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Social Sci LibreTexts

4.5I: The Division of Labor

  • Page ID
    7996
  • Division of labor is the specialization of cooperative labor in specific, circumscribed tasks and similar roles.

    Learning Objectives

    • Interpret Durkheim’s division of labor theory in terms of mechanical and organic solidarity, as well as progression from primitive to advanced societies

    Key Points

    • An increasingly complex division of labor is historically closely associated with the growth of total output and trade, the rise of capitalism, and of the complexity of industrialization processes.
    • Durkheim classified societies as primitive or advanced based on their division of labor.
    • According to Durkheim, in primitive societies where there is little or no division of labor, people act and think alike with a collective conscience. In advanced societies with high division of labor, social ties are relatively homogeneous and weak.
    • Labor hierarchy is a very common feature of the modern workplace structure.
    • It is often agreed that the most equitable principle in allocating people within hierarchies is that of true competency or ability. This important Western concept of meritocracy could be interpreted as an explanation or as a justification of why a division of labor is the way it is.

    Key Terms

    • industrialization: A process of social and economic change whereby a human society is transformed from a pre-industrial to an industrial state
    • meritocracy: Rule by merit, and talent. By extension, now often used to describe a type of society where wealth, income, and social status are assigned through competition.
    • labor hierarchy: Labor hierarchy is a very common feature of the modern workplace structure, but of course the way these hierarchies are structured can be influenced by a variety of different factors.

    Division of labor is the specialization of cooperative labor in specific, circumscribed tasks and roles. Historically, an increasingly complex division of labor is closely associated with the growth of total output and trade, the rise of capitalism, and of the complexity of industrialization processes. Division of labor was also a method used by the Sumerians to categorize different jobs and divide them between skilled members of a society.

    Emilie Durkheim was a driving force in developing the theory of the division of labor in socialization. In his dissertation, Durkheim described how societies maintained social order based on two very different forms of solidarity (mechanical and organic), and analyzed the transition from more “primitive” societies to advanced industrial societies.

    Durkheim suggested that in a “primitive” society, mechanical solidarity, with people acting and thinking alike and sharing a collective or common conscience, allows social order to be maintained. In such a society, Durkheim viewed crime as an act that “offends strong and defined states of the collective conscience”. Because social ties were relatively homogeneous and weak throughout society, the law had to be repressive and penal, to respond to offenses of the common conscience.

    In an advanced, industrial, capitalist society, the complex division of labor means that people are allocated in society according to merit and rewarded accordingly; social inequality reflects natural inequality. Durkheim argued that in this type of society moral regulation was needed to maintain order (or organic solidarity). He thought that transition of a society from “primitive” to advanced may bring about major disorder, crisis, and anomie. However, once society has reached the “advanced” stage, it becomes much stronger and is done developing.

    In the modern world, those specialists most preoccupied with theorizing about the division of labor are those involved in management and organization. In view of the global extremes of the division of labor, the question is often raised about what manner of division of labor would be ideal, most efficient, and most just. It is widely accepted that the division of labor is to a great extent inevitable, simply because no one can perform all tasks at once. Labor hierarchy is a very common feature of the modern workplace structure, but the structure of these hierarchies can be influenced by a variety of factors.

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    Division of Labor: An assembly line is a good example of a system that incorporates the division of labor; each worker is completing a discrete task to increase efficiency of overall production.