division of labour

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division of labour

  1. the process whereby productive tasks become separated and more specialized. As used by the early classical economists such as Adam SMITH (1776), the term describes a specialization in workshops and the factory system, and explains the advantages accruing in terms of the increased efficiency and productivity of these new arrangements. In economic theory, the division of labour also gave rise to increased trade and exchange of goods and services based upon the ‘law of comparative advantage’ (see INTERNATIONAL TRADE). In sociology, specialization of productive tasks is seen as incorporating much more than economic efficiency in the narrow sense, and comprises a technical division of labour consisting of the subdivision of work tasks, hierarchies of skill and a structure of power and authority revealed in the relations between management and workers within the enterprise (see SCIENTIFIC MANAGEMENT, LABOUR PROCESS).
  2. the process of occupational specialization in society as a whole, and the separation of social life into different activities and institutions such as the family, the state and the economy, denoted by the term social division of labour. In the writings of evolutionary sociologists such as DURKHEIM or PARSONS, the concept is indistinguishable from SOCIAL DIFFERENTIATION (see also EVOLUTIONARY THEORY). Sociological analysis of occupational specialization may refer to divisions within a society (see CLASS, LOCAL LABOUR MARKETS), sectoral patterns of employment (e.g. agriculture, manufacturing and services), and also to the concentration of particular occupations or productive tasks in Third World or advanced capitalist societies respectively (see INTERNATIONAL DIVISION OF LABOUR, UNEVEN DEVELOPMENT, WORLD SYSTEM).
The effects of both the social and technical divisions of labour figure centrally in theories of social stratification. In recent years, attention has focused not only upon class differences but also upon ethnic divisions, especially the gendered nature of jobs in the labour market, the separation of the PRIVATE AND PUBLIC SPHERES and the division of labour in the household (see SEXUAL DIVISION OF LABOUR, PATRIARCHY, DOMESTIC LABOUR, DUAL LABOUR MARKET). Thus, it is possible to talk of divisions of labour in the plural to include reproduction as well as production and the relation between commodity and non-commodity production.

DURKHEIM (1893) produced one of the most influential texts on the social division of labour. Developing an evolutionary theory of social change, he contrasts primitive and modern societies. The former are characterized by a low division of labour, a segmentary structure and a strong collective consciousness, or ‘mechanical solidarity’, as the basis of social order; modern societies exhibit a differentiated structure, greater individual consciousness and ‘organic solidarity’ (increased interdependence between the parts of society) (see MECHANICAL AND ORGANIC SOLIDARITY). It is the division of labour itself which functions to promote organic solidarity, based upon both the awareness of individuality fostered by specialization, and the corresponding dependence upon others. Thus Durkheim emphasized the social, and hence moral, functions of the division of labour, in opposition to Spencer and UTILITARIANISM which focused upon the individual pursuit of self-interest in a division of labour regulated only by contract. However, Durkheim was aware that organic solidarity was imperfectly realized in modern societies and he therefore postulated abnormal forms of the division of labour: the anomic division of labour and the forced division of labour. The former refers to situations in which the division of labour is not matched by appropriate forms of moral regulation (see ANOMIE), and the latter to coercive forms of the division of labour in which class conflict and inherited wealth prevent people from occupying positions appropriate to their natural abilities.

MARX's analysis of the division of labour contrasts markedly with that of Durkheim. Whereas Durkheim saw the solution to anomie as residing in the full development of an appropriately regulated division of labour, Marx linked the development of the division of labour to the emergence of private property, class divisions, exploitation and ALIENATION.

Under capitalism, the division of labour in machinofacture involves the progressive separation of mental from manual labour, and the subordination of labour to the requirements of commodity production. Marx traces the development of the division of labour through successive social epochs, involving the separation of towns from the countryside, the state from civil society, and industry from commerce, culminating in the extreme fragmentation of work in capitalist production. At the same time, the contradictory nature of capitalism is apparent in the capacity for increased wealth, and the need for economic cooperation in the division of labour which prefigures the eventual transcendence of capitalism by socialism. In The German Ideology, Marx envisages the abolition of the division of labour under socialism, along with the abolition of classes and private property. However, in his later works, reference is made to the continuation of a ‘realm of necessity in which a form of division of labour will continue to exist, but will be one without alienation or forced specialization.

Marx's critical analysis of the division of labour in the production process has been revived in recent years by interest in the labour process – particularly in the work of Braverman (1974). Labour process theory has focused upon the development of managerial control through the use of scientific management, mechanization and automation, in which labour is increasingly fragmented and deskilled (see DESKILLING).

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
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