The Division of Labor in Society

An Overview of the book by Emile Durkheim

The Division of Labor in Society is a book written, originally in French, by Emile Durkheim in 1893. It was Durkheim’s first major published work and 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.

In The Division of Labor in Society, Durkheim discusses how the division of labor is beneficial for society because it increases the reproductive capacity, the skill of the workman, and it creates a feeling of solidarity between people.

The division of labor goes beyond economic interests; it also establishes social and moral order within a society.

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 beliefs. The bond that binds the individual to society is this collective conscious, this shared belief system.

With organic solidarity, on the other hand, society is a system of different functions that are united by definite relationships. Each individual must have a distinct job or action and a personality that is his or her own. Individuality grows as parts of society grow. Thus, society becomes more efficient at moving in sync, yet at the same time, each of its parts has more movements that are distinctly its own.

According to Durkheim, the more primitive a society is, the more it is characterized by mechanical solidarity. The members of that society are more likely to resemble each other and share the same beliefs and morals. As societies becomes more advanced and civilized, the individual members of those societies start to become more unique and distinguishable from each other.

Solidarity becomes more organic as these societies develop their divisions of labor.

Durkheim also discusses law extensively in this book. To him, law is 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 society that is analogous to the nervous system in organisms, according to Durkheim. The nervous system regulates various body 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 exist and each corresponds to a type of social solidarity. The first type of law, repressive law, imposes some type of punishment on the perpetrator. Repressive law corresponds to the ‘center of common consciousness’ and tends to stay diffused throughout society. Repressive law corresponds to the mechanical state of society.

The second type of law is restitutive law, which does not necessarily imply any suffering on the part of the perpetrator, but rather tries to restore the relationships that were disturbed from their normal form by the crime that occurred. 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. Repressive law is common in primitive, or mechanical, societies where sanctions for crimes are typically made across the whole community. In these lower societies, crimes against the individual are common, yet placed on the lower end of the penal ladder. Crimes against the community take priority 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.

Durkheim bases his discussion of organic solidarity on a dispute with Herber 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 and Durkheim disagrees. Much of this book, then, is Durkheim arguing with Spencer’s stance and pleading his own views on the topic.

Durkheim also spends some time discussing division of labor and how it is caused. To him, the division of labor is in direct proportion to the moral density of the society. This increase can happen in three ways: through an increase of the concentration of people spatially, 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, labor starts to become divided because the struggle for existence becomes more strenuous.


Durkheim, E. (1997). The Division of Labor in Society. New York, NY: Free Press.

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Crossman, Ashley. "The Division of Labor in Society." ThoughtCo, Feb. 22, 2017, Crossman, Ashley. (2017, February 22). The Division of Labor in Society. Retrieved from Crossman, Ashley. "The Division of Labor in Society." ThoughtCo. (accessed January 19, 2018).