Higher Biology Division Of Labour Essay Examples

It’s easy to find familiar examples of division of labour. In a corporation, some people work in sales and others in accounting; in an orchestra, some play the bassoon and others the violin. Since no one is born an accountant or a bassoonist, in a system with division of labour, differentiated skills must be acquired. ‘Division of labour’ evokes an organisation characterised by a fit between role – what each participant does – and its natural ability.

Historically, many have found the idea of division of labour a compelling and powerful model. Plato admired it, Adam Smith explained how economies benefit from it, and Henry Ford industrialised it. But it’s not natural. A vision of human society ordered and improved by division of labour has permeated and distorted our understanding of nature. In high-school biology, for example, people are taught that a body consists of cells specialised to perform certain functions. Skin cells stick together and seal wounds, while blood cells hurtle along picking up and handing off oxygen. But different kinds of cells originate from a few identical ones, and some cells, such as stem cells, can change type. Textbooks tell us that these are merely transitory stages along the way to the ideal condition in which each cell does its particular job.

Ant colonies seem the perfect natural instance of a social system governed by division of labour. All known species of ants – now about 14,000 – live in colonies. An ant colony consists of one or more reproductive females, called ‘queens’, who lay the eggs. All the rest of the ants, the ones you see walking around, are sterile female ‘workers’, daughters of the queen and the males with whom she mated.

In the 1970s, the biologist E O Wilson set the agenda for research on ants by extolling the virtues of division of labour. He freely used metaphors from human society to describe a colony as a ‘factory within a fortress’. In this metaphor, each ant is programmed to carry out its appointed task. Some ants feed the larvae; while others go out to get food. Using a term that refers to ascribed social positions in Hindu society, Wilson called an ant’s task its ‘caste’. The idea was that an ant’s task is fixed. The implication was that the workers in an ant colony, all sisters or half-sisters, are divided into naturally fixed groups, and genetically programmed to perform a particular task. This perspective is depicted in the movie Antz (1998): a harried bureaucrat stamps each larva as a soldier or forager. Thus each ant’s role is unalterable destiny, much like the handsome and intelligent Alphas and the semi-moronic Epsilons of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1931).

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We know now that ants do not perform as specialised factory workers. Instead ants switch tasks. An ant’s role changes as it grows older and as changing conditions shift the colony’s needs. An ant that feeds the larvae one week might go out to get food the next. Yet in an ant colony, no one is in charge or tells another what to do. So what determines which ant does which task, and when ants switch roles?

The colony is not a monarchy. The queen merely lays the eggs. Like many natural systems without central control, ant societies are in fact organised not by division of labour but by a distributed process, in which an ant’s social role is a response to interactions with other ants. In brief encounters, ants use their antennae to smell one another, or to detect a chemical that another ant has recently deposited. Taken in the aggregate, these simple interactions between ants allow colonies to adjust the numbers performing each task and to respond to the changing world. This social coordination occurs without any individual ant making any assessment of what needs to be done.

For millennia, ants have been held up as models for human societies, characterised by coordinated and efficient mutual regard and selfless hard work. In The Iliad, Zeus changes the ants of Thessaly to soldiers after a plague wiped out the men, creating the Myrmidons, who beat back the Trojans. Aesop’s fable of the ant and the grasshopper celebrates the ant’s capacity for delayed gratification, collecting food to be used later. Unlike the frivolous and short-sighted grasshopper, the virtuous ants contribute to their society. Aesop’s ant lugging a seed home is bringing food for the colony. Similarly, the Myrmidon’s willingness to sacrifice, in their case their lives, makes them heroic soldiers in Achilles’ army.

In 1747, when the English naturalist William Gould listed the ‘moral Instructions arising from the Sight of a Colony of Ants’, he pointed out that the ants worked ‘for the common Emolument, [that] might let us know the Consequence of Public Good’. Each ant, he observed, is dedicated to the task it ought to do for the benefit of the others. The modern scientific narrative about the division of labour that characterises ant colonies tells essentially the same story: ants demonstrate that if everyone does the job they are supposed to do, indeed were born to do, all of us are better off.

In a system organised by division of labour, each individual specialises in a particular task. The specialisation is justified because of differences among individuals in how well they perform tasks. Division of labour always entails specialisation, but it can take different forms. Plato favoured the horizontal form, in which a single actor performs each task. Adam Smith preferred the vertical, in which different people accomplish parts of a single task. Henry Ford extended and expanded the vertical form in the flow of work in a factory.

‘Why is it, every time I ask for a pair of hands, they come with a brain attached?’

Division of labour offers advantages to human society because, among other reasons, people differ in abilities. Plato considered these differences in ability a matter of talent as well as preference:

One man is good at one thing, another at another … So more things are produced, and better things, when every man does what he can do best, without being troubled by having to do other things in addition.

For Smith, division of labour brought the advantage of learning and improvement, ‘the increase in dexterity’ that comes of repeating a task. It also brought increases in efficiency; Smith saw changing tasks as an opportunity for a workman to slack off, engaging in ‘sauntering and… indolent careless application, [which] almost always renders him slothful and lazy’.

Ford shared more of Smith’s views about division of labour than Plato’s. He didn’t care about talent or learning. ‘Why is it,’ Ford complained, ‘every time I ask for a pair of hands, they come with a brain attached?’ Ford was interested in speed. He realised that, troubled or not, people could work faster if they didn’t have to put down one tool and pick up another.

When Wilson introduced the notion of ant colonies organised by the division of labour, he framed it as evidence that natural selection had shaped workers to do the tasks they do best. An ant emerges from a pupa as an adult of a certain size, and stays that size throughout its life. In some species, there are ants of different sizes within a colony. Wilson claimed that task and body type coincide: large ants would be soldiers, smaller ones dedicated to more domestic tasks.

In fact, the data here are sparse and contradictory. Though the largest ants are often designated as ‘soldiers’, in fights between ant species the smaller species often prevails. A large ant, for example, is helpless if six tiny ones grab each of its legs. In some species in the genus Pheidole, the large-headed ‘soldiers’ show no military inclinations; instead they tend to stay in the nest and use their large jaw muscles to crack seeds. But if there are not enough small ants to go outside and forage, the larger ones will do the same tasks as the smaller ones.

In advocating the division of labour model, Wilson argued that ant workers of a certain size performed certain tasks better than workers of another size. In this view, the leaf-cutter ants cutting the leaves were not too big, not too small, but just right for leaf-cutting. It’s an appealing theory, but there is no real evidence that ants of a certain size do one task better than others. Another challenge to the generality of the theory is that in the great majority (about 276 of 326) of genera of ants, all the ants in a colony are the same size. Moreover, regardless of size, as ant workers get older, they move from one task to another, switching tasks as circumstances require. But switching tasks, either in stages of life or in the short term, is not consistent with organisation by division of labour. However appealing it might be to imagine ant colonies organised by division of labour, the evidence tells us they are not.

What I and others have found, instead, is that the collective process of task allocation in ant colonies is based on networks of simple interactions. For example, in harvester ants, colonies regulate foraging activity, adjusting the numbers of ants currently out searching for seeds to the amount of food available. An outgoing forager does not leave the nest until it meets enough returning foragers coming back with food. This creates a simple form of positive feedback: the more food is available, the more quickly foragers find it, and the more quickly they return to the nest, eliciting more foraging. When I provide a windfall of food by placing a lovely little pile of organic millet outside the colony, ants that formerly performed other tasks switch to become foragers. Each encounter, in the form of a brief antennal contact, has no meaning to the ant, but in the aggregate, the rate of encounters determines how many ants are currently foraging.

The system that ant colonies use to organise their work is a distributed process. Like division of labour, distributed processes can take different forms. A distributed process is not the opposite of division of labour – but it’s different in important ways. Primarily, in a distributed process, there is never central control, while in division of labour there might be. A leader can tell one citizen to make candles and another to make shoes. In a distributed process this would happen through local interactions, for example with people who want to buy candles or shoes – creating demand that is filled by an entrepreneur who then meets the demand.

Most fathers might not be as good at changing diapers as most mothers but, at 3am, the finer points of technique don’t matter

At least in the short term, a system organised by a distributed process and one organised by division of labour could look the same: the same individuals could do the same task over and over. An ant might do the same task day after day. It might go out to forage, come back to the nest, engage again in the interactions that stimulate it to forage, and spend the night among other ants that recently returned from foraging. The next morning, it is again in a situation in which it is likely to forage, and this could continue day after day. However, in different conditions, the ant might do another task, and so its role is not fixed.

Distributed processes and division of labour can both be effective, but they don’t function in the same way. For division of labour, specialisation can lead to better work. By contrast, in a distributed process, the fact that individuals are interchangeable makes the whole system more robust and more resilient. If the individual who performs a task gets lost or becomes unfit to do it, another can step in. The individuals don’t have to be all alike, but the differences among them are not large enough to affect the viability of the system. Most fathers might not be as good at changing diapers as most mothers but, at 3am, the finer points of technique don’t matter. If anyone changes the diaper, the baby goes back to sleep.

The term ‘distributed process’ originated in computer science. There, it means that no single unit, such as a router in a data network, knows what all the others are doing and tells them what to do. Instead, interactions between each unit and its local connections add up to the desired outcome. Distributed processes often operate in parallel rather than in series. An assembly line works in series: the handle of the car door must be put on before the door is installed, and the door can’t be installed until the person who puts on the handle has finished. In a parallel process, different steps can be done at the same time. Suppose each worker built a car from beginning to end. Then if one worker takes a little longer to put on the door handle on one car, this will not affect when the next worker can install the door on their car. If all the tasks are relatively simple, parallel processes go much faster than serial ones. This is true of computers, in which the logic gates perform very simple tasks, creating electrical versions of 1s and 0s. Compared with processing in series, parallel processing makes it possible to accomplish far more elaborate operations in a short time.

Because data networks, such as the internet, are undergoing very rapid growth, distributed processes are attracting great interest. But they entail a fundamental departure from systems based on central control: for many distributed algorithms, the outcome is not completely predictable. Although it’s possible to say what will happen on average, what will happen in particular cases can’t be specified precisely. Such uncertainty is inimical to the hearts of engineers who love things to work the same way every time. That engineers value predictability is a good thing for all of us who cross bridges and travel in airplanes. But distributed processes have distinct advantages for certain kinds of engineered systems, such as large data or electrical networks, in which the failure of one tiny part is not critical. They create redundancy at the expense of efficiency, and sacrifice precision for solutions that are good enough most of the time.

Distributed processes also have analogues in nature. In the 1970s and ’80s, as computer scientists saw the value of distributed processes in programming, they began to point out the analogies with natural systems. Douglas Hofstadter’s influential book Gödel, Escher, Bach (1979) used ant colonies and brains as metaphors for computer systems. David Rumelhart, another computer scientist, extended this idea to neural networks, models that explain how parts of a brain might work using parallel distributed processes. Now, scientists are studying distributed algorithms throughout nature, from circuits formed by neurons in brains or the interactions of metastasising cancer cells, to the movement of a flock of starlings or school of fish.

Ants can show how distributed processes might allow us to adjust to a changing environment; to build nests, decide when to move, or change from working inside the nest to foraging outside. It is becoming clear that the ant colonies’ algorithms are diverse, in interesting ways. Similar processes are at work in other natural systems without central control. For example, although certain large regions of the brain seem to be involved in particular tasks, at the level of neurons it looks like division of labour is not the rule. The same neurons are involved in different tasks, and the same task can be accomplished by different neurons.

We say that disease, psychosis and athletic ability are ‘genetic’, as if we had little switches labelled ‘cancer’ or ‘paranoia’ or ‘endurance’ inside

It can be very difficult to let go of the idea of division of labour. Humans have always used arguments about supposedly intrinsic attributes to justify social roles. Kings ruled by divine right and ancestry, while others were slaves based on race or physical attributes. Such ideas pervade the rhetoric of US society and politics. We are told that Mexicans are rapists and Muslims are terrorists and, from the other side, a much more benign version but deriving from a similar philosophical stance: that Americans are optimistic and energetic.

Such explanations, relying on intrinsic attributes rather than relations and circumstances, also dominate our views of nature. Last summer, for instance, a bride whose father had died asked the man who received her father’s transplanted heart to give her away at her wedding. It is the heart’s job to love, therefore her father’s feelings must reside in her father’s heart. Genetic determinism is another example. We say that disease, intelligence, psychosis, athletic ability and so on are ‘genetic’, as if inside a person’s cells there were little switches labelled ‘cancer’ or ‘paranoia’ or ‘endurance’. In fact stress, sunlight, exercise and similar influences can change which genes are turned off and on. Biologists are learning that what genes do depends as much on what is happening outside as well as inside the cell.

So why is the ant colony as a factory of specialised workers such a compelling image? First, it’s familiar: a little city of ants, each carrying out its assigned job, is a miniature version of a human city. It’s comforting to imagine that each ant gets up in the morning, drinks its coffee, grabs its briefcase and goes off to work. To envisage how an ant’s task of the moment arises from a pulsing network of brief, meaningless interactions might compel us instead to ponder what really accounts for why each of us has a particular job.

Secondly, in general, explanations are often easier to accept if they invoke internal properties that are invisible and thus, like the Wizard of Oz behind his curtain, do not require any further inspection. In the language of experimental science, the factors that matter but that we can’t see are said to be inside ‘a black box’. We just ignore them while investigating the others that we can see. But to say that someone does something because that is ‘who they are’, ‘how they are wired’, or that it is ‘genetic’ or a result of stuff in their brain, is no explanation at all. It just makes it possible for us to move on by begging the question. Buddha insisted that the ‘doctrine of self’, based on the notion that a person is a collection of fixed properties, is a fallacy. The alternative, that a person is a shifting flux of impressions and feelings, lacking a defined core, is difficult to grasp.

The most fundamental appeal to the idea of division of labour is, perhaps, that it provides a reassuring sense of control. If each individual’s task is not determined by his particular aptitude, then what determines who does what? It is comforting to think that at least some invisible force – and natural selection is a powerful example – has imparted an order that makes everything as it should be. For some religious people, God does this. While divine right makes one man a king, it also gives all the subjects a narrative in which all is just as it ought to be.

Reality is less soothing but much more interesting. A distributed process can be messy and not fully predictable, yet can provide greater resilience and robustness. Such distributed processes might not be ideal as one of the ‘major instruments of social stability’, in the words of the Director of Hatcheries in Brave New World, but they work beautifully in nature, from brains to ant colonies and, increasingly, in our own engineered networks.

Division of labour is a human innovation, drawing on our ability to learn and improve by practice, and to trade goods and services. The growing recognition that natural processes work differently from our symphonies and armies will allow us to see the natural world more clearly. Ant colonies are not factories or fortresses; instead they use simple interactions to adjust to changing conditions. Ant societies, organised by distributed algorithms rather than division of labour, have thrived for more than 130 million years.

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Deborah M. Gordon

is a professor of biology at Stanford University in California. She has written about her research for publications such as Scientific American and Wired. Her latest book is Ant Encounters: Interaction Networks and Colony Behavior(2010).


The division of labour is the separation of tasks in any system so that participants may specialize. Individuals, organisations, and nations are endowed with or acquire specialized capabilities and either form combinations or trade to take advantage of the capabilities of others in addition to their own. Specialized capabilities may include equipment or natural resources in addition to skills and training and complex combinations of such assets are often important, as when multiple items of specialized equipment and skilled operators are used to produce a single product. The division of labour is the motive for trade and the source of economic interdependence.

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.[1] Historically, an increasing division of labour is associated with the growth of total output and trade, the rise of capitalism, and the increasing 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. Division of labour generally also 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 organizations according to the skills and/or equipment those people or organizations possess. Often division of labour and division of work are both part of the economic activity within an industrial nation or organization.



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, p. 103, Penguin Classics edition.)

Silvermintz notes that, "Historians of economic thought credit Plato, primarily on account of arguments advanced in his Republic, as an early proponent of the division of labour." Notwithstanding this, Silvermintz argues that, "While Plato recognizes both the economic and political benefits of the division of labour, he ultimately critiques this form of economic arrangement insofar as it hinders the individual from ordering his own soul by cultivating acquisitive motives over prudence and reason."[2]


Xenophon, in the fourth century BC, makes a passing reference to division of labour in his 'Cyropaedia' (a.k.a. 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, ploughs 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 specialized task will do it best.[3]

Ibn Khaldun[edit]

The 14th-century scholar Ibn Khaldun emphasised the importance of the division of labour in the production process. In his Muqaddimah, he states:

The power of the individual human being is not sufficient for him to obtain (the food) he needs, and does not provide him with as much as he requires to live. Even if we assume an absolute minimum of food...that amount of food could be obtained only after much preparation...Thus, he cannot do without a combination of many powers from among his fellow beings, if he is to obtain food for himself and for them. Through cooperation, the needs of a number of persons, many times greater than their own number, can be satisfied.[4]

William Petty[edit]

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 organized 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[edit]

Bernard de Mandeville discusses the matter in the second volume of The Fable of the Bees (1714). 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[edit]

When every individual person labors apart, and only for himself, his force is too small to execute any considerable work; his labor being employed 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 increases: And by mutual succor we are less exposed to fortune and accidents. ’Tis by this additional force, ability, and security, that society becomes advantageous.

Henri-Louis Duhamel du Monceau[edit]

In his introduction to Art de l'Épinglier [The Art of the Pin-Maker] (1761),[5]Henri-Louis Duhamel du Monceau writes about the "division of this work":[6]

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; this can also be described as division of labour.

Adam Smith[edit]

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 quantitative increase in productivity. Like du Monceau, 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 can lead to "the almost entire corruption and degeneracy of the great body of the people. … unless government takes some pains to prevent it."[7] The contradiction has led to some debate over Smith's opinion of the division of labour.[8]Alexis de Tocqueville agreed with Smith: "Nothing tends to materialize man, and to deprive his work of the faintest trace of mind, more than extreme division of labor."[9]Adam Ferguson shared similar views to Smith, though was generally more negative.[10]

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 organization. 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.

Babbage wrote a seminal work "On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures" analyzing perhaps for the first time the division of labour in factories.[11]

Immanuel Kant[edit]

In the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of morals 1785, Kant notes the value of the division of labour:

All crafts, trades and arts have profited from the division of labour; for when each worker sticks to one particular kind of work that needs to be handled differently from all the others, he can do it better and more easily than when one person does everything. Where work is not thus differentiated and divided, where everyone is a jack-of-all-trades, the crafts remain at an utterly primitive level.[12]

Karl Marx[edit]

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".[13]

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.[14]

Among Marx's theoretical contributions is his sharp distinction between the economic and the social division of labor.[15] 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.[16]

Henry David Thoreau[edit]

Henry David 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.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed]

Émile Durkheim[edit]

In his seminal work, The Division of Labor in Society, Émile Durkheim[17] 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 labor."[18] 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."[19] This difference may result from the influence of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species on Durkheim’s writings.[19] 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 labour 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."[19]

Since Durkheim’s division of labour applied to all organisms, he considered it a "natural law"[19] 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.[20]

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."[20] 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;[21] and civil laws as promoting organic solidarity, a society in which individuals engage in different kinds of work that benefit society and other individuals.[21] Durkheim believes that organic solidarity prevails in more advanced societies, while mechanical solidarity typifies less developed societies.[22] He explains that, in societies with more mechanical solidarity, the diversity and division of labour is much less, so individuals have a similar worldview.[23] Similarly, Durkheim opines that in societies with more organic solidarity, the diversity of occupations is greater, and individuals depend on each other more, resulting in greater benefits to society as a whole.[23]

Durkheim’s work enabled social science to progress more efficiently "in … the understanding of human social behavior."[24]

Ludwig von Mises[edit]

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 economic gains accruing from the division of labour far outweigh the costs. It is argued that it is fully possible to achieve balanced human development within capitalism, and alienation is downplayed as mere romantic fiction.

Friedrich A. Hayek[edit]

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 labour 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 labour 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.[25]

Globalization and global division of labour[edit]

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 specialize in the work they can do at the lowest relative cost measured in terms of the opportunity cost of not using resources for other work, compared to the opportunity costs experienced by other countries. Critics, however, allege that international specialization cannot be explained sufficiently in terms of "the work nations do best", rather this specialization 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.

Few studies have taken place regarding the global division of labour. Information can be drawn from ILO and national statistical offices.[citation needed]

In one study, Deon Filmer estimated that 2.474 billion 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 and 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."[26]

Modern debates[edit]

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.

Two styles of management that are seen in modern organizations are control and commitment, control being the division of labour style of the past and commitment being the style of the future. Control management is based on the principles of job specialization and the division of labour. This is the assembly line style of job specialization where employees are given a very narrow set of tasks or one specific task. Commitment division of labour is oriented on including the employee and building a level of internal commitment towards accomplishing tasks. Tasks include more responsibility and are coordinated based on expertise rather than formal position.[27]

Job specialization is advantageous in developing employee expertise in a field and boosting organizational production. However, disadvantages of job specialization included limited employee skill, a dependence on entire department fluency, and employee discontent with repetitious tasks.[citation needed]

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.

Size, cost, and the development of new technology are factors that have influenced job specialization structures in the modern workplace. The cost of job specialization is what limits small organizations from dividing their labour responsibilities, but as organizations increase in size there is a correlation in the rise of division of labour. Technological developments have led to a decrease in the amount of job specialization in organizations as new technology makes it easier for fewer employees to accomplish a variety of tasks and still enhance production. New technology has also been supportive in the flow of information between departments helping to reduce the feeling of department isolation.[27]

It is often agreed[citation needed] that the most equitable principle in allocating people within hierarchies is that of true (or proven) competency or ability. This important 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.[citation needed] 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.[citation needed] Often techniques that work in one place or time do not work as well in another. This does not present a problem,[citation needed] as the only requirement of a capitalist system is that you turn a profit.


Adam Smith famously said in The Wealth of Nations that the division of labour is limited by the extent of the market. This is because it is by exchange that each person can be specialized in their work and yet still have access to a wide range of goods and services. Hence, reductions in barriers to exchange lead to increases in the division of labour and so help to drive economic growth. Limitations to the division of labour have also been related to coordination and transportation costs.[28]

There can be motivational advantages to a reduced division of labour (which has been termed ‘job enlargement’ and 'job enrichment').[29] Jobs that are too specialized in a narrow range of tasks are said to result in demotivation due to boredom and alienation. Hence, a Taylorist approach to work design contributed to worsened industrial relations.

There are also limitations to the division of labour (and the division of work) that result from work-flow variations and uncertainties.[30][31] These help to explain issues in modern work organization, such as task consolidations in business process reengineering and the use of multi-skilled work teams. For instance, one stage of a production process may temporarily work at a slower pace, forcing other stages to slow down. One answer to this is to make some portion of resources mobile between stages, so that those resources must be capable of undertaking a wider range of tasks. Another is to consolidate tasks so that they are undertaken one after another by the same workers and other resources. Stocks between stages can also help to reduce the problem to some extent but are costly and can hamper quality control. Note also that modern flexible manufacturing systems require both flexible machines and flexible workers.

In project-based work, the coordination of resources is a difficult issue for the project manager as project schedules and resulting resource bookings are based on estimates of task durations and so are subject to subsequent revisions. Again, consolidating tasks so that they are undertaken consecutively by the same resources and having resources available that can be called on at short-notice from other tasks can help to reduce such problems, though at the cost of reduced specialisation.

There are also advantages in a reduced division of labour where knowledge would otherwise have to be transferred between stages.[32] For example, having a single person deal with a customer query means that only that one person has to be familiarised with the customer’s details. It is also likely to result in the query being handled faster due to the elimination of delays in passing the query between different people.

Gendered division of labour[edit]

Main articles: Gender role and Women's work

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. "Entailment Theory and Method: A Cross-Cultural Analysis of the Sexual Division of Labor"[33] 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.

Industrial organizational psychology[edit]

Job satisfaction has been shown to improve as an employee is given the task of a specific job. Students who have received PhDs in a chosen field later report increased satisfaction compared to their previous jobs. This can be attributed to their high levels of specialization.[34] The higher the training needed for the specialized job position, the higher is the level of job satisfaction as well, although many highly specialized jobs can be monotonous and produce high rates of burn out periodically.[35]

See also[edit]


  1. ^Rosenberg, Nathan (1993). Exploring the Black Box: Technology, economics and history. Cambridge University Press. pp. 25, 27–32, 37–8. ISBN 0 521 459559. 
  2. ^Silvermintz, Daniel (2010). "Plato's Supposed Defense of the Division of Labor: A Reexamination of the Role of Job Specialization in the Republic". History of Political Economy. 42 (4): 747–72. doi:10.1215/00182702-2010-036. 
  3. ^Book VIII, ch, ii, 4[]-6, cited in The Ancient Economy by M. I. Finley. Penguin books 1992, p. 135.
  4. ^Abdullahi, Ali Arazeem; Salawu, Bashir (1 October 2012). "Ibn Khaldun: A Forgotten Sociologist?". South African Review of Sociology. 43 (3): 24–40. doi:10.1080/21528586.2012.727543. 
  5. ^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.
  6. ^Scan of the text of "l'Art de l'Épinglier", with the expression "division de ce travail".
  7. ^"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 judgement 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
  8. ^Rothbard, Murray. "The Celebrated Adam Smith". An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought. Mises Institute. Archived from the original on 12 June 2012. Retrieved 5 May 2012. 
  9. ^Tocqueville, Alexis de (1841). Democracy in America: Volume I. New York, NY: J. & H. G. Langley. p. 460. 
  10. ^Hill, Lisa (2004). "Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson and the Division of Labor"(PDF). University of Adelaide. Retrieved 1 July 2012 
  11. ^Rosenberg, Nathan. "Babbage: pioneer economist by Nathan Rosenberg". Retrieved 28 March 2014. 
  12. ^"Project Gutenberg". Project Gutenberg. Retrieved 2016-11-02. 
  13. ^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
  14. ^Wage Labor & Capital
  15. ^Marx, K. (1977). Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume 1. New York: Vintage Books, pp. 781–94.
  16. ^Ali Rattansi: Marx and the Division of Labor (Macmillan, 1982)
  17. ^Durkheim, Emile (1959). "seminal work, De La Division Du Travail Social (The Division of Labor in Society),"dedicated himself to the establishment of sociology as a legitimate and respected science and as an instrument of rational social action." Alpert, Harry. "Emile Durkheim: A Perspective and Appreciation". American Sociological Review. 24 (4): 462–65. 
  18. ^Smith, Adam. The Wealth of Nations. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1970.
  19. ^ abcdJones, Robert. Emile Durkheim: An Introduction to Four Major Works. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications, Inc., 1986. Print.
  20. ^ abDurkheim, Emile. The Division of Labor in Society. New York: The Free Press, 1997. Print.
  21. ^ abAnderson, Margaret L. and Taylor, Howard F. Sociology: Understanding a Diverse Society. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth, 2008. Print.
  22. ^Moody, James. Sociology 138: Theory and Society. Department of Sociology, Duke University, n.d. Web. 16 November 2012.
  23. ^ abMerton, Robert K (1994). "Durkheim's Division of Labor in Society". Sociological Forum. 9 (1): 17–25. doi:10.1007/bf01507702. 
  24. ^Alpert, Harry (1959). "Emile Durkheim: A Perspective and Appreciation". American Sociological Review. 24 (4): 462–65. doi:10.2307/2089532. 
  25. ^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.
  26. ^"ILO releases Global Employment Trends 2007". BANGKOK: ILO News. 25 January 2007. Archived from the original on 6 October 2008. 
  27. ^ abMcAlister-Kizzier, Donna. "Division of Labor." Encyclopedia of Business and Finance, 2nd ed.. 2007. Encyclopedia.com. 1 Dec. 2014 http://www.encyclopedia.com
  28. ^Houthakker, H. S. (1956). "ECONOMICS AND BIOLOGY: SPECIALIZATION AND SPECIATION". Kyklos. 9: 181–189. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6435.1956.tb02717.x. 
  29. ^Parker, Sharon K.; Wall, Toby D.; Cordery, John L. (2001). "Future work design research and practice: Towards an elaborated model of work design". Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology. 74: 413–440. doi:10.1348/096317901167460. 
  30. ^Wadeson, Nigel (2013). "The Division of Labour under Uncertainty". Journal of Institutional and Theoretical Economics JITE. 169: 253–274. doi:10.1628/093245613X13620416111326. 
  31. ^[1], Barrera, Catherine Grace (2014). Skill, Job Design, and the Labor Market under Uncertainty. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University
  32. ^Rummel, Jeffrey L.; Walter, Zhiping; Dewan, Rajiv; Seidmann, Abraham (2005). "Activity consolidation to improve responsiveness". European Journal of Operational Research. 161: 683–703. doi:10.1016/j.ejor.2003.07.015. 
  33. ^eclectic.ss.uci.edu
  34. ^Kelly, E. L.; Goldberg, L. R. (1959). "Correlates of later performance and specialization in psychology: A follow-up study of the trainees assessed in the VA Selection Research Project". Psychological Monographs: General And Applied. 73 (12): 1–32. doi:10.1037/h0093748. 
  35. ^Adeyoyin, S. O.; Agbeze-Unazi, F.; Oyewunmi, O. O.; Adegun, A. I.; Ayodele, R. O. (2015). "Effects of Job Specialization and Departmentalization on Job Satisfaction among the Staff of a Nigerian University Library". Library Philosophy and Practice: 1–20. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Gary S. Becker (1991). A Treatise on the Family, Harvard University Press, ISBN 0-674-90698-5, 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), pp. S33–S58.
  • Harry Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century
  • Stephanie Coontz & Peta Henderson, Women's Work, Men's Property: The Origins of Gender and Class.
  • Cowen, Tyler (2008). "Division of labor". In Hamowy, Ronald. The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE; Cato Institute. pp. 125–26. doi:10.4135/9781412965811.n79. ISBN 978-1-4129-6580-4. LCCN 2008009151. OCLC 750831024. 
  • Emile Durkheim, The Division of Labour in Society.
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson, "The American Scholar."
  • Deon Filmer, Estimating the World at Work, a background report.
  • Richard Florida, The rise of the creative class.
  • Richard Florida, The flight of the creative class.
  • F. Froebel, F., J. Heinrichs and O. Krey, The New International Division of Labour. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  • Herbert Gintis, Samuel Bowles, Robert T. Boyd and Ernst Feghr. Moral Sentiments and Material Interests: The Foundations of Cooperation in Economic Life.
  • Robert E. Goodin, James Mahmud Rice, Antti Parpo and Lina Eriksson (2008), "Part V: Household Regimes Matter," Discretionary Time: A New Measure of Freedom, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, pp. 197–257.
  • André Gorz, The Division of Labour: The Labour Process and Class Struggle in Modern Capitalism.
  • Groenewegen, Peter (1987). "division of labour". The New Palgrave: A Dictionary of Economics. 1: 901–07. 
  • James Heartfield, "The Economy of Time"
  • Bertell Ollman, Sexual and social revolution.
  • Ali Rattansi, Marx and the Division of Labour.
  • George Reisman, Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics.
  • Robert M. Solow and Jean-Philippe Touffut (eds) (2010), The Shape of the Division of Labour: Nations, Industries and Households[dead link], Cheltenham, UK, and Northampton, MA, USA: Edward Elgar. Contributors: Bina Agarwal, Martin Baily, Jean-Louis Beffa, Richard N. Cooper, Jan Fagerberg, Elhanan Helpman, Shelly Lundberg, Valentina Meliciani and Peter Nunnenkamp.
  • Murray Rothbard, Freedom, Inequality, Primitivism and the Division of Labor.
  • Ludwig von Mises, Human Action: A Treatise on Economics: "Human Society: The Division of Labor" pp. 157–58 and "Human Society: The Ricardian Law of Association" pp. 158–60
  • George J. Stigler (1951), "The Division of Labor is Limited by the Extent of the Market," Journal of Political Economy, 59(3), pp. 185–93
  • World Bank, World Development Report 1995. Washington DC.

External links[edit]


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