Sociological Views of the Division of Labor in Nineteenth Century Industrial Capitalism Essay

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Marx/Durkheim/Simmel

At the time of the Industrial Revolution, philosophy had already dealt substantially with the notion of "division of labour" although the terminology was slightly different. Our modern sense of the division of labour is, of course, largely derived from nineteenth century industrial capitalism, and it was based on this paradigm that sociological thinkers like Marx, Durkheim, and Simmel would analyze the phenomenon. But we might note by way of introduction that they were inheriting an earlier tradition that emerged from earlier pre-industrial forms of capitalism, what began to emerge in England in the Elizabethan period and thereafter. Thus the Elizabethan idea of a "great chain of being" -- which posited an order and hierarchy to social relationships -- would gradually come to be altered by thinkers like Thomas Hobbes and Bernard Mandeville. By the early eighteenth century, Mandeville would lay down the basic principles of an idea of division of labor -- as the source of harmony and rational social relationships -- that would be accepted by Adam Smith and form the dominant ideology of which Marx, Durkheim, and Simmel would all offer critiques. A closer examination of Marx, Durkheim and Simmel must, however, rest on the assumption that what they are analyzing is new in the nineteenth century, because it derives specifically from urbanized and industrialized forms of capitalism.

For Marx, the division of labor in society is easily observable but it is fundamentally the basis of a far more important concept in Marx's weltanschauung: the idea of class conflict. Coser summarizes Marx's own mythography of the emergence of social relationships from a more primitive state of being in this way: "In the effort to satisfy primary and secondary needs, men engage in antagonistic cooperation as soon as they leave the primitive, communal stage of development. As soon as a division of labor emerges in human society, that division leads to the formation of antagonistic classes, the prime actors in the historical drama." (Coser 43). We can see in this basic sketch of historical processes that Marx has offered, though, that the fundamental basis he has for the emergence of division of labor and thus for the division of separate classes is actually a variety of conflict.
The cooperation of pre-industrial humans is "antagonistic" -- i.e., humans are naturally in conflict and engaged in competition over scarce resources. The notion that the organization of society into different specialized sectors is therefore part of an overall strategy of mutual co-operation and harmony (in keeping with the earlier pre-capitalist notions of a divinely-sanctioned great chain of being) is considered by Marx to be a sham: Marx's definition of ideology is basically the system of thought and culture that persuades humans to subscribe to the ruling class's own self-justification for the fundamentally exploitative nature of the division of labor. The class division that results from division of labor is identified by Marx as the ruling class (who set the terms for the ideology), the bourgeoisie (the great engine of capitalist activity who keep a constant intervention in the means of production, and perpetuate what later economists would term "creative destruction") and finally the proletariat (the exploited industrial working class, who provide the majority of labor while receiving a minimum of reward). This fundamentally unbalanced system maintains its stranglehold on human society, in Marx's view, by means of ideology (those systems of thought which reflect the ruling class's own view of itself and its role) and alienation. Workers experience alienation by no longer having an organic connection to what they produce, to the work that they do, to their own selves and to their interactions with each other. Thus the division of labor in Marx's view ultimately results in the replacement of exchange-value (i.e., cash transactions) with more meaningful human interaction. The class structure that bases itself on such division of labor is the source of all social conflict and ultimately, Marx hopes, the powder keg that will be sparked off by revolution.

Durkheim views division of labor somewhat differently from Marx: indeed Durkheim's earliest sociological work was an 1893 "French doctoral thesis" on….....

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