The phrase “division of labor” has many different definitions that can be used in different contexts. The Encyclopedia of Sociology helps explore the many different ways division of labor can be defined, and recognizes that all major sociologists considered this topic to be fundamental in understanding modern society, and how it has came to be. (Borgatta Montgomery and Rhonda 2000). Some of these classical sociological thinkers expressed their own ideas of division of labor, such as Adam Smith, Karl Marx, and Emile Durkheim. The ideas of these three great thinkers had some similarities, but also differed in many ways. Adam Smith felt division of labor was necessary and vital for economic prosperity, while Karl Marx felt it was the worst thing that had occurred in the world.
Both of these thinkers made strong arguments for their ideas, and express great reason in them, but Emile Durkheim’s idea of division of labor is the most accurate out of all them, because he clearly shows in his writings it can be both positive and negative. In this essay I will compare and contrast the different ideas of these three sociological thinkers and describe why I think the most accurate idea was that of Emile Durkheim.
Adam Smith’s Perspective:
Most sociological thinkers when speaking of a certain topic, express their thoughts as to clearly agree or disagree with the topic, whatever the case may be. In the case of division of labor, Adam Smith demonstrates to have clear agreement with it in his writings. His view of division of labor is described purely in the context of the economy. He described the process of dividing labor to be very effective because people began to work faster and/or more efficiently. Smith believed it was more efficient for an assembly line of workers to complete tasks in greater numbers, as opposed to one person alone having to complete the tasks and losing valuable downtime in the process. Although Smith recognized the division of labor did create a gap between the rich and the poor, he mostly believed this gap was between different countries, and not necessarily within the society of the country itself.
That is why he felt division of labor was the key to economic prosperity. He loved the idea of capitalism because he knew it would increase the wealth in the country as long as there is a demand for what it getting produced. Although most of his arguments have reasons behind them, Smith believed division of labor was great for everyone, including those working in the assembly lines, and this is where he was wrong. He believed if they worked hard enough one day they could become their own masters. Lisa Hill describes this idea in her journal article stating, “In general, Smith took the view that whatever makes a country rich, inevitably enriches the poor also, and is, therefore, in the long run to their benefit” (Hill 2007: 347).
Karl Marx’s Perspective:
Karl Marx and Adam Smith had a pretty similar idea of what the actual definition of division of labor was, but they completely differed in their ideas of whether it was a bad or a good thing. Marx hated the idea of division of labor, and rather than living in a capitalist based society, called for a society in which everyone would be equal, and there would be no gap between the rich and the poor. Marx felt the heart of capitalism was money and that it was the only thing that drove the capitalist to produce so much, and push the workers for hardly any pay at all. Marx states, “Wages are only a special name for the price of labour, for the price of this peculiar commodity which has no other repository than human flesh and blood” (Marx 1847: 183). Division of labor, in Marx’s eyes, was the cause of the creation of different social classes. All of this led to the alienation of labor. In one of writings Marx (1845) talks about the notion of human beings being able to distinguish themselves from animals through the ability to have consciousness, or being able to control there own lives.
Being a part this system of division of labor was taking humanity away from the workers because they were not able to control their own means of production. Marx believed it was something very horrible, and eventually all the workers would revolt and ultimately over throw and get rid of capitalism. He had a utopian view of what he wanted the world to be but unfortunately his view was unrealistic. Marx’s idea of division of labor was pessimistic on an extreme level. He was right about the worker’s condition and the drive for money on the capitalist’s end, but the way he wanted the world to be would limit social mobility. Not only were his aspirations for the world a bit unrealistic, but he also advocated for the public to not only write about what was going on, he wanted them to do something about it; even though he, himself, never actually did.
Emile Durkheim’s Perspective:
While Adam Smith and Karl Marx took on the definition of division of labor in terms of a more economical perspective, Emile Durkheim expresses his ideas of division of labor in terms of it on a more societal level. Similar to Smith’s perspective, Durkheim saw division of labor as being an evolution. He believed division of labor led to solidarity. He described there being two different types of solidarity, mechanical and organic solidarity. Mechanical solidarity, or solidarity by similarities, was the traditional model of societies that had a “collective (or common) consciousness” (Durkheim 1893). This meant the societies that shared the same values, religious beliefs, and backgrounds. He believed society evolved from this mechanical solidarity into organic solidarity.
Organic solidarity was the result of the evolution in society resulting in complex division of labor, beliefs and backgrounds. Durkheim did not necessarily believe division of labor was a bad thing, but he did feel if the evolution in societies occurred too quickly there would be a breakdown of collective consciousness, norms, concept of community, and the social constraints would be weakened, leading to a disorder in society; he described this idea as being an anomie (Durkheim 1983). Durkheim was more realistic in his ideas of division of labor, because he did not put it to an extreme of either being really good or really bad. He has a solid argument rather than being overly pessimistic or overly optimistic.
The ideas of these classical thinkers were similar in many ways. For example, Adam Smith and Karl Marx had a basic definition of what division of labor was, but Smith felt the conditions of the workers did not matter because of how great the economy would be. Marx did not think it was worth it, and completely opposite to Smith’s ideas, felt division of labor needed to come to an end. He strongly believed it would. Emile Durkheim’s perspective on the topic was a different approach. His ideas are more reasonable because he puts division of labor in terms of a more broad perspective, rather than simply focusing the idea on an economical perspective. Therefore, Durkheim’s ideas on division of labor are more accurate than Smith and Marx because he did not focus merely only on if it was good or bad thing, but he discussed both the pros and the cons.
Borgatta, E., & Montgomery R. V. (2000). Encyclopedia of Sociology. New York: Macmillan Reference USA. Durkheim, Emile. 1893. “The Division of Labor in Society.” Pp. 220-242 in Classical Sociological Theory. Ed. 3 edited by C. Calhoun, J. Gerteis, J. Moody, S. Pfaff, and I.Virk. Massachusetts: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
Hill, L. (2007). “Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson and Karl Marx on The Division of Labour.” Journal of Classical Sociology, 7(3), 339-366. Marx, Karl. 1845. “The German Ideology.” Pp. 142-145 in Classical Sociological Theory. Ed. 3 edited by C. Calhoun, J. Gerteis, J. Moody, S. Pfaff, and I.Virk. Massachusetts: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Marx, Karl. 1847. “Wage-Labour Capital.” Pp.182-189 in Classical Sociological Theory. Ed. 3 edited by C. Calhoun, J. Gerteis, J. Moody, S. Pfaff, and I.Virk. Massachusetts: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Smith, Adam. 1776. “The Wealth of Nations.” Pp.55-66 in Classical Sociological Theory. Ed. 3 edited by C. Calhoun, J. Gerteis, J. Moody, S. Pfaff, and I.Virk. Massachusetts: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.