Sociological Perspectives What is the significance of the division of labor for modern capitalism?


Division of labor is the specialization geared toward cooperating individuals who perform specific roles and tasks. The division of labor in the society is the doctoral dissertation authored by Emile Durkheim, who was a French sociologist.  This dissertation was published in the year 1893 and has had a great impact on advancing sociological thought and theories. The ideas in the dissertation influenced the works of Augusta Comte. Durkheim offered explications with respect to how social order was maintained in the societies (Durkheim, 1997). The explications underpinned on varied forms of solidarity which includes organic and mechanical, together with transition from more primitive societies to industrial societies which were more advanced. According to Durkheim, in a primitive society, which is characterized by mechanical solidarity form, people think and act in a similar manner. In this society, common or collective conscience allows social order to be maintained (Durkheim, 1997).

On the other hand, in an advanced, industrial capitalist society, division of labor is a complex issue. In such a society, there is no homogeneity. People are allocated in the society underpinning on merit. Lack of homogeneity is marked by social inequality which is a reflection of natural inequality. This is based on the assumption that that there is complete equity in the society. With respect to the postulations put forth by Durkheim, morel regulation was a requirement not just for maintenance of order or organic solidarity but also for economic regulation. This was to make certain that irrespective of the differences present in the society, people would be able to live peacefully (Durkheim, 1997). Division of labor has advanced over the years. The paper is going to explore the development of division of labor and its impact in the modern day society.

History of Division of Labor

As a consequence of the large amount of labor that was saved when workers were accorded specialized tasks during the period of Industrial Revolution, among those who were working in factories, some of the mechanical engineers and classical economists advocated for division of labor. Some of the proponents on division of labor included Charles Babbage. These proponents argues that is workers performed limited  or single tasks, the long time required to train craftsmen would be eliminated. During the time, craftsmen were in most cases replaced by more productive, less skilled add less paid worker (Sun, 2013). The rise of capitalism and the growth in the total output of trade, along with complexity of industrialized processes complicated division of labor. The implementation and the concept of division of labor were present in the Sumerian culture. In this society, the assigning of jobs in some of the cities coincided with the economic interdependence and escalation in trade. There was also escalation in the work productivity of the individual worker and the producer (Durkheim, 1997).

There is a difference between division of labor and division of work. As explicated earlier, the division of labor refers to specialization of cooperating individuals who carry out particular roles and tasks. On the other hand, division of labor refers to division of a large project, contract or task into more miniature tasks. Each of the smaller tasks usually has a distinct schedule that is embedded in the overall project schedule. Division of labor entails allocation of roles and tasks to people or organization based on their skills and equipment (Kaufman, 2004).  Division of labor is a component of the economic activity of an organization or an industrial country.

Theoretical Explications

In the capitalist society, different people came up with theories to elucidate and expound on division of labor.  The Republic described by Plato stipulated that in each of the states was based in the natural inequality of humanity. This aspect was also embodied in the division of labor. Irrespective of the fact that Plato identified the political and economic benefits of division of labor, he also criticized this form of economic arrangement. Subsequently, he pointed out that it thwarted an individual from commanding their own souls by enabling avaricious motives in place of reason and prudence. William Petty was the first modern writer to discuss the issue of division of labor. He tried to illuminate its importance and existence in the Dutch shipyards. Classically, the workers who worked on the shipyard worked as units.  They finished one ship prior to commencing work on another. Conversely, the Dutch arranged themselves in several teams. Each of the teams played a specific role by engaging in a similar task to ensure the success of ship building. Petty facilitated the application of the principle to his survey carried out in England.  His major intention was to split up work so that large chunks of tasks could be executed by people who had not gone through extensive training.

Another individual who contribute to the creation of division of labor was Adam Smith. Smith foresaw the significance of industrialism and establishing that division of labor was a representation of escalation of quality in productivity. Smith did not concur with Plat in the sense that Plato regarded the division of labor to be a determining factor for the level of specialization. On the other hand, Smith pointed out that the differences between a philosopher and a street porter was as a result of division of labor. Nevertheless, just like Plato, Smith also criticizes division of labor pointing out that it was degeneracy and corruption of the people (Ransome, 2010). However, concentration and specialization of workers on a single task makes them to nurture and develop their skills. They also advance their level of productivity on specific smaller tasks of the large task. The level of productivity and skill development cannot be attained by the same number of workers when they carry out the original broad task. Smith also elucidated the importance of aligning skills to equipment in the scenario of an organization (Ransome, 2010).

Karl Marx also contributed to the evolution of division of labor. In accordance to the arguments put forth by Karl Marx, escalation in specialization can lead to workers with poor skills. Moreover, the workers may lack enthusiasm in relation to their work. Marx referred to this process as alienation.  Accordingly, workers become more and more specialize and hence they engage in the same work from day to day. Hence, the work becomes repetitive leading to complete alienation from the process of production this leads depression both physically and spiritually (Fuchs, 2014). Thus, the worker is reduced to a machine. With reference to the postulations of Marx, division of labor leads to the development of workers with less skills. When workers become more specialized in the task, they require less training for each of the specific tasks. Subsequently, the overall workforce usually has fewer skills compared to when one worker carried out the entire job from the start to the end (Fuchs, 2014).

Marx also contributed to the theory by elaborating on the sharp distinction between social and economic division of labor. Accordingly some forms of labor cooperation are as a consequence of technical necessity. Conversely, others are due to social control and they are allied with status hierarchy and class. If these two divisions are conflated, it might be illuminate that the existence of division of labor is immutable and inevitable rather than influencing power or socially constructed relationships. In a communist society, Marx explicated that the division of labor is transcended (Kaufman, 2004). This means that balance in the human development should occur. This should enable people to express their nature through various creative works.

Emile Durkheim has been introduced in the earlier sections. In the seminal work he executed, he established that division of labor is present in all societies. Moreover, there is a positive correlation between division of labor and societal advancement for the reason that it escalates with the progress of the society. Durkheim harmonized with the findings of Adam Smith. Thus, division of labor led to an escalation in the productive powers of labor. Durkheim held to it that division of labor was applicable to all biological organisms from a general point of view. On the other hand, Smith believed that it only applied to human societies (Durkheim, 2014).  With the elucidation that division of labor was applicable to all organisms according to Durkheim, he regarded it a natural law.  Subsequently, his efforts were to find out whether it should be resisted or embraced.

Division of Labor in a Capitalist Society

The elevation in the modern division of labor has led to an increase in the number of people who can work under one capitalist. The minimum amount of capital within the possession of the capitalist should increase. In the division of labor, the production process is split into a sequence of steps. Each of the steps is assigned to workers. Thus, each worker handles a specific process. This means that cooperative labor is specialized into circumscribed, specific tasks through which individuals carry out specific tasks.  Due to the historic development of societies which has been marked by more and more complex division of labor, the result has been growth of these societies. Growth has been realized in both living standards and trade output (Durkheim, 2014).

Complex division of labor is highly correlated with the rise in capitalism. Moreover, it is also correlated with complexity in industrial production. In the capitalist division of labor, the manufacturing developments transform the worker. Thus, the worker loses his or her sense of identity to as to fit within the specification of a certain job. Subsequently, the worker has to be a component of the larger machine. In the same context, the worker is usually brought face to face with the intellectual capabilities associated with the material process accompanying the production (Chen, 2014). In this case, the worker is considered to be the property of the power that is above. Those in power usually have authority over the worker. As a result, the individual productive power of the worker becomes improvised. Capitalists direct their efforts toward disheartening imagination. They do so by making the worker to act like a machine.

The way manufacture was made, it was supposed to be spontaneous. Conversely, over the passage of time, the systematic, methodical and conscious form of capitalist production has been developed. Therefore, division of labor is a form of social production of a capitalist nature. Capitalists use division of labor to create surplus value at the expense and disadvantage of the worker. Even though division of labor is a vital part of the civilization process, it is a more refined way of exploiting workers. Due to this, its development during the manufacturing period was marked by numerous challenges (Ransome, 2010). However, as a result of the development and advancement of machines, the obstacles presented were mitigated. This enabled capitalism to take center stage.

Arguments against Division of Labor

Irrespective of the fact that division of labor is beneficial in terms of productivity, specialization of labor can lead to low enthusiasm and low overall skills. This is according to Karl Marx who describes the process of specialization as alienation. In accordance to his point of view, when the worker becomes more and more specialized, the work becomes more and more repetitive. Subsequently, they completely alienated from the production process. According to Marx, people can only be liberated if they were left to fully get involved in economic production (Elsner et al., 2007). Marx regarded division of labor to be temporary and a necessary root for evil.  In addition to this, irrespective of the fact that capitalism has been found to have negative effects of triumphing individualism, division of labor can lead to an elevation in excessiveness of individualism. This is followed by numerous dysfunctional symptoms (Chen, 2014).

In the modern life, lack of moral regulation is an aspect of the society. Based on this, work loses meaning due to the separates and fragments of the extensive division of labor. With reference to Durkheim, this is referred to as anomic division of labor. In addition to this, the modern life is defined from this angle, thus, it does not create room for the expression of the self. Selfishness is a part of the people. They do not show their concern for other or for the society as a whole. Through the psychological perspective, this symptom has led to the development of the modern culture defined as ‘narcissistic’ (Elsner et al., 2007).

Division of labor has also demeaned nature of work in the today’s society. Subsequently, work has become a means of statistical satisfying other ends like buying goods, paying the mortgage rather than providing intrinsic meaning (Fuchs, 2014). Division of labor has alienated people from their true human selves. During leisure time, people find out hard to act as humans instead; they act in their selfish animal natures. In a capitalist society, a worker is paid for not thinking. Execution and conception of separation of labor is an extreme expression of alienation.

Division of Labor and Globalization

In the today’s world, those who are focused more on division of labor are those in the fields of organization and management. For the reason that both on the national and international front, labor has been specialized, efforts are directed toward ascertaining the type of division of labor that is efficient, ideal, fair and most beautiful. There is harmony regarding the fact that division of labor is to a large extent inevitable (Kaufman, 2004). This is based on the rationale that there is no one individual who can execute each task at once. Labor hierarchy is a prevalent feature in most of today’s workplace structure. The hierarchies are impacted on by a number of factors. There have been several deliberations with regard to the division of labor in the global arena. Globalization in this sense is the expansion of world trade with reference to gaining competitive advantage. From a theoretic view, countries specialize in the work they execute at the least opportunity cost. On the contrary, critics argue that international specialization cannot be adequately elucidated in terms of the tasks performed best by a country (Elsner et al., 2007). Contrariwise, specialization is based on a commercial criterion which leans toward some countries leaving out others.


Division of labor is closely allied with the rise of capitalism. Moreover, it is associated with complexity of industrial process.  Division of labor has advanced even in the modern society. For instance, when building a house, the plan is drawn by an architect; the contractor oversees the building process while the constructors carry out the building process. The materials are produced by different people. All these people are specialized in the tasks they perform. Specialization can lead to escalation in productivity. It can also enhance in the quality of the products or services. However, care has to be taken not to demean workers. Their human nature is supposed to be maintained. They should be able to advance their skills in different other fields rather that enhancing limited skills.






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Durkheim, E. (2014). The Division of Labor in Society. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Elsner, W., Frigato, P. & Ramazotti, P. (2007). Social Costs and Public Action in Modern Capitalism: Essays Inspired by Karl William Kapp’s Theory of Social Costs. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

Fuchs, C. (2014). Digital Labour and Karl Marx. Abingdon, Oxon: Routeldge.

Kaufman, B. (2004). The global evolution of industrial relations : events, ideas and the LLRA. Geneva, Switzerland: International Labour Office.

Ransome, P. (2010). Social theory for beginners. Bristol : Policy Press.

Sun, G. (2013). The Division of Labour in Economics: A History. New York: Routledge.



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