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Theory of Division of Labour

Durkheim’s “Theory of Division of Labour” is often regarded as his major contribution to the field of sociological thought. Durkheim’s doctoral thesis, “Division of Labour in Society” – 1893, is his first major book. In this, the influence of Auguste Comte is clearly evident.

The theme of this book is the relationship between individuals and society or the collectivity. It is indeed a classic study of social solidarity. In this book he reacted against the view that modern industrial society could be based simply upon agreement between individuals motivated by self-interest and without any prior consensus. He agreed that the kind of consensus in modern society was different from that in simpler social systems. But he saw both of these as two types of social solidarity.

In his famous work “The Division of Labour in Society” Durkheim tried to determine the social consequences of the division of labour in modern societies. A major theme in all Durkheim’s writings is the importance of shared social norms and values in maintaining social cohesion and solidarity. He argued that the nature of this social solidarity depends on the extent of the division of labour.

Meaning of Division of Labour:

The concept of “Division of Labour” has been used in three ways:
  • In the sense of the technical division of labour, it describes the production process;
  • As the sexual division of labour, it describes social divisions between men and women;
  • As the social division of labour, it refers to differentiation in society as a whole. [It is in the third sense that Durkheim uses this term.]
In a general sense, the term division of labour involves the assignment to each unit or group a specific share of a common task.

Durkheim’s Optimistic View of Division of Labour:

"While Marx was pessimistic about the division of labour in society, Durkheim was cautiously optimistic. Marx saw the specialised division of labour trapping the worker in his occupational role and dividing society into antagonistic social classes. Durkheim saw a number of problems arising from specialisation in industrial society but believed that the promise of the division of labour outweighed the problems".

Two Main Types of Social Solidarity:

As it is made clear that the main theme of the book “Division of Labour in Society” by Durkheim is the relationship between the individual and society. The nature of this relationship could be stated in the form of two questions: (i) How can a large number of individuals make up a society-? And (ii) How can these individuals achieve ‘consensus’ which is the basic condition of social existence?

In his attempts to answer these vital questions Durkheim drew up a distinction between two forms of solidarity namely: (i) mechanical solidarity and (ii) organic solidarity, respectively. These two types of solidarity were found in the traditional tribal societies and in the modern complex urban societies.

1. Mechanical Solidarity:

As defined by Durkheim, mechanical solidarity refers to “social solidarity based upon homogeneity of values and behaviour, strong social constraint, and loyalty to tradition and kinship. The term applied to small, non-literate societies characterised by a simple division of labour, very little specialisation of function, only a few social roles and very little tolerance of individuality.

As Durkheim has stated mechanical solidarity is solidarity of resemblance. It is rooted in the similarity of the individual members of a society. In the society where this kind of solidarity prevails individuals do not differ from one another much. They are the members of the same collectivity and resemble one another because “they feel the same emotions, cherish the same values, and hold the same things sacred.

The society is coherent because the individuals are not yet differentiated.” Here we find the strong states of the “Collective Conscience.” Collective conscience refers “to the sum total of beliefs and sentiments common to the average members of the society.” This prevails mostly in primitive societies. The common conscience completely covers individual mentality and morality. “Here social constraint is expressed most decisively in repressive, severe criminal law which serves to maintain mechanical solidarity.”

2. Organic Solidarity:

As defined by Durkheim, organic solidarity refers to “a type of societal solidarity typical of modern industrial society, in which unity is based on the interdependence of a very large number of highly special­ised roles in a system involving a complex division of labour that requires the co-operation of almost all the groups and individuals of the society.

This type of solidarity is called organic because it is similar to the unity of a biological organism in which highly specialised parts or organs, must work in co­ordination if the organism [or any one of its parts] is to survive”

Organic solidarity is almost the opposite of mechanical solidarity. According to Durkheim, in­creasing density of population is the major key to the development of division of labour. Organic solidarity emerges with the growth of the division of labour. This especially is witnessed in the modern industrial societies.

Division of labour and the consequent dissimilarities among men bring about increasing interdependence in society. The interdependence is reflected in human mentality and morality and in the fact of organic solidarity itself. In organic solidarity, consensus results from differentiation itself.

The individuals are no longer similar, but different. It is precisely because the individuals are different that consensus is achieved. With the increase in division of labour the collective conscience lessens. Thus, criminal law tends to be replaced by civil and administrative law.

Here the stress is on restitution of rights rather than on punishment. An increase in organic solidarity would represent moral progress stressing the higher values of equality, liberty, fraternity, and justice. Even here, the social constraints in the form of contracts and laws continue to play a major role. Differences Between Mechanical and Organic Solidarities

Durkheim formulated the distinction between the two types of solidarity by identifying the demographic and morphological features basic to each type. He also identified the typical forms of law, and formal features and content of the conscience collective, which ought to be associated with each type.


Durkheim felt that only if all the members of a society were tied to a common set of symbolic representations or to common set of beliefs about the world around them, the moral unity of the society would be safe. “Without them, Durkheim argued, any society, whether primitive or modern, was bound to degenerate and decay.”

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