Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


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Divison of labour

core definition

The division of labour refers to the fragmentation of a work process so that employees specialise in specific tasks rather than an individual (craftworker) undertaking the entire work process.

explanatory context

The assumption is that division of labour is more efficient and productive and is most evident in production lines of mass goods, such as large-scale car manufacture (albeit that robots increasingly do more of the work on such production lines)


Durkheim was positive about the division of labour seeing it as more productive and as creating a worker solidarity.


Marx regarded the division of labour as inevitable given the growth of technology. He also saw the division of labour under capitalism as resulting in alienation of the worker.

analytical review

Crossman (2012) wrote:

In The Division of Labor in Society, Emile Durkheim discusses how the division of labor is beneficial for society because it increases the reproductive capacity, the skill of the workman, and it creates a feeling of solidarity between people. There are two kinds of social solidarity, according to Durkheim: mechanical solidarity and organic solidarity. Mechanical solidarity connects the individual to society without any intermediary. That is, society is organized collectively and all members of the group share the same beliefs. The bond that binds the individual to society is this collective conscious, this shared belief system. With organic solidarity, on the other hand, society is a system of different functions that are united by definite relationships. Each individual must have a distinct job or action and a personality that is his or her own. Individuality grows as parts of society grow. Thus, society becomes more efficient at moving in sync, yet at the same time, each of its parts has more movements that are distinctly its own.

Spickard (undated) wrote:

1. Durkheim sought to understand the differences between traditional and modern societies scientifically.
2. He saw these differences on two levels, related to a changing division of labor:
a change from segmented to differentiated social structure;
a change from "mechanical" to "organic" solidarity—-forms of moral attachment that kept society together.
3. Mechanical solidarity depended on shared beliefs and values ("collective consciousness"), whereas organic solidarity did not. The latter arose from people's practical interdependence. Each form of solidarity involved a different conception of moral order, of which Durkheim found traces in the evolution of criminal law.
4. Durkheim distinguished between two effects of this changing division of labor: the growth of individuation (as society becomes less and less segmentary); and the growth of individualism as ideology. The first is inevitable, he thought; the second, not so.
5. The structural change was fundamental for Durkheim, but also an inevitable product of increased social "density" (in terms of population, information and productive capabilities). He therefore focused his sociology on an analysis of the second change. That change flowed directly from the first and illuminated its problems. Understanding these moral changes scientifically would help society solve its problems.
6. Studying morality scientifically meant, for Durkheim, the development of a means of demonstrating its objectivity. He therefore conceived of morality as an external force, impinging upon the individual. Being external to the individual, it must be social and can be studied by sociologists.
7. This produced a problem, because a society based on organic solidarity lacked an externally enforced common moral life. Therefore, Durkheim concluded, it must lack norms. This society, in Durkheim's view, is "anomic". Individuals are cut adrift, to find meaning on their own.
8. While individualism (as an ideology) appears to be able to solve the problem of anomie—-by providing a moral norm shareable throughout a differentiated society—-in reality it cannot do so. Its content drives people farther away from one another, preventing the unity that a shared moral order should bring.
9. Durkheim therefore recommended the establishment of intermediary institutions to enforce local norms and guard against an excessive individualism. These groups would be connected with the occupational groups arising under an increased division of labor. They would provide the externally enforced norms that society as a whole lacked, and prevent anomie.
10. Durkheim failed to realize that norms could be internal and still objective. As Piaget pointed out, once modern society is conceived of as depending on internally enforced norms, the problem of anomie disappears.

The McGraw-Hill (2004) Sociological Theory site Glossary defines 'division of labor' as:

The form that work takes in modern society in which different individuals perform different specialized tasks instead of having everyone do essentially the same sort of task.


Raynet Sociology Glossary (undated):

The delegation and assignment of certain specified tasks, jobs, or work (or parts of them) to be completed by certain specified individuals, groups, categories, and classes of people. Sex, age, education type and level, and the occupation area of one's family are the most traditional bases for differentiating occupational activities.


Elwell's Glossary of Sociology (undated) states:

DIVISION OF LABOR. The specialization of work tasks or occupations. All societies have some division of labor based on age and sex. But with the development of industrialism the division of labor becomes far more complex which affects many parts of the sociocultural system.

associated issues


related areas

See also



mechanical solidarity

organic solidarity


Crossman, A., 2012, Sociology Definition of the Week: Organic and Mechanical Solidarity from Guide, 20 June 2012, available at, accessed 8 February 2013, still available 17 December 2016. Update 3 March 2019 under the heading 'Understanding Durkheim's 'Division of Labor in Society'': accessed 3 June 2019 but the quote above has been modified in the updated text.

Elwell's Glossary of Sociology, undated, available at, page not available 20 December 2016.

McGraw-Hill, 2004, Sociological Theory: Glossary , available at, accessed 14 May 2013, page not available 17 December 2016.

Raynet Sociology Glossary, undated, available at, no longer available 20 December 2016.

Spickard, J., undated, Theses on Durkheim, available at, accessed 8 February 2013, page not available 17 December 2016.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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