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Division of labor is a feature of social structuring found in all human societies. Its form varies widely and changes over time. In a narrow sense the concept is used in an economic context to describe the breakdown of a complex task into a number of detailed and specialized tasks. In a social context the meaning is much wider, because labor and hence the consequences of its division impacts decisively societal structures. An example familiar to everyone is the household division of labor. This refers to the differential allocation of tasks to women and men in the family and in childrearing. Following a deﬁnition of labor, this research paper will consider the complexity of this concept by focusing on diﬀerent levels and dimensions of the Division of labor. Then its role in social development will be dealt with. The division of labor in modern capitalist-industrial societies will be granted the main attention. Finally, the development of social thought on the concept will be brieﬂy examined.
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Labor or work can be deﬁned as purposeful activity necessary in any human society to secure its existence. Only humans do work in the sense of using creativity, conceptual and analytical thinking together with manual aptitudes to transform nature for their use. A distinction between work and labor is often made. The word ‘labor’ is derived from the Latin labor implying toil and distress, and hence labor alludes to arduous work, done under some duress and control by others. But the use of words is in fact not that strict. With regard to the specialization of activities, it is common to speak of ‘division of labor’ (and not of ‘division of work’). Similarly, it is common for example to speak of the ‘labor process,’ the ‘labor market,’ the ‘labor movement’ (including the ‘labor unions’ in the economic, the ‘labor party’ in the political sphere), or the ‘International Labor Organization’ (ILO) and the expression ‘work’ is not used here.
2. Divisions Of Labor
2.1 Concepts: Economic Division Of Labor S. Social Division Of Labor
All empirical evidence shows that labor or work always entails some specialization. Division of labor refers to separation of activities and the specialized allocation to diﬀerent individuals. It is a universal trait of human existence. This does not, however, imply that it is caused by natural diﬀerences (biological diﬀerences between women and men, for example). Division of labor is always human-made, its forms are socially shaped.
Any deﬁnition of division of labor basically must start with the recognition of two diﬀerent connotations. In its narrow and simple sense, the concept is used in an economic context. It describes the splitting up of a complex productive task into a number of specialized, simpler tasks. The most renowned example is that of Adam Smith (1776) for pin needle production. The increase in productivity is exactly the ultimate reason for the separation and specialization of tasks in manufacturing.
This form is known as detailed or technical Division of labor. It made its appearance on the stage of human history with all-pervasive force only three hundred years ago in Europe with the establishment of conditions not in use previously: that is manufacturing and the ‘invention’ of capitalist principles of production.
In a broad sense, division of labor is a precondition for conceptualizing society, as used in a social or sociological context. Reference to the social Division of labor implies divisions at diﬀerent levels of society which comprise its complex structure. Here the attention is on social diﬀerentiation such as class, gender, or ethnicity; on the role of power; on forces of social cohesion and disintegration; and on the importance of solidarity and morale. All the major institutions of a modern complex society play a part in the social Division of labor: in the economic system with its elements like the market, competition, capital, contract law, labor market, even diﬀerences between (paid) employment and non-paid labor; in the political system with its various specialized institutions of the legislative, the executive, and the judiciary; in the cultural system with its various socializing institutions for the creation of skills, value orientations, and spiritual meaning.
In a schematic form the concepts may be listed this way:
economic Division of labor social Division of labor
detailed Division of labor Division of labor
(e.g., technical division of labor) (e.g., by gender,
It is clear from the above that division of labor is a complex concept and can refer to diﬀerent levels of human activity. It extends from the household or family on the micro le el, through work organizations like enterprises on the meso (intermediate) le el, divisions in society at large on the macro le el, to the entire world on the global le el. Examples of divisions of labor on the various levels are the domestic division of labor, the organizational division of labor, the occupational division of labor, or the international division of labor.
Here is an overview on the levels in schematic form:
Micro-le el: e.g., domestic or familial division of labor
Meso- (intermediate) le el: e.g., organizational division of labor
Macro-Level: e.g., occupational division of labor
Global le el: e.g., international division of labor
It is necessary to trace division of labor in various diﬀerent dimensions. The most obvious dimension is a broad division of labor between women and men, which all known societies exhibit in some manner or other. This sexual (or gendered) Division of labor is obviously important in the area of work, but it also reaches beyond that to social, political, cultural, and religious functions.
Any analysis of the social structure of a society, or a comparative study of diﬀerent societies, must certainly consider the distinction between these varying dimensions. In addition, some dimensions are relevant at more than one level. The sexual division of labor, for example, is of tremendous importance at the domestic or family level, but it also plays an important role in the economic realm. It is inseparably connected with opportunities and status in employment on the societal level, and is in evidence even on the international level. ( When, for example, the work of British or German male textile workers is nowadays performed by possibly lower paid women in developing countries).
An overview of the more important dimensions of the division of labor in schematic form:
Division of labor by sex (or gender)
Division of labor by age
Division of labor by occupations
Division of labor by skill
Division of labor by hierarchy
Division of labor by space
Division of labor by time.
3. Division Of Labor And Development
3.1 The Basis For Complexity
Taking the broad sweep of human history, the contrast between very simple and vastly extended complex social structures springs to mind. Division of labor and concomitant social diﬀerentiation are the processes that underlie shifts towards more complex societies.
Until around ten thousand years ago hunting and gathering bands were small and there was little role specialization beyond a division of labor by sex and age. Only since settling down to agrarian provisioning for survival has human social life slowly developed towards the complexity known from recorded history.
3.2 Traditional And Modern Societies
Agrarian ( pre-industrial) societies are characterized by the fact that the overwhelming portion of productive tasks are performed in agriculture and self-provisioning of the household. The (extended) family is also the productive unit. The social division of labor is low, insofar as only a small proportion of the population is engaged in other occupations, such as specialized crafts, trading, military functions, and religion. Tradition is of eminent importance. The distribution of functions in the societal labor process is based on ascription (being born into ones role and status), not on achievement. The pre-condition for a considerable increase in the division of labor is production of a larger surplus beyond the self-provisioning of the individual families.
There was, however, no unilinear progression in history towards ever-greater complexity, no continuous evolution from primitive to modern societies. The development of social forms shows long periods of remission and reversals, as well as change proceeding along more than one line.
Traditional agrarian societies typically are feudal societies, and the division of labor is often based on coercion and power. Serfdom (especially among the agrarian population) is widespread, and slavery (for labor that is painful and exacting) is not uncommon.
For thousands of years in human history static forces were dominant in the division of labor. This came to an abrupt end when, in Europe (beginning in England), capitalism and industrialization began to transform the world. The last two to three hundred years have seen by far more changes in the division of labor than all the previous ages. Compared with development up to then, capitalist transformation marks a quantum leap for the division of labor.
4. The Division Of Labor In Modern Societies
4.1 The Institutional Frame
The capitalist-industrial mode of production was established on the basis of a number of institutions which did not previously exist. There is a very close interconnection between the division of labor and these institutions. The following can be listed as the major speciﬁc conditions (e.g., Weber 1922/1968; Marx 1867/1976).
4.1.1 Separation Of Household And Workplace. With the introduction of manufacturing in special premises, gainful employment and the family become separated. A previously unknown division is introduced between the public sphere of work and the Private sphere of home. The function of the family (or the household) changes dramatically as it is no longer a combined unit of production and reproduction. The division implies the separation between unpaid labor in the household and paid labor in the workplace. This is responsible for a thorough change in the sexual Division of labor, as it provides a new basis for power relations in the family and for the gender typing in employment.
4.1.2 Concentration Of Labor In The Manufacture And The Factory. Assembling of workers in great numbers in one place under one direction was the prerequisite to splitting up complex craft work into a multitude of detailed tasks. With this detailed Division of labor, enormous gains in productivity were possible. This usage of labor carries a number of (economic) advantages: unskilled workers who receive relatively low wages and are easily replaceable can be engaged; and, control over speed and output is easy. Fragmentation into simple repetitive functions is also the basis for the subsequent mechanization and automation which again pushes productive output. However, the price paid for rising productivity is alienation.
4.1.3 Private Property. In the process of industrialization, property acquires a new social function and is important for the division of labor in two respects. First, it provides for those who plan and control the legitimacy to enforce the manufacturing (detailed) division of labor. Second, it provides the basis for the accumulation of wealth. Proﬁt becomes the main motive for organizing a labor process. This implies that the social function and the importance of money changes completely: from a generalized exchange medium on local markets to a carrier of value and power that makes the world go round.
4.1.4 Free Labor. A labor market, where labor can be bought and sold as a commodity, was not common in human history. Earlier times depended on domination and power for the use of labor that was often unfree labor (patriarchy, serfdom, slavery). Those were the typical characteristics of a forced Division of labor. The modern development relies on free contracting, i.e., on wage labor. For labor, this implies that social relations of a double character become relevant: on the labor market, the relation is between equals, whereas, inside the workshop, the relation is one of subjugation under domination and power (Rueschemeyer 1986).
4.1.5 Liberalization Of Markets And Competition. The importance of liberalism in greatly increasing the wealth-creating capacity of a nation was strongly emphasized in the classical ‘political economy.’ Unrestrained by administrative rules of government, a free market encourages producers to specialize in activities where they have a relative or absolute productive advantage. Through specialization, they beneﬁt from greater dexterity, more eﬃcient use of materials, time, expertise, and technology. At the same time, the invisible hand of competition penalizes ineﬀective producers by removing them from the market and encourages the rational (cost-eﬀective) exchange of goods and services.
4.1.6 Application Of Science, Technological Change, Mechanization, And Automation. In the pursuit of proﬁt and under the constant pressure of competition, science is applied systematically for the creation of ever more sophisticated machines and procedures to render production processes more eﬃcient. Technological change thus becomes a permanent feature of working life. Human labor that remains in the process is forced to ﬁll the gaps left by machinery and to adapt constantly to changing requirements.
4.2 Division Of Labor And The Dynamics Of Change
4.2.1 Structural Change Of Society. Change has remained a fundamental feature of the division of labor ever since industrialization altered occupational structures in an unprecedented manner. This in turn aﬀects division of labor on all levels, and in all dimensions. In the last decades the highly developed societies have changed to post-industrial societies. Leaving industrial production behind as the major ﬁeld for employment has ushered in the service society or knowledge society. The occupational division of labor expands into new ﬁelds. Provision of knowledge-driven services, evaluations, information, guidance, analysis, etc. outnumbers now by far industrial production work. The huge diversiﬁcation of the labor structure through industrialism and the rise of service and knowledge work is reﬂected in the fact that up to 30,000 distinct jobs are listed now in some countries, as compared to no more than 50 crafts and trades in pre-industrial societies.
Knowledge and software have become the main themes in the ‘new economy’ (Leadbeater 1999). Increases in the professional level of many jobs and the professions as such gain importance as knowledgeoccupations (Lane et al. 2000). Production work and hardware decrease, relatively speaking, in importance. This is reﬂected in the continuous decline in the share of blue-collar work and the growth of white-collar work. Often, manual labor is either relocated in other countries or is eliminated altogether through automation. Together with the often-practised outsourcing of work functions, this brings about considerable shifts for the spatial (or geographical) division of labor. The new information and communication technologies have furthered these trends of global expansion of the division of labor, under which the whole world potentially becomes one workshop.
4.2.2 Changes In Work Organization. Assembling people in large numbers and assigning them detailed tasks requires coordination and planning to reach the common goal. As a result, organizations have become an indispensable feature of modern life in many areas. At the same time they are of foremost importance for the conditions of work.
Organization theory and management have developed into vast ﬁelds of their own. This has developed on three major inﬂuences that shaped the division of labor thoroughly.
Emphasis on ‘rationality’ was the main concern of Max Weber (1922 1968) when he developed the principles of bureaucracy as a design for modern administration. For production work, The Principles of Scientiﬁc Management were developed by Frederick Taylor (1911) which aimed at improved industrial eﬃciency. Among Taylor’s principles, the separation of planning work from execution imposed a division of labor that relied on tight control and hierarchy, destruction of skills and discretion of the workers. Taylor’s whole system based the division of labor on a low level of trust. The industrialist Henry Ford added the mechanical disciplining power of the assembly line. Furthermore, he combined mass production with the cultivation of mass markets. Since then, bureaucratic organisation, Taylorism and Fordism, have been so successful that they shaped the form of the division of labor and working conditions in industry all over the world. This includes the communist or state-socialist countries which thus did not seize their unique opportunity to realize a diﬀerent form for the division of labor (e.g., Sayer and Walker 1992). Widespread application of Taylorist and Fordist principles of work rationalization led to the ‘degradation of work’ (Braverman 1974) in mass industry in the twentieth century. The impact on working conditions has been discussed deeply in the ensuing ‘labor process debate.’
The grounds for a New Division of Labour (Littek and Charles 1995) arose from a number of far reaching changes in the markets, a new quality of competition, and growing pressure for ﬂexibility and customer services which together marked the ‘end of mass production.’ The abolition of detailed fragmentation of work, tight control, and discretionary power of the hierarchy in order to raise creativity, quality standards, and service orientation were important for the new division of labor. Elements that have gained in importance are decentralization, networking, ﬂexibility, upgraded skills, motivation, self-organization, responsibility, and autonomy. These are conditions which are based on trust as a means of coordination, quite the opposite to the systems of Taylor and Ford. The new model is a ‘learning organization’ with self-regulation of autonomous individuals.
The spread of these new forms was pushed by the technological development which made simple and repetitive tasks redundant though automation. The trend to these new forms, ﬂexible specialization and self-regulated creativity, was further encouraged and enhanced with the development of the ‘new economy’ (see Sect. 4.2.1).
4.3 Division Of Labor, Social Diﬀerentiation, And Cohesion
Social diﬀerentiation is so closely connected with the division of labor that they could almost be treated as synonymous. The wide development of the division of labor under modern industrialism (mostly in capitalist, but also in socialist or communist form) caused a similarly wide expansion of diﬀerentiation in society. Along with this expansion, social and economic interdependence has increased enormously: each individual in society is dependent on so many others for its existence.
Social diﬀerentiation itself has to be examined from various angles, the most important of which are discussed below.
Class and social stratiﬁcation are unthinkable without a connection to the division of labor. They are relevant as a pre-condition, as well as a result of, the division of labor. With regard to class, most social scientists would agree that the number of classes needed to describe societal structure in complex societies has to be extended beyond the two basic ones (bourgeoisie and wage-labor) Marx had in mind. Often the concept is replaced altogether by stratiﬁcation. Nevertheless, ownership of productive property is important as a pre-condition for the right to organize labor or otherwise being organized. The gains from economic activity shape wealth distribution. As a result of the diﬀerentiated division of labor, the inequality of the wealth distribution has grown in most countries over time. At the global level, a similar trend of growing disparity can be observed in the distribution of wealth between rich industrialized countries and poorer developing countries as a result of international Division of labor in practice.
As a major element in diﬀerentiation, gender remains a cause for inequality. Even though patriarchy has lost ground and equal opportunity rights are enforced in most modern societies, the eﬀects of a gendered Division of labor still are to be found in practically all societies. These often include lower income, conﬁnement to lower skilled jobs, reduced access to leading functions, broader employment in precarious jobs and in part time, and so on. This can be explained by the fact that the household continues to be the basic social unit around which people conduct their lives ( Pahl 1984), and that an unequal distribution of tasks in household work between women and men obviously continues to be practiced more or less throughout the world (e.g., Hakim 1996).
Finally, social integration and cohesion become much more important with the growth in inequality that follows the extension of the division of labor. Cooperation (as a passive medium) and coordination (as an active medium) are necessary to counterbalance the diverging forces and to secure social integration at least at a minimum level. Social integration on the societal level can be based above all on two institutions: trust, motivation, values on the one hand and power on the other (which is based on legitimacy in modern states). The strategy in most highly developed countries is to secure both by providing a minimum of social security and administering some form of social regulation to the market economy. A socially responsible division of labor thus may be seen as the guiding vision for modern countries.
5. Division Of Labor In Social Thought
Because the division of labor is a fundamental structuring principle of complex societies, it has played an important role in theories about society and social relations. Interest in division of labor was particularly strong in the late eighteenth and the nineteenth century in connection with the unprecedented social changes brought about by capitalist industrialism. This was also the time of the formation of sociology and political economy. Later, the division of labor as a category in social theory was somewhat neglected (Sayer and Walker 1992), but interest has risen again in the last 25 years. This is mainly due to:
— a broad expansion of studies into the sexual or gendered division of labor and the connections be- tween household work and employment;
— studies on the so-called globalization, which extends the reach of economic activities to a scale of global or international division of labor based on Western business values;
— studies on the growing pressure for labor ﬂexibility in the new economy, which indicates a loss of dependable employment conditions and of elements that formerly structured work like deﬁned time, space, or occupation.
In the history of theory on the division of labor, a number of key authors should be mentioned Ancient Greek philosophy, and particularly Plato and Aristotle, recognized the division of labor or specialization in occupations as a necessity for social well-being. This was linked to exchange which requires a market and a currency (as a medium of exchange). The socializing eﬀect stood in the foreground for Aristotle when he noted that no society made up of two physicians could emerge, but a society containing a physician, a farmer, and other occupations would exist.
At the beginning of modern times, Adam Smith (1723–1790) is of the utmost importance for the development of a discipline which became known as political economy. No one has ever placed more emphasis on the division of labor. For Smith, it is practically the only factor driving economic progress. In his book An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), Smith explored the possibilities for raising productivity along two avenues: the detailed division of labor within the manufacturing process, and the liberalization of markets in the economy as a whole. He recognized the egoistic pursuit of individual interests, but not any feelings of altruism or care for the needs of others, as the driving force of economic activity.
For his contemporary Adam Ferguson (1723–1816), social diﬀerentiation through the division of labor stood in the foreground, mainly with regard to occupational diﬀerentiation. He considered it as a speciﬁc structuring type for human solidarity, as did Durkheim.
Both the economic and the social aspects of the division of labor were analyzed by Karl Marx (1809–83). In a similar way to the classical political economy theorists. Marx elaborated the enormous potential of labor for productivity in manufacturing and big industry. But, drawing on very similar insights, he came to a diﬀerent conclusion to that of Smith: that there is a fundamental diﬀerence between division of labor among autonomous parties, ‘division of labor in society,’ and a division of labor that takes place under the authority and in the interest of one dominant party, ‘division of labor in manufacture.’ The contrast between ‘anarchy’ of the market (reﬂected in the social division of labor) and ‘despotism’ in the workshop (reﬂected in the manufacturing division of labor) was highlighted by Marx as mutual conditions and an essential feature of capitalism (1867). The separation between owners and non-owners of the means of production found recognition as the basis for class formation in society and for the asymmetry of power in the labor process. He was also strongly concerned with deskilling (cf. Braverman 1974) and with alienation as a result of the speciﬁc capitalist fragmentation of work.
Emile Durkheim (1858–1917), like Ferguson, directed attention mainly to the social division of labor (1893), for which he above all gained reputation. In contrast to more pessimistic views, he recognized that division of labor does not have to create disintegration, but may have a socializing eﬀect. Durkheim thus discerns mechanic solidarity in ‘primitive’ societies from organic solidarity in ‘complex’ societies, while observing the danger of anomie and of a ‘forced division of labor’ in modern development.
In his analysis of the modern ( Western) world Max Weber reached ﬁndings very similar to those of Marx. He also held (1922) that capitalist division of labor is something quite speciﬁc, based on the role of private property, on proﬁt as the motive for production, and on the application of rational organizing principles. However, he put the weight diﬀerently. Weber was interested mainly in fundamental prerequisites of ‘modernity,’ among which legitimate power and ‘rationalization’ of all spheres of social life (including dependable rational administration in the form of ‘bureaucracy’) are of importance.
The Division of labor by gender or sex received only scant attention from the so-called founding fathers of these theories. Among the few exceptions were Friedrich Engels and Thorstein Veblen. However, attention to this theme has changed considerably over the last decades with the emergence of an extensive literature of feminist analysis or gender studies (see e.g., Hakim 1996; Pahl 1984).
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