Division of Labor Essay

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The concept of the division of labor is used by both structural functionalists, the students of Durkheim, and conflict theorists, the students of Marx, but the meaning of the concept differs. For Durkheim it means the occupational structure, and it also includes a new form of social solidarity — organic solidarity — that integrates the members of industrial societies in contrast to the mechanical solidarity of traditional societies. Durkheim saw this as a weaker, more precarious form of solidarity that was still in the process of development in the early twentieth century. For Marx it means a double division of labor: the technical division of labor in the enterprise that broke down the production process into a sequence of tasks, and the social division of labor among enterprises, industries and social classes that was mediated through commodity exchanges in market relations. While the social labor of the enterprise was rationally organized, Marx saw contradictions and class exploitation and domination in the social division of labor.

Durkheim saw the problems in terms of both the tendency to anomie, or normlessness, and the ”forced division of labor. He thought that a new corporate order constituted by professional and occupational organizations would create a new moral order which would address the first problem. These organizations would mediate between the level of the state and the level of employers and workers. He thought the abolition of inherited wealth would address the second problem and allow those with natural talent to assume appropriate positions in the division of labor regardless of their social locations. On the other hand, Marx saw the problems as rooted in alienated labor and the exploitation of living labor by capital in the social division of labor. When the working class sells its labor power, its only commodity, to the capitalist class, it alienates control of the labor process and the wealth created in that process to the class that owns and/or controls private property. Further, the capitalist class takes advantage of the fact that during the labor process the working class creates more value than is returned to it in the form of the wage. The transformation of value is a metamorphic process that renders exploitation opaque to the members of the working class in contrast to the transparent process of exploitation in the production and property relations based on slavery, caste, or serfdom. Marx saw class conflict and a social revolution led by a class conscious working class as the agent of societal transformation.

Henri Lefebvre has extended Marx’s analysis of production relations in the social division of labor to consumption and the reproduction of the relations of production by incorporating cultural processes as well as relations of domination and subordination that are not reduced to the mode of production as orthodox Marxists do. According to Lefebvre capitalism has undergone a mutation from its classical nineteenth-century form, the bureaucratic society of controlled consumption. When the working class failed to become a revolutionary agent, the technocrats brought stability and cohesion to a society that lacked both through their deployment of bureaucratic forms of organization and the ideology of technological modernism — the introduction of trivial technological changes on the surface of this society while the capitalist relations of production remained fundamentally unchanged. Class relations in the social division of labor do not have a life of their own; they do not persist due to inertia; they need to be reproduced in everyday life. For Lefebvre, culture is a means of distribution, especially the advertising form. Further, Lefebvre conceptualizes a new ”state mode of production where the state plays a critical role in promoting economic growth and in reproducing the relations of production. Lefebvre calls for an urban revolution and a revolution in everyday life. Production relations would be reoriented to the production of social needs and ”rights to the city that would be extensions of citizenship rights.

Current research is focusing on the globalization of the division of labor with new topics: information technologies, the deskilling of labor, automation, the transformation of production from manufacturing to services, and the outsourcing of production to developing nations. The students of Durkheim often see these developments as the inevitable consequences of technological change, a relentless force that escapes human agency. Whereas the students of Marx see these developments as an extension of alienated labor (Braverman) and class exploitation to a higher level through neocolonialism (Wallerstein), or through the colonization of everyday life (Debord).


  1. Braverman, H. (1974) Labor and Monopoly Capital. Monthly Review Press, New York & London.
  2. Durkheim, IE. (1984) The Division of Labor in Society. Free Press, New York.
  3. Lefebvre, H. (1976) The Survival ofCapitalism. Allison and Busby, London.
  4. Marx, K. (1977) Capital, vol. 1, 1st edn. Vintage, New York.
  5. Wallerstein,    (1976)   The Modern   World System. Academic Press, New York.

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