division of labour

One of the oldest concepts in the social sciences. It denotes any stable organization, co-ordinating individuals, or groups carrying out different, but integrated activities. Its first and most celebrated use was in classical political economy , the precursor to modern economics. According to Adam Smith , division of productive labour greatly increases the wealth-creating capacity of a society. Unrestrained by government or administrative rules, the free market encourages producers to specialize in activities where they have a natural advantage. By specializing they benefit from greater dexterity, more efficient use of materials and time, and from mechanization. Simultaneously, the hidden hand of competition penalizes insufficiently specialized (by implication inefficient) producers, and encourages the prudent (rational) exchange of goods and services.
However, there can be different principles of specialization. Economics emphasizes specialization according to productivity, or quantity produced in relation to the costs of production. Organization theory , however, has long recognized that in practice conflicting criteria govern the division even of productive tasks. Considerations of the mental health of the worker (psychological efficiency) or the management of industrial unrest (social efficiency) actually limit the over-detailed specialization of tasks. Outside of productive organization, specialization may well be according to some qualitative criterion, whereby scale and quantitative productivity are relatively discounted (for example in medicine or education). Socio-geographers have also explored the spatial division of activity and power between different regions and localities.
Co-ordination is itself a troublesome concept. The early political economists assumed that a single factor (market competition between prudent individuals) was enough to bring differentiated activities together so as to maximize public well-being. Yet they also recognized that a division of labour could take place on a number of levels, between different sectors of the economy, between occupations, or between individual tasks. To this, classical sociology added the notion that modern societies as a whole are characterized by an extensive social division of labour, involving the specialization and interdependence of whole institutions and social processes. The extension of market competition, which is by definition divisive, is inadequate to explain the co-ordination of modern societies.
Despite their many differences in outlook, the common theme of sociology's founders was that the division of labour is held together by power relations, ideology , and moral regulation. Karl Marx , for example, argued that market processes express an underlying division of class power that is a property of the whole socio-economic complex and encompasses individual motives and actions. Class seriously distorts the division of labour as it might occur naturally between isolated and roughly equal individual producers. Antagonistic relations of production originated in the first place from the division of labour, because of arbitrary inequalities of advantage in exchange, and the ensuing dependence of the weaker on the stronger. In turn, the subsequent form of the division of labour in any particular era reflects the struggle over the distribution of the surplus product, between the owners and non-owners of the means of production.
For Émile Durkheim , the principal interest of the division of labour is its moral consequences, that is, its effect on the underlying solidarity of the society, which should restrain individual egoism, ruthlessness, and licence. Although historians and anthropologists have subsequently questioned the idea that premodern societies lacked a division of labour, Durkheim argued that traditional societies are integrated by so-called mechanical solidarity, in which emphasis is placed on the values and cognitive symbols common to the clan or tribe. Individuals and institutions are thus relatively undifferentiated. Modern societies, he claimed, require the development of organic solidarity, in which beliefs and values emphasize individuality, encourage specialist talents in individuals, and the differentiation of activities in institutions. But although the economic division of labour may have initiated such a way of life, by itself the unregulated market loosens restraints on individual desires, undermines the establishment of social trust, and produces abnormal forms of the division of labour. This is the source of his celebrated concept of anomie , and of the forced division of labour associated with class and political conflict. Full organic solidarity will require appropriate education; legal restraint on inheritance and other unjust contracts; and intermediary institutions to integrate individuals into occupational and industrial life.
With the possible exceptions of Friedrich Engels and Thorstein Veblen , the division of labour by sex or gender received only scant attention from the so-called founding fathers of sociology. Yet patriarchy is arguably the oldest example of a forced or exploitative division of social activities. Most societies operate a broad division of labour between men and women, in terms of their social, religious, and political functions, and specifically in relation to the work they perform. In the context of paid employment this is called occupational segregation; it is typically far more pronounced than segregation on the basis of race or religion in the labour-market . A distinction is usually drawn between vertical and horizontal occupational segregation. Horizontal segregation arises when men and women do different types of work: in industrial societies jobs involving heavy manual labour are usually done by men, and women are concentrated in social welfare services. Vertical segregation arises when men have a near monopoly of the higher status occupations that offer greater authority and better rewards, while women are concentrated in the lower-status jobs. (It is never the other way round.) Even in societies where horizontal occupational segregation is eroded by policies emphasizing social equality, a high degree of vertical occupational segregation persists.
Recent feminist analysis has drawn on both power and moral types of explanation in order to explore invidious distinctions almost universally made between men's and women's social labour and social position, and the form the division of labour by gender has taken in industrial societies. Power inequality is evident in the way the system of industrial production for many years existed alongside, and arguably relied upon, the domestication of women and their unpaid household labour. Persistent inequalities of reward, and the segmentation of labour-markets into areas of men's and women's work, are only slowly diminishing. Moral control is at work in the ideologies of the family, myths of romantic love, the duties of motherhood, and supposedly natural differences between the sexes which the socialization of boys and girls still encourages. Thus, despite modern doctrines of natural rights , women have often (until recently at least) been excluded from the legal and political guarantees which Durkheim considered to be essential if the division of labour was to be accompanied by organic solidarity. See also deprivation ; discrimination ; domestic division of labour ; labour-market segmentation ; social order.

Dictionary of sociology. 2013.

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