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Durkheim and Marx: The Division of Labor

The division of labor can be described as the process of separating tasks in an economic system so that individuals can specialize based on their specific competencies. The concept was popularized by Adam Smith when he noted that productivity increases when workers are divided and assigned different roles. Emile Durkheim and Karl Marx are two sociologists whose contributions on the concept advanced sociological theories significantly. They held varied ideologies regarding the theory, as well as its effects on society.

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Durkheim described the division of labor as the establishment of specified jobs for certain people, centered on their skills. He saw it as vital because it increases the productivity potential of processes and sharpens the skills of workers. Moreover, it leads to the creation of solidarity, which can be either organic or mechanical. However, he noted that the concepts supersedes economic gain as it inaugurates social and moral order in society. It brings social integration and promotes organic solidarity. In contrast, Marx did not give a proper definition of the term. However, he affirmed that it is the main means of production within the capitalistic system. Unlike Durkheim, Marx did not limit his explication of the concept to its contribution toward enhancing productivity. He argued that specialization turns to commodity production only if the products of two autonomous individuals can be exchanged based on their intrinsic values. According to him, division transforms labor into a commodity that can be bought or sold in the marketplace. Marx believed that division of labor translates into a mechanism of producing commodities once products leave the site of production. On the contrary, Durkheim taught that cooperation between workers and their interdependence are the hallmarks of the division of labor.

Durkheim also believed that the division of labor resulted from increases in population density. The growth of the concept leads to the emergence of organic solidarity. This phenomenon can be observed in the modern industrial societies where social solidarity is rampant. It makes people interdependent and it initiates social integration. In that regard, Durkheim conceived division of labor as a social institution. In contrast, Marx studied the concept as an economic institution. He argued that the value of productive labor is hidden, and its measure is directly proportional to the time needed to produce a commodity. Therefore, it is not determined socially as Durkheim suggested. People disregard the relationship between products and the social aspects of their production. Therefore, a certain form of division of labor within the capitalistic system inflates the value of commodities. This is so because division within and outside the workplace allows work to be viewed as value and as a commodity, thus the commodification of human’s product. Marx believed that the division of labor led to the dehumanization of the work force as workers are reduced to mechanical beings that lack creativity.

Durkheim did not anticipate the emergence of a different type of society from the industrial capitalist’s approach to division of labor. He viewed chaos, conflict, and disorder as uncontrolled phenomena that affect the modern society. In contrast, Marx cited class conflict as a key component of modern society. He believed that the division of labor was not a facilitator of social solidarity, but an ideology that was imposed on workers for the benefit of the capitalists. They both cited different consequences of the division of labor. Durkheim argued that it establishes equilibrium in society while Marx claimed that it divides society into classes based on who owns the means of production. In modern society, the concept renders it necessary for capitalists to have a higher number of workers under their control. This ensures that the capitalist’s capital grows exponentially. Therefore, capitalists benefit at the expense of the workers.

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