INTRODUCTION TO ECONOMICS                           Lesson 7 of 2006


Division of Labour

Division of Labour is the term used in economics to refer to the specialisation that occurs when different functions or roles are involved or used in the production of goods and services.  Among economists, the benefits and significance of the division of labour are a matter of some contention.  To a certain extent their particular attitude can be reflective of their political viewpoint. 

Various categories of division of labour have been identified and distinguished including;

*Territorial Division of Labour; This occurs when different regions or countries specialise in the production of one or more products, exchanging them for whatever else they require thus utilising the benefit of comparative advantage.  It is associated with Globalisation.

* Temporal Division of Labour; This occurs where production happens sequentially such as to result in lumberjacks, sawmillers and carpenters or farmers, millers and bakers rather than having one person make a table or bake a loaf of bread from scratch.

*Social Division of Labour;  Division based on such things as gender, ethnicity, caste or class reflecting power rather than efficiency.  Perhaps the first division of labour was the split between so-called mens’ and womens’ work, or the division within the household of the work of the young, the old and the rest.

* Technological Division of Labour;  The breaking up of production between workers within a factory or workplace into different aspects or component parts for increased efficiency and productivity.  In the modern world this is usually what is meant when the term “Division of Labour” is used.  It is associated with Capitalism and the systematic approach of time and motion studies and Taylorism.  In this regard division of labour is sometimes said to belong more to the field of production engineering than economics.



Division of labour is sometimes said to be a concept as old as work itself.  The ancient Greek philosophers considered aspects of it in their writings.  Some considered the desirability of pre-civilised life as attributable to the absence of specialisation when all did the same, and that decline and fall was associated with its inception.  Plato saw it as part of the natural inequality of man justifying the creation of the state with the need for builders, weavers, shoemakers and so forth to be supported.  Xenophon linked it to the development of cities and the growth in population, which enabled shoemakers to move from making and repairing all shoes to making alone and not repairing or vice versa, or to making for just men and not women and so forth, with the result that they became better at that which they did.

In modern times the technological division of labour first seems to have been written about in England by Sir William Petty in 1681, who wrote about the pioneering work of the Dutch shipyards, where instead of building one ship and then starting on another the workers were organised in teams each building a different part of the boat and which were then put together.

Turgot, the French Physiocrat writing in 1751 linked it to the creation of money, the development of commerce and the accumulation of capital. The fact that with the technological division of labour a worker produced only part of a completed product meant its operation was precluded in a barter economy

However the most famous early writer on the division of labour was Adam Smith who, in 1776, saw it as the essential element in mankind’s progress.  His account of the pin factory is famous in the literature of economics.  Ten men, each making entire pins, were capable of producing altogether less than 200 pins in a day.  Yet dividing the making of a pin into 18 operations and giving each of the ten, one or two of such operations to perform enabled production to increase to 48,000 pins per day.

The division of labour was also central in the works of Karl Marx.  Unlike Smith. Marx saw it as essentially evil.  He particularly was concerned to draw a distinction between technical division in which some form of cooperation was necessary and the bulk of such division which was social and based on class and status, which exploited the worker and resulted in his or her alienation.  Marx believed in the eventual elimination of the division of labour and the arriving at a situation where everyone would perform entire tasks for their own satisfaction and wellbeing.


Some Perceived Advantages

·         Productivity is increased

·         Workers are able to achieve a higher standard of performance

·         Production is able to be better organised and controlled.

·         Innovation and invention is stimulated.


Some Perceived Disadvantages

·         Workers tend to be dehumanised or degraded in becoming somewhat in the nature of a machine and making only a part of something

·         Workers become less skilled, bored and lose pride in their work.

·         Division of labour results in mass production and a loss of quality.



                                                            David Sharp

                                                                June 2006



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