The division of labor, the process by which members of society perform ever specified types of work, has received much theoretical discussion in social thought. Here is a summary of three important theories regarding the division of labor by Adam Smith, Karl Marx and Emile Durkheim.
Adam Smith's theory on the division of labor
Adam Smith saw the division of labor as a positive source of growing productiveness of industrial capitalist markets. In An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations Smith ties the division of labor and the differentiation of skills with increased productivity. Smith gives the example of a pin, when a single worker capable of producing a lesser number of pins per day on his own compared with a much greater number of a single task which is a part of the process when taken apart to different components.
Karl Marx's theory on the division of labor
Karl Marx agrees with Adam Smith on the notion that the division of labor is a central part of capitalism, but he disagrees on how favorable this process is in social terms. Marx argues that the division of labor brings about alienation, with the worker no longer feeling associated with the product of his own labor. In addition, Marx held that the result of the growing division of labor is the workers become less skilled, being able the perform only specific tasks which do not amount to a whole products, thus making them less autonomous and more dependent on their employer who gains leverage. On this ground Marx ties the division of labor with social mechanism of control. For more see our summary on Marx's Perception of History in The German Ideology: praxis, property and the division of labor.
Emile Durkheim's theory on the division of labor.
In accordance with Smith, Durkheim also views the division of labor as characteristic of industrial capitalist societies. Durkheim even saw the division of labor as a natural law that also governs other organisms. But like Marx, Durkheim pointed out, in his book Division of Labor in Society, to the negative aspect of the process which turns people more interdependent yet increasingly different from each other, resulting in a disability to share their view of the world and form ontological solidarity.