It is understood by social division of labor the distribution of activities between the different societies of the world and social groups within the same territory. Initially, this division occurred only in the separation of activities between men and women. However, the transformation of societies and the development of new technologies have allowed the forms of social division of labor to also change over the centuries, giving rise to cuts between different locations and professional categories.
In the context of globalized societies, the social division of labor can act as a facilitator for the development of economic activities , as it concentrates certain activities in specific locations. However, for the same reasons, it can also be a means of widening economic inequalities between different societies and different groups in the same territory.
The sharp and complex social division of labor is one of the hallmarks of capitalist industrial society. This topic receives a lot of attention from the Social Sciences and has developed different sociological interpretations about it, such as those of Émile Durkheim (1858-1917) and Karl Marx (1818-1883), inaugural authors of Sociology.
Émile Durkheim and the social division of labor
Durkheim attributes to the social division of labor – specialization of functions in industrial society – the basis of social cohesion in modern times. It is about organic solidarity.
This sociologist understands modern society as an organism of high complexity, in which several organs are articulated for specific purposes, all contributing to the functioning of the social group. If, in traditional societies, cohesion is promoted by the force of collective conscience and its moral values, in modernity it is the interdependence of the social division of labor that sustains life in society.
Karl Marx and the social division of labor
In a very different sense, Karl Marx claims that the social division of labor in capitalist society completes the alienation. What does that mean? Work becomes an absolutely strange activity, in which workers no longer recognize themselves in their activity and in the products created by it.
Why, according to Marx, does this happen? In the modern division of labor, the pace and manner of carrying it out are not decided by workers, according to their needs, but by administrators, engineers and technicians responsible for the design, organization and supervision of economic activities, governed by the search profit. In addition, workers are subjected to specialization in a part of the production process – each group performs a single task in the production of goods -, making repetitive and monotonous movements. In this way, they lose track of the totality of their work, absorbed in an activity that does not provide satisfaction and pleasure.
From the sociological point of view of Marx, mechanized industries effect the alienation of work, converting it into an activity foreign to the workers’ humanity.
Alienated labor, then, is an activity in which workers do not identify their humanity. On the contrary, it expresses the negation of authentic human possibilities. In this perspective, the alienation of work consists of the alienation of humanity itself. After all, for Marx, work is, originally, the vital activity through which human beings relate to each other and to the natural environment, thus transforming nature and humanity itself. With alienated work, therefore, the human being experiences the denial of his social nature, becoming unable to recognize humanity in himself and in relations with other human beings.
In recent times, technological transformations and the dominant trends in capitalism imply new configurations in the social division of labor. In this context, sociological studies examining this issue are currently multiplying.