Sociology The Division of Labor after Durkheim
Sondra L. Hausner
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 April 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0217


The “division of labor” is a concept referring to the way a society or social group organizes itself internally, but it is also used in contemporary terms to refer to Émile Durkheim’s seminal text on the subject, The Division of Labor in Society, originally published in 1893. In Durkheim’s analysis, the division of labor manifests in advanced societies such that professional groups do the work of separate sectors, and the group itself functions, it was assumed, more efficiently than if every individual had to perform every act on his or her own. The division of labor is not only the mark of an advanced society for Durkheim; he argues also that it is the very nature of social interaction, inherent in the workings of every social group and even in animal species. He suggests that the division of labor, or the separation of an organic whole into organized parts, is close to a biological imperative that enables the coherence and cohesion of a social order. Writing in the late 19th century, Durkheim does not dispute the evolutionary character of social groups, however; what differentiates different kinds of societies is the kind of division of labor they present. A primitive, or less differentiated, society relies on its relative internal sameness to produce what he calls mechanical solidarity; an advanced, or more individuated, society creates (through the difference between not only individuals but also between different subgroups, or occupational groups, within the larger social order) what he calls organic solidarity, in the sense that it may more naturally form an organic whole. The ways in which human societies come together form the mainstay of Durkheimian thought, and the discipline of sociology more generally. Durkheim’s concern with the relative strength or weakness of that social bond—always based upon the division between individuals, linked mechanically or organically—would remain the primary focus for his study of society, beginning with an analysis of difference and fragmentation in The Division of Labor in Society and moving, over the course of his intellectual development for the next two decades, to an analysis of the transcendence of those divisions. Society as a whole was understood as incorporating both individuals in their differences and social groups in their wholes: this project still grounds contemporary sociology, which attempts to understand the nature of collective formation at different levels and scales, through its analyses of solidarity and morality; law; economics and exchange; gender and the family; class and caste; and the nation, the state, and transnational forces as they respond to and produce the now global division of labor.

Overviews, Commentaries, Responses, and Critical Editions

The Division of Labor in Society (De la division du travail social) was the first published book by the sociologist Émile Durkheim. Based on his doctoral dissertation, it was revised and released in 1893. Durkheim’s ideas would develop further in his analyses of religion, but they are laid out in this early text in nascent form. He argues that the social order—and particularly, here, the way individuals within a society relate to each other, or divide themselves up—sustains itself by separating the roles those individuals play. Separation, thus, is then transcended, such that human (and even animal) societies find the solidarity that establishes them as advanced social orders. The text has become a sociological classic, and many responses—critical and praising—have been published in the century since it was released. Merton 1934 challenges the relation between primitive and modern law, and Rueschemeyer 1982 disagrees with Durkheim’s logic for the division of labor, but Tiryakian 1994 considers it one of the great, timeless contributions to the sociological canon. Lukes 2013 offers a thorough introduction to the text in a critical edition.

  • Durkheim, Émile. 1902. De la division du travail social. 2d ed. Paris: F. Alcan.

    For Durkheim, the divisions that one sees in all societies are core to the configuration of the social order itself. Primitive societies come together in a form he calls “mechanical solidarity,” because people are less differentiated to begin with, and automatically linked because they are similar. Advanced societies, by contrast, come together in a more sophisticated rendering, or “organic solidarity”: more differentiated individuals organically work together to form a cohesive whole. First published 1893.

  • Lukes, Steven, ed. 2013. The division of labour in society. By Émile Durkheim. Translated by W. D. Halls. 2d ed. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

    Lukes notes criticisms but focuses on the sociological achievements of the text, including a consideration of the individual in relation to the social whole, and the ways in which collective consciousness is produced. The role of citizens in a nation-state (and the envisioning of a European union), and the capacity of law to help instill order are important concepts contained in Durkheim’s work taken as an oeuvre, despite the absence of the notion of power. First published 1984.

  • Merton, Robert K. 1934. Durkheim’s Division of Labor. American Journal of Sociology 40.3: 319–328.

    DOI: 10.1086/216745

    In this early assessment of the classic work, Merton questions the correlation between penal law and mechanical solidarity in primitive society, and restitutive law and organic solidarity in advanced society. Merton worries that Durkheim conflates the “abstract” with the “concrete,” and he wonders whether organic solidarity may be governed as powerfully with unarticulated social customs as it is by a changed legal system.

  • Rueschemeyer, Dietrich. 1982. On Durkheim’s explanation of division of labor. American Journal of Sociology 88.3: 579–589.

    DOI: 10.1086/227709

    Rueschemeyer disagrees with Durkheim’s thesis, critiquing his reasons for the emergence of the division of labor. The work is faulted for a “global” or theoretical approach (as compared to an empirical or local study), and also for the causal relation posited in the text: Rueschemeyer challenges the Darwinian suggestion that a greater population density should increase competition in the arena of “production” (rather than that of “consumption”), and thus facilitate the division of labor.

  • Tiryakian, Edward A. 1994. Revisiting sociology’s first classic: The Division of Labor in Society and its actuality. Sociological Forum 9:3–16.

    DOI: 10.1007/BF01507701

    Tiryakian reminds us how innovative Durkheim was in suggesting the “corporation”—or the professional group—as the antidote to anomie (the individual disconnectedness that undermines both the subject and the larger social order). The corporation Durkheim advocates is not that of corporate capitalism, but rather the locus of collective responsibility that Tiryakian sees as still relevant. Although dated in parts, the fundamental tenets of the classic work can thus be upheld.

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