The division of labour is the specialization of cooperating individuals who perform specific tasks and roles. Because of the large amount of labour saved by giving workers specialized tasks in Industrial Revolution-era factories, some classical economists as well as some mechanical engineers such as Charles Babbage were proponents of division of labour. Also, having workers perform single or limited tasks eliminated the long training period required to train craftsmen, who were replaced with lesser paid but more productive unskilled workers. Historically, an increasingly complex division of labour is associated with the growth of total output and trade, the rise of capitalism, and of the complexity of industrialised processes. The concept and implementation of division of labour has been observed in ancient Sumerian (Mesopotamian) culture, where assignment of jobs in some cities coincided with an increase in trade and economic interdependence. In addition to trade and economic interdependence, division of labour generally increases both producer and individual worker productivity.

In contrast to division of labour, division of work refers to the division of a large task, contract, or project into smaller tasks—each with a separate schedule within the overall project schedule. Division of labour, instead, refers to the allocation of tasks to individuals or organisations according to the skills and/or equipment those people or organisations possess. Often division of labour and division of work are both part of the economic activity within an industrial nation or organisation

Marx argued that increasing the specialization may also lead to workers with poorer overall skills and a lack of enthusiasm for their work. He described the process as alienation: workers become more and more specialized and work becomes repetitive, eventually leading to complete alienation from the process of production. The worker then becomes "depressed spiritually and physically to the condition of a machine".

Additionally, Marx argued that division of labour creates less-skilled workers. As the work becomes more specialized, less training is needed for each specific job, and the workforce, overall, is less skilled than if one worker did one job entirely.

Among Marx's theoretical contributions is his sharp distinction between the economic and the social division of labour. That is, some forms of labour co-operation are purely due to "technical necessity", but others are a result of a "social control" function related to a class and status hierarchy. If these two divisions are conflated, it might appear as though the existing division of labour is technically inevitable and immutable, rather than (in good part) socially constructed and influenced by power relationships. He also argues that in a communist society, the division of labour is transcended, meaning that balanced human development occurs where people fully express their nature in the variety of creative work that they do.

In his seminal work, The Division of Labour in Society, Émile Durkheim[16] observes that the division of labour appears in all societies and positively correlates with societal advancement because it increases as a society progresses. Durkheim arrived at the same conclusion regarding the positive effects of the division of labour as his theoretical predecessor, Adam Smith. In The Wealth of the Nations, Smith observes the division of labour results in "a proportionable [sic] increase of the productive powers of labour." While they shared this belief, Durkheim believed the division of labour applied to all "biological organisms generally" while Smith believed this law applied "only to human societies." This difference may result from the influence of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species on Durkheim’s writings. For example, Durkheim observed an apparent relationship between "the functional specialization of the parts of an organism" and "the extent of that organism's evolutionary development," which he believed "extended the scope of the division of labor so as to make its origins contemporaneous with the origins of life itself…implying that its conditions must be found in the essential properties of all organized matter."

Since Durkheim’s division of labour applied to all organisms, he considered it a "natural law" and worked to determine whether it should be embraced or resisted by first analysing its functions. Durkheim hypothesized that the division of labour fosters social solidarity, yielding "a wholly moral phenomenon" that ensures "mutual relationships" among individuals.

As social solidarity cannot be directly quantified, Durkheim indirectly studies solidarity by "classify[ing] the different types of law to find...the different types of social solidarity which correspond to it." Durkheim categorizes: criminal laws and their respective punishments as promoting mechanical solidarity, a sense of unity resulting from individuals engaging in similar work who hold shared backgrounds, traditions, and values; and civil laws as promoting organic solidarity, a society in which individuals engage in different kinds of work that benefit society and other individuals. Durkheim believes that organic solidarity prevails in more advanced societies, while mechanical solidarity typifies less developed societies. He explains that, in societies with more mechanical solidarity, the diversity and division of labour is much less, so individuals have a similar worldview.  Similarly, Durkheim opines that in societies with more organic solidary, the diversity of occupations is greater, and individuals depend on each other more, resulting in greater benefits to society as a whole.

 

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