The Division of Labor in Society

The Division of Labor in Society

From Émile Durkheim, The Division of Labor in Society (1893)


[1] Although the division of labour is not of recent origin, it was only at the end of the last century that societies began to become aware of this law, to which up to then they had submitted almost unwittingly. Undoubtedly even from antiquity several thinkers had perceived its importance. Yet Adam Smith was the first to attempt to elaborate the theory of it. Moreover, it was he who first coined the term, which social science later lent to biology.

[2] Nowadays the phenomenon has become so widespread that it catches everyone’s attention. We can no longer be under any illusion about the trends in modern industry. It involves increasingly powerful mechanisms, large-scale groupings of power and capital, and consequently an extreme division of labour. Inside factories, not only are jobs demarcated, becoming extremely specialized, but each manufacture is itself a speciality entailing the existence of others. Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill persisted in hoping that agriculture at least would prove an exception to the rule, seeing in it the last refuge of small-scale ownership. Although in such a matter we must guard against generalizing unduly, nowadays it appears difficult to deny that the main branches of the agricultural industry are increasingly swept along in the general trend. Finally, commerce itself contrives ways to follow and reflect, in all their distinctive nuances, the boundless diversity of industrial undertakings. Although this evolution occurs spontaneously and unthinkingly, those economists who study its causes and evaluate its results, far from condemning such diversification or attacking it, proclaim its necessity. They perceive in it the higher law of human societies and the condition for progress.

[3] Yet the division of labour is not peculiar to economic life. We can observe its increasing influence in the most diverse sectors of society. Functions, whether political, administrative or judicial, are becoming more and more specialized. The same is true in the arts and sciences. We are far from the time when philosophy constituted the sole science. It has become fragmented into a host of special disciplines, each having its purpose, method and spirit. ‘From one half-century to another the men who have left their mark upon the sciences have become more specialized.’