The Division of Labor in Society Study Guide

Emile Durkheim's Evaluation of Social Change and the Industrial Revolution

Emile Durkheim
French socialist philosopher and professor Emile Durkheim was a major proponent of structural functionalism. Bettmann / Contributor / Getty Images

"The Division of Labor in Society" (or "De la Division du Travail Social") was published by the French philosopher Emile Durkheim in 1893. It was Durkheim’s first major published work and it is the one in which he introduced the concept of anomie, or the breakdown of the influence of social norms on individuals within a society. At the time, "The Division of Labor in Society" was influential in advancing sociological theories and thought.

Major Themes

In "The Division of Labor in Society," Durkheim discusses how the division of labor—the establishment of specified jobs for specific people—is beneficial for society because it increases the reproductive capacity of a process and the skillset of the workmen, and it creates a feeling of solidarity among people who share those jobs. But, says Durkheim, the division of labor goes beyond economic interests: In the process, it also establishes social and moral order within a society.

To Durkheim, the division of labor is in direct proportion to the moral density of a society. Density can happen in three ways: Through an increase of the spatial concentration of people; through the growth of towns; or through an increase in the number and efficacy of the means of communication. When one or more of these things happen, says Durkheim, labor begins to become divided, and jobs become more specialized. At the same time, because tasks become more complex, the struggle for meaningful existence becomes more strenuous.

Durkheim's major themes in "The Division of Labor in Society" are the difference between primitive and advanced civilizations and how they perceive social solidarity; and how each type of society defines the role of law in resolving breaches in that social solidarity.

Social Solidarity

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 set of tasks and core beliefs. What binds the individual to society is what Durkheim calls the 'collective consciousness', sometimes translated as 'conscience collective,' meaning a shared belief system.

With organic solidarity, on the other hand, society is more complex, a system of different functions that are united by definite relationships. Each individual must have a distinct job or task and a personality that is his or her own (or rather, his own: Durkheim was speaking specifically and explicitly about men). Individuality grows as parts of society grow more complex. Thus, society becomes more efficient at moving in sync, yet at the same time, each of its parts has more movements that are distinctly individual.

According to Durkheim, the more 'primitive' a society is, the more it is characterized by mechanical solidarity. The members of a society in which everyone is a farmer, for example, are more likely to resemble each other and share the same beliefs and morals. As societies become more advanced and civilized, the individual members of those societies start to become more distinguishable from one another: people are managers or laborers, philosophers or farmers. Solidarity becomes more organic as those societies develop their divisions of labor.

The Role of Law

Durkheim also discusses law extensively in this book. For him, the laws of a society are the most visible symbol of social solidarity and the organization of social life in its most precise and stable form. Law plays a part in a society that is analogous to the nervous system in organisms, according to Durkheim. The nervous system regulates various bodily functions so they work together in harmony. Likewise, the legal system regulates all the parts of society so that they work together in agreement.

Two types of law are present in human societies and each corresponds to the type of social solidarity those societies use. Repressive law corresponds to the 'center of common consciousness' and everyone participates in judging and punishing the perpetrator. The severity of a crime is not measured necessarily as the damage incurred to an individual victim, but rather gauged as the damage it incurred to the society or the social order as a whole. Punishments for crimes against the collective are typically harsh. Repressive law, says Durkheim, is practiced in mechanical forms of society.

Restitutive Law as Restoration

The second type of law is restitutive law, which instead focuses on the victim since there are no commonly shared beliefs about what damages society. Restitutive law corresponds to the organic state of society and works through the more specialized bodies of society, such as the courts and lawyers.

This also means that repressive law and restitutory law vary directly with the degree of a society’s development. Durkheim believed that repressive law is common in primitive, or mechanical, societies where sanctions for crimes are typically made and agreed upon by the whole community. In these 'lower' societies, crimes against the individual do occur, but in terms of seriousness, those are placed on the lower end of the penal ladder.

Crimes against the community take priority in such societies, said Durkheim, because the evolution of the collective conscious is widespread and strong while the division of labor has not yet happened. The more a society becomes civilized and the division of labor is introduced, the more restitutory law takes place.

Historical Context

Durkheim's book was written at the height of the industrial age when Durkheim saw that a principal source of trouble for French industrial society was the people's sharp sense of confusion as to how they fit in the new social order. Society was changing rapidly. The pre-industrial social groups were made up of family and neighbors, and those were being eroded. As the Industrial Revolution waged on, people found new cohorts at their jobs, creating new social groups with others with whom they worked.

Dividing society into small labor-defined groups, said Durkheim, required an increasingly centralized authority to regulate relations between the different groups. As a visible extension of that state, law codes needed to evolve as well, to maintain the orderly operation of social relations by conciliation and civil law rather than by penal sanctions.

Durkheim based his discussion of organic solidarity on a dispute he had with Herbert Spencer, who claimed that industrial solidarity is spontaneous and that there is no need for a coercive body to create or maintain it. Spencer believed that social harmony is simply established by itself, an idea with which Durkheim disagreed. Much of this book, then, is Durkheim arguing with Spencer’s stance and pleading his own views on the topic.


Durkheim's fundamental concern was to pin down and evaluate the social changes that had taken place with industrialization, to better understand the visible ills that had arisen. Where he failed, according to British legal philosopher Michael Clarke, is in lumping a huge variety of cultures into two groups: industrialized and non-industrialized societies. Durkheim simply didn't see or acknowledge the wide variety of non-industrialized societies, instead imagining industrialization as the crucial historical watershed that separated goats from sheep.

American scholar Eliot Freidson felt that theories of the division labor such as that by Durkheim, define labor in terms of the material world of technology and production. Freidson points out that such divisions are created by an administrative authority, without a particular consideration of the social interaction of its participants. American sociologist Robert Merton pointed out that as a positivist, Durkheim sought to adopt the methods and criteria of the physical sciences to determine mechanically induced social laws, a misfit in explanation.

American sociologist Jennifer Lehman points out that "The Division of Labor in Society" at heart contains sexist contradictions. Durkheim conceptualizes "individuals" as "men" but women as separate, non-social beings, what in the 21st century seems a ludicrous assumption at best. Durkheim entirely missed out on the role of women as participants in both industrial and pre-industrial societies.


  • The division of labor can be effectuated only among members of an already constituted society. 1933: 275
  • The rules relating to "real" rights and personal relationships that are established by virtue of them form a definite system whose function is not to link the different parts of society, but on the contrary to detach them from one another, and mark out clearly the barriers separating them. 1933: 94
  • In short, to visualize an exact idea of punishment, the two opposing theories that have been advanced must be reconciled: the one sees in punishment an expiation; the other conceives it as a weapon for the defense of society. 1933: 83
  • Where interest is the only ruling force each individual finds himself in a state of war with every other since nothing comes to modify the egos, and any truce in this eternal antagonism would not be of long duration. 1933:203—204
  • Today, among cultivated people, the woman leads a completely different existence from that of man. One might say that the two great functions of the psychic life are thus dissociated, that one of the sexes takes care of the effective functions and the other of intellectual functions. 1933: 59-60
  • Why does an individual, while becoming more autonomous, depend more upon society? How can he be at once more individual and more solitary? 1933: 37