Sociology 318

October 25, 2002


Conclusion to The Division of Labour in Society



6. Cause of Organic Solidarity.   Durkheim is critical of the economists who regard the development of the division of labour as a result of the coming together of people with different abilities and specialties may have had in mind Smith's view that people have a natural propensity to truck, barter and trade.  As Smith noted

This division of labour … is the necessary, though very slow and gradual, consequence of a certain propensity in human nature … the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another.  (p. 13). 

As it is by treaty, by barter, and by purchase, that we obtain from one another the greater part of those mutual good offices that we stand in need of, so it is this same trucking disposition which originally gives occasion to the division of labour.  (p. 15). 

On the other hand, Smith argues that

The difference of natural talents in different men is, in reality, much less than we are aware of; and the very different genius which appears to distinguish men of different professions, when grown up to maturity, is not upon many occasions so much the cause, as the effect of the division of labour. (p. 15).

Durkheim was critical of those who merely examined the technical conditions for the division of labour and the increased efficiency associated with it, without consideration of the broader societal conditions necessary to maintain it.  Durkheim did not consider the division of labour as a natural condition but as one that developed from specific causes in “the social environment” (Division, 200/256). 


Durkheim considers the development of the division of labour to be associated with the increasing contact among people as segmentary structures disappear.  There is a greater density of contact, so that people are led to specialize.  But it is because “the partitions dividing them [the segments] become more permeable.  In short, there occurs between them a coalescence that renders the social substance free to enter upon new combinations” (Division, 200/256).  The division of labour emerges in different ways in different societies, leading to  different forms of social solidarity.  However, there is a development of the division of labour and civilization “develops because it cannot but develop."  (Division, p. 276/337).


Durkheim states that “the division of labour progresses the more individauls there are who are sufficiently in contact with one another to be able mutually to act and react upon one another” (Division, 201/257).  He refers to this as a “dynamic or moral density” associated with increased physical density.  That is, the moral relationship can only produce its effect if the real distance between individuals has itself diminished in some way.  The two are inseparable and Durkheim argues that there are three ways that this happens:


i. Concentration of people.  While concentration does not occur in nomadic peoples, “agriculture, because it is of necessity a settled existence, already presumes a certain drawing together of the social tissues” (Division, 202-3/258).  Accompanying the early development of agriculture, towns and cities may begin to develop.


ii. Towns and cities.  Formation of cities and their development.  “But towns always result from the need that drives individuals to keep constantly in the closest possible contact with one another.  They are like so many points where the social mass is contracting ever more strongly than elsewhere.  They cannot therefore multiply and spread out unless the moral density increases.” (Division, p. 202/258).


iii. Transportation and Communication.  There are increased numbers and rapidity of means of transportation and communication.  This results in “abolishing or lessening the vacuums separating social segments, these means increase the density of society.” (Division, pp. 203/259-260).


These forms of increased contact among members of society increases the density.  At the same time, growth in population implies an increased “social volume” (Division, 203/260).  Together these factors result in the proposition that

The division of labor varies in direct proprotion to the volume and density of societies and if it progresses in a continuous manner in the course of social development it is because societies become regularly more dense and generally more voluminous. (Division, 205/262).

We state, not that the growth and condensation of societies permit a greater division of labour, but that they necessitate it.  It is not the instrument whereby that division is brought about; but it is its determining cause. (Division, p. 205/262).

As a result of this greater contact, the “struggle for existence becomes more stenuous” (Division, 208/266) and this results in the development of the division of labour.   If needs are the same, then there is always a struggle for existence.   But where different interests can be pursued, then there may be room for all.

In the same town, different occupations can coexist without being forced into a position where they harm one another, for they are pursuing different objectives. ... Each one of them can therefore reach its goal without preventing others from reaching theirs.  (Division, 209/267)

However, the closer the functions are to one another, the more points of contact there are between them, and, as a result, the more they tend to conflict. ... The magistrate is never in competition with the industrialist.  But the brewer and the winegrower ... often attempt mutually to supplant each other.  As for those that discharge exactly the same function, they cannot prosper save to the detriment of their fellows. (Division, p. 210/267).

to the extent that the social constitution is a segmentary one, each segment has its own organs that are … protected and kept at a distance from similar organs by partitions separating the different segments. ... But, as these partitions disappear, it is inevitable that organs similar to one another come into contact, embark upon a struggle and try to substitute themselves for one another.  … some advance along the road to specialization cannot fail to be the outcome. (Division, 211-212/270).


For Durkheim the result of the division of labour is positive in that there is no need to compete in the sense of struggling just to survive.  Rather, the division of labour may signify that there are sufficient material resources for all in society, and this division allows a certain form of co-operation.   The result of this is as follows.

The division of labour is therefore one result of its struggle for existence:  but is a gentle dénouement.  Thanks to it, rivals are not obliged to eliminate one another completely, but can coexist side by side. Moreover, as it develops, it provides a greater number of individuals, who in more homogeneous societies would be condemned to extinction. (Division, p. 213/271).

The division of labour cannot be anticipated, in terms of the form of its development. It is the sharing of functions, but not according to a preconceived plan, but “the division of labour cannot be carried out save between the members of society already constituted” (Division, 217/275), and “must therefore come about of itself and progressively.” (Division, 218/276).  It must come to pass in a pre-existing society.

Work is not shared out between independent individuals who are already differentiated individuals who are already differentiated from one another, who meet and associate together in order to pool their different abilities.  It would be a miracle if these differences, arising from chance circumstances, could be so accurately harmonised as to form a coherent whole.  Far from their preceding collective life, they derive from it.  They can only occur within a society, under the pressure of social sentiments and needs.  This is what makes them essentially capable of being harmonised. ... there are societies whose cohesion is due essentially to a community of beliefs and sentiments, and that it is from these societies that others have emerged whose unity is ensured by the division of labour have emerged. (Division, p. 218-9/277).

[Civilization] is itself a necessary consequence of the changes in the volume and in density of societies.  If science, art, and economic activity develop, it is as the result of a necessity imposed upon men.  It is because  for them there is no other way to live, in the new condition in which they are placed.  As soon as the number of individuals between whom social relations are established is greater, men can only maintain their posiiton by  specialising more, working harder, and stimulating their faculties to excess.  From this general stimulation there inevitably arises a higher level of culture. (Division, pp. 276/336-337).

Durkheim thus sets out an analysis of the division of labour which emphasizes the special functions of each of type of occupation and endeavour.  The biological model, with a well  functioning body, where each organ properly serves it function seems to be uppermost in Durkheim's mind.   Unlike some of the structural functionalists, Durkheim's method distinguishes the cause of the function from the actual function filled.  That is, Durkheim observes the function that the occupation fills in society, but attempts to investigate the development of the cause in an historical manner, examining how this function emerged.  In this, one can consider there to be a certain “conflict as a mechanism, within a quasi-Darwinian framework, which accelerates the progression of the division of labour.” (Giddens, p. 79).


Durkheim is also providing a criticism of the economic models which argue that people with different specialties come together to trade the products of their specialties.  For Durkheim, specialties are not natural in any sense, but are developed.   Similarly, the division of labour is not natural either, but develops in different forms in different societies.  While there may be a great similarity among these (perhaps like Weber's rationality), national differences emerge.   In that sense, Durkheim has an historical model, fairly solidly grounded on the material realities.


On the other hand, Durkheim's analysis may be considered to be mainly descriptive, proposing straightforward observations concerning culture.  His notion of solidarity, mores, morals and norms come very close to the conventional sociological model of these, and may be considered to be widely accepted by all.   The question is how these emerge, and whose interests they serve.   Here the conflict approach differs dramatically from Durkheim.


Finally, Durkheim's analysis can be considered to be evolutionary and fairly optimistic.  For the most part, Durkheim looks on the developments in the division of labour as signalling higher stages of civilization.  He does not consider there to be any grand plan to this, and no single factor which guides it.  Rather, there is competition, which results in the development of the division of labour, and the outcome of this process cannot be predicted.   However, the result is generally positive, because people need each other, and this produces an organic solidarity in society.


3. Abnormal Forms of the Division of Labour


At the end of The Division of Labor in Society, however, Durkheim does note that there can be problems in society.  There are two abnormal forms of the division of labour, and the division of labour itself does not always function as well as it could in modern society.


a. Anomic Division of Labor.  When there are industrial and commercial crises, there may be a partial break in organic solidarity.  Also, where there is conflict between capital and labour, this may be an unusual situation.  Part of this is caused by the increased separation of employee and employer under capitalism (Division, p. 292/354), so that the conditions for a lack of solidarity are expanded as capitalism and the division of labour develop.


Irregular forms such as crime are not treated as part of the breakdown, rather these are treated by Durkheim as differentiation (Division, p. 291/353), not part of division of labour.  Durkheim compares these with cancer, rather than with normal organs.


The real problem is a lack of regulation or a weakened common morality that can occur in modern society.  For example, in the economic sphere, there are no rules which fix the number of economic enterprises (Division, p. 303/366), and there is no regulation of production in each branch of industry.  This might be an overall form of irrationality, in Weber's sense.  There can be ruptures in equilibrium, capital-labour relations may become indeterminate, and in the scientific field there may be greater separation of different sciences. (Division, p. 304/367).


If the division of labour does not produce solidarity in all these cases, it is because the relations of the organs are not regulated, because they are in a state of anomy.  For the individual this means there are not sufficient moral constraints and individuals do not have a clear concept of what is proper and acceptable.   This is the state of anomie, that is,

a state of anomie is impossible wherever solidary organs solidly linked to one another are in sufficient contact. … if … some blocking environment is interposed between them, only stimuli of a certain intensity can communicate from one organ to another.  Contacts being rare, they are not repeated often enough to take on a determinate form. (Division, pp. 304/368-9).

Durkheim also discusses conditions of the worker under capitalism in terms that come very close to Marx's description of alienation and exploitation.  He discusses the degrading nature of the division of labour on the worker, the possibility of monotonous routine, and the machine like actions of the worker. (Division, p. 306/371).  However, Durkheim does not consider these to be the normal form, but one which results when the worker does not have a sufficient vision of the whole process of production.

... the division of labour does not produce these consequences through some imperative of its own nature, but only in exceptional and abnormal circumstances. ...  The division of labour supposes that the worker, far from being remaining bent over his task, does not lose sight of those cooperating with him, but he acts upon them and is acted upon by them.  He is not therefore a machine who repeats movements the sense of which he does not perceive, but he knows that they are tending in a certain direction, towards an goal that he can conceive of more or less distinctly. (Division, pp. 307-8/372).

b. Forced Division of Labor.   The forced division of labour is where the division of labour is not allowed to develop spontaneously, and where some act to protect themselves and their positions.  These could be traditional forms, which are external to the division of labour, or they could be castes, Weber's status groups, or Marx's classes.  Any factors that prevent individuals from achieving positions which would be consistent with their natural abilities indicates a force division of labour.   Ritzer notes (p. 98) that this could be inequalities in the structure of work or inadequate organization, with the wrong people in particular positions or incoherent organizational structures.  Any interference with the operation of the division of labour that results in the position being filled by those who are not most apt for the position would be forced division of labour.

We may say that the division of labour only produces solidarity if it is spontaneous, and to the degree that it is spontaneous. … In short, labor only divides up spontaneously if society is constituted in such a way that social inequalities express precisely natural inequalities. … It does not consist of a state of anarchy which would allow men to satisfy freely every inclination they have, good or bad.  It rather comprises a finely articulated organisation in which each social value, neither distorted in one direction or the other by anything outside it, is appreciated at its true worth. (Division, pp. 312-3/376).

Of course, wealth interferes with this, but Durkheim views this as abnormal and not the normal tendency.

even this ultimate inequality, which spring from the fact that rich and poor exist by birth, without disappearing completely, is at least somewhat mitigated.  Society strives to reduce it as much as possible, by helping in various ways those placed in too disadvantageous a situation, and by assisting them to move out of it. (Division, p. 314/379).

Durkheim also explains the role of individualism in this connection.  He credits economists with having seen the importance of spontaneity in social and economic organization.  But they were

erred regarding the nature of that freedom. … deduce it logically deduce  from the concept of the individual per se, such a freedom appears to them to be absolute from the state of nature, leaving out of account any kind of society.  … Yet, apart from the fact that it is incorrect to say that any form of regulation is the product of constraint, it so happens that liberty itself is the product of regulation.  Far from being a type of antagonist to social action, it is the resultant.  (Division, p. 320/386).

In the final analysis what constitutes liberty is the subordination of external to social forces, for it is only on this condition that the latter can develop freely.  Yet such a subordination is rather an utter reversal of the natural order. ...  For he cannot escape from nature save by creating another world in which he dominates it.  That world is society. (Division, p. 321/387).

Grabb notes that “Durkheim's perspective on freedom is particularly significant in this regard.  Freedom is not the absence of constraint, of moral and legal rules in the economic and other realms. ‘Quite on the contrary, liberty ... is itself the product of regulation.  I can be free only to the extent that others are forbidden to profit from their physical, economic, or other superiority to the detriment of my liberty.  But only rules can prevent [such] abuses of power.” (Grabb, p. 90).


4. Role of State and Occupational Groups


Having said that Durkheim was generally very optimistic concerning the development of the division of labour in developing an organic solidarity, Durkheim was also concerned with the state of modern society.  The development of the division of labour did have the tendency to split people, and the organic solidarity might not be sufficient to hold society together.


One solution for regulation that Durkheim discusses is the state.  In some senses, Durkheim was a socialist, although not of the same type as Marx.  Ritzer notes that for Durkheim, socialism “simply represented a system in which moral principles discovered by scientific sociology could be applied.” (Ritzer, p. 73).  While the principles of morality had to be present in society, the state could embody these in structures, fulfilling functions such as justice, education, health, etc., and managing a wide range of sectors of society (Grabb, p. 87).


The state “should also be the key structure for ensuring that these rules are moral and just. The appropriate values of individualism, responsibility, fair play, and mutual obligation can be affirmed through the policies instituted by the state in all these fields.” (Grabb, p. 87).


The second major hope that Durkheim held was for what he called occupational groups. The state could not be expected to play the integrative role that might be needed, because it was too remote.   As a solution, Durkheim thought that occupational or professional groups could provide the means of integration required.  These would be formed by people in an industry, representing all the people in this sector.  Their role would be somewhat different from Weber's parties, in that they would not be concerned with exercising power, and achieving their own ends.   Instead, they would “foster the general interest of society at a level that most citizens can understand and accept.” (Grabb, p. 88).


What we especially see in the occupational group is a moral power capable of containing individual egos, of maintaining a spirited sentiment of common solidarity in the consciousness of all the workers, of preventing the law of the strongest from being brutally applied to industrial and commercial relations.  Ritzer notes that these associations could “recognize ... common interests as well as common need for an integrative moral system.  That moral system ... would serve to counteract the tendency toward atomization in modern society as well as help stop the decline in significance of collective morality.”  (pp. 98-99).




Durkheim, Emile, The Division of Labor in Society, New York, The Free Press, 1933 and 1984.  Referred to in notes as Division.  HD 51 D98

Giddens, Anthony, Capitalism and Modern Social Theory: An Analysis of the Writings of Marx, Durkheim and Max Weber, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1971. HM19 G53.

Grabb, Edward G., Theories of Social Inequality:  Classical and Contemporary Perspectives, second edition, Toronto, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1990.  HT609 G72

Ritzer, George, Sociological Theory, third edition, New York, McGraw-Hill, 1992.  HM24 R4938. 

Smith, Adam, The Wealth of Nations, New York, The Modern Library, 1937


Last edited October 25, 2002


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