Division of labour

Division of labour is the specialisation of cooperative labour in specific, circumscribed tasks and like roles. Historically an increasingly complex division of labour is closely associated with the growth of total output and trade, the rise of capitalism, and of the complexity of industrialisation processes. Division of labour was also a method used by the Sumerians to categorise different jobs, and divide them to skilled members of a society.


Trade and economic interdependence

The division of labour makes trade necessary and is the source of economic interdependence.

Division of labour is a process whereby the production process is broken down into a sequence of stages and workers are assigned to particular stages.

Global division of labour

There exist, as yet, few comprehensive studies of the global division of labour (an intellectual challenge for researchers), although the ILO and national statistical offices can provide plenty of data on request for those who wish to try.

In one study, Deon Filmer estimated that 2,474 million people participated in the global non-domestic labour force in the mid-1990s. Of these,

  • around 15%, or 379 million people, worked in industry,
  • a third, or 800 million worked in services, and
  • over 40%, or 1,074 million, in agriculture.

The majority of workers in industry and services were wage & salary earners - 58 percent of the industrial workforce and 65 percent of the services workforce. But a big portion were self-employed or involved in family labour. Filmer suggests the total of employees worldwide in the 1990s was about 880 million, compared with around a billion working on own account on the land (mainly peasants), and some 480 million working on own account in industry and services. The 2007 ILO Global Employment Trends Report indicated that services have surpassed agriculture for the first time in human history: "In 2006 the service sector’s share of global employment overtook agriculture for the first time, increasing from 39.5 per cent to 40 per cent. Agriculture decreased from 39.7 per cent to 38.7 per cent. The industry sector accounted for 21.3 per cent of total employment."[1]



In Plato's Republic, the origin of the state lies in the natural inequality of humanity, which is embodied in the division of labour.

'"Well then, how will our state supply these needs? It will need a farmer, a builder, and a weaver, and also, I think, a shoemaker and one or two others to provide for our bodily needs. So that the minimum state would consist of four or five men...." (The Republic, Page 103, Penguin Classics edition.)


Xenophon, writing in the fourth century BC, makes a passing reference to division of labour in his 'Cyropaedia' (aka Education of Cyrus).

"Just as the various trades are most highly developed in large cities, in the same way food at the palace is prepared in a far superior manner. In small towns the same man makes couches, doors, plows and tables, and often he even builds houses, and still he is thankful if only he can find enough work to support himself. And it is impossible for a man of many trades to do all of them well. In large cities, however, because many make demands on each trade, one alone is enough to support a man, and often less than one: for instance one man makes shoes for men, another for women, there are places even where one man earns a living just by mending shoes, another by cutting them out, another just by sewing the uppers together, while there is another who performs none of these operations but assembles the parts, Of necessity, he who pursues a very specialised task will do it best." (Book VIII, ch, ii, 4[]-6, cited in The Ancient Economy by M. I. Finley. Penguin books 1992, p 135.)

William Petty

Sir William Petty was the first modern writer to take note of division of labour, showing its existence and usefulness in Dutch shipyards. Classically the workers in a shipyard would build ships as units, finishing one before starting another. But the Dutch had it organised with several teams each doing the same tasks for successive ships. People with a particular task to do must have discovered new methods that were only later observed and justified by writers on political economy.

Petty also applied the principle to his survey of Ireland. His breakthrough was to divide up the work so that large parts of it could be done by people with no extensive training.

Bernard de Mandeville

Bernard de Mandeville discusses the matter in the second volume of The Fable of the Bees. This elaborates many matters raised by the original poem about a 'Grumbling Hive'. He says:

But if one will wholly apply himself to the making of Bows and Arrows, whilst another provides Food, a third builds Huts, a fourth makes Garments, and a fifth Utensils, they not only become useful to one another, but the Callings and Employments themselves will in the same Number of Years receive much greater Improvements, than if all had been promiscuously followed by every one of the Five.

David Hume

David Hume talks about "partition of employments" in "A Treatise of Human Nature" (1739):

When every individual person labours a-part, and only for himself, his force is too small to execute any considerable work; his labour being employ’d in supplying all his different necessities, he never attains a perfection in any particular art; and as his force and success are not at all times equal, the least failure in either of these particulars must be attended with inevitable ruin and misery. Society provides a remedy for these three inconveniences. By the conjunction of forces, our power is augmented: By the partition of employments, our ability en creases: And by mutual succor we are less expos’d to fortune and accidents. ’Tis by this additional force, ability, and security, that society becomes advantageous.

Henri-Louis Duhamel du Monceau

In his introduction to l’”Art de l’Épinglier”[2] - The Art of the Pin-Maker - (1761), Henri-Louis Duhamel du Monceau writes about the "division of this work":[3]

There is nobody who is not surprised of the small price of pins; but we shall be even more surprised, when we know how many different operations, most of them very delicate, are mandatory to make a good pin. We are going to go through these operations in a few words to stimulate the curiosity to know their detail; this enumeration will supply as many articles which will make the division of this work. [...] The first operation is to have brass go through the drawing plate to calibrate it. [...]

By "division of this work", Duhamel du Monceau is referring to the subdivisions of the text describing the various trades involved in the pin making activity. Adam Smith has most likely misunderstood the text in French, and thought that Duhamel du Monceau was talking about the "division of labour".[4]

Adam Smith

In the first sentence of An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), Adam Smith foresaw the essence of industrialism by determining that division of labour represents a qualitative increase in productivity. His example was the making of pins. Unlike Plato, Smith famously argued that the difference between a street porter and a philosopher was as much a consequence of the division of labour as its cause. Therefore, while for Plato the level of specialization determined by the division of labour was externally determined, for Smith it was the dynamic engine of economic progress. However, in a further chapter of the same book Smith criticizes the division of labour saying it leads to a 'mental mutilation' in workers; they become ignorant and insular as their working lives are confined to a single repetitive task.[5] The contradiction has led to some debate over Smith's opinion of the division of labour.[citation needed]

The specialization and concentration of the workers on their single subtasks often leads to greater skill and greater productivity on their particular subtasks than would be achieved by the same number of workers each carrying out the original broad task.

Smith saw the importance of matching skills with equipment - usually in the context of an organisation. For example, pin makers were organized with one making the head, another the body, each using different equipment. Similarly he emphasised a large number of skills, used in cooperation and with suitable equipment, were required to build a ship.

In modern economic discussion the term human capital would be used. Smith's insight suggests that the huge increases in productivity obtainable from technology or technological progress are possible because human and physical capital are matched, usually in an organization. See also a short discussion of Adam Smith's theory in the context of business processes.

Karl Marx

Increasing the specialization may also lead to workers with poorer overall skills and a lack of enthusiasm for their work. This viewpoint was extended and refined by Karl Marx. He described the process as alienation; workers become more and more specialized and work repetitious which eventually leads to complete alienation. Marx wrote that "with this division of labour", the worker is "depressed spiritually and physically to the condition of a machine" (Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, 1844, First Manuscript, in T.B. Bottomore, Karl Marx Early Writings, C.A. Watts and Co. Ltd., London, 1963, p.72). He believed that the fullness of production is essential to human liberation and accepted the idea of a strict division of labour only as a temporary necessary evil.

Marx's most important theoretical contribution is his sharp distinction between the social division and the technical or economic division of labour. That is, some forms of labour co-operation are due purely to technical necessity, but others are purely 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.

It may be, for example, that it is technically necessary that both pleasant and unpleasant jobs must be done by a group of people. But from that fact alone, it does not follow that any particular person must do any particular (pleasant or unpleasant) job. If particular people get to do the unpleasant jobs and others the pleasant jobs, this cannot be explained by technical necessity; it is a socially made decision, which could be made using a variety of different criteria. The tasks could be rotated, or a person could be assigned to a task permanently, and so on.

Marx also suggests that the capitalist division of labour will evolve over time such that the maximum amount of labour is productive labour, where productive labour is defined as labour which creates surplus value.

Marx 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. See further, Ali Rattansi: Marx and the Division of Labour (Macmillan, 1982)

Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau criticized the division of labour in Walden (published in 1854), on the basis that it removes people from a sense of connectedness with society and with the world at large, including nature. He claimed that the average man in a civilized society is less wealthy, in practice, than one in a "savage" society. The answer he gave was that self-sufficiency was enough to cover one's basic needs.

Thoreau's friend and mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, criticized the division of labour in "The American Scholar"; a widely-informed, holistic citizenry is vital for the spiritual and physical health of the country.

Émile Durkheim

Émile Durkheim wrote about a fractionated, unequal world by dividing it along the lines of "human solidarity", its essential moral value is division of labour. In 1893 he published "The Division of Labour in Society", his fundamental statement of the nature of human society and its social development. According to Franz Borkenau it was a great increase in division of labour occurring in the 1800s after the Industrial Revolution that introduced the abstract category of work, which may be said to underlie, in turn, the whole modern, Cartesian notion that our bodily existence is merely an object of our (abstract) consciousness.[citation needed]

Ludwig von Mises

Marx's theories, including the negative claims regarding the division of labour have been criticized by the Austrian economists such as Ludwig von Mises.

The main argument here is the gains accruing from the division of labour far outweigh the costs; it is fully possible to achieve balanced human development within capitalism, and alienation is more a romantic fiction. After all, work is not all there is; there is also leisure time.

Friedrich A. Hayek on the price system

In The Use of Knowledge in Society, Friedrich A. Hayek states:

The price system is just one of those formations which man has learned to use (though he is still very far from having learned to make the best use of it) after he had stumbled upon it without understanding it. Through it not only a 'division of labor' but also a coordinated utilization of resources based on an equally divided knowledge has become possible. The people who like to deride any suggestion that this may be so usually distort the argument by insinuating that it asserts that by some miracle just that sort of system has spontaneously grown up which is best suited to modern civilization. It is the other way round: man has been able to develop that division of labor on which our civilization is based because he happened to stumble upon a method which made it possible. Had he not done so, he might still have developed some other, altogether different, type of civilization, something like the "state" of the termite ants, or some other altogether unimaginable type[6]


The issue reaches its broadest scope in the controversies about globalization, which is often interpreted as a euphemism for the expansion of world trade based on comparative advantage. This would mean that countries specialise in the work they can do at the lowest opportunity cost. Critics however allege that international specialisation cannot be explained sufficiently in terms of "the work nations do best", rather this specialisation is guided more by commercial criteria, which favour some countries over others.

The OECD recently advised (28 June 2005) that:

"Efficient policies to encourage employment and combat unemployment are essential if countries are to reap the full benefits of globalization and avoid a backlash against open trade... Job losses in some sectors, along with new job opportunities in other sectors, are an inevitable accompaniment of the process of globalization... The challenge is to ensure that the adjustment process involved in matching available workers with new job openings works as smoothly as possible."

Modern debates

In the modern world, those specialists most preoccupied in their work with theorizing about the division of labour are those involved in management and organization. In view of the global extremities of the division of labour, the question is often raised about what division of labour would be most ideal, beautiful, efficient and just.

It is widely accepted that the division of labour is to a great extent inevitable, simply because no one can do all tasks at once. Labour hierarchy is a very common feature of the modern workplace structure, but of course the way these hierarchies are structured can be influenced by a variety of different factors.

It is often agreed that the most equitable principle in allocating people within hierarchies is that of true (or proven) competency or ability. This important Western concept of meritocracy could be read as an explanation or as a justification of why a division of labour is the way it is.

In general, in capitalist economies, such things are not decided consciously. Different people try different things, and that which is most effective cost-wise (produces the most and best output with the least input) will generally be adopted. Often techniques that work in one place or time do not work as well in another. This does not present a problem, as the only requirement of a capitalist system is that you turn a profit.

Sexual division of labour

The clearest exposition of the principles of sexual division of labour across the full range of human societies can be summarized by a large number of logically complementary implicational constraints of the following form: if women of childbearing ages in a given community tend to do X (e.g., preparing soil for planting) they will also do Y (e.g., the planting) while for men the logical reversal in this example would be that if men plant they will prepare the soil. The 'Cross Cultural Analysis of the Sexual Division of Labor[7] by White, Brudner and Burton (1977, public domain), using statistical entailment analysis, shows that tasks more frequently chosen by women in these order relations are those more convenient in relation to childrearing. This type of finding has been replicated in a variety of studies, including modern industrial economies. These entailments do not restrict how much work for any given task could be done by men (e.g., in cooking) or by women (e.g., in clearing forests) but are only least-effort or role-consistent tendencies. To the extent that women clear forests for agriculture, for example, they tend to do the entire agricultural sequence of tasks on those clearings. In theory, these types of constraints could be removed by provisions of child care, but ethnographic examples are lacking.

Sexual division of labour (evolutionary perspective)

See also

Sociology of Division of labour:

Further reading

ch. 2, "Division of Labor in Households and Families"
Supplement "Human Capital, Effort, and the Sexual Division of Labor," Journal of Labor Economics, 3(1) Part 2 1985), p p. S33-S58.


  1. ^ "ILO releases Global Employment Trends 2007". BANGKOK: ILO News. 2007-Jan-25. Archived from the original on 2008-Oct-05. http://web.archive.org/web/20081006103439/http://www.ilo.org/public/english/region/asro/bangkok/public/releases/yr2007/pr07_02sa.htm. 
  2. ^ R. Réaumur and A. de Ferchault. Art de l'Épinglier avec des additions de M. Duhamel du Monceau et des remarques extraites des mémoires de M. Perronet, inspecteur général des Ponts et Chaussées. Paris, Saillant et Nyon, 1761.
  3. ^ Scan of the text of l'"Art de l'Épinglier", with the expression "division de ce travail".
  4. ^ Jean-Louis Peaucelle, Adam Smith et la division du travail : La naissance d'une idée fausse, Paris, L'Harmattan, 2007, ISBN 2-296-03549-3, 9782296035492 Google Books, p. 182.
  5. ^ "The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life... But in every improved and civilized society this is the state into which the labouring poor, that is, the great body of the people, must necessarily fall, unless government takes some pains to prevent it.", An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), Adam Smith
  6. ^ Editor/Trans.First Pub. Date Sep. 1945 Publisher/Edition American Economic Review. XXXV, No. 4. pp. 519-30. American Economic Association Author Hayek, Friedrich A. Retrieved Oct-8-09
  7. ^ eclectic.ss.uci.edu

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  • division of labour — diˌvision of ˈlabour , division of labor noun divisions of labour PLURALFORM [countable, uncountable] ECONOMICS a way of organizing work in which each member of a group has one particular job to do instead of each member doing a share of all the… …   Financial and business terms

  • division of labour — The assigning of different functions to different agents • • • Main Entry: ↑division * * * division of labour UK US noun [singular] the way that the work that needs to be done is divided so that different people are responsible for different… …   Useful english dictionary

  • division of labour — ► division of labour the assignment of different parts of a manufacturing process or task to different people. Main Entry: ↑division …   English terms dictionary

  • division of labour — One of the oldest concepts in the social sciences. It denotes any stable organization, co ordinating individuals, or groups carrying out different, but integrated activities. Its first and most celebrated use was in classical political economy ,… …   Dictionary of sociology

  • division of labour — Specialization in the production process. Complex jobs can usually be less expensively completed by a large number of people each performing a small number of specialized tasks than by one person attempting to complete the entire job. The idea… …   Universalium

  • division of labour — the assignment of different parts of a manufacturing process or task to different people in order to improve efficiency. → division …   English new terms dictionary

  • division of labour — noun The separation of work into different categories or tasks; each category or task being carried out by different groups of workers …   Wiktionary

  • division of labour — noun (C, U) a way of organizing work in which each member of a group has a particular job to do …   Longman dictionary of contemporary English

  • division of labour — UK / US noun [singular] the way that the work that needs to be done is divided so that different people are responsible for different parts of it …   English dictionary

  • Division of Labour & Transaction Costs —   Abbreviated title (ISO) DLTC Discipline Economics …   Wikipedia

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