Division of Labour: Adam Smith and Emile Durkheim

Meaning: Division of labour refers to the splitting up of work into a series of tasks which are each assigned to different people or groups (Encyclopædia Britannica, 2017). It is also termed as “a concept referring to the way a society or social group organizes itself internally” (Hausner, 2019.) This concept is mainly found in economics, and in today’s world is mainly applied to structures of mass production, and is also considered a fundamental principle of the assembly line. It is a useful principle as dividing work into different sections reduces unneeded movements and usage of tools. However, unlike what is commonly believed, the division of labour does not actually result in a reduction of skills amongst the working masses (Encyclopædia Britannica, 2017).

what is division of labour

An increase in the complexity of the division of labour, in history, is linked with the growth of capitalism, trade and output, and difficulty of processes of industrialization (“4.5I: The division of labor,” 2020). The origins of the concept can be traced back to ancient times, as there exists evidence of the same in multiple texts – during the Neolithic Revolution nurtured the concentration of work on specific tasks when it came to both the military and manufacturing of goods (Munger, n.d.)

Adam Smith’s Views on Division of Labour:

Many contend that Adam Smith is the scholar who invented this term, however, that is not true – rather, the concept was made more popular by him. In his work, he noted that an increase in the division of labour led to an increase in productivity and economic growth (Dhamee, 1996). This occurs as each worker becomes more efficient and skilled at their assigned tasks as labour is specialized. Smith also noted that the division of labour “gives rise to market institutions and expands the extent of the market” (Munger, n.d.).

Emile Durkheim’s Division of Labour in Society:

The sociologist Emile Durkheim was the first to use the term division of labour in a sociological sense, in his above-titled writing. Durkheim proposed a different theory for the rising of the division of labour, noticing that it is present in different advanced societies. He stated that rather than it arising as a result of wanting more material resources, it came up due to an increase in population, leading to a rise in competition for survival and finally it leads to changes in social structures (Encyclopædia Britannica, 2017). In such circumstances, a division of labour worked by helping societies stay together and creating solidarity. Unlike Adam Smith who focused on its economic implications, Durkheim argued that it benefited society in various ways – by improving workers’ skill sets, and also helping create moral and social order (Crossman, 2019). He argues that it is the very nature of social interaction, inherent in the workings of every social group and even in animal species (Hausner, 2019).

Durkheim separated and classified societies based on the kind of division of labour present in them. He noted that in societies with less division of labour – primitive societies, there is only mechanical solidarity present, as everyone functions through a collective conscience and have similar thoughts and behaviours. For example, the members of a mainly agricultural region, since they share similar work are more likely to think alike (Crossman, 2019). In more sophisticated and more advanced, industrialized societies, the division of labour is highly specialized and there is more individualization present in both people and groups, and Durkheim states that there is organic solidarity present as people across different spheres connect (Hausner, 2019).

Read: Mechanical and Organic Society

Durkheim states that there are two types of law present in our societies. The first, repressive law, is one that he writes is more present in primitive societies. Here, all members take part in putting the accused on trial. The crime is measured by the amount of harm it has inflicted on the society as a whole, and crimes which have caused collective harm are punished strictly (Crossman, 2019). On the other hand, restitutive (meaning restorative) law is one that is focused more on the restoration of the loss rather than punishment and is operated through systems such as the courts and lawyers as there is no collective conscience.

Durkheim believed that the organization of laws corresponds to the level of development of the society. He wrote that crimes against the society as a whole are given more weightage in primitive societies as their opinions regarding crime are agreed upon by all members together, whereas in advanced societies, where there is division of labour, restitutive law gains precedence (Crossman, 2019). It is important to note here that Durkheim penned this work during the peak of the industrial era, and thus his writing attempted to understand the rapid industrialization that was taking place and its consequences.

Read: Industrial Revolution

In today’s times, the concept of division of labour is done that has been applied to various situations, for example, the gender division of labour. The gender division of labour refers to the assigning of different tasks and jobs to men and women in their lives– in both personal and public life and looks at how it differs across different cultures around the world.

Read: Understanding our society through Durkheim’s Division of Labour


4.5I: The division of labor. (2020, June 3). Retrieved from https://socialsci.libretexts.org/Bookshelves/Sociology/Book%3A_Sociology_(Boundless)

Crossman, A. (2019, October 24). Durkheim’s ‘Division of labor’ and evaluation of social change. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/mechanical-solidarity-3026761

Dhamee, Y. (1996). Adam Smith and the division of labor. Retrieved from https://www.victorianweb.org/economics/division.html

Encyclopædia Britannica. (2017). Division of labour. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com

Gender division of labour. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://eige.europa.eu/thesaurus/terms/1163

Hausner, S. (2019, April 24). The division of labor after Durkheim. Retrieved from https://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-9780199756384/obo-9780199756384-0217.xml

Munger, M. (n.d.). Division of labor. Retrieved from https://www.econlib.org/library

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Swati D is an undergraduate student at FLAME University, Pune, pursuing a literary and cultural Studies major and an open minor focused in sociology. Her interests include learning more about issues related to gender and sexuality and its intersections with various other vectors, and studying online spaces. She likes to unwind by watching cooking videos and reading (fan)fiction.