Division of labor

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Division of labor withing a hunting group in the Stone Age.

Division of labor is the specialization of cooperative labour in specific, circumscribed tasks and like roles. Historically an increasingly complex division of labour is closely associated with the growth of total output and trade, the rise of capitalism, and of the complexity of industrialization processes.


Ancient history[edit]

  • Well then, how will our state supply these needs? It will need a farmer, a builder, and a weaver, and also, I think, a shoemaker and one or two others to provide for our bodily needs. So that the minimum state would consist of four or five men...
    • Plato The Republic, Page 103, Penguin Classics edition.
  • Just as the various trades are most highly developed in large cities, in the same way food at the palace is prepared in a far superior manner. In small towns the same man makes couches, doors, plows and tables, and often he even builds houses, and still he is thankful if only he can find enough work to support himself. And it is impossible for a man of many trades to do all of them well. In large cities, however, because many make demands on each trade, one alone is enough to support a man, and often less than one: for instance one man makes shoes for men, another for women, there are places even where one man earns a living just by mending shoes, another by cutting them out, another just by sewing the uppers together, while there is another who performs none of these operations but assembles the parts, Of necessity, he who pursues a very specialised task will do it best.
  • Only those who were united by the same activity were left with the same language. There was one for master builders, another for all the stonerollers. … For all the different tasks that were present at that project there arose different languages which led to the disintegration of the unity of the human race.
    • Dante, describing the construction of the Tower of Babel, De vulgari eloquentia, 1.7.6, cited in Rhetoric As Philosophy (1980), p. 77

Modern history[edit]

14th century[edit]

  • The power of the individual human being is not sufficient for him to obtain (the food) he needs, and does not provide him with as much as he requires to live. Even if we assume an absolute minimum of food...that amount of food could be obtained only after much preparation...Thus, he cannot do without a combination of many powers from among his fellow beings, if he is to obtain food for himself and for them. Through cooperation, the needs of a number of persons, many times greater than their own number, can be satisfied.
    • Ibn Khaldun 14th-century; cited in: A. Abdullahi & A. Salawu "Ibn Khaldun: A Forgotten Sociologist?". South African Review of Sociology. (2012) Vol 13.3. p. 24-40

18th century[edit]

Plate on pin-making, from Diderot's Encyclopédie (1762)
  • But if one will wholly apply himself to the making of Bows and Arrows, whilst another provides Food, a third builds Huts, a fourth makes Garments, and a fifth Utensils, they not only become useful to one another, but the Callings and Employments themselves will in the same Number of Years receive much greater Improvements, than if all had been promiscuously followed by every one of the Five.
  • When every individual person labours a-part, and only for himself, his force is too small to execute any considerable work; his labour being employ’d in supplying all his different necessities, he never attains a perfection in any particular art; and as his force and success are not at all times equal, the least failure in either of these particulars must be attended with inevitable ruin and misery. Society provides a remedy for these three inconveniences. By the conjunction of forces, our power is augmented: By the partition of employments, our ability en creases: And by mutual succor we are less expos’d to fortune and accidents. ’Tis by this additional force, ability, and security, that society becomes advantageous.
    • David Hume (1739) A Treatise of Human Nature . About "partition of employments"
  • The greatest improvement in the productive powers of labour, and the greatest part of skill, dexterity, and judgment with which it is any where directed, or applied, seem to have been the effects of the division of labour.
  • To take an example, therefore, from a very trifling manufacture, but one in which the division of labour has been very often taken notice of, the trade of a pin-maker: a workman not educated to this business (which the division of labour has rendered a distinct trade, nor acquainted with the use of the machinery employed in it (to the invention of which the same division of labour has probably given occasion), could scarce, perhaps, with his utmost industry, make one pin in a day, and certainly could not make twenty. But in the way in which this business is now carried on, not only the whole work is a peculiar trade, but it is divided into a number of branches, of which the greater part are likewise peculiar trades. One man draws out the wire; another straights it; a third cuts it; a fourth points it; a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving the head; to make the head requires two or three distinct operations; to put it on is a peculiar business; to whiten the pins is another; it is even a trade by itself to put them into the paper; and the important business of making a pin is, in this manner, divided into about eighteen distinct operations, which, in some manufactories, are all performed by distinct hands, though in others the same man will sometimes perform two or three of them. I have seen a small manufactory of this kind, where ten men only were employed, and where some of them consequently performed two or three distinct operations. But though they were very poor, and therefore but indifferently accommodated with the necessary machinery, they could, when they exerted themselves, make among them about twelve pounds of pins in a day. There are in a pound upwards of four thousand pins of a middling size. Those ten persons, therefore, could make among them upwards of forty-eight thousand pins in a day. Each person, therefore, making a tenth part of forty-eight thousand pins, might be considered as making four thousand eight hundred pins in a day. But if they had all wrought separately and independently, and without any of them having been educated to this peculiar business, they certainly could not each of them have made twenty, perhaps not one pin in a day; that is, certainly, not the two hundred and fortieth, perhaps not the four thousand eight hundredth, part of what they are at present capable of performing, in consequence of a proper division and combination of their different operations.
  • There is nobody who is not surprised of the small price of pins; but we shall be even more surprised, when we know how many different operations, most of them very delicate, are mandatory to make a good pin. We are going to go through these operations in a few words to stimulate the curiosity to know their detail; this enumeration will supply as many articles which will make the division of this work... The first operation is to have brass go through the drawing plate to calibrate it.

19th century[edit]

  • Their genuine stupidity lies hid beneath their specialism. They know their business, but are ignorant of everything which is outside it. So that to preserve their self-conceit they question everything, are crudely and crookedly critical. They appear to be sceptics and are in reality simpletons; they swamp their wits in interminable arguments. Almost all conveniently adopt social, literary, or political prejudices, to do away with the need of having opinions, just as they adapt their conscience to the standard of the Code or the Tribunal of Commerce. Having started early to become men of note, they turn into mediocrities, and crawl over the high places of the world. So, too, their faces present the harsh pallor, the deceitful coloring, those dull, tarnished eyes, and garrulous, sensual mouths, in which the observer recognizes the symptoms of the degeneracy of the thought and its rotation in the circle of a special idea which destroys the creative faculties of the brain and the gift of seeing in large, of generalizing and deducing. No man who has allowed himself to be caught in the revolutions of the gear of these huge machines can ever become great.
  • At this point, an urgent question arises: … Is it our duty to seek to become a thorough and complete human being, one quite sufficient unto himself; or, on the contrary, to be only a part of a whole, the organ of an organism? Briefly, is the division of labor, at the same time that it is a law of nature, also a moral rule of human conduct; and, if it has this latter character, why and in what degree?
    • Émile Durkheim (1893) , The Division of Labor in Society, G. Simpson, trans. (1933), p. 41
  • It seems that opinion is steadily inclining towards making the division of labor an imperative rule of conduct, to present it as a duty. Those who shun it are not punished precise penalty fixed by law, it is true; but they are blamed. The time has passed when the perfect man was he who appeared interested in everything without attaching himself exclusively to anything, capable of tasting and understanding everything finding means to unite and condense in himself all that was most exquisite in civilization. … We want activity, instead of spreading itself over a large area, to concentrate and gain in intensity what it loses in extent. We distrust those excessively mobile talents that lend themselves equally to all uses, refusing to choose a special role and keep to it. We disapprove of those men whose unique care is to organize and develop all their faculties, but without making any definite use of them, and without sacrificing any of them, as if each man were sufficient unto himself, and constituted an independent world. It seems to us that this state of detachment and indetermination has something anti-social about it. The praiseworthy man of former times is only a dilettante to us, and we refuse to give dilettantism any moral value; we rather see perfection in the man seeking, not to be complete, but to produce; who has a restricted task, and devotes himself to it; who does his duty, accomplishes his work. “To perfect oneself,” said Secrétan, “is to learn one's role, to become capable of fulfilling one's function. . . The measure of our perfection is no longer found in our complacence with ourselves, in the applause of a crowd, or in the approving smile of an affected dilettantism, but in the sum of given services and in our capacity to give more.” [Le principe de la morale, p. 189] … We no longer think that the exclusive duty of man is to realize in himself the qualities of man in general; but we believe he must have those pertaining to his function. … The categorical imperative of the moral conscience is assuming the following form: Make yourself usefully fulfill a determinate function.
    • Émile Durkheim (1893), The Division of Labor in Society, G. Simpson, trans. (1933), pp. 42-43
  • The dwarf standing on the shoulders of the giant can indeed see further than his supporter, especially if he puts on spectacles; but to such a lofty survey is wanted the elevated feeling, the giant-heart, to which we cannot lay claim.
  • Those who tirelessly use the modem cry of battle and sacrifice “Division of labour! Fall into line!” are for once to be told clearly and bluntly: if you want to further science as quickly as possible you will destroy it as quickly as possible; as the hen will perish if artificially forced to lay eggs too quickly. Granted, science has been furthered surprisingly quickly in the last decades: but just look at the scholars, the exhausted hens. They truly are no “harmonious” natures; they can only cackle more than ever because they lay eggs more often: of course, the eggs have become ever smaller (even if the books ever bigger).
    • Friedrich Nietzsche (1874), "On The Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life", Untimely Meditations, P. Preuss, trans. (1980) § 7
  • Life is diseased, thanks to this dehumanised piece of clockwork and mechanism, thanks to the “impersonality” of the workman, and the false economy of the “division of labour.” The object, which is culture, is lost sight of: modern scientific activity as a means thereto simply produces barbarism.
    • Friedrich Nietzsche (1888), Ecce Homo, A. Ludovici, trans., “Thoughts out of Season,” § 3.2.1
  • Faced with a world of “modern ideas” which would like to banish everyone into a corner and a “specialty,” a philosopher, if there could be a philosopher these days, would be compelled to establish the greatness of mankind, the idea of “greatness,” on the basis of his own particular extensive range and multiplicity, his own totality in the midst of diversity.
  • It is this humiliating transformation of men into machines [caused by the “division of labor”] that causes workers to dumbly, destructively, and vainly fight for a freedom whose essence they themselves do not understand. Their hatred of wealth and the ruling classes is not evoked by the pangs of hunger nor by the pinpricks of offended pride. … It is not that people do not have enough to eat, but that they do not get any satisfaction out of the work they do to earn their bread. Therefore, they regard money as the only means of achieving satisfaction. It is not that people suffer from the contempt of the upper classes, but that they cannot stand their own self-contempt based on their feeling that the work to which they are condemned denigrates and deforms them into something less than human.
    • John Ruskin, as cited in Tolstoy, Path of Life, M. Cote, trans. (2002), p. 79
  • Whoever hasn’t yet arrived at the clear realization that there might be a greatness existing entirely outside his own sphere and for which he might have absolutely no feeling; whoever hasn’t at least felt obscure intimations concerning the approximate location of this greatness in the geography of the human spirit: that person either has no genius in his own sphere, or else he hasn’t been educated to the level of the classic.
    • Friedrich Schlegel, Lucinde and the Fragments, P. Firchow, trans. (1991), “Critical Fragments,” § 36
  • The life that I aspire to live
No man proposeth me—
No trade upon the street
Wears its emblazonry.
  • Division of labor is a justification for sloth.
    • Leo Tolstoy, Path of Life, M. Cote, trans. (2002), p. 79
  • Lately much has been said to show that the principal cause of our success in production is division of labor. We say "division of labor," but this term is incorrect, In our society it is not labor that is divided, but human beings—these are divided into human particles, broken into small pieces, ground into dust.

20th century[edit]

First half of the 20th century[edit]

  • Everyone who achieves strives for totality, and the value of his achievement lies in that totality—that is, in the fact that the whole, undivided nature of a human being should be expressed in his achievement. But when determined by our society, as we see it today, achievement does not express a totality; it is completely fragmented and derivative. It is not uncommon for the community to be the site where a joint and covert struggle is waged against higher ambitions and more personal goals. ... The socially relevant achievement of the average person serves in the vast majority of cases to repress the original and nonderivative, inner aspirations of the human being.
    • Walter Benjamin, "The Life of Students" (1915), in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings – vol. 1: 1913-1926, p. 39
  • The more heavily the process of self-preservation is based on the bourgeois division of labor, the more it enforces the self-alienation of individuals, who must mold themselves to the technical apparatus body and soul.
    • Horkheimer and Adorno (1948), Dialectic of Enlightenment, E. Jephcott, trans. 1972, p. 23
  • With the clean separation between science and poetry the division of labor which science had helped to establish was extended to language. For science the word is first of all a sign; it is then distributed among the various arts as sound, image, or word proper, but its unity can never be restored by the addition of these arts, be synaesthesia or total art. As sign, language must resign itself to calculation and, to know nature, must renounce the claim to resemble it. As image it must resign itself to being a likeness and, to be entirely nature, must renounce the claim to know it.
    • Horkheimer and Adorno (1948), Dialectic of Enlightenment, E. Jephcott, trans. 1972, pp. 12-13
  • The more heavily the process of self-preservation is based on the bourgeois division of labor, the more it enforces the self-alienation of individuals, who must mold themselves to the technical apparatus body and soul.
    • Horkheimer and Adorno (1948), Dialectic of Enlightenment, E. Jephcott, trans. 1972, p. 23
  • It is an ancient belief, going back to classical antiquity, that specialization of any kind is illiberal in a freeman. A man willing to bury himself in the details of some small endeavor has been considered lost to these larger considerations which must occupy the mind of the ruler.
  • Specialization develops only part of a man; a man partially developed is deformed.
  • The former distrust of specialization has been supplanted by its opposite, a distrust of generalization. Not only has man become a specialist in practice, he is being taught that special facts represent the highest form of knowledge.

Second half of the 20th century[edit]

  • The son of well-to-do parents who … engages in a so-called intellectual profession, as an artist or a scholar, will have a particularly difficult time with those bearing the distasteful title of colleagues. It is not merely that his independence is envied, the seriousness of his intentions mistrusted, that he is suspected of being a secret envoy of the established powers. … The real resistance lies elsewhere. The occupation with things of the mind has by now itself become “practical,” a business with strict division of labor, departments and restricted entry. The man of independent means who chooses it out of repugnance for the ignominy of earning money will not be disposed to acknowledge the fact. For this he is punished. He … is ranked in the competitive hierarchy as a dilettante no matter how well he knows his subject, and must, if he wants to make a career, show himself even more resolutely blinkered than the most inveterate specialist.
    • Theodor Adorno (1951), Minima Moralia, E. Jephcott, trans. (1974), § 1
  • The urge to suspend the division of labor which, within certain limits, his economic situation enables him to satisfy, is thought particularly disreputable: it betrays a disinclination to sanction the operations imposed by society, and domineering competence permits no such idiosyncrasies. The departmentalization of mind is a means of abolishing mind where it is not exercised ex officio, under contract. It performs this task all the more reliably since anyone who repudiates this division of labor—if only by taking pleasure in his work—makes himself vulnerable by its standards, in ways inseparable from elements of his superiority. Thus is order ensured: some have to play the game because they cannot otherwise live, and those who could live otherwise are kept out because they do not want to play the game.
    • Theodor Adorno (1951), Minima Moralia, E. Jephcott, trans. (1974), § 1
  • The disease of the modern character is specialization. Looked at from the standpoint of the social system, the aim of specialization may seem desirable enough. The aim is to see that the responsibilities of government, law, medicine, engineering, agriculture, education, etc., are given into the hands of the most skilled, best prepared people. The difficulties do not appear until we look at specialization from the opposite standpoint—that of individual persons. We then begin to see the grotesquery—indeed, the impossibility—of an idea of community wholeness that divorces itself from any idea of personal wholeness.
  • The first, and best known, hazard of the specialist system is that it produces specialists—people who are elaborately and expensively trained to do one thing. We get into absurdity very quickly here. There are, for instance, educators who have nothing to teach, communicators who have nothing to say, medical doctors skilled at expensive cures for diseases that they have no skill, and no interest, in preventing. More common, and more damaging, are the inventors, manufacturers, and salesmen of devices who have no concern for the possible effects of those devices. Specialization is thus seen to be a way of institutionalizing, justifying, and paying highly for a calamitous disintegration and scattering-out of the various functions of character: workmanship, care, conscience, responsibility.
  • This situation [alienation] can therefore [according to Durkheim] be remedied by providing the individual with a moral awareness of the social importance of his particular role in the division of labour. He is then no longer an alienated automaton. but is a useful part of an organic whole: ‘from that time, as special and uniform as his activity may be, it is that of an intelligent being, for it has direction, and he is aware of it.’ This is entirely consistent with Durkheim’s general account of the growth of the division of labour, and its relationship to human freedom. It is only through moral acceptance in his particular role in the division of labour that the individual is able to achieve a high degree of autonomy as a self-conscious being, and can escape both the tyranny of rigid moral conformity demanded in undifferentiated societies on the one hand and the tyranny of unrealisable desires on the other.
    Not the moral integration of the individual within a differentiated division of labour but the effective dissolution of the division of labour as an organising principle of human social intercourse, is the premise of Marx’s conception. Marx nowhere specifies in detail how this future society would be organised socially, but, at any rate,. this perspective differs decisively from that of Durkheim. The vision of a highly differentiated division of labour integrated upon the basis of moral norms of individual obligation and corporate solidarity. is quite at variance with Marx’s anticipation of the future form of society.
  • According to Durkheim’s standpoint. the criteria underlying Marx’s hopes for the elimination of technological alienation represent a reversion to moral principles which are no longer appropriate to the modern form of society. This is exactly the problem which Durkheim poses at the opening of The Division of Labour: ‘Is it our duty to seek to become a thorough and complete human being. one quite sufficient unto himself; or, on the contrary, to be only a part of a whole, the organ of an organism?’ The analysis contained in the work, in Durkheim’s view, demonstrates conclusively that organic solidarity is the ‘normal’ type in modern societies, and consequently that the era of the ‘universal man’ is finished. The latter ideal, which predominated up to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in western Europe is incompatible with the diversity of the contemporary order. In preserving this ideal, by contrast, Marx argues the obverse: that the tendencies which are leading to the destruction of capitalism are themselves capable of effecting a recovery of the ‘universal’ properties of man. which are shared by every individual.
  • A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyse a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
    • Robert A. Heinlein, in Time Enough for Love, 1973; cited in: QFinance, the ultimate resource London: Bloomsbury. 2009. p. 1760.
  • I found that there were these incredibly great people at doing certain things, and that you couldn't replace one of these people with 50 average people. They could just do things that no number of average people could do.
    • Steve Jobs, quoted in Steve's Two Jobs, Time (Michael Krantz, Oct. 18, 1999); cited in: QFinance, the ultimate resource London: Bloomsbury. 2009. p. 1760.
  • The societal division of labor obtains the dignity of an ontological condition. If truth presupposes freedom from toil, and if this freedom is, in the social reality, the prerogative of a minority, then the reality allows such a truth only in approximation and for a privileged group.
  • Specialization in this world is rudimentary and self-sufficiency characterizes most individual households
    • Douglass C. North (1990) Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance p. 119
  • International specialization and division of labor requires institutions and organizations to safeguard property rights across international boundaries so that capital markets as well as other kinds of exchange can take place with credible commitment on the part of the players.
    • Douglass C. North (1990) Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance p. 121
  • The idea of expertise in any one area of the humanities, with its subsequent phenomenon of faculty recruitment by time framed "slots," was always mistaken. It was inspired, in this masculine pioneer country that has never taken the arts seriously, by nervous emulation of the sciences, where one can indeed deeply and profitably specialize in moths, ferns, or igneous rocks. But there is no true expertise in the humanities with out knowing all of the humanities.
    • Camille Paglia, “Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders: Academe in the Hour of the Wolf,” Arion, Third Series, Vol. 1, No. 2 (Spring, 1991), p. 174
  • If a man is trained, purely and simply, to be expert and contented in a particular task he will not innovate; Freud would have remained an anatomist, Marx a philosopher, Darwin a field-naturalist.
  • The prevailing situation of criticism ... This has given rise to a cult of professional expertise whose effect in general is pernicious. For the intellectual class, expertise has usually been a service rendered, and sold, to the central authority of society. This is the trahison des clercs of which Julien Benda spoke in the 1920s. Expertise in foreign affairs, for example, has usually meant the legitimization of the conduct of foreign policy and, what is more to the point, a sustained investment in revalidating the role of experts in foreign affairs. The same sort of thing is true of literary critics and professional humanists, except that their expertise is based upon noninterference in what Vico grandly calls the world of nations but which prosaically might just as well be called “the world.” We tell our students and our general constituency that we defend the classics, the virtues of a liberal education, and the precious pleasures of literature even as we also show ourselves to be silent (perhaps incompetent) about the historical and social world in which all these things take place. ...
Humanists and intellectuals accept the idea that ... cultural types are not supposed to interfere in matters for which the social system has not certified them.
  • Edward Said, The World, the Text, and the Critic (1983), pp. 2-3
  • The intellectual origins of literary theory in Europe were, I think it is accurate to say, insurrectionary. The traditional university, the hegemony of determinism and positivism, the reification of ideological bourgeois “humanism,” the rigid barriers between academic specialties: it was powerful responses to all these that linked together such influential progenitors of today’s literary theorist as Saussure, Lukács, Bataille, Lévi-Strauss, Freud, Nietzsche, and Marx. Theory proposed itself as a synthesis overriding the petty fiefdoms within the world of intellectual production, and it was manifestly to be hoped as a result that all the domains of human activity could be seen, and lived, as a unity. ...
Literary theory, whether of the Left or the Right, has turned its back on these things. This can be considered, I think, the triumph of the ethic of professionalism. But it is no accident that the emergence of so narrowly defined a philosophy of pure textuality and critical noninterference has coincided with the ascendancy of Reaganism.
  • Edward Said, The World, the Text, and the Critic (1983), pp. 3-4
  • The last of Smith’s regrettable failures is one for which he is overwhelmingly famous – the division of labor. How can it be that the famous opening chapters of his book, and the pin factory he gave immortality, can be considered a failure? Are they not cited as often as any passages in all economics? Indeed, over the generations they are. The failure is different: almost no one used or now uses theory of division of labor, for the excellent reason that there is scarcely such a theory. … there is no standard, operable theory to describe what Smith argued to be the mainspring of economic progress. Smith gave the division of labor an immensely convincing presentation – it seems to me as persuasive a case for the power of specialization today as it appeared to Smith. Yet there is no evidence, so far as I know, of any serious advance in theory of the subject since his time, and specialization is not an integral part of the modern theory of production, which may well be an explanation for the fact that the modern theory of economies of scale is little more than a set of alternative possibilities.
    • George Stigler (1976). “The Successes and Failures of Professor Smith”. Journal of Political Economy, 84, 1199-1213

21st century[edit]

  • The unremitting division of labour resulted in admirable levels of productivity. The company’s success appeared to bear out the principles of efficiency laid down at the turn of the twentieth century by the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, who theorized that a society would grow wealthy to the extent that its members forfeited general knowledge in favour of fostering individual ability in narrowly constricted fields. In an ideal Paretan economy, jobs would be ever more finely subdivided to allow for the accumulation of complex skills, which would then be traded among workers. … But however great the economic advantages of segmenting the elements of an afternoon’s work into a range of forty-year-long careers, there was reason to wonder about the unintended side effects of doing so. In particular, one felt tempted to ask … how meaningful the lives might feel as a result.
    • Alain de Botton, describing a biscuit manufacturer in The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work (2009), pp. 76-77
  • A second, related assumption of modern progress-philosophy is that intellectual production functions in essentially the same way as economic production: the progress of both results from “teamwork,” from the practice of the division of labor or specialization within a group. And just as the essential precondition of the economic division of labor is exchange, so the precondition of intellectual specialization is the efficient exchange of knowledge—through publication.
    • Arthur Melzer (2007) “On the Pedagogical Motive for Esoteric Writing” The Journal of Politics, Volume 69, Issue 4, pp. 1015 - 1031

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