Division of Labor in Society: Definition, Theorists & Examples

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  • 0:02 What Is Division of Labor?
  • 0:40 Why Divide Labor?
  • 1:27 Labor Theorists
  • 2:01 Early Instances
  • 3:20 In Modern Society
  • 4:26 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Citlali Tolia
Division of labor is the separation of a work process into a number of tasks, with each task performed by a separate person or group. Learn more about the definition and history of this concept and test your knowledge with a quiz.

What Is Division of Labor?

Think about the last time you went to a nice restaurant. In all likelihood, a hostess met you at the door and led you to your table. A waiter then came to greet you and take your order. Depending on the restaurant, a busboy might have come to refill your water glass and bring your dish from the kitchen. Behind kitchen doors there were also several people working on your meal. From kitchen assistants chopping vegetables to chefs preparing and assembling the dishes, it's likely that several people worked as a team to ensure you had a delicious meal and a pleasant dining experience. This splitting of tasks among different people and groups is called division of labor.

Why Divide Labor?

Division of labor is essential to economic progress because it allows people to specialize in particular tasks. This specialization makes workers more efficient, which reduces the total cost of producing goods or providing a service. Additionally, by making people become skilled and efficient at a smaller number of tasks, division of labor gives people time to experiment with new and better ways of doing things.

Returning to the example of the restaurant visit, consider how much longer it would take to have dinner if the same person came to greet you at the door, led you to your table, brought water, took your order and then went to the kitchen to start chopping vegetables and cooking your pasta. A 45-minute meal at a restaurant that divides labor may take a couple of hours at a restaurant where every task related to your table is completed by one person.

Labor Theorists

An early thinker of the division of labor was Scottish social philosopher and economist Adam Smith, who lived from 1723-1790. He believed that a society with a sophisticated usage of division of labor can be more productive and, therefore, would develop more quickly than a society without it.

The French scholar Emile Durkheim, who lived from 1858-1917, examined the concept of division of labor from a sociological perspective. He argued that people developed specializations as a way to better compete for survival within a bigger society.

Early Instances of Division of Labor

It's hard to tell when, exactly, division of labor started to appear in human groups. Early manifestations in prehistoric groups mostly consisted of a rough division of tasks along age and gender lines. The majority of young men would go hunting, while elders, children and women usually stayed closer to the group's home ground and had cooking and food-gathering responsibilities.

The Agricultural Revolution was the development that allowed the division of labor to truly become an essential part of society. By transitioning from a nomadic to a settled agricultural lifestyle, farmers were able to produce more food per person than the group needed to survive. This is called a food surplus. Once agricultural groups were able to accumulate surpluses, some members of the group were free to specialize in tasks like building, cooking, carpentry and soldiering.

As people became specialists, they could devote time and energy to making improvements to their tasks and tools, thereby increasing the group's capacity to produce surpluses. Surpluses allowed their populations to grow and produce more specialists, which made further technological progress possible. This process is called a positive feedback loop, and it's what enabled the growth and development of human cultures.

Division of Labor in Modern Society

Division of labor, as it developed during early agricultural times, eventually led to the appearance of organized communities of specialists called guilds (including merchants, craftsmen and soldiers). From feudal times and throughout the Renaissance, guilds regulated many crafts and trained people in specialized labor.

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