Division of Labor

views updated May 14 2018

Division of Labor


The phrase division of labor can justifiably be used to indicate any form of work specialization, such as the division of labor between men and women; and yet, ever since Adam Smiths The Wealth of Nations (1776), it has come to refer to the division of tasks within an industrial process. Smith saw the division of labor within the industrial process as enormously efficient and illustrated his argument by the now hallowed example of the pin factory. A competent pinmaker, we are told, could not make more than twenty pins a day, whereas, upon dividing the tasks into eighteen operations, such as drawing, cutting, grinding, and so on, ten men can make over 48,000 pins in a day. On an average, therefore, each individuals productivity is increased 240-fold. The example is especially interesting because the productivity increase involves no change in techniqueit is purely a case of applying existing knowledge more efficiently. The only limit to such productivity lies in the ability to sell the additional output, hence Smith also tells us That the division of labour is limited by the extent of the market (1776).

We are emphatically told in chapter 1, Book I, of the Wealth of Nations that the division of labor is the most important reason for greater production and is the primary force leading to prosperity:

The greatest improvement in the productive powers of labour, and the greater part of the skill, dexterity and judgement with which it is anywhere directed, or applied, seems to have been the effects of the division of labour. (p. 13)

It is the great multiplication of the production of all the different arts, in consequence of the division of labour, which occasions, in a well-governed society, that universal opulence which extends itself to the lowest ranks of the people. (p. 22)

Three reasons are given why a concentration of effort upon a single task increases efficiency. First, the skill of individual workers is much improved by specialization; secondly, workers save time and effort involved in having to switch from one operation to another; and finally, the division of labor facilitates the invention of machinery. The three reasons are most applicable only in manufacturing and Smith notes that agriculture is not suited to the division of labor, with the implication that one is not to expect much growth in that sector.

The rhetorical force of Adam Smiths presentation has to be separated from its economic analysis. All individuals have identical capacities in Smiths presentation and he ignored the traditional view of the division of labor as permitting individuals to perform those tasks that were most suitable to them. Dugald Stewart, Smiths successor at Edinburgh, criticized each of Smiths three reasons. Stewart grants that a workman gains in dexterity by concentrating on one task, but the efficiency gains thus obtained he considers to be quite limited (Stewart 1855, vol. 8, p. 315). Secondly, while it was perfectly true that a worker saves time by not having to change jobs, such gains are of small magnitude. If, then, the division of labor is to explain the productivity of labor, it must be by its influence upon the invention of machinery (p. 319).

Stewart now made two very significant innovations. First, his analysis of production focused on breaking production processes down into a series of simple tasks, as simple tasks are the ones that are most easily mechanically duplicated; gains in time and dexterity followed as a corollary of this attempt at simplification. Secondly, the entrepreneur and not the worker is put at the center of the stage. Stewart doubted that workers themselves would engage in the invention of labor-saving machinery, as Smith had conjectured they would, because the effect of such improvements indeed might even lead to his being unemployed. It is the capitalist who is driven by the lure of profits to continually improve his machinery. E. G. Wakefield later elaborated upon this far-reaching criticism by insisting that every successful division of labor must be accompanied by a plan for its subsequent combination. Coordination was prior to, and critical for, the successful division of labor. Smiths one-sided emphasis Wakefield found to be not only very deficient but also full of error (Smith [1776] 1840, p. 33).

Later generations have made the division of labor the paramount principle underlying profitable international trade. The international division of labor is a feature that Smith himself laid little stress upon and the argument about its centrality is based on a misinterpretation. The phrase division of labor can be used for any activity where there is some element of specialization. When used in the context of international trade, to suggest that trade between two countries is beneficial in allowing two countries to specialize, what is being referred to is, however, not at all the same phenomenon that occurs in the pin factory. The gains here typically arise from the different endowments of the two countries, not from the subdivision of tasks within a unified process.

From the scholarly point of view it must be regretted that Smith (1) neglected the fairly extensive British traditionPetty, Maxwell, and Harris, to name a fewof viewing the division of labor as a factor in productivity, and (2) failed to acknowledge his debt to the Encyclopedie (see Kindleberger 1976, p. 1). Not only does the example of pinmaking appear to have been taken from the French Encyclopedie, the three advantages of the division of labor are also distinctly stated there as well. (This point is distinctly noted by Edwin Cannan, editor of the fifth edition of the Wealth of Nations, and subsequently by Roy Campbell and Andrew Skinner, editors of the 1976 edition.) When Adam Smith and Adam Ferguson fell out in the 1760s and 1770s, Smith appears to have accused Ferguson of plagiarismto which charge Ferguson justifiably replied that he had only dipped into the same French source as Smith (Hamowy 1968).

Charles Babbage (17911871) and, independently, the Italian economist Melchiorre Gioja (17671829) elaborated on Stewarts insight that work could be matched to individual abilities: The master manufacturer, by dividing the work to be performed into different processes each requiring different degrees of skill and force, can purchase exactly that precise quantity necessary for each process (Babbage 1832, pp. 137138). (Babbage also claims that needlemaking is more illustrative of the division of labor than pinmaking.) Andrew Ure considered the same issue through the employers eyes and noted how important subdivision is to the social control of industry. The function of science is to mechanize every difficult process so as to reduce the bargaining power of skilled workers (Ure 1835, p. 19). Wherever a process requires particular dexterity and steadiness of hand, it should be withdrawn as soon as possible from the cunning workman, who is prone to many kinds of irregularities, and entrusted to a specific mechanism, so self-regulating that a child could supervise it. Babbage, Gioja, and Ure foreshadow the twentieth century views of F. W. Taylor and Henry Ford, who wanted to replace worker initiative with rules and assembly lines. With Ford and Taylor, and their associated production philosophies Taylorism and Fordism, the view of the worker as robot was virtually complete. It appeared that efficiency requires a dehumanized work environment. Yet labor disputes and poor production quality, quite apparent to all by the 1980s, suggest to many that traditional Taylorism and Fordism are at an end. The latest step has been to globalize the division of labor by shipping out unskilled work to low-wage countries, a process that has the added advantage of removing the alienated worker from view.

Ensconced within the Wealth of Nations, however, was a potent message about alienation. After having extolled the division of labor in Book I, in Book V Smith emphasized the way in which the division of labor turned human beings into mechanical morons: The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations has no occasion to exert his understanding, or to exercise his invention. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become (p. 781). This acquired stupidity makes the ordinary worker an indifferent family man and a poor citizen. Because of this considerable danger to civil society, Smith went against his usual principles and urged the state to become involved in providing primary education. The suggestion that primary education would suffice to save the worker from an alienated, almost disembodied, existence drew Karl Marxs acid remark that Smith had sought to cure the major ill of industrialism with a homeopathic dose. It is rumored that Smith was indebted to Rousseau for the alienating insight, but, be that as it may, Smith is properly considered parent of the major stem of modern labor relations and stepfather to the opposition. The dominance of Taylorism as the ideology of work in the 1930s caused a reaction that is exemplified by Elton Mayos insistence that human relations in the workplace are crucial to maintaining productivity.

The casual treatment of the workers welfare in the American workplace is to be contrasted with the considerable care taken in the molding of engineers. William Wickendon wrote that educational leaders of the 1920s saw the college as being like a factory and urged that colleges must take raw material and turn out a product which is saleable, with the significant implication that the type of curriculum is in the last analysis not set by the college but by the employer of the college graduate (as quoted in Noble 1984, p. 46). The most effective spokesman for engineering education, William Wickenden emphasized teamwork, rather than individualism. The new engineer for industry was urged to be a good subordinate. One notes that these are the very complex of attitudes that America had to relearn from Japan in the 1970s and 1980s!

The social approach to technology looks at Fordism as the primary source of misleading insights. In turn, Fordism arose from glorifying the productivity of the pin factory. In order for large capital expenditures to take place, both corporation and state need to be socially stable. Yet such social stability is difficult to arrange under modern conditions, unless one pays attention to the workers welfare. The full message of the division of labor is a complex one and far too much has been lost by focusing upon the making of pins.

In addition, the effect of the division of labor was to fix attention on one simple operation, whereas the improvement of machinery required knowledge of a great variety of operations. The popular view of technological progress sees it as occurring outside the control or guidance of the worker, who has the challenge of adjusting himself to the technology at hand. And yet, one has to remember that perhaps as much as 40 percent of the technological improvements that occurred in the textile industry during the Industrial Revolution have no assigned source. These were all improvements that occurred as workers made small, invisible improvements whose aggregate effect was quite noticeable. Of course, there are no rules for obtaining such invisible changes, but we can be sure they will happen if we possess a literate, inquisitive, and enterprising labor force. The creation and sustenance of such a labor force is a social process and it makes the successful implementation of any technology policy the result of investment in building up the requisite social foundations. The modern history of labor use has scarcely proceeded along these lines, however (see Rashid 1997 for a historical review).

The appropriateness of the Fordist model has also been called into question by new alternatives to mass production, such as the Just In Time (JIT) production (also called flexible specialization) adopted in Japan. The smallness of readily available markets in Japan meant that firms needed to adapt their production strategies. Instead of mass-producing at low costs, they now had to produce relatively small quantities of high quality goods at affordable prices. This was a considerable challenge, requiring product innovation as well as cost minimization.

JIT manufacturing also required further changes in the philosophy of production, best exemplified by the automobile industry. Automobiles are discrete productsas opposed to dimensional products, which are sold by volume or weight. Resetting machinery for discrete products takes time; to reduce the costs associated with machine resetting, workers needed to have several skills. Because quality control became essential to every step of the production process, and because even research and development needed to be discussed factory-wide, unskilled workers with minimal initiative or independence, so appropriate to Fordism, became a liability. While JIT manufacturing requires intelligent, cooperative employees, there is, of coursejust as in any other systemnothing to prevent these employees from being overworked.

SEE ALSO Change, Technological; Productivity; Smith, Adam; Taylorism


Babbage, Charles. 1832. On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures. London: C. Knight.

Cooper, Arnold, and Timothy Folta. 1999. Entrepreneurship and High Technology Clusters. In The Blackwell Handbook of Entrepreneurship, eds. Donald L. Sexton and Hans Landström, 348367. Oxford: Blackwell.

Easterlin, Richard A. 1981. Why Isnt the Whole World Developed? Journal of Economic History 41 (1): 119.

Fransman, Martin. 1986. The Shaping of Technical Change. In Technology, Innovation, and Change, ed. Brian Elliot, 716. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh.

Freeman, Christopher, John Clark, and Luc Soete. 1982. Unemployment and Technical Innovation: A Study of Long Waves and Economic Development. London: Frances Pinter.

Hamowy, Ronald. 1968. Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, and the Division of Labour. Economica 35 (139): 249259.

Kindleberger, Charles P. 1976. The Historical Background. Adam Smith and the Industrial Revolution. In The Market and the State: Essays in Honor of Adam Smith, eds. Thomas Wilson and Andrew S. Skinner, 125. Oxford: Clarendon.

Mayo, Elton. 1933. The Human Problems of an Industrial Civilization. New York: Macmillan.

Noble, David F. 1984. Forces of Production: A Social History of Industrial Automation. New York: Knopf.

Rashid, Salim. 1997. The Myth of Adam Smith. Cheltenham, U.K.: Edward Elgar.

Rosenberg, Nathan. 1970. Economic Development and the Transfer of Technology: Some Historical Perspectives. Technology and Culture 11 (4): 550575.

Smith, Adam. [1776] 1840. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, ed. E. G. Wakefield. London: Charles Knight.

Smith, Adam. [1776] 1976. An Introduction to the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, eds. Roy H. Campbell and Andrew S. Skinner. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Stewart, Dugald. 1855. Lectures on Political Economy. Vol. 89 of the Collected Works of Dugald Stewart, ed. Sir William Hamilton. Edinburgh: T. Constable, 18541860.

Ure, Andrew. 1835. The Philosophy of Manufactures; or, An Exposition of the Scientific, Moral, and Commercial Economy of the Factory System of Great Britain. London: C. Knight.

Salim Rashid

Division of Labor

views updated May 17 2018

Division of Labor

Families provide love and support to adults and children, but homes are also workplaces, and households are important parts of the larger economy. Even when families do not directly produce or market goods and services, they keep the economy running by supporting and maintaining adult workers, buying and consuming products, and reproducing the workforce by having babies and socializing children. These domestic activities require labor. The total amount of time and effort put into feeding, clothing, and caring for family members rivals that spent in all other forms of work.

Every home is a combination of hotel, restaurant, laundry, and often childcare and entertainment center. The mundane work that goes into these activities is usually invisible to the people who benefit from it, especially children and husbands, who are the equivalent of nonpaying customers. Cleaning and cooking obviously require work, but even fun activities like parties or holiday gatherings require planning, preparation, service, clean-up, and other behind-the-scenes effort. Women perform most of this family labor, even though men do the same sorts of things outside the home for pay as chefs, waiters, or janitors. Although people tend to think of domestic activities as "naturally" being women's work, there is enormous variation in who does what both inside and outside the home. Every society has restrictions on what kinds of work men and women do, but there is no global content to these roles, and studies show that divisions of labor are influenced by specific environmental and social conditions. Activities often associated with women, such as nurturance, domestic chores, and childcare, are sometimes performed by men, and activities often associated with men, such as warfare, hunting, and politics, are sometimes performed by women. Thus, although gender is often used to divide labor, there is no universal set of tasks that can be defined as "women's work" or "men's work."

Historical Trends

During the late 1800s, belief in separate work spheres for men and women gained popularity in the United States. Before the nineteenth century, men, women, and children tended to work side-by-side in family-based agricultural production, often doing different chores, but cooperating in the mutual enterprise of running a farm or family business. After the rise of industrialization, most men entered the paid labor force and worked away from home. A romantic ideal of separate spheres emerged to justify the economic arrangement of women staying home while men left home to earn wages. Women came to be seen as pure, innocent, and loving, traits that made them ideally suited to the "private" sphere of home and family. The "cult of true womanhood" that became popular at this time elevated mothering to a revered status and treated homemaking as a full-time profession. Men who were previously expected to be intimately involved in raising children and running the home were now considered temperamentally unsuited for such duties, and were expected to find their true calling in the impersonal "public" sphere of work. Men's occupational achievement outside the home took on moral overtones and men came to be seen as fulfilling their family and civic duty by being a "good provider." This simplified account of the historical emergence of separate spheres ignores the partial and uneven pace of industrialization, the continual employment of working-class and minority women, and the many families that deviated from the ideal, but it underscores the importance of cultural myths in creating a rigid division of family labor (Coontz 1992).

Household work has changed. Before the twentieth century, running the typical household was more physically demanding; most houses lacked running water, electricity, central heating, and flush toilets. Without modern conveniences, people had to do everything by hand, and household tasks were arduous and time consuming. In the nineteenth century, most middle- and upper-class households in the United States, England, and Europe also included servants, so live-in maids, cooks, and housekeepers did much of this work. In the twentieth century, indoor plumbing and electricity became widely available and the invention and distribution of labor-saving appliances changed the nature of housework. By mid-century, the suburbs had multiplied, home ownership had become the norm, and the number of household servants had dropped dramatically.

In spite of the introduction of modern conveniences, the total amount of time that U.S. women spent on housework was about the same in 1960 as it was in 1920, because standards of comfort rose during this period for most families (Cowan 1983). When laundry was done by hand, people changed clothes less often, unless they had servants to do the washing. With the advent of the washing machine, the average housewife began to wash clothes more often, and people began to change clothes more frequently. Similarly, standards for personal hygiene, diet, and house cleanliness increased as conveniences such as hot running water, refrigerators, and vacuum cleaners became available. Although women's total housework time changed little, there were shifts in the types of tasks performed, with food preparation and meal cleanup consuming somewhat less time, but shopping, direct childcare, and household management taking up more.

Paid labor has also changed. The most striking change has been the increased presence of women in the workforce in almost all regions of the world. Over the course of the twentieth century, women's labor force participation has risen from under 20 percent to over 60 percent. In the United States, since the 1970s, manufacturing jobs (traditionally filled by men) have increasingly been replaced by service-sector jobs (traditionally filled by women). Associated with this shift, income for U.S. men peaked in 1974 and has fluctuated since that time, while women's income has risen steadily. The U.S. labor market, however, remains segregated by gender, with women's salaries remaining consistently and significantly lower than men's. In 1999, median annual earnings for women working full-time year-round were only 72.2 percent of men's annual earnings (U.S. Department of Labor 1999). The persistent gender wage gap can be at least partially explained by women's traditional obligation to care for home and family.

The international workplace has also changed. Between 1969 and 1994, women's labor force participation has risen in all developed countries. With the exception of Japan, all countries with available data show men's labor force participation rates to be decreasing (Jacobsen 1999). Moreover, women throughout the world have become progressively more likely to be employed during their reproductive years, although they continue to face difficulties combining family work with employment. Internationally, working mothers often report that they receive unequal treatment by employers (United Nations 2000).

Contemporary Divisions of Labor

Before the 1970s, most family researchers accepted the ideal of separate spheres and assumed that wives would do the housework and childcare, and that husbands would limit their family contributions to being a good provider. As more women entered the paid labor force, and as women's issues gained prominence, studies of household labor became more common. Researchers began asking questions about the relative performance of housework in families. Depending on the method and sample used, researchers arrived at different estimates of the amount of time men and women spent on various tasks. Interpreting the results from these studies can be difficult because of methodological limitations; nevertheless, these studies provide us with rough estimates of who does what in North American families.

The few household labor studies that included men before the 1970s found that wives did virtually all of the repetitive inside chores associated with cooking and cleaning whereas husbands spent most of their household work time doing repairs, paying bills, or performing outside chores like mowing the lawn or taking out the trash. If U.S. men contributed to other forms of routine housework, it was usually in the area of meal preparation, where husbands averaged just over one hour each week compared to an average of over eight hours per week for wives (Robinson 1988). Even when cooking, however, husbands tended to limit their contributions to gender stereotyped tasks like barbecuing on the weekend, rather than contributing substantially to the preparation of daily meals. In the mid-1960s, husbands contributed less than a tenth of the time spent in cleaning up after meals or washing dishes in the average household, and only about a twentieth of the time spent doing housecleaning. Married men were extremely unlikely to do laundry or iron clothes, averaging about five hours per year in the 1960s, compared to over five hours per week for married women. Overall, husbands contributed only about two hours per week to the combined tasks of cooking, meal clean-up, housecleaning, and laundry, compared to an average of almost twenty-five hours per week for wives (Robinson 1988).

Later housework studies have found that women—especially employed women—are doing less housework than before and that men are doing somewhat more. Nevertheless, the average married woman in the United States did about three times as much cooking, cleaning, laundry, and other routine housework in the 1990s as the average married man. Household work continues to be divided according to gender, with women performing the vast majority of the repetitive indoor housework tasks and men performing occasional outdoor tasks (Coltrane 2000).

Despite continuing gender segregation in household labor, norms and behaviors are being renegotiated. U.S. men are increasingly likely to report enjoying cooking and cleaning, and almost half of married women say they want their husbands to do more housework (Robinson and Godbey 1997). This attitude shift reflects women's frustrations with being overburdened by housework, especially when they work outside the home (Hochschild 1989).

Psychological distress is greatest among wives whose husbands do little to assist with household chores. Not only do women spend many more hours on household labor than men, but they also tend to do the least pleasant tasks, most of which are relentless, obligatory, and performed in isolation. The lonely and never-ending aspects of women's housework contribute to increased depression for U.S. housewives. Men's household chores, in contrast, have tended to be infrequent or optional, and they concentrate their efforts on relatively fun activities like playing with the children or cooking (Coltrane 2000; Thompson and Walker 1989).

Studies have also consistently found that mothers spend more time than fathers in feeding, supervising, and caring for children, although men have increased their time with children, especially in conventional gender-typed activities like physical play (Parke 1996). However, effective parenting also includes providing encouragement, meeting emotional needs, anticipating problems, facilitating social and intellectual learning, and enforcing discipline, activities for which mothers are primarily responsible. Even if couples share housework before they have children, they often shift to a more conventional gender-based allocation of chores when they become parents (Cowan and Cowan 2000).

Getting married increases women's domestic labor, whereas it decreases men's. Still, most wives consider their divisions of household labor to be fair. According to surveys conducted through the 1990s, most wives expected only moderate amounts of help with housework. Women rarely seek or receive help with behind-the-scenes family work, such as overseeing childcare, managing emotions and tension, sustaining conversations, or maintaining contact with kin. Many women (and some men) derive considerable satisfaction and self-worth from caring for loved ones and enjoy autonomy in these activities. Women feel less entitled to domestic services than do most men, and view husbands' help as a gift that requires appreciation. Some women who demand equal sharing of domestic tasks find that it threatens the harmony of the family relationships they work so hard to foster (DeVault 1991; Hochschild 1989).

Although men are putting in more hours on housework tasks, responsibility for noticing when tasks should be performed or setting standards for their performance are still most often assumed by wives. Women in the 1990s tended to carry the burden of managing the household as well as putting in more hours and performing the most unpleasant tasks. In line with this division of responsibility for management of household affairs, most couples continue to characterize husbands' contributions to housework or childcare as "helping" their wives (Coltrane 1996).

Children and other family members also perform various household tasks. In some households, their domestic contributions are sorely needed; they are required to participate for practical and financial reasons. In other households, children are expected to assume responsibility for household chores as part of their training and socialization, or because it expresses a commitment to the family. For children, as for adults, household tasks are divided by gender, with girls putting in more hours and performing more of the cooking and cleaning. Children's housework is typically conceived of as helping the mother, and young people's contributions tend to substitute for the father's (Goodnow 1988).

Caring for elder relatives has also become pertinent globally as whole populations age due to increased longevity and reduced fertility rates. Because women tend to live longer than men, they predominate as beneficiaries of care. Women also tend to be the providers of elder care, particularly if the beneficiary is a parent. A majority of these women caregivers are employed or want to re-enter the labor force. Elder care can have both positive and negative effects on the psychological and social stress of caregivers. While employer elder care programs can moderate some stress, only about one-quarter of major corporations offer such programs in the United States (Spitze and Loscocco 1999). In some northern European countries, the state takes on much of the responsibility for elder care, as it does for childcare, but in many other countries families are assumed to be solely responsible (Phillips 1998).

The unbalanced division of household labor continues to be reflected in the dynamics of paid labor. In the global workforce, occupations remain segregated by gender, and women are still paid much less than men doing the same or similar jobs. Although many countries have incorporated the principle of equal pay for equal work into their labor legislation, and gender differences in pay vary between countries and occupations, in no country do women earn as much as men (United Nations 2000).

Not only are women discouraged from entering predominantly male occupations, but when they do, they tend to get the least desirable jobs. Moreover, studies in the United States have found that segregation at the job level may actually exceed that at the occupational level (Bielby and Baron 1986). Research in different countries reflects similar occupational segregation, which is unrelated to women's participation in the labor force or to the level of economic development. Moreover, to the extent that occupational segregation is decreasing, it reflects men's movement into predominantly female occupations rather than the other way around. A glass ceiling still tends to limit women's rise to top administrative and managerial positions in all regions of the world (United Nations 2000).

Theoretical Explanations

Various theories have been advanced to explain why men monopolize higher paid positions and why women perform most unpaid household labor. Such theories also predict the conditions under which divisions of labor might change. The theories can be grouped into four general categories according to the primary causal processes thought to govern the sexual division of labor: nature, culture, economy, and gender inequality.

Nature. Biological and religious arguments suggest that women are physically or spiritually predisposed to take care of children and husbands; housework is assumed to follow naturally from the nurturance of family members. Similarly, functionalist theories suggest that the larger society needs women to perform expressive roles in the family while men perform instrumental roles connecting the family to outside institutions. However, feminist critiques claim that these theories have flawed logic and methods, and cite historical and cross-cultural variation to show that divisions of labor are socially constructed (Thorne and Yalom 1992); only women can bear and nurse children, but the gender of the people who cook or clean is neither fixed nor preordained.

Culture. Theories that consider the division of labor to be culturally fashioned tend to emphasize the importance of socialization and ideology. Historical analyses of the ideal of separate spheres fall into this category, as do cultural explanations that rely on rituals, customs, myths, and language to explain divisions of labor. Socialization theories suggest that children and adults acquire beliefs about appropriate roles for men and women, and that they fashion their own family behaviors according to these gender scripts (Bem 1993). Some sociocultural and psychological theories suggest that exclusive mothering encourages girls to develop personalities dependent on emotional connection, which, in turn, propels women into domestic roles. Boys also grow up in the care of mothers, but in order to establish a masculine identity, they reject things feminine, including nurturance and domestic work (Chodorow 1978).

The basic idea in most cultural theories is that values and ideals shape people's motivations and cause them to perform gender-typed activities. Empirical tests of hypotheses derived from these theories yield mixed results. Some researchers conclude that abstract beliefs about what men and women "ought" to do are relatively inconsequential for actual behavior, whereas others conclude that there is a consistent, though sometimes small, increase in sharing when men and women believe that housework or childcare should be shared (Coltrane 2000).

Economy. Theories that consider the division of labor by gender to be a practical response to economic conditions are diverse and plentiful. New home economics theories suggest that women do the housework and men monopolize paid work because labor specialization maximizes the efficiency of the entire family unit. Women are assumed to have "tastes" for doing housework, and their commitments to childbearing and child rearing are seen as limiting their movement into the marketplace (Becker 1981). Resource theories similarly assume that spouses make cost-benefit calculations about housework and paid work using external indicators such as education and income. Family work is treated as something to be avoided, and women end up doing more of it because their time is worth less on the economic market and because they have less marital power due to lower earnings and education.

Educational differences between spouses are rarely associated with divisions of labor, and men with more education often report doing more housework, rather than less, as resource theories predict. Similarly, total family earnings have little effect on how much housework men do, though middle-class men talk more about the importance of sharing than working-class men. Some studies show that spouses with more equal incomes— usually in the working class—share more household labor, but women still do more than men when they have similar jobs. Thus, relative earning power is important, but there is no simple trade-off of wage work for housework (Gerson 1993; Thompson and Walker 1989). Most studies find that the number of hours spouses are employed is more important to the division of household labor than simple earnings. Time demands and time availability—labeled by researchers as practical considerations, demand-response capability, or situational constraints—undergird most peoples' decisions about allocating housework and childcare.

Gender inequality. The final set of theories also focuses on economic power, but more emphasis is placed on conflict and gender inequality. Women are compelled to perform household labor because economic market inequities keep women's wages below those of men, effectively forcing women to be men's domestic servants. Unlike the new home economics, these theories do not assume a unity of husband's and wife's interests, and unlike many resource theories, they do not posit all individuals as utility maximizers with equal chances in a hypothetical free market. Other versions of theories in this tradition suggest that social institutions like marriage, the legal system, the media, and the educational system also help to perpetuate an unequal division of labor in which women are forced to perform a "second shift" of domestic labor when they hold paying jobs (Chafetz 1990; Hochschild 1989). Some versions draw on the same insights, but focus on the ways that the performance of housework serves to demarcate men from women, keep women dependent on men, and construct the meaning of gender in everyday interaction (Berk 1985; Coltrane 1996).

Household labor theories are often complementary or overlapping. The theories in the last three categories suggest that a more equal division of household labor could exist if more women move into the paid labor market; if men's and women's educations, incomes, and work schedules converge; if cultural images portray parenting as a shared endeavor; if governments and businesses promote sharing through programs and policies; and if more children are exposed to egalitarian practices and ideals. Related trends (e.g., continued high levels of cohabitation, divorce and remarriage, along with postponement of marriage and parenthood) also imply that more sharing of household labor is probable in the future (Coltrane and Collins 2001). Changes are likely to be modest, however, as many of the conditions that brought about the unequal division of labor still exist. As long as men monopolize the best jobs, get paid more, and receive more promotions than women, they are unlikely to assume more responsibility for housework. Even if women gain more economic power, until cultural and economic forces promote more gender equality, changes in the division of labor will be small.

See also:Caregiving: Informal; Childcare; Dual-Earner Families; Equity; Family Roles; Food; Gender; Home Economics; Housework; Husband; Industrialization; Leisure; Marital Quality; Power: Marital Relationships; Resource Management; Time Use; Wife; Work and Family


becker, g. s. (1981). a treatise on the family. cambridge,ma: harvard university press.

bem, s. l. (1993). the lenses of gender: transforming thedebate on sexual inequality. new haven, ct: yale university press.

berk, s. f. (1985). the gender factory: the apportionment of work in american households. new york: plenum.

bielby, w. t., and baron, j. n. (1986). "men and women at work: sex segregation and statistical discrimination." american journal of sociology 91:759–799.

chafetz, j. s. (1990). gender equity: an integrated theory of stability and change. newbury park, ca: sage publications.

chodorow, n. (1978). the reproduction of mothering.berkeley: university of california press.

coltrane, s. (1996). family man: fatherhood, housework, and gender equity. new york: oxford university press.

coltrane, s. (2000). "research on household labor: modeling and measuring the social embeddedness of routine family work." journal of marriage and the family 62:1208–1233.

coltrane, s., and collins, r. (2001). sociology of marriage and the family: gender, love, and property. belmont, ca: wadsworth.

coontz, s. (1992). the way we never were: american families and the nostalgia trap. new york: basic books.

cowan, c. p., and cowan, p. a. (2000). when partners become parents: the big life change for couples. new york: basic books.

cowan, r. s. (1983). more work for mother. new york:basic books.

devault, m. l. (1991). feeding the family: the social organization of caring as gendered work. chicago: university of chicago press.

gerson, k. (1993). no man's land: men's changing commitments to family and work. new york: basic books.

goodnow, j. (1988). "children's household work: its nature and functions." psychological bulletin 103:5–26.

hochschild, a. r. the second shift: working parents and the revolution at home. new york: viking.

jacobsen, j. p. (1999). "labor force participation." quarterly review of economics and finance 39:597–610.

parke, r. d. (1996). fatherhood. cambridge, ma: harvarduniversity press.

phillips, j. (1998). "paid work and care of older people:a uk perspective." in women, work, and the family in europe, ed. e. drew, r. emerek, and e. mahon. london: routledge.

robinson, j. (1988). "who's doing the housework?"american demographics 10:24–28, 63.

robinson, j., and godbey, g. (1997). time for life. university park: pennsylvania state university press.

spitze, g., and loscocco, k. (1999). "women's position in the household." quarterly review of economics and finance 39:647–661.

thompson, l., and walker, a. j. (1989). "gender in families." journal of marriage and the family 51 (1989):845–871.

thorne, b., with yalom, m. (1992). rethinking the family:some feminist questions. new york: longman.

united nations. (2000). the world's women 2000: trends and statistics. new york: united nations.

other resource

united states department of labor women's bureau.(1999). "earnings differences between women and men." available from http://www.dol.gov/dol/wb/public/wb_pubs/wagegap2000.htm.

scott coltrane michele adams

Division of Labor

views updated May 11 2018


The division of labor is a multifaceted concept that applies to several levels of analysis: small groups, families, households, formal organizations, societies, and even the entire "world system" (Wallerstein 1979). Each level of analysis requires a slightly different focus; the division of labor may refer to the emergence of certain roles in groups, to the relative preponderance of industrial sectors (primary, secondary, tertiary) in an economy, to the distribution of societal roles by sex and age, or to variability among occupational groupings. Sociologists at the micro-level are concerned with "who does what," while macrosociologists focus on the larger structural issues of societal functions.

All of the major sociological theorists considered the division of labor to be a fundamental concept in understanding the development of modern society. The division of labor in society has been a focus of theoretical debate for more than a century, with some writers most concerned about hierarchical divisions, or the vertical dimension, and others emphasizing the heterogeneity or the horizontal dimension, of a social system. The analysis here is primarily theoretical, and so does not deal with debates about the technical problems of measurement (but see Baker 1981; Clemente 1972; Gibbs and Poston 1975; Land 1970; Rushing and Davies 1970).


Most small groups exhibit "role differentiation," as first described by Simmel (1890), Whyte (1943), and Bales and Slater (1955). The research on informal work groups stresses a hierarchical form of the division of labor, or the emergence of leadership; in particular, the emergence of both a "task leader" and a "social leader." It appears that defining group goals and enforcing norms is a type of activity incompatible with maintaining group cohesion, and therefore most groups have a shared leadership structure. Even in same-sex groups, this structure of coleadership is apparent; also, the degree of role differentiation appears be greater in larger groups. The functional need for a social leader depends in part on the degree to which group members are task oriented, and on the degree to which the task leader is perceived as a legitimate authority (with the power to reward and punish other group members). Burke (1969) has also noted that a "scapegoat" role may emerge within task groups, reducing the need for a social leader to maintain harmony among the rest of the group members.


When the family or household is the unit of analysis, issues concerning the division of tasks between spouses are of primary interest to sociologists. One major finding has been the persistence of disproportionately high levels of traditional housework by the wife, even when she is employed outside the home. This reflects the "provider" vs. "homemaker" role distinction that formerly characterized most nuclear families in industrialized societies. Another major family role, occupied almost exclusively by the wife, is that of "kinkeeper." The maintenance of family traditions, the recording of important family anniversaries, and the coordination of visits between households are all vital elements of this role. The classic works by Bott (1957) and Blood and Wolfe (1960) documented the spousal division of labor as it was influenced by wider social networks and the relative power of the husband and wife. Kamo (1988) has noted that cultural ideology is a strong factor in the determination of spousal roles, although it is not entirely independent of the resources available to husband and wife.

Within a household, both age and sex structure the division of labor. Young children have few responsibilities, while parents have many, and males and females tend to do very different tasks. For example, White and Brinkerhoff (1981) studied the reported allocation of a variety of household tasks among a sample of Nebraska households, and found that the youngest cohort of children (aged two to five) performed relatively few household tasks and showed little differentiation by sex. Older children, however, diverged considerably in their roles (males doing more outdoor work, females more responsible for cooking or childcare). At the other end of the lifespan, the roles of the grandparent generation were strongly influenced by geographical proximity, the ages of the grandparents, and the ages of the children. Divorce among the parental generation can also substantially impact the roles adopted by grandparents (see Bengston and Robertson 1985).


Formal organizations are always structured by an explicit division of labor (an organization chart contains the names of functions, positions, or subunits). The horizontal differentiation in an organization, or task specialization, is normally based on functional units that are of roughly equivalent levels in the hierarchy of authority. The division of labor may also be constructed on a geographical basis, with the extreme examples being transnational corporations that draw raw resources and labor from the developing nations, and management from the developed nations.

Labor is also organized hierarchically, into levels of authority. Max Weber was one of the first sociologists to analyze the emergence of modern bureaucracies, where the division of labor is fundamental. Weber's approach suggests a maximum possible level of specialization, so that each position can be filled by individuals who are experts in a narrow area of activity. An extreme form of the bureaucratic division of labor was advocated by Frederick Taylor's theory of "Scientific Management" (1911). By studying in minute detail the physical motions required to most efficiently operate any given piece of machinery, Taylor pioneered "time and motion studies." Along with Henry Ford, he also made the assembly line a standard industrial mode of production in modern society. However, this form of the division of labor can lead to isolation and alienation among workers, and so more recent organizational strategies, in some industrial sectors, emphasize the "craft" approach, in which a team of workers participate more or less equally in many aspects of the production process (see Blauner 1964; Hedley 1992).


Macrosociologists measure the societal division of labor in a number of ways, most commonly by considering the number of different occupational categories that appear in census statistics or other official documents (see Moore 1968). These lists are often implicitly or explicitly ranked, and so both horizontal and vertical division of labor can be analyzed. This occupational heterogeneity is dependent in part on the official definitions, but researchers on occupational prestige (the vertical dimension) have shown comparable levels in industrialized societies such as the United States, Canada, England, Japan, Sweden, Germany, and France (see Treiman 1977). The "world system" as described by Wallerstein (1979) is the upper limit of the analysis of the division of labor. Entire societies are characterized as "core" or "periphery" in Wallerstein's analysis of the global implications of postindustrialism.


Adam Smith, in The Wealth of Nations (1776), produced the classic statement of the economic efficiencies of a complex division of labor. He observed that the manufacture of steel pins could be more than two hundred times more productive if each separate operation (and there were more than a dozen) were performed by a separate worker. The emergence of the systematic and intentional division of labor probably goes back to prehistoric societies, and is certainly in evidence in the ancient civilizations of China, Egypt, Greece, and Rome. The accumulation of an agricultural surplus and the establishment of markets both created and stimulated the differentiation of producers and consumers. Another phase in the transformation in Europe was the decline of the "craft guilds" that dominated from the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries. When labor became free from the constraints of the journeyman/apprentice system and when factories began to attract large numbers of laborers, the mechanization of modern work flourished. (For economic and political perspectives on the division of labor see Krause 1982; Putterman 1990).

Early sociologists such as Herbert Spencer considered the growth of societies as the primary determinant of the increased specialization and routinization of work; they also emphasized the positive impacts of this process. Spencer, like other functionalists, viewed human society as an organic system that became increasingly differentiated as it grew in size, much as a fertilized egg develops complex structures as it develops into a full-fledged embryo. In his Principles of Sociology (1884), Spencer considered the evolution of human society as a process of increasing differentiation of structure and function.

Karl Marx(1867) argued that the increasing division of labor in capitalist societies is a primary cause of alienation and class conflict, and therefore is a force in the eventual transformation to a socialist/communist society. In fact, a specific question asking for details of the division of labor appeared on one of the earliest questionnaire surveys in sociology done by Marx in 1880. Marx and his followers called for a new form of the division of labor, supported by an equalitarian ethos, in which individuals would be free to choose their productive roles; labor would not be alienating because of the common ideology and sense of community.

Weber (1947) painted a darker picture when he documented the increasing "rationalization" of society, especially the ascendence of the bureaucratic division of labor with its coordinated system of roles, each highly specialized, with duties specified in writing and incumbents hired on the basis of their documented competence at specific tasks. The ideal-type bureaucracy was in actuality subject to the negative consequences of excessive specialization, however. Weber pointed out that the "iron cage" placed stifling limits on human freedom within the organization, and that decisions by bureaucrats often became so rule bound and inflexible that the clients were ill served.

Georg Simmel's "differentiation and the principle of saving energy" (1976 [1890]) is a little-known essay that similarly describes the inevitable problems that offset the efficiencies gained by the division of labor; he called these "friction, indirectness, and superfluous coordination." He also echoed Marx and Engels when he described the effects of high levels of differentiation upon the individual:

. . . differentiation of the social group is evidently directly opposed to that of the individual. The former requires that the individual must be as specialized as possible, that some single task must absorb all his energies and that all his impulses, abilities and interests must be made compatible with this one task, because this specialization of the individual makes it both possible and necessary to the highest degree for him to be different from all other specialized individuals. Thus the economic setup of society forces the individual for life into the most monotonous work, the most extreme specialization, because in this way he will acquire the skill which makes possible the desired quality and cheapness of the product. (Simmel 1976, p. 130)

While the foregoing theorists contributed substantially to the understanding of the division of labor, Emile Durkheim's The Division of Labor in Society (1893) stands as the classic sociological statement of the causes and consequences of the historical shift from "mechanical solidarity" to "organic solidarity." The former is found in smaller, less-advanced societies where families and villages are mostly self-sufficient, independent, and united by similarities. The latter is found in larger, urbanized societies where specialization creates interdependence among social units.

Following Spencer's lead, Durkheim noted that the specialization of functions always accompanies the growth of a society; he also observed that increasing population density—the urbanization of society that accompanies modernization—greatly increases the opportunities for further increases in the division of labor.

It should be noted that the shift to a modern division of labor could not have occurred without a preexisting solidarity; in his chapter on "organic and contractual solidarity" he departed from Spencer's utilitarian explanation of social cohesion, and noted that the advanced division of labor can occur only among members of an existing society, where individuals and groups are united by preexisting similarities (of language, religion, etc.).

A sense of trust, obligation, and interdependence is essential for any large group in which there are many diverse roles; indirect exchanges occur; and individuals form smaller subgroupings based on occupational specialization. All of these changes create high levels of interdependence, but with increasing specialization, and different world views develop, along with different interests, values, and belief systems. This is the problem Durkheim saw in the shift from mechanical to organic solidarity; he feared the "anomie" or lack of cohesion that might result from a multiplicity of views, languages, and religions within a society (as in the France of his times, and even more so today). The problems of inequality in modern industrial society were not lost on Durkheim, either; he noted how the "pathological form of the division of labor" posed a threat to the full development of social solidarity (see Giddens 1971). Although many simplistic analyses of Durkheim's approach suggest otherwise, he dealt at length with the problems of "the class war" and the need for justice and fraternity.

The division of labor is treated as a key element in Peter Blau's book, Inequality and Heterogeneity (1977). This important work emphasizes the primacy of differentiation (division of labor) as an influence on mobility, prejudice, conflict, affiliation, intermarriage, and inequality. In Blau's scheme, a society may be undifferentiated (all persons or positions are independent, self-sufficient, etc.) or strongly differentiated (a high degree of specialization and interdependence). This differentiation may be a matter of degree, on dimensions such as authority, power, prestige, etc.; this constitutes inequality. Or the differentiation may be a matter of kind, such as occupational differentiation—the division of labor.

Blau, like Durkheim, distinguished two major types of division of labor: routinization and expert specialization.

The two major forms of division of labor are the subdivision of work into repetitive routines and its subdivision into expert specialities. . . when jobs are divided into repetitive routines, the training and skills needed to perform them are reduced, whereas when they are divided into fields of specialists, the narrower range of tasks permits greater expertness to be acquired and applied to the work, increasing the training and skills required to perform it. (Blau 1977, p. 188)

Blau has shown that the division of labor always increases inequality in the organization. The managerial and technical experts coordinate the increasing number and diversity of routinized positions. As organizations and societies increase in size and population density, the division of labor increases. At the same time, the forces of industrialization and urbanization require and encourage further specialization, and in most cases, increase inequality, and indirectly, social integration. Some of the confounding boundaries include the degree of linguistic, ethnic, or cultural heterogeneity (all of which can inhibit integration), and social or geographic mobility (which can increase integration).

In a rare display of explicitly stated definitions and propositions, Blau created a landmark theory of social organization. Here are the most important of Blau's assumptions and theorems relating to the division of labor:

  • The division of labor depends on opportunities for communication.
  • Population density and urbanization increase the division of labor.
  • Rising levels of education and qualifications promote an advanced division of labor.
  • Large work organizations promote the division of labor in society.
  • Linguistic heterogeneity impedes the division of labor.
  • The more the division of labor is in the form of specialization rather than routinization, the higher are rates of associations among different occupations, which produces higher integration.
  • The more the division of labor intersects with other nominal parameters (including kinship, language, religion, ethnicity, etc.) the greater is the probability that intergroup relations strengthen society's integration.
  • The smaller an organization, the more its internal division of labor increases the probabilities of intergroup and interstratum associations, and therefore the higher the degree of integration. (Summarized from Blau 1977, pp. 214–215)

Blau concludes by noting that "Advances in the division of labor tend to be accompanied by decreases in various forms of inequality but by increases in inequality in power. Although the advancing division of labor does not generate the growing concentration of power, the two are likely to occur together, because the expansion of work organizations promotes both." (p. 214).


Ford's moving assembly lines began to produce the frames for Model T automobiles in 1913, at a rate of about one every two working days, but within months, refinements on the assembly process reduced this to four units per day. This eightfold increase in efficiency was accompanied by a decrease in the price of the cars and indirectly stimulated a very large industry. Now, automated factories, using robotics and highly specialized computer systems, have dramatically increased the efficiency of the automobile industry. The effects on morale and the environment, however, appear to be less salutary.

(see also: Bureaucracy, Complex Organizations, Convergence Theories, Family and Household Structure, Family Roles, Industrial Sociology, Industrialization, Parental Roles, Social Change, Social Structure, Technology and Society, and Work and Occupations.)


Baker, P.M. 1981 "The Division of Labor: Interdependence, Isolation, and Cohesion in Small Groups." Small Group Behavior 12(1):93–106.

Bales, R.F,. and P.E. Slater 1955 "Role Differentiation in Small Decision-Making Groups." In T. Parsons et al., eds., Family, Socialization, and Interaction Process. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press.

Bengston, V.L., and J.F. Robertson 1985 Grandparenthood. Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage.

Blau, P.M. 1977 Inequality and Heterogeneity. New York: Free Press.

Blauner, R. 1964 Alienation and Freedom. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Blood, R., and D. Wolfe 1960 Husbands and Wives: TheDynamics of Married Living. New York: Free Press.

Bott, E. 1957 Family and Social Network. London: Tavistock Publications.

Burke, P.J. 1969 "Scapegoating: An Alternative to Role Differentiation." Sociometry 32(June):159–168.

Clemente, R. 1972 "The Measurement Problem in the Analysis of an Ecological Concept: The Division of Labor." Pacific Sociological Review 15:30–40.

Durkheim, E. (1893) 1933 The Division of Labor in Society. New York: Free Press.

Gibbs, J.P., and D.L. Poston 1975 "The Division of Labor: Conceptualization and Related Issues." SocialForces 53 (March) 468–476.

Giddens, A. 1971 Capitalism and Modern Social Theory:Analysis of the Writings of Marx, Durkheim, and MaxWeber. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hedley, R.A. 1992 Making a Living: Technology andChange. New York: Harper Collins.

Kamo, Y. 1988 "Determinants of Household Labor: Resources, Power, and Ideology." Journal of FamilyIssues 9:177–200.

Krause, E.A. 1982 The Division of Labor: A PoliticalPerspective. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.

Land, K.C. 1970 "Mathematical Formalization of Durkheim's Theory of Division of Labor." E.F. Borgatta, ed., Sociological Methodology 1970, 257–282. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Marx, K. (1867) 1977 Capital: A Critique of PoliticalEconomy. New York: Vintage Books.

Moore, W.E. 1968 Economy and Society. New York: Random House.

Putterman, L. 1990 Division of Labor and Welfare: AnIntroduction to Economic Systems. New York: Oxford University Press.

Rushing, W.A., and V. Davies 1970 "Note on the Mathematical Formalization of a Measure." Social Forces 48(March):394–396.

Simmel, G. (1890) 1976 "On Social Differentiation." In P. Lawrence, ed., Georg Simmel, Sociologist and European. New York: Nelson.

Smith, Adam (1776) 1985 An Inquiry into the Nature and

Causes of the Wealth of Nations. New York: Modern Library.

Smith, D., and R. Snow 1976 "The Division of Labor: Conceptual and Methodological Issues." Social Forces 55:520–528.

Spencer, H. 1884 Principles of Sociology. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Taylor, F. 1911 Scientific Management. New York: Harper.

Treiman, D. 1977 Occupational Prestige in ComparativePerspective. New York: Academic Press.

Wallerstein, I. 1979 The Capitalist World-Economy. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Weber, M. (1908) 1947 The Theory of Social and EconomicOrganization. New York: Free Press.

Whyte, W.F. 1943 Street Corner Society. Chicago: Chicago University Press.


Division of Labor

views updated May 23 2018


In the early 1900s, Max Weber (18641920), one of the pioneers of modern sociology, designed a perfectly rational organizational form, called a bureaucracy. Among the characteristics of this ideal organization were specialization, division of labor, and a hierarchical organizational design.

Division of labor is a form of specialization in which the production of a product or service is divided into several separate tasks, each performed by one person. According to Weber's design, inherent within the specialization and division of labor is knowledge of the precise limit of each worker's "sphere of competence," and the authority to perform individual tasks without overlapping the tasks of others.

Adam Smith (17231790), an early economist, suggested that productivity would rise significantly when the division of labor principle was used. Output per worker would be raised while costs per unit produced would be reduced. Division of labor was applied, for example, in manufacturing plants that incorporated mass production techniques. In organizations that used mass production, each worker specialized in completing one specialized task, and the combined work of several specialized workers produced the final product. For example, in manufacturing an automobile, one worker would assemble the dashboard, another would assemble the wheels, and yet another would paint the exterior.

Since the time of Adam Smith, division of labor has been perceived as a central feature of economic progress. Two aspects of labor exist. First is the division of labor within firms, which concerns the range of tasks performed

by workers within a particular firm. Second is the division of labor between firms, which concerns the range of products or services the firm produces.


Fred Luthans (2005) describes the bureaucratic model proposed by Max Weber as an "historical starting point" for organizational analysis. Citing "complex, highly conflicting relationships, advanced information technology, and empowered employees," Luthans (p. 519) discusses the functional and dysfunctional consequences of specialization uncovered in several research studies. For example, although specialization has enhanced productivity and efficiency, it has also led to conflict between specialized units, hindering achievement of the overall goals of the organization. Further, specialization can impede communication among units, as highly specialized units tend to "withdraw into themselves and not fully communicate with other units above, below, or horizontal to it" (p. 519). In addition, highly specialized jobs can lead to employee boredom and burnout.

Given these concerns, a significant change is under way in management of work in organizations. According to Richard Walton (1991), the work force can be managed in two ways, one based on control and the other based on commitment. Key factors that differ between the control and commitment approaches are job design principles, performance expectations, management organization (structure, systems, and style), compensation policies, employment assurances, employee input in policies, and labor-management relations (Walton, 1995).

The control-oriented approach is based on the classic bureaucratic principles of specialization and division of labor. In the control-oriented environment, worker commitment does not flourish. Division of labor can ultimately reduce productivity and increase costs to produce units. Several reasons are identified as causes for reduction in productivity. For example, productivity can suffer when workers become bored with the monstrous repetition of a task. Additionally, productivity can be affected when workers lose pride in their work because they are not producing an entire product they can identify as their own work. A breakdown in the mass production line can bring an entire production line to a standstill. Also, with highly specialized jobs, worker training can be so narrowly focused that workers cannot move among alternate jobs easily. Consequently, productivity can suffer when one key worker is absent. Finally, discontent with control is increasing in today's work force, further hindering the long-term success of the classic bureaucratic application of specialization and division of labor.

In contrast to the control-oriented approach, the commitment-oriented approach proposes that employee commitment will lead to enhanced performance. Jobs are more broadly designed and job operations are upgraded to include more responsibility. Control and coordination depend on shared goals and expertise rather than on formal position. The control and commitment-oriented approaches are only one way to view the concepts of division of labor and specialization. These concepts influenced organizations in the late 1990s by a complex array of organizational dynamics.

In response to such complex organizational dynamics as intense competitive pressures, organizations were being restructured. Hierarchies were becoming flatter, meaning that fewer levels of management existed between the lowest level of worker and top management. In some organizations, web-like and network organizational structures were replacing traditional hierarchical organizations (Kerka, 1994). In these redesigned organizations, the shift was away from departments that focused on traditional organizational functions such as production, administration, finance, design, and marketing (Lindbeck and Snower, 1997).

In the restructured organizations, highly-specialized jobs disappeared in favor of workers performing a multitude of tasks within relatively small autonomous customer-oriented teams. In these working groups, workers were given a broad task specification by management and within those loose constraints, the teams were allowed to organize, to allocate roles, to schedule tasks, and so forth (Bessant, 1991). With this design, traditional occupational barriers and clear-cut specialized job descriptions began evaporating as workers were empowered to define their own job tasks. This movement resulted in a decrease of the division of labor and specialization within firms.

As a consequence of these changes, during the 1990s increased division of labor between firms was often accompanied by a reduction in the division of labor within firms. In other words, while firms were becoming more specialized in the products and services they offered, individual workers within firms were handling an increasing range and depth of job responsibilities. As mentioned earlier, this work was often completed in autonomous teams.


In some organizations, division of labor and the degree of specialization are being reduced, while in other organizations, division of labor and specialization are increasing. A number of factors can influence this discrepancy among organizations.

For example, the degree of specialization and division of labor can be related to the size of the organization; typically, small and mid-sized employers are not able to cost justify specialized division of labor. Lindbeck and Snower (1997) report that, as the costs of communication among workers declines, the degree of specialization, and consequently, division of labor within organizations, may rise. Some literature reports that, as the size of the market increases, it supports more division of labor. The degree of division of labor within firms can also depend on the degree to which performance on particular tasks is measurable, and the degree to which wages affect task performance. Implementation of technology can also have a profound influence on the division of labor in organizations.


Computerization has enabled organizations to increase the variety of tasks performed by workers, consequently reducing specialization and division of labor. For example, information technologyflexible machine tools and programmable multipurpose equipmentcan reduce the division of labor within firms as workers transfer their knowledge from task to task more easily. Information and manufacturing technology can also enable individual workers or work teams to combine different tasks more readily to meet a customer's needs while enhancing productivity. For example, customer information gained from production activities can be used to improve financial accounting practices, and employee information gained from training activities can be used to improve work practices.

Eric Alsene (1994) reported that increased integration of computer databases has the potential to profoundly alter task and functional assignments in organizations, consequently affecting division of labor and specialization. Originally, the purpose of integrating computers into organizations was to merge the various functions of labor. Computer integration was designed to restructure businesses around their core business processes, outsourcing some activities to specialized external organizations and strengthening partnerships with suppliers and subcontractors. In the new culture shaped by computer integration, every worker was to have a broader view of the organization. Workers were expected to work in teams with enhanced communication, participation, teamwork, and an enhanced sense of belonging and continuous learning. In this new organizational model enabled by technology, the classic bureaucratic mass production model in which workers performed functions separately and sequentially was eliminated.

The computer integration model was designed to ultimately lead to the dismantling of vertical and horizontal barriers while supervisory control concentrated increasingly on work methods rather than on final products (Child, 1987). In other words, the new design enabled organizations to focus on how products and services were delivered rather than on what products or services were delivered. This design facilitated continuous improvement in the organization. The new technologies assisted in blurring the boundaries among departments while information flowed freely throughout the organization, thereby disregarding the traditional bureaucratic hierarchy. As work groups and task forces were formed, units no longer worked in isolation.

The new model enabled by technology calls into question the traditional division of labor in organizations. For example, flexible manufacturing systems eliminate the barrier between maintenance and production. This increased automation supports the movement described earlier of work becoming more diversified, independent, intellectual, and collective.


The classic principles of division of labor and specialization still exist. However, their application produces both functional and dysfunctional consequences in the increasingly complex organizations of the twenty-first century. A number of factors affect the modern application of division of labor. Along with other complex organizational and market dynamics, these factors include information technology, worker empowerment, human factors, communication systems, organizational size, competitive pressures, and organization structure.

see also Management: Historical Perspectives


Alsene, Eric (1994). "Computerization Integration and Organization of Work in Enterprises." International Labor Review. 133(5/6): 657-676.

Bessant, J.R. (1991). Managing Advanced Manufacturing Technology: The Challenge of the Fifth Wave. Manchester, UK: NCC Blackwell.

Child, J. (1987). "Organizational Design for Advanced Manufacturing Technology," in Wall, T.D., Clegg, C.W. and Kemp, N.J., eds. The Human Side of Advanced Manufacturing Technology. Chichester: Wiley.

Kerka, Sandra (1994). "New Technologies and Emerging Careers. Trends and Issues Alerts." Columbus, OH: ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult, Career, and Vocational Education.

Lindbeck, Assar, and Snower, Dennis J. (1997). "The Division of Labor Within Firms." Stockholm, Sweden: Institute for International Economic Studies, University of Stockholm.

Luthans, Fred (2005). Organizational Behavior (10th ed.). Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.

Walton, Richard E. (1985). From Control to Commitment in the Workplace: In Factory After Factory, There Is a Revolution Under Management of Work. Boston: Harvard Business Review.

Donna L. McAlister-Kizzier

Division of Labor

views updated Jun 11 2018


DIVISION OF LABOR. Division of labor, the parceling out of work based on various categories of identity, is understood commonly as a division made on the basis of gender. Indeed, food production, preparation, and even consumption are often differentiated on the basis of gender: men do some tasks and women do others. For example, cooking is widely recognized as an essentially female task (Murdock and Provost, p. 208). However, division of labor can apply to class, ethnicity, and age as well, and these categories also intersect with how people produce, prepare, and consume food.

Food Production

The division of labor begins when food production begins, which is a pattern rooted in the history of humanity. The earliest humans tended to divide their work by category, where men hunted and fished and women gathered vegetable foods (fruits, vegetables, grains, and nuts). Among foraging societies, women still take on the greater portion of food-preparation tasks, such as grinding, pounding, boiling, and otherwise processing gathered and hunted foods into edible meals. For the few societies that still procure their food in the hunting-and-gathering strategy, a large percentage of the diet is made up of non-meat foods, with meat functioning as a much-desired and prized treat (Lee, pp. 256258).

As societies adopted farming as a means of food production, dividing food production by gender persisted, yet much of this division was based on cultural understandings of gender rather than a physical advantage on the part of men or women. For example, among the Maring of New Guinea, numerous agricultural tasks are divided on the basis of gender: men and women together clear gardens, but only men fell trees. Both men and women plant crops, but weeding is a primary female occupation. At harvest time, men harvest above-ground crops and women harvest below-ground crops (Rappaport, pp. 3840, 43). These are categories based on cultural understandings, similar to how grilling and barbecuing are identified as male tasks in many Western societies.

An extreme case of agricultural specialization is found in much of sub-Saharan Africa, where subsistence agriculture is a predominantly, sometimes exclusively, female task. Agricultural economist Ester Boserup notes that in sub-Saharan cultures, the shift to a more urbanized society often reduces women's status, for although rural farm women may not be socially equal to their husbands, their work on farms is recognized and valued. A shift into a more "Westernized" work pattern can eliminate what power such women do have (pp. 5363). However, agricultural work patterns vary widely. In societies where plow agriculture is common, women are often likely to process food in the home, while the actual farm labor falls to men; yet even in those societies, women may weed and harvest or keep kitchen gardens. In the United States, women's farm participation varies from negligible to great. The publication Marketing to Women notes that although the number of women farmers in the United States is on the rise, women tend to own the smallest farms. At the same time, women are far more likely to own their farms: fully 80 percent of women farmers are farm owners, in contrast to the 58 percent of male farmers who own their farms.

Preparing Foods

Food preparation, particularly that which occurs in the home and family, is most strongly associated with women and women's work. This is a pattern that has been documented widely. Journalist Laura Shapiro and food writer Ruth Reichl outline the history of this development in the United States in Perfection Salad, their account of the "domestic science" movement. As a result of this movement, women's work came to be viewed as professional, and cooking and other domestic activities were elevated to a woman's highest calling. (See also Cowan. Numerous works from a range of disciplines document this pattern. Among them are works by Sherrie A. Inness and the U.S. sociologist Arlie Hochschild.)

Similar patterns have emerged in other societies, although the underlying cultural ideals may differ. Anne Allison describes the great attention that Japanese mothers give to the preparation of their preschool children's boxed lunches. Young children attend preschool from three to six years of age, where they bring elaborately prepared lunches with them. Mothers organize other family meals around lunch preparation and spend as much as forty-five minutes each morning preparing lunch for their preschoolers. Men never prepare such lunches, and no adult that Allison interviewed could ever recall their father preparing a lunch. Indeed, the elaborate and beautifully presented lunch reflects well on the mother and signals her devotion to her children in the eyes of other mothers and of the preschool staff.

The association of women and domestic food preparation is sufficiently strong that men's cooking requires explanation. In some societies, men prepare special or ritual meals. The ethnographic film The Feast, by Timothy Asch, shows Yanomamo men preparing and eating a ritual meal, which is unusual in this strongly patriarchal Amazonian society.

Other Types of Divisions

However, gender is not the only way that labor is divided. This is true for food preparation, as it is for many other types of labor. Class or rank is a major category of division. For example, among the affluent in society, in modern times as well as in the past, servants often prepare food for the household. Also, certain kinds of foods might only be prepared or consumed by people of specific social classes. Archaeologist Christine Hastorf's work in Peru traced the preparation and consumption of corn, in the form of corn beer, through the pre-Incan and Incan periods. Using a sophisticated array of techniques, Hastorf compared the presence of corn pollens among different house sites and throughout neighborhoods. Over time, the presence of pollen, generally found in the patios and yards where women prepared food, was concentrated in the house sites of elite classes. The preparation of corn slowly shifted from most women to elite women. Further comparisons of this type showed that over the same period of time, women's consumption of corn decreased overall, while men's consumption increased in elite neighborhoods. Hastorf hypothesized that with the rise of the Incan Empire, elite women became increasingly specialized corn-beer producers and elite men became the beer's main consumers.

Perhaps the most striking change in U.S. food preparation is that most people do not prepare their own food. An increasing number of people pay to eat food that is prepared elsewhere, whether they pick up burgers at a drive-through restaurant, order pizza, or buy prepared meals in markets. This pattern has been noted for much of the past twenty years (see Gonzales) and continues to intensify.

See also Gender and Food ; Preparation of Food ; Time .


Allison, Anne. "Japanese Mothers and 'Obentos': The Lunch Box as Ideological State Apparatus." Anthropological Quarterly 64 (1991): 195209.

Asch, Timothy. The Feast. Watertown, Mass.: Documentary Educational Resources, 1969. Film.

Boserup, Ester. Woman's Role in Economic Development. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1970.

Cowan, Ruth Schwartz. More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave. Reissue. Boston: Basic Books, 1985.

Gonzales, Monica. "Faster's Better." American Demographics 10, no. 7 (July 1988): 22.

Hastorf, Christine A. "Gender, Space and Food in Prehistory." In Engendering Archaeology: Women and Prehistory, edited by Joan Gero and Margaret Conkey. London: Blackwell, 1991.

Hochschild, Arlie. Second Shift: Working Parents and the Revolution at Home. Reissue. New York: Avon, 1997.

Inness, Sherrie A. Dinner Roles: American Women and Culinary Culture. Ames: University of Iowa Press, 2001.

Inness, Sherrie A., ed. Kitchen Culture in America: Popular Representations of Food, Gender, and Race. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.

Lee, Richard B. The !Kung San: Men, Women, and Work in a Foraging Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979.

Murdock, G. P., and Catarina Provost. "Factors in the Division of Labor by Sex: A Cross-Cultural Analysis." Ethnology 9 (1973): 122225.

"The Number of Women Farmers Is on the Rise." Marketing to Women: Addressing Women and Women's Sensibilities 14, no. 2: (February 2001): 7.

Rappaport, Roy. Pigs for the Ancestors: Ritual in the Ecology of a New Guinea People. 2d ed. Prospect Heights: Waveland, 2000.

Shapiro, Laura, and Ruth Reichl. Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century. Reissue. New York: Modern Library, 2001.

Robin O'Brian

Division of Labor

views updated May 18 2018

Division of Labor

What It Means

The division of labor (also known as specialization) refers to a method of producing goods or providing services whereby a job is split into separate, distinct tasks or roles. Each task or role is then performed by one person or group of people; the person or group performs only that task or role, specializing in it. If a group of one hundred people were to build a ship without dividing the labor into categories and specializing, they would all work together on the hull (the frame of the ship), the decks, the sleeping quarters, and the sails. If this group were to divide the labor into categories and specialize, one group would build the hull, another the deck, another the sleeping quarters, and the final group would assemble the sails. When the first group finished the hull, they would begin constructing a hull for a second ship. Over time these workers would master all aspects of building the hull, but they would not necessarily be adept at building decks, sleeping quarters, or sails.

Workers often divide labor and specialize when they provide services, as well. For example, companies that offer house-cleaning services often send teams of cleaners to their customers’ residences. One of the cleaners vacuums, another washes floors, another dusts, and another cleans bathrooms. When the team is finished, they move to the next client’s house. Labor studies have shown that dividing labor and specializing significantly increases efficiency and production. With regard to shipbuilding, it has been shown that workers produce a greater number of ships and the ships are of a higher quality if the workers separate into teams and specialize in one aspect of the job. Likewise, teams of housecleaners do better, faster work when individuals specialize in one aspect of the cleaning process. The division of labor also helps to ensure a high degree of standardization, or consistency, in the process of production and in the quality of the final product. In the case of the shipbuilders, if workers master a specialized role, then the ships are likely to resemble each other. Standardization of products and services is crucial for large businesses looking to build a reputation for high-quality work with their client base.

When Did It Begin

Sir William Petty (1623–87), an English economist and philosopher, was one of the first people to publicize the advantages of specialization. In the 1640s, when he was in his twenties, Petty visited Dutch shipyards. Most manufacturers during that era built ships one at a time, deploying a large group of men on one ship and not beginning another until the previous vessel was completed. The Dutch, however, constructed several ships at once. They assembled teams of workers and made each team responsible for a different area of the ship. Petty noted that this approach produced ships more quickly; it also required less time and money to be spent on training the labor force. Instead of having to master all aspects of shipbuilding, a worker only had to know how to perform the tasks associated with his area of the ship.

After his stay in the Netherlands, Petty returned to England and began a distinguished career as a surveyor and a writer on such subjects as mathematics, statistics, economics, and philosophy. By the 1660s Petty had a wide readership, and at this time his early observations on the division of labor found a large audience. Throughout the Industrial Revolution, which began in the 1780s in England and spread to the rest of Europe and to the United States during the nineteenth century, manufacturers continually studied ways to get the highest level of productivity out of the labor force. Dividing workers into groups and making each group responsible for one part of a larger project did not become commonplace, however, until the beginning of the twentieth century, when the assembly line was first used in the American automotive industry.

More Detailed Information

Assembly lines in factories that produce large amounts of goods encourage a high degree of specialization. An assembly line is a manufacturing process in which the product being assembled moves on a conveyor belt past workers. As the product moves along the belt, workers add parts to it. For example, in an automobile manufacturing plant a car frame may be placed at the beginning of an assembly line and sent past the workers operating the line. As the car proceeds, workers along the line add parts to the car. One group might put the engine in, the next the radiator, and another group further down might operate a device that places the windshield on the car. The car proceeds to the end of the line until it is fully assembled. Each group of workers specializes in performing one task associated with the building of the car.

Although this approach to manufacturing produces a large number of identical vehicles in a short period of time, there are some drawbacks to the process. The most notable shortcoming is a high degree of worker dissatisfaction. Workers on assembly lines often find the work boring and unchallenging, for example. Because they repeat the same task thousands of times a day and contribute only one small part to the manufacture of the vehicle, these workers often feel no connection to the process. Such workers are not as likely to take pride in the quality of the finished product because they regard their contribution as small and insignificant. Their jobs, they reason, require no particular skill; any properly trained individual could perform the task. This attitude toward the job increases absenteeism (frequent absences) from work. Furthermore, workers trained to do only one aspect of a job have a limited amount of flexibility in the workplace. Their supervisors may deem them capable of performing only that one task. As a result the workers may have a hard time distinguishing themselves and moving to higher positions in the corporation.

Another problem with dividing labor into small, particular tasks is that if there is a problem in one part of the process, the entire process stalls. For instance, on an automobile assembly line, if the mechanisms responsible for placing the hood on the car break, the entire line may need to be shut down in order to fix the problem. This means that there will be a drastic reduction in output until the problem is fixed. Such breakdowns cost large corporations millions of dollars in lost revenues.

Despite these problems the division of labor is considered a necessary component of economic progress. If a corporation wants to produce a high volume of goods or serve a large number of clients, that corporation must develop a highly specialized workforce. Even within medium-sized firms the work staff is often divided into specialized groups. For example, in a technology firm of 30 people, workers will be responsible for distinct tasks that contribute to the success of the firm. The staff may include five or six salespeople whose job it is to recruit new clients. There may be two or three graphic designers who design websites, several programmers who write code, and a few individuals who provide technical support. In addition, the firm may ask several employees to monitor internal affairs, such as cash flow and inventory. Within such a company it would be unproductive to require workers to excel in more than one area. Programmers, for example, need to keep up to date with the latest techniques in their field. If these workers were asked to master sales techniques and to do the accounting for the money coming into the firm, their programming skills would lag.

Recent Trends

It has become common for companies in many developed countries (fully modernized countries with a large middle class and a skilled labor force) to have their products made in factories located in poorer countries. Nike sportswear, for example, is produced in factories in Vietnam, Taiwan, and the Dominican Republic, among other places. Companies like Nike produce their goods overseas because operating factories and paying workers is considerably less expensive in developing countries than in highly developed nations. Regulations in these developed countries set minimum standards for pay, safety in the workplace, and treatment of employees, especially those who perform specialized tasks on assembly lines. No such laws exist in many of the world’s less prosperous nations. To prevent abuses of worker rights in these parts of the world, the United Nations created the International Labor Organization (ILO) in 1919. Through a series of conventions throughout its history, the ILO has defined proper labor conditions for all workers.

In recent years, however, labor activists (people who try to protect the rights of workers) have noted that along with the rapid growth of the global economy, there has been a marked increase in violations of workers’ rights. Specifically, child labor laws and prohibitions against the abuse of workers have been violated more frequently in factories in Central America and Southeast Asia. To reverse this trend, such agencies as the Fair Labor Association (FLA) commission studies to verify reported abuses. The FLA also establishes emergency funds to provide monetary relief for workers in need. For example, in February 2007 Nike announced that it was decreasing its production in the Dominican Republic, forcing a BJ&B factory (the corporation that produced Nike’s goods in the Dominican Republic) to announce that it would have to close without giving its workers sufficient notice. According to some estimates, this meant a loss of more than 50,000 jobs. The FLA commissioned a legal report and sent financial aid to the workers. The organization took similar action in December 2006 when the Hermosa Manufacturing plant in El Salvador was closed abruptly.

division of labour

views updated May 17 2018

division of labour One of the oldest concepts in the social sciences. It denotes any stable organization, co-ordinating individuals, or groups carrying out different, but integrated activities. Its first and most celebrated use was in classical political economy, the precursor to modern economics. According to Adam Smith, division of productive labour greatly increases the wealth-creating capacity of a society. Unrestrained by government or administrative rules, the free market encourages producers to specialize in activities where they have a natural advantage. By specializing they benefit from greater dexterity, more efficient use of materials and time, and from mechanization. Simultaneously, the hidden hand of competition penalizes insufficiently specialized (by implication inefficient) producers, and encourages the prudent (rational) exchange of goods and services.

However, there can be different principles of specialization. Economics emphasizes specialization according to productivity, or quantity produced in relation to the costs of production. Organization theory, however, has long recognized that in practice conflicting criteria govern the division even of productive tasks. Considerations of the mental health of the worker (psychological efficiency) or the management of industrial unrest (social efficiency) actually limit the over-detailed specialization of tasks. Outside of productive organization, specialization may well be according to some qualitative criterion, whereby scale and quantitative productivity are relatively discounted (for example in medicine or education). Socio-geographers have also explored the spatial division of activity and power between different regions and localities.

Co-ordination is itself a troublesome concept. The early political economists assumed that a single factor (market competition between prudent individuals) was enough to bring differentiated activities together so as to maximize public well-being. Yet they also recognized that a division of labour could take place on a number of levels, between different sectors of the economy, between occupations, or between individual tasks. To this, classical sociology added the notion that modern societies as a whole are characterized by an extensive social division of labour, involving the specialization and interdependence of whole institutions and social processes. The extension of market competition, which is by definition divisive, is inadequate to explain the co-ordination of modern societies.

Despite their many differences in outlook, the common theme of sociology's founders was that the division of labour is held together by power relations, ideology, and moral regulation. Karl Marx, for example, argued that market processes express an underlying division of class power that is a property of the whole socio-economic complex and encompasses individual motives and actions. Class seriously distorts the division of labour as it might occur naturally between isolated and roughly equal individual producers. Antagonistic relations of production originated in the first place from the division of labour, because of arbitrary inequalities of advantage in exchange, and the ensuing dependence of the weaker on the stronger. In turn, the subsequent form of the division of labour in any particular era reflects the struggle over the distribution of the surplus product, between the owners and non-owners of the means of production.

For Émile Durkheim, the principal interest of the division of labour is its moral consequences, that is, its effect on the underlying solidarity of the society, which should restrain individual egoism, ruthlessness, and licence. Although historians and anthropologists have subsequently questioned the idea that premodern societies lacked a division of labour, Durkheim argued that traditional societies are integrated by so-called mechanical solidarity, in which emphasis is placed on the values and cognitive symbols common to the clan or tribe. Individuals and institutions are thus relatively undifferentiated. Modern societies, he claimed, require the development of organic solidarity, in which beliefs and values emphasize individuality, encourage specialist talents in individuals, and the differentiation of activities in institutions. But although the economic division of labour may have initiated such a way of life, by itself the unregulated market loosens restraints on individual desires, undermines the establishment of social trust, and produces abnormal forms of the division of labour. This is the source of his celebrated concept of anomie, and of the forced division of labour associated with class and political conflict. Full organic solidarity will require appropriate education; legal restraint on inheritance and other unjust contracts; and intermediary institutions to integrate individuals into occupational and industrial life.

With the possible exceptions of Friedrich Engels and Thorstein Veblen, the division of labour by sex or gender received only scant attention from the so-called founding fathers of sociology. Yet patriarchy is arguably the oldest example of a forced or exploitative division of social activities. Most societies operate a broad division of labour between men and women, in terms of their social, religious, and political functions, and specifically in relation to the work they perform. In the context of paid employment this is called occupational segregation; it is typically far more pronounced than segregation on the basis of race or religion in the labour-market. A distinction is usually drawn between vertical and horizontal occupational segregation. Horizontal segregation arises when men and women do different types of work: in industrial societies jobs involving heavy manual labour are usually done by men, and women are concentrated in social welfare services. Vertical segregation arises when men have a near monopoly of the higher status occupations that offer greater authority and better rewards, while women are concentrated in the lower-status jobs. (It is never the other way round.) Even in societies where horizontal occupational segregation is eroded by policies emphasizing social equality, a high degree of vertical occupational segregation persists.

Recent feminist analysis has drawn on both power and moral types of explanation in order to explore invidious distinctions almost universally made between men's and women's social labour and social position, and the form the division of labour by gender has taken in industrial societies. Power inequality is evident in the way the system of industrial production for many years existed alongside, and arguably relied upon, the domestication of women and their unpaid household labour. Persistent inequalities of reward, and the segmentation of labour-markets into areas of men's and women's work, are only slowly diminishing. Moral control is at work in the ideologies of the family, myths of romantic love, the duties of motherhood, and supposedly natural differences between the sexes which the socialization of boys and girls still encourages. Thus, despite modern doctrines of natural rights, women have often (until recently at least) been excluded from the legal and political guarantees which Durkheim considered to be essential if the division of labour was to be accompanied by organic solidarity. See also DEPRIVATION; DISCRIMINATION; DOMESTIC DIVISION OF LABOUR; LABOUR-MARKET SEGMENTATION; SOCIAL ORDER.

domestic division of labour

views updated May 21 2018

domestic division of labour The division of tasks, roles and duties, within the household. With the increased entry of married women into formal employment, sociologists began to look more closely at the processes that linked home and workplace, including the question of whether or not women's increased involvement in paid labour led to a renegotiation of the ‘traditional’ domestic roles and organization of domestic labour. A huge empirical and theoretical literature was then generated in a relatively short time.

Early studies cast doubts on the optimistic view (advanced, for example, by Michael Young and Peter Wilmott in The Symmetrical Family, 1973) that, especially among the middle classes, husband and wife were increasingly sharing in the complementary (hitherto largely segregated) tasks of earning a wage and running a household. Thus, Robert O. Blood and Donald M. Wolfe (Husbands and Wives, 1960) found that, among a large sample of families in Detroit, the sex segregation of domestic tasks was largely unchanged: men performed outdoor tasks requiring ‘mechanical aptitude’ while women did housework. Similar findings are reported in Ann Oakley's The Sociology of Housework (1974) and Stephen Edgell's Middle Class Couples (1980). Research by Rhona and Robert N. Rapoport on dual-career marriages drew attention to the role conflict confronting the women, a conflict which frequently resulted in them shouldering a ‘double burden’ of accepting primary responsibility for traditional domestic labour, but also holding down a paid job.

More recent studies have documented in great detail the extent to which the traditional allocation of domestic tasks to women remains largely unaltered. An excellent summary of the findings from this explosion of research is Lydia Morris's The Workings of the Household (1990). Reviewing the results to date, she concludes that the American and British studies produce parallel findings, the most important of which are as follows: women, including employed women, continue to bear the main burden of domestic work; men's (slightly) increased participation in domestic labour does not offset women's increased employment; women in part-time employment fare worst, possibly because of a life-cycle effect, which creates extra work associated with caring for young children; men tend nevertheless to be more involved with domestic tasks at this stage of the life-cycle than at other stages; there is relative stability in the level of housework time expended by men whether the wife works or not. Differences in emphasis and on points of detail across these studies are interesting, but insignificant when set against the central and often confirmed finding echoed by Sarah F. Berk, to the effect that ‘husband's employment activities and the individual characteristics that establish husbands in the occupational sphere are the most critical determinants of total household market time … [whilst] … few married men engage in significant amounts of household labour and child care’ (The Gender Factory, 1985). See also CONJUGAL ROLE; HOUSEHOLD ALLOCATIVE SYSTEM; SEX ROLES; SEXUAL DIVISION OF LABOUR.

Division of Labor

views updated May 23 2018


Division of labor refers to the specialization of jobs in any complex economy, particularly in a manufacturing enterprise. Since the British writer Adam Smith (17231790), economists have noted that division of labor is the most important feature of modern capitalism. Smith showed how several people with different skills are required to manufacture even a simple object like a pin; each person specializes in his own aspect of the job. Division of labor allows workers to become expert at a single task and to perform it very quickly; therefore, it allows great precision in the manufacturing process. Division of labor makes the modern consumer economy possible, because a person can use the wages from one specialized job to buy all the other products he or she needs, rather than trying to produce everything themselves. A downside of division of labor is can lead to mind-numbing, even dehumanizing, factory work. An assembly line worker, for example, does nothing by tighten the same bolts all day long.

See also: Assembly Line, Mass Production, Adam Smith

division of labour, domestic

views updated May 23 2018

division of labour, domestic See DOMESTIC DIVISION OF LABOUR.