Understanding Durkheim's 'Division of Labor in Society'

His Views on Social Change and the Industrial Revolution

Emile Durkheim
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French philosopher Emile Durkheim's book The Division of Labor in Society (or De la Division du Travail Social) debuted 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

Durkheim discusses how the division of labor—the establishment of specified jobs for specific people—benefits society because it increases the reproductive capacity of a process and the skill set of the workers.

It also creates a feeling of solidarity among people who share those jobs. But, Durkheim says, the division of labor goes beyond economic interests: In the process, it also establishes social and moral order within a society.

"The division of labor can be effectuated only among members of an already constituted society," he argues.

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
  • 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 grow more complex, the struggle for meaningful existence becomes more strenuous.

A major theme of the book is the difference between developing and advanced civilizations and how they perceive social solidarity. Another focus is how each type of society defines the role of law in resolving breaches in that social solidarity.

Social Solidarity

Durkheim argues that two kinds of social solidarity exist: 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 united by definite relationships. Each individual must have a distinct job or task and a personality that is their own. Here, Durkheim was speaking specifically about men. Of women, the philosopher said:

"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."

Framing individuals as men, Durkheim argued that 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 an agrarian society, 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 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

For Durkheim, 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. 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 and restitutive law.

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 caused 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, according to 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 wrote his book at the height of the industrial age. How people fit into France's new social order surfaced as a principal source of trouble for the rapidly industrial society.

The pre-industrial social groups comprised family and neighbors, but as the Industrial Revolution continued, people found new cohorts at their jobs, creating new social groups with co-workers.

Dividing society into small labor-defined groups, says 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, involves Durkheim arguing with Spencer’s stance and pleading his own views on the topic.


Durkheim's primary objective was to evaluate the social changes related to industrialization and to better understand its ills. But British legal philosopher Michael Clarke argues that Durkheim fell short by lumping a variety of societies into two groups: industrialized and non-industrialized.

Durkheim didn't see or acknowledge the wide range of non-industrialized societies, instead imagining industrialization as the historical watershed that separated goats from sheep.

American scholar Eliot Freidson pointed out that theories about industrialization tend to define labor in terms of the material world of technology and production. Freidson says that such divisions are created by an administrative authority without consideration of the social interaction of its participants.

American sociologist Robert Merton noted that as a positivist, Durkheim adopted the methods and criteria of the physical sciences to examine the social laws that arose during industrialization. But physical sciences, rooted in nature, simply can't explain the laws that have arisen from mechanization.

The Division of Labor also has a gender problem, according to American sociologist Jennifer Lehman. She argues that Durkheim's book contains sexist contradictions.

Durkheim conceptualizes "individuals" as "men" but women as separate and nonsocial beings. By using this framework, the philosopher entirely missed out on the role of women have played in both industrial and pre-industrial societies.