Labor Theory: Division of Labor
This article focuses on division of labor. Understanding the role the division of labor plays in society is vital background for all those interested in the sociology of work and the economy. This article explores the sociology of specialized labor practices in three parts: an overview of the main types of division of labor, a discussion of classical labor theory, and an explanation of the debate surrounding division-of-labor practices in modern society. The issues associated with using division-of-labor practices as a means of worker control and domination are also addressed.
Keywords Division of Labor; Efficiency; Gender Division of Labor; Geographic Division of Labor; Industrial Revolution; Scientific Management; Specialization
Labor refers to physical, mental, or creative efforts exerted to complete a task or project. Beginning in the 19th century, jobs and labor in factories, production facilities, and households were divided into specialized job tasks. The specialization process, in which the total labor is divided among categories of people, is termed the division of labor. Sociologists study the division of labor that occurs within capitalist societies, between nations, and within households. Types of division of labor include task specialization, geographic division of labor, and gender division of labor. Particular areas of inquiry include the ways in which division of labor and job specialization are related to power, control, and efficiency (Harvey & Saint-Germain, 2001).
This article explores the sociology of specialized labor practices in three parts: an overview of the main types of division of labor, a discussion of classical labor theories, and an explanation of the debate surrounding division-of-labor practices in modern society. The issues associated with using division of labor as a means of control and domination are also addressed. Understanding the role that the division of labor plays in social life is vital background for all those interested in the sociology of work and the economy.
Types of Division of Labor
Sociologists recognize that labor is divided in many different settings and for many different reasons. There are three main types of division of labor:
- Task/work specialization;
- Geographic division of labor;
- Gender division of labor.
Work specialization refers to the division of work-related responsibilities into wholly different, discrete, and often isolated jobs. Commonly understood as the division of labor, work specialization separates the production process into discrete compartments and tasks. Work specialization produces different levels of profit and competitive trade advantage among the private, public, and military sectors (Mittleman, 1995). Task specialization, which began during the industrial era, increases organizational efficiency and profitability; however, specialized jobs require highly specific training that may or may not be transferable to different professions or industries. Examples of task specialization include medical specialization and assembly line production. Factors that affect task specialization include organizational need, circumstance, gender, class, education, and leadership (Spengler, 1970).
Geographic Division of Labor
Geographic division of labor, also referred to as international division of labor, refers to the tendency of certain nations to be responsible for the production of specific materials. The geographic division of labor is a macroeconomic process that occurs worldwide and differs from regional labor patterns, which refers to the concentration of economic relations into regional blocks. The geographic division of labor depends on the growing trend of economic globalization, the process of economic and cultural integration around the world caused by changes in technology, commerce, and politics. The global economy (an economy characterized by growth of nations, both in population and in output and consumption per capita; interdependence of nations; and international management efforts) and global markets (economic markets of countries and regions open to foreign trade and investment) affect the division of labor. The geographic division of labor has important consequences for research, politics, and economics.
Marxist theorists tend to be particularly interested in the geographic division of labor due to the potential for one nation or region to economically dominate, subjugate, or enslave another region or group. Examples of interest to such theorists would be Brazilian women working on sugar plantations and Asian women working in manufacturing who labor under difficult conditions and for extremely low wages.
There are two main theories of geographic division of labor: dependency theory and regulation theory.
- Dependency theory refers to the idea that the geographic division of labor reflects past colonial links.
- Regulation theory refers to the idea that economic systems result from networks of social relations that lead to successive regimes of accumulation, during which the established networks are shown to be successful. There are five forms of accumulation regimes: competition regimes, international regimes, monetary regimes, state regimes, and wage-relation regimes (Harvey & Saint-Germain, 2001).
Gender Division of Labor
Gender division of labor refers to the practice of directing men and women to perform certain tasks and forbidding them from performing other tasks based on their gender. A gender-based division of labor became common in the 20th century as a result of industrialization and the necessity of paid work outside the home. Factors that affect the gender division of labor include:
- Organizational culture;
- Individual gender;
- Cultural background;
The household division of labor, common across classes and Cultures, is one often-studied area of gender-based division of labor. Household labor refers to unpaid work performed to support family members and the home. Emotional support and work is not generally included in conceptualizations of household labor.
In American society, researchers suggest that men, as a group, do between 20 and 30 percent of household labor. Industrialization and labor-saving devices such as vacuums and mass-produced cleaning products, which became common in the 20th century, changed household divisions of labor in modern societies. Researchers study household labor through the use of time diaries and direct questions. Socialist and Marxist feminists argue that the household division of labor is balanced to favor and privilege men and capitalist societies and that men and capitalist societies as a whole control women's labor in the household. However, the women's movement of the 1960s and 1970s helped change the gender division of labor in Western nations (Shelton & John, 1996).
Further Insights: Classical Labor Theories
The concept of work as a practice to be manipulated for increased efficiency was born during the industrial era in Europe. Division of labor became common in industrial settings concerned with worker efficiency (the ratio of total input to effective output). The industrial era, approximately 1750–1900, was a time characterized by the replacement of manual labor with industrialized and mechanized labor and the adoption of the factory system of production. During this period, industry and trade eclipsed farming and agriculture as regional sources of income, and the economic system of capitalism was promoted (Ahmad, 1997). Due to an increased need for workers, this era led to the creation of a new working class, middle class, and consumer class. The factory system of production, with its separation from the domestic setting, created a divide between work and home life. It also reinforced and maintained class relations by establishing a hierarchical and supervised workforce (Mellor, 2003).
During the industrial era, classical social scientists worked to understand the changes they saw happening in the relationships between the individual, government, business, and society. Classical social scientists, particularly in response to the changes in labor and society, made significant contributions to labor theory, organizational theory, and management theory. In particular, Frederick Taylor, Emile Durkheim, Karl Marx, and Max Weber all developed classical labor theories that became the foundation of modern ideas about the division of labor and job specification.
Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856–1915), an engineer, is considered to be the founder of scientific management. Scientific management,...
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