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Division of labor has been a central topic of sociology since the early years of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century.
Major theorists such as Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, Herbert Spencer, Emile Durkheim, and Karl Marx contemplated its nature, development, and implications. The topic is no less relevant today as it impacts our daily lives, the structure of society, as well as a nation’s production and economic strength. The evolution of post-industrial societies requires that we confront many of the issues these sociologists identified, while concepts such as mixed economies, globalism and feminism add to the complexity. In this essay, I will consider the arguments of these sociologists within the context of the time period in which they were written and hypothesize how their viewpoints on division of labor might differ today.At the time these sociologists’ published their works, most of Europe, and to some degree the United States, was undergoing significant societal shifts.
First, the population nearly doubled primarily due to low death rates, resulting in an excess of labor. Secondly, agricultural advances such as crop rotation, irrigation and fertilizers meant that fewer workers were required to tend farmlands, further increasing the number of laborers seeking employment in the cities. Third, the advent of technological advances such as the steam engine enabled the invention of special-purpose machinery, particularly in the iron and textile industries.
These devices led to workers becoming specialized, increasing efficiency and productivity. Occupations became highly differentiated according to specialization of tasks and levels of authority. The emergence of the division of labor enabled factories to flourish, which in turn brought about changes to transportation, communication, and banking. These societal changes improved the standard of living for some people, yet others found themselves living and working in horrendous conditions, with little control over their circumstances.With such significant changes occuring in their European homelands, there is little wonder that sociologists were concerned with the effects of division of labor on the way work is performed, organised, and divided between individuals.
At a micro level, division of labor affects a workers’ knowledge base, personal development, and self-sufficiency, while at a macro level, the interdependency inherent in the division of labor has effects on competition, capitalism as an economy, societal structures, and the strength of nations. Adam Smith wrote about the division of labor largely from a capitalistic economic perspective. In The Wealth of Nations (1776), he outlined the benefits derived through specialization and efficient production in commerce, believing that the ‘Invisible Hand’ of free market forces combined with laissez-faire economic policies were the keys to prosperity and the advancement all of civilization. His pin factory example proved how division of labor increased productivity 50 times over. While touting its virtues, Smith also acknowledged the limitations of the division of labor. He noted that smaller markets are inherently limited in their ability to derive any benefit.
In addition, he stated that when individuals are no longer required to acquire a wide variety of skills, they must rely on exchange to meet their needs. Thus, value, created through supply and demand, and the basis of currency become of primary importance. As to how division of labor affects workers, Smith criticized the ability of employers to take unfair advantage of employees. He also warned that compartmentalization of responsibility by requiring workers to focus on mundane and repetitive tasks would lead to an ignorant, dissatisfied workforce, and a loss of “intellectual, social and martial virtues.” (Smith 1776, p. 782) To resolve this issue, Smith believed that governments had an obligation to provide education to workers. (www.
gradesaver.com/the-wealth-of-nations/study-guide/summary-book)Adam Ferguson was less interested in the economic aspects of the division of labor, focusing more on the social consequences. In Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767) he acknowledged tremendous material benefits derived from the division of labor through accumulation of wealth and improvement of skills, but was largely critical of the psychological cost and sociological consequences.
(www.independent.org/publications/article.asp?id=2765) He wrote that some occupations would require no abilities and “actually tend to contract and to limit the views of the mind… Even in manufacture, the genius of the master, perhaps, is cultivated, while that of the inferior workman lies waste.” He goes further, stating, “…
thinking itself, in this age of separations, may become a peculiar craft.” He concludes, “Thus in every commercial state, notwithstanding any pretentions to equal rights, the exaltation of a few must depress the many.” (Ferguson 1767, p. 183-184) Ferguson’s primary concern was the effect of specialization on ‘civic virtue’, and he encouraged political activism and conflict. He believed that society would face decay and despotism if the military participated in division of labor. Instead, he favored a citizen militia.
Herbert Spencer, in The Principles of Sociology, likened society with living organisms. As to the division of labor, he stated, “…we cannot but admit that mutual dependence of parts is an essential characteristic.
” (Spencer 1884, p. 470) Spencer believed that society’s struggle to satisfy its needs and wants necessitated a system of exchanges for mutual benefit. He suggested that division of labor was an economic phenomenon which would arise ‘spontaneously’ whenever people were thrown together in large numbers and that increased size and the pressure of needs would transform competition into cooperation. According to Spencer, environmental factors and variation in an individual’s skills and abilities naturally create occupational diversity as workers choose occupations that best fit their inclinations. A social organism would evolve naturally from a group of workers in special occupations, growing both in number and diversity. Spencer’s view was that the direction of societal evolution was toward material affluence, peaceful integration, personal freedom, and a withering away of the state. (www.d.
umn.edu Durkheim and Spencer by Peter A. Corning)Emile Durkheim wrote The Division of Labor in Society in 1893.
Like Ferguson and Spencer, he was largely interested in the sociological aspects of the division of labor. He proposed that it was an evolutionary process leading to solidarity. He uses the term “moral density”, which is achieved through physical concentration of people, the growth of towns, or improvements in communication. Increased moral density creates scarcity and makes it harder to provide for basic needs, the outgrowth of which is a division of labor. Durkheim believed that the benefits of specialization extended well beyond the economic, through establishment of a social and moral order, stating “it is the necessary condition for the intellectual and material development of societies; it is the source of civilization.” (Durkheim 1893/2013, p. 42) He describes two types of solidarity: mechanical solidarity, a common consciousness usually based on kinship, and organic solidarity, which arises in advanced civilization when division of labor turns people more interdependent yet increasingly unique and individualistic. On the effects to the individual, he noted that economic achievement does not necessarily produce happiness or reduce social pathologies such as crime and suicide.
He writes, “The more one has the more one wants, since satisfactions received only stimulate instead of fulfilling needs.” (Durkheim 1897/1951, p. 248) Therefore, he reasons that the division of labor does not advance human welfare. Like Adam Smith, he believed that when individuals concentrate on cultivating only one skill, an exchange of goods becomes necessary, thereby creating economic wants. This is in direct opposition to Spencer, who believed that economic wants spontaneously create the division of labor. (www.
thoughtco.com/mechanical-solidarity-3026761) Karl Marx was an idealist. Although he agreed with Adam Smith that the division of labor is a necessary part of civilization’s progress in a capitalist form of social production, he made the distinction between a societal division of labor, which includes specific occupations such as doctors, bakers, blacksmiths and makes society more productive, and a division of labor in manufacture, where workers perform a single specialized function. He believed that rather than benefiting society, this was simply a sanctioned way to exploit workers and was the basis of all that was wrong with the world. In Capital: A Critique of Political Economy (1867/1990) he argues that the desire for private property led to the division of labor in manufacture, giving rise to the existence of separate social classes based on economic differences. Marx equates the division of labor with a social mechanism for control, as it requires many workers to work for a single capitalist. As an idealist, he believed that workers lost some of their humanity and their ability to use their imagination by having to concentrate on repetitive tasks. In addition, this type of division of labor alienated the worker, or proletarian, from feeling connected to the product of his own labor.
Marx stated that specialization would result in the proletarian becoming less skilled and more dependent on the employer, or bourgeois, who gains leverage. He created the outline for his perfect human society where mankind experienced no alienation and called for the proletarian class to start a revolution to overthrow the bourgeois class as well as any remnants of capitalism.(m.sparknotes.
com/2014/06/division-of-labor-theory-smith-marx-and.html?m=1)Since the time of these sociologists’ works, most countries have entered a period of post-industrialism, marked by a shift away from the manufacture and production of goods in favor of the production of services. Some believe this to be an evolution which occurs when most material needs of a population are met, resulting in a need for immaterial services. The acquisition and control of knowledge is now a primary driver of individual, economic, and national success. A majority of jobs exist in the service sector, where most occupations require highly-educated, skilled, and specialized workers. Yet there is also an increased demand for low-skill service employees. This two-tiered labor force of high-skill and low-skill, with little demand in the middle, polarizes the labor market.Little manufacturing remains in the United States.
In 1990, it was the prominent sector in 36 states, and by 2014 it was the dominant industry in only seven states. (Wilson 2014) The manufacturing which remains has undergone change as well. Whereas the Industrial Revolution introduced machinery to replace workers using hand tools, post-industrialism takes this one step further by utilizing automation to eliminate repetitive manual labor. Feminism and globalization have also changed the way in which we view the division of labor. Women’s increased participation in the workforce makes a dual-earner family the norm in economically advanced countries. Even though women still have a long way to go before they reach the same level of economic and political influence as men, it is connected to the division of labor, as women may be viewed as transient labor.
To counter this gender bias, the demand for well-educated workers means that the supply of labor with the proper credentials is becoming increasingly gender equal. When looking for a job candidate that is highly specialized and well-educated, the number of individuals meeting those standards is rather small. Therefore, excluding candidates on the basis if gender is counterintuitive if they are seeking the most qualified candidate.Globalization is the division of labor at the broadest level. Europe and the United States used to dominate global production and trade, but this has changed in a post-industrial environment. International investment, outsourcing, and trade have increased the interdependency of nations, fueled by technological advances in communications.
Manufacturing jobs are decreasing in some countries and increasing in others. Newly industrialized countries with an abundance of raw materials or access to cheap labor have become major producers of goods. Globalization is responsible for a new configuration of occupations.How would Smith, Ferguson, Spencer, Durkheim and Marx respond to these sociological changes? I believe that they could no longer put forth theories on the division of labor as a whole. By categorizing several types of division of labor, they could address the areas of particular concern, as each has its own implications.
The value of division of occupation (doctor, carpenter, etc.) is not in question. However, the division of complete processes (such as …..weaving of threads by weavers) and incomplete processes (such as work in factory assembly lines) may illicit differing points of view, as would division of labor applied regionally and internationally. (www.economicsdiscussion Division of Labor: Meaning, Types and Advantages)Today, Smith would recognize the role the ‘Invisible Hand’ of market forces has had on our evolution and continues to play in our post-industrial society.
I am certain he would be proud that his work holds such great importance. He would still remain steadfast in his view that the division of labor has largely contributed to the economic prosperity of most countries. However, there are some concepts he might wish to revise. First, Smith failed to consider the relationship between division of labor and international trade.
It would have strengthened his case for laissez-faire economic policies and a metal-based currency. Following his ideas, we could have conceivably prevented the issues we face with China manipulating its currency. He may wish to add his thoughts on the division of labor among industries, as this is not represented in his work. Smith might also wish to revise his stance that the division of labor would lead to the advancement of civilization.
He failed to recognize that what enriches the country does not necessarily filter down to all workers. Rather, participation in this wealth is unequal, with certain segments of the workforce excluded, notably those in low-skill jobs, affecting women and minorities the most. Additionally, Smith’s concerns for individual workers was strictly interpreted to those working in a factory or industry, presumably low-skill incomplete process workers who find themselves vulnerable to unemployment. He may wish to offer additional thoughts on workers in complete process occupations as well, because although they may derive some satisfaction from completing a whole task, government has not provided education to workers as he suggested. Their value in a supply and demand economy has diminished as a result of our current two-tiered labor force differentiated by education level, and the dissatisfaction he feared is evident. Most importantly, however, Smith would finally be able to resolve his contradictory views on whether the division of labor would expand the intelligence of the population, or result in the “loss of intellectual, social and martial virtues.
” (Smith 1776, p. 782) I hypothesize that Smith would state the division of labor is a double-edged sword that cuts both ways. Due to Ferguson’s sociological concerns about the effects of division of labor, I theorize that he would look at our two-tiered workforce and state that post-industrial society exemplifies the social stratification he feared, although perhaps not to the degree he anticipated. Laborers in incomplete processes find themselves most vulnerable to a “contraction of the mind.
” I imagine that working the grill at McDonald’s or being a dishwasher all day would become monotonous and mind-numbing, are provide little opportunity to expand one’s knowledge. However, workers of complete processes must still use their creativity and critical thinking skills. A home health aide, for example, must use their skills and can be somewhat creative when dealing with sick or otherwise incapacitated individuals. While division of labor does suggest that owners, bosses and supervisors may need to use their critical thinking skills more often, I suspect, however, that workers find opportunities outside of work to challenge their minds and express creativity.
His concerns were justified; however, I believe that he would choose to revise some of his opinions regarding the need for a citizen militia. Globalization has increased our connectedness and interdependence with many nations. This closeness also breeds the potential for distrust, misunderstandings, and an ever-present potential for hostilities. Warfare technology dictates that a professional military utilizing division of labor is the only way to ensure national safety.
A civilian militia would be ill equipped in this environment. Although Ferguson would point to Russia as an example for his fears, I believe that he would moderate his stance on this issue. The potential for despotism is eliminated in the United States as a division of labor within our government provides protections against a dictatorship. I believe he would be surprised by the range of diverse ideas and level of activism which exists in post-industrial society. Spencer’s principle, likening society to a living organism, is certainly valid.
Post-industrial society is greater than the sum of its parts, and when one activity becomes obsolete, another arises to take its place. As a result of division of labor, we have become increasingly diverse. In some respects, large numbers of people do spontaneously specialize and adopt the occupations for which they are best suited. However, they can only to this within the context of what work is available to them at the time. Our high unemployment and underemployment rates demonstrate that many individuals are unable to always find work in their ideal field.
I theorize that Spencer would revise his theory on this matter. Spencer was also correct in stating that societal evolution was toward material affluence. Our conspicuous consumption and ever-increasing personal debt in order to finance these belongings are a testament to this fact. He may be concerned, however, that some individuals value material wealth at the expense of integrity, ethics and community. One prime example is the Madoff ponzi scheme. Our participation in activism on topics such as women’s, minority, and LGBTQ+ rights, as well as religious expression, point to our fight for personal freedoms. However, I believe he would want to reevaluate the nature of peaceful integration, as globalization has only increased our cultural diversity and competing interests. Although peaceful integration may be an ideal goal, the nature of individuals to protect their self-interests is at odds with this concept.
Lastly, Spencer would likely wish to consider the evolutionary nature of the role of government. The complexity and diverse interests that result from the division of labor on both micro and macro levels necessitates more oversights, programs, and protections.Durkheim would definitely view post-industrial society as having organic solidarity. He even predicted the growth of a “world society” (globalization) through division of labor. Since he viewed the type of law as an indicator, our form of restitutive law would provide confirmation. However, there are difficulties with Durkheim’s theories. First, his suggestion that a complex social structure evolving from scarcity and the division of labor would create a peaceful and productive existence underestimates the tendency of people, institutions, and nations to protect their own self-interests. Competition for jobs, wages, goods and services does not always lead to solidarity.
Even if division of labor resolved the scarcity issue through increased productivity, natural resources such as land, water and oil are finite. Second, the social bonds created by our connectedness are often impersonal, that is, based on a person’s role rather than a specific individual. This does not create any specific social bond, nor are there any shared beliefs. The amount of options available to us often serve to weaken the bond between people.
Marx’s views of an ideal society would likely remain unchanged. He would have to acknowledge the failure of communist Russia to create equality and freedom. In addition, he would need to consider post-industrial society is more complex than proletariat and bourgeois.
Workers are not limited to those in factories. Professionals, entrepreneurs and others are not under the control of a bourgeois. Corporate profits enrich stockholders and the distribution of wealth is not as one-sided as it once was. A middle class exists today, and capitalism is less exploitive than in the past through regulation and oversight.The importance of the theories of Smith, Ferguson, Spencer, Durkheim and Marx cannot be overstated. Many of their ideas have become integrated into our ideals of freedom, equality, individualism, and prosperity.
All of their theories on division of labor are relevant today as they provide us with a framework to understand the nature and structure of society. Their insights regarding the interrelation of individuals, business, and the whole of society help our understanding of current economic and social issues. This knowledge gives us a basis by which to evaluate the problems, plan solutions, and predict the outcome and consequences of various actions.
Governments, corporations, and individuals use this framework to affect changes to our environment which reflect our ideals.