The division of labor refers to the partitioning of work tasks between social groups, based on demographic characteristics such as race, sex, age, and social class. Responding to economist Adam Smith’s argument that the division of labor would lead to wealth for all, Karl Marx countered that the exploitation of the working classes would lead to alienation and revolution. According to Marx the bourgeoisie extracts surplus value from the proletariat to increase profitability and maintain a position of power.
Emile Durkheim believed that this partitioning of tasks is necessary to maintain the moral social order and cohesion between all social groups. Within simple societies with little cultural diversity, Durkheim claimed that the division of labor exhibits mechanical solidarity. Mechanical solidarity represents a division of labor where individuals perform identical tasks as their counterparts, making the society run smoothly. In advanced societies it is necessary to divide labor according to organic solidarity, meaning that workers perform specialty tasks to make their community function, like the organs in the human body.
Scientific management pioneer Frederick Winslow Taylor argued that work should be broken down to its simplest parts to maximize productivity. Taylor transformed manufacturing practices by simplifying work tasks, placing control of the labor process in the hands of management, and developing a model of production that inspired Henry Ford’s moving assembly line.
For millennia, labor has been divided according to demographic characteristics. Women and nonwhites have historically been barred entry into certain professions. Most sociological literature examines the sexual division of labor and how this favors male workers. This literature explores sex segregation in the workplace and why women and men are expected to perform different—and different levels of—uncompensated work in the home. Ruth Milkman highlighted the cultural underpinning of this sexual division of labor, a process that can shift rapidly according to the economic desires of male workers and management.
A final component of the division of labor is the distinction between economic sectors, especially service and manufacturing work. While some argue that developed nations are entering an era of postindustrial production centered on service provision, others point out that we are simply witnessing the emergence of a new, more complex global division of labor.
- Durkheim, Emile.  1997. The Division of Labor in Society. New York: Free Press.
- Milkman, Ruth. 1987. Gender at Work: The Dynamics of Job Segregation by Sex during World War II. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.
- Reskin, Barbara. 1984. Gender at Work: Perspectives on Occupational Segregation and Comparable Worth. Washington, DC: Women’s Research and Education Institute of the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues.
- Taylor, Frederick Winslow.  1998. The Principles of Scientific Management. Mineola, NY: Dover.
- Tucker, Robert, ed. 1978. The Marx-Engels Reader. New York: Norton.
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