Understanding our society through Durkheim’s Division of Labour

Emile Durkheim, in his book ‘The Division of Labour in Society’; talks about the relationship between individuals and society and explores the division of labour as a function. The French sociologist observed how society has changed right from the primitive ages to the post-modern world. Published in 1893; the book is responsible for developing various other sociological theories. This paper will discuss what Durkheim had to say about Society advancing due to modernity, explore the arguments put forth by Durkheim and critique his writing in the book.

Understanding our society through Durkheim’s Division of Labour explained

Summary of the reading

Although the concept of ‘Division of labour’ is an old one, people didn’t know about it and were unknowingly succumbing to it until Adam Smith coined the term. With the rise of capitalism and modern industries, the division of labour too has increased and we cannot ignore its effects. With capitalism, there is the increased mobilisation of power and capital as well as labour and this has increased job speciality, in turn leading to an increased division of labour. Economists often talk about the need for this specialisation and how it is essential for human societies to progress. In order to explain the function of the division of labour, Durkheim uses the example of a phenomenon that has left moralists bewildered- friendship. He talks about how our tastes and preferences reflect our nature and that we like people that are similar to us and behave and think like us. However, we are also attracted to people who are the opposite of us and do not think like us because of the very fact that they are different and it is their dissimilarity that attracts us. Durkheim stresses on the fact that it isn’t just any dissimilarity that attracts us; but an opposite quality lacking in us that we seek to fulfil through them. He also addressed sexual division of labour by dissecting marriages and highlighting the difference in roles of each sex in a marriage. Emile then goes on to compare primitive societies, where there was more social solidarity to modern societies where there is increased specialisation. He identified the social consciousness in primitive societies as mechanical solidarity and the weakened collective conscience as organic solidarity. Durkheim states that because people had similar jobs and common chores like farming in primitive societies, there was increased social cohesiveness. In the modern society, there is a more intense division of labour due to the specialization of jobs. While identifying the various types of solidarity in society, he also analysed the role of crime, punishment and anomie. (Durkheim, 17) According to Durkheim, In order for a society to succeed, every individual must feel a sense of belonging while retaining their individuality. In the post-modern society, there should be interdependence and autonomy. Durkheim talks about the dynamic nature of the division of labour while analysing the causes and effects of the changes. He concludes by stating that the solidarity in primitive societies where people engaged in similar activities was superficial and not real. He claims that this fake-ness stems from the fact that their main agenda is rationality and because it benefits them to cooperate with each other. On the contrary, the solidarity found in modern societies with a high division of labour is more genuine and real as there is not ulterior motive.

Key arguments         

In his Book, Durkheim tries to understand the phenomenon of division of labour. He observes that it is present in every society and that as society advances, the division of labour increases. He tries to understand why this happens and if at all it is necessary. He tries to answer the question of whether division of labour is required in society for social cohesion at all and if so, to what extent does it affect the social solidarity? Along with this, he also argues that the division of labour is much more than an economic function, stating that it is a moral function as well. In order to answer the first question, he says that it is important to measure social cohesiveness and compare it to different societies. Since social cohesiveness is an abstract concept, we cannot measure it in objective terms and must hence use law in order to measure it. In order to compare the social solidarity in different societies, we need to classify the different types of laws. Durkheim classified law based on the type of sanctions they imposed into two categories. “Repressive sanctions” were those which cause a disadvantage to the offender. Penal law is an example of such a law. The other kind of sanctions he spoke about was “restitutive sanctions” which aimed at returning things to normalcy i.e., the way things were. Civil law and commercial law are examples of such sanctions. Durkheim corresponded these two sanctions to social solidarity were in mechanical solidarity made use of repressive sanctions and organic solidarity made use of restitutive sanctions.

The next argument Durkheim makes, is the fact that the division of labour is not merely an economic function, but also a moral function. In order to explain this, he talks about similarities and dissimilarities. He says that we often “seek what we lack in others”. He demonstrates this with the concept of sexual division of labour. Taking the example of marriage, he explains that we tend to get attracted to people who possess qualities we lack because it makes us feel complete in a way. Durkheim observes that both attraction of similarity, as well as dissimilarity, works because we are attracted to people of the same species but at the same time; it is the dissimilarity that attracts two people to each other. Durkheim stresses on the fact that it is not just any dissimilarity that leads to attraction, but differences that complement one another. It is in such a way that men and women complete each other because without each other they are merely two incomplete parts of a whole. Durkheim then goes on to explain the evolution of the division of sexual labour from the distinction in just sexual organs in prehistoric times, to other secondary functions as well in the contemporary world. Initially, the distinction between the roles of a man and women were not as prominent and merely anatomical, but now, with the increased division of labour, a man and a woman have distinct roles to play in society; with a man assuming the role of an intellectual provider and a woman, that of a nurturer. With increased sexual division of labour over the years, marriages have become more complex. The terms based on which one enters into it and the terms for it to dissolve are far more complex and specific. This phenomenon of marriage makes us look at the division of labour in a new light because the economic benefits for this are very less as compared to the moral benefits. The main purpose of division of labour here is to join two people together and create a bond among them. However, now the activities of both men and women are starting to become similar again. But even here, there is a distinction. While the women are more involved with art and literature, men are more involved in science. Thus, there are new divisions being created.

Critique and Reflections

In his book “The Division of Labour in Society”, Durkheim continues to be extremely important in explaining the division of labour and social solidarity. Apart from having an important economic function, the division of labour also has a moral function and affects all departments in society ranging from political to administrative and is thus an extremely important and relevant concept. As society advances, there is increased specialisation; however each department relies on each other in order to achieve their goals. It is this interdependence that results in harmony in society. Through the reading, one gets better insights into relationships in society and how they work. It helps us understand how individuals’ relationships with each other as well as with the state are affected by various factors such as laws. The text also explains the evolution of society right from prehistoric times to the post-modern world and the influence that capitalism has had on our society. Our society is the way it is today because of factors like capitalism. One learns about both, the good as well as bad effects of increased specialisation due to modernity. Modernity led to a more intense division of labour which increased social solidarity through interdependence at the same time making gender roles more distinct.

However, according to me, the text could have been structured better. It was not very well constructed and a lot of irrelevant information was given. For example, I felt that methods of measurement of social solidarity that fall through and are not effective need not have been described in such detail in the text. I also felt that the same information was repeated over and over in different ways. I felt that Durkheim stereotyped women on many occasions. For example, he speaks of a women’s gentleness. While explaining the sexual division of labour, he only talks about marriage between a man and a woman; using it as a standard. He makes no mention of other relationships between two men or two women. That said, the text gave detailed explanations of social solidarity and explained the concept of it in depth.


  1. Durkheim, E., Halls, W., & Lukes, S. The division of labour in society.
  2. Notes on the Division of Labor. (2019). Retrieved 6 September 2019, from http://www.soc.duke.edu/~jmoody77/TheoryNotes/Durk_DOL.htm
  3. The Division of Labor in Society (1893). (2019). Retrieved 10 September 2019, from http://durkheim.uchicago.edu/Summaries/dl.html
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Mehak Neel is a Sociology and Journalism at FLAME University. Her undying love for travel is rooted in her curiosity to learn about various cultures. She considers the knowledge of current world affairs a vital asset and is often found passionately discussing the same. Her hobbies include football, athletics and painting.