Division of labour is the breakdown of labour into specific, circumscribed tasks for maximum efficiency of output in the context of manufacturing. It is the cardinal aspect of production. It can also be the fragmenting or reduction of human activity into separated toil that is the practical root of alienation and basic specialization which makes civilization appear and develop.
Division of labour did not exist prior to the use of agriculture and the subsequent beginnings of civilization. The relative wholeness of pre-civilized life was first and foremost an absence of the narrowing, confining separation of people into differentiated roles and functions.
In Plato's "Republic" we are instructed that the origin of the state lies in that "natural" inequality of humanity that is embodied in the division of labour. Emile Durkheim celebrated a fractionated, unequal world by divining that the touchstone of "human solidarity," its essential moral value is division of labour. Before him, according to Franz Borkenau, it was a great increase in division of labour occurring around 1600 that introduced the abstract category of work, which may be said to underlie, in turn, the whole modern, Cartesian notion that our bodily existence is merely an object of our (abstract) consciousness.
In the first sentence of An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), Adam Smith foresaw the essence of industrialism by determining that division of labour represents a qualitative increase in productivity. His original example was the making of pins.
The specialization and concentration of the workers on their single subtasks often leads to greater skill and greater productivity on their particular subtasks than would be achieved by the same number of workers each carrying out the original broad task.
Worker skill is the chief source of productivity gain in Smith's thinking. In modern economic theory, that role has been taken over by overall technological progress.
Increasing specialization may also lead to workers with poorer overall skills and a lack of enthusiasm for their work. This viewpoint was extended and refined by Karl Marx. He described the process as alienation; workers become more and more specialized and work repetitious which eventually leads to complete alienation. Marx wrote that "as a result of division of labour," the worker is "reduced to the condition of a machine." He believed, though, that the fullness of production is essential to human liberation and subsequently accepted immiseration of humanity along the road of capital's development as a necessary evil.
On the other hand, Marx's theories, including the negative claims regarding the division of labour have been criticized by the Austrian economists, such as Ludwig von Mises.
- Summary of Smith's example of pin-making (http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/adamsmith-summary.html)