomous existence and enters a routine of spiral downfall (Seeman, 1959).

Increasingly larger social groups have difficulties to see their existence as an inseparable piece of a larger society. On the contrary, they determine themselves as distinct groups which are not connected in any way with their social surrounding. As a result, the lose the meaning of participation. One such example of loss of meaning is civic apathy.

Civic apathy

The understanding of depression as a social phenomenon and not as an individual condition through the increase of alienation, requires finding a quantifiable measure. This presentation suggests that one such measure is civic apathy.

Very much like a patient diagnosed with depression loses interest for various activities, the same way a social group may withdraw from active participation and leaves itself to whatever development which it does not control. The non-participation in civic affairs can be a conscious or unconscious decision. In any case, it is a sign of social pathology and not a lack of personal character. Based on the above, it is expected to notice an increase in the apathy levels towards civic affairs today.

The above constitutes a paradox. During times of economic pressures, the expectation is that citizens turn against the political system. Up to a certain point this has been done. But, eventually, the fear of the unknown and the feeling of powerlessness connected to it result in eventual inactivity. This inactivity is the civic apathy due to the increasing alienation. Therefore, since there are increasing levels of alienation, we will notice higher levels of apathy. This is unfortunate and predicts bleak developments in the future.

As Paul Wellstone, a Senator of the USA said: “When many Americans do not vote and do not participate, some see apathy and despair. I see disappointment and anger.”


According to the theory, alienation in the form of apathy does exist and possibly it is increasing from one generation to the next. In connection to this, the presentation is pointing to two important conclusions: Firstly, any expression of apathy is mainly a sign of social depression and not individual depression. Secondly, if we quantify alienation as apathy, it helps us understand social changes better. Helping us along the way is Sociology and the sociological approach in the challenging times we are going through.

There is still a need to conduct empirical research that will focus on the understanding of this connection as it may apply to different groups in the population.


Becker, Howard. 1967. “Whose Side Are We On?” Social Problems, 14:239-247.

Blauner, Robert. 1964. Alienation and Freedom: The Factory Worker and His Industry. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Giotakos, O., 2010. “Economic Crisis and Psychological Health.” Psychiatriki, 21(3):195-204.

Kuhn, Thomas. 1996. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kyriopoulos, G. and V. Tsiantou. 2011. “The Financial Crisis and its Impact on Health and medical Care.” Archives of Hellenic Medicine, 27(5):834-840.

Macionis, John J. 2008. Sociology. London: Pearson Education.

Seeman, Melvin. 1959. “On the Meaning of Alienation.” American Sociological Review, 24:783-791.

Waring, Stephen. 1991. Taylorism Transformed: Scientific Management Theory Since 1945. Charlotte, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press.

Weber, Max. 1958. From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. Edited by H.H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills. London: Oxford University Press.

Wenz, Friedrich V. 1979. “Sociological Correlates of Alienation Among Adolescent Suicide Attempts.” Adolescence, 14(53):19-30