Division of labor

The division of a complex production process into a number of simpler tasks, each one of which is undertaken by a different individual who typically (but not necessarily) specializes in one task (or a very few tasks) on a more or less permanent basis. The advantages of division of labor for enhancing human productivity were first extensively analyzed by Adam Smith in his 1776 classic The Wealth of Nations, where he coined the phrase. Whereas Smith's famous analysis of the pin factory emphasized improvements in technical efficiency (the time and physical movement saved by workers no longer having to switch from one operation and set of tools to another), it also took note of the improvements in allocational efficiency made possible by developing and then taking advantage of workers' differing skills and talents according to the (at that time not yet named) principle of comparative advantage.

In the broadest sense, the extension of the division of labor is the fundamental feature of a modern or developed economy, in which gigantic increases in the volume and variety of production have been attained -- but at the cost of massively increasing economic interdependence within larger and larger populations spread over larger and larger geographical areas. In such a complex society, instead of each individual or family attempting to produce all or most of what it consumes, the individual specializes in producing only a few kinds of good or service (or perhaps only small components of a single good or service) and then acquires all other desired goods or services from the production of other specialists by means of mutual exchange (or, in non-market economies, perhaps through coercive or customary transfer).

It is worth noting that, while economists tend to emphasize the immense production- and efficiency-enhancing effects of a complex, geographically extensive, and highly specialized division of labor and the markedly higher average standard of living it makes possible, anthropologists, sociologists, and social-psychologists (as well as many philosophers, artists and social theorists) tend to focus more on other presumed non-economic side-effects of greater social differentiation that they typically view in a much more negative light -- such as the development of a diminished sense of wholeness or personal authorship that may result in lessened emotional satisfaction from one's work; greater difficulties in generating agreement on moral principles and a sense of social solidarity or "belongingness" when the far-flung members of society live their lives in such varied ways and develop such diverse interests; the insecurity of the individual's social status when people are no longer assigned their place in society but must continually compete with others to retain or improve their own social positions; the loss of the sense of community mastery over one's fate that comes with dependence upon distant and unknown people for the provision of most of one's vital necessities, and so on. Analyzing and critiquing the many consequences of an advanced and highly specialized division of labor is among the central themes in the works of such pioneer modern social theorists as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Karl Marx, Ferdinand Toennies, Henry Maine, Max Weber, and Emile Durkheim, to mention only a few, and these same topics still remain central to much of contemporary social thought. [See: socialism].

[See also: specialization, market economy, efficiency]