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Essay: Exploring the Division of Labour in Marx and Durkheim’s Theories of Industrialisation

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It is widely perceived that “the industrial revolution marks the most fundamental transformation of human life in the history of the world recorded in written documents" (Hobsbawm 1968, p.13). Industrialisation, as a process, can be defined as “the development of industries in a country or region on a wide scale” (Oxford English Dictionary). Both Marx and Durkheim have ideas, concepts or theories about industrialisation, but the differences between them are significant.

Marx presents a conceptualised theory in which he depicts that throughout the process of industrialisation

“the concept of class struggle plays a central role in understanding society's allegedly inevitable development from bourgeois oppression under capitalism to a socialist and ultimately classless society” (THE AMERICAN HERITAGE® DICTIONARY OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE, 2017).

In contrast, Durkheim developed the concept of functionalism exploring the importance of social facts, the division of labour, and anomie. According to Hurst (2017), this theory consists of societal norms, values, and structures. Consequently, functionalism is a concept with three integral elements. On the other hand, industrialisation is sometimes construed as simply one element in a set of changes, such as urbanisation and rationalisation (Walton, 1987) which combine in a broader evolutionary transformation. 

This paper will explore the theoretical division between Marx and Durkheim through drawing upon the division of labour; anomie and alienation; and solidarity vs inequality.The line of argument for this paper was initially inspired by the research of late Professor Ivar Berg of the University of Pennsylvania:

“The industrialisation process . . . is an expression of a complex of forces that are really rooted in more general processes, in what are most aptly characterised as the processes of modernisation" (Berg, 1979, p.6).

It will be argued that both of the two sociologist’s (Marx and Durkheim) ideas about industrialisation are founded on their ideas about societal transformation following the division of labour in the post-modernised society and, whilst the basis of these do differ, their viewpoints are not entirely unrelated: similarities can be drawn.


Both theorists discuss the division of labour however the sociological theory diverges when determining the meaning and development of industrialisation – Marx contrasts Durkheim. Marx argued that the division of labour results in less-skilled workers: as the work becomes more specialised, less training is needed for each specific job. Consequently, he suggests that the workforce becomes less multi-skilled than if one person completed all aspects of production:

"As individuals express their life, so they are. What they are, therefore, coincides with their production, both with what they produce and with how they produce.” (Marx, 1974 p. 32)

According to Marx, the simple fact that man holds the ability to (and exercises rationality in order to) organise production is what distinguishes humans from their relatives amongst the animal kingdom (North, 1968).

Marx presented the viewpoint that whilst industrialisation caused the division of labour, it was less significant for the transformation of society than the inception of capitalism during the sixteenth century (Walton, 1987). He also suggested that the revolution actually began with the introduction of machinery, namely steam engines, which stimulated the transformation of society and the creation of the proletariat (Heller, 2011). From an onlookers perspective, the Industrial Revolution is perceived as a climactic moment in society, whereby capital was introduced and industry was entirely transformed. However, on analysis, Marx argues that the industrial revolution should not be viewed as a significant event on its own, but rather as the denouement of capitalism.

By contrast, Durkheim holds a more liberal position whereby his theory is based on an evolving division of labour generalised to social differentiation (Walton, 1987). He interprets each part of society in relation to how it contributes to the stability of the whole society: society is more than the sum of its parts; rather, each part of society is functional for the stability of the whole. Furthermore, he describes how fragmentation is a characteristic of industrialisation and that solidarity was the normal condition of society (Jones, 1986).

Fragmentation can be perceived metaphorically as Durkheim envisioning society as an organism, and just like within an organism, each component plays a necessary part. No one part can function alone, and when one part experiences a crisis or fails, other parts must adapt to fill the void in some way. Therefore, even though Durkheim recognised the turmoil associated with industrialisation, he considered the retaliating conflict abnormal or pathological (Jones, 1986). His liberal theory combines assumptions from laissez faire economics and the theory of comparative advantage from the late eighteenth century with the biological and evolutionary metaphors (ibid.).

“We need have no further illusions about the tendencies of modem industry; it advances steadily toward powerful machines, towards greater concentrations of forces and capital, and consequently to the extreme division of labor. Occupations are infinitely separated and specialised, not only inside the factories, but each product is itself a speciality dependent on others … the principal branches of the agricultural industry are steadily being drawn into the general movement. Finally, business itself is ingeniously following and reflecting in all its shadings the infinite diversity of industrial enterprise.” (Durkheim 1933, p.39)

Therefore, it can be argued that Marx and Durkheim conflict each other in their ideas about the division of labour as a characteristic of industrialisation. The former works on the idea that the division of labour causes a reduction in the skill of the workforce, suggesting a conflict between the elite and proletariat whereas Durkheim suggests that the division of labour is something positive and creates an inclusive society based on solidarity.


The theories of alienation (Marx) and anomie (Durkheim) have overlapping elements: the main difference stems from the view of man in a ‘state of nature’. Marx’s concept of alienation derives from the view that man is ‘naturally’ good, but has been corrupted by society (Palumbo et al., 2005). By comparison, Durkheim bases his theory of anomie on the idea that man is ‘naturally’ an uncontrolled being, that is controlled and restrained by societal perceptions and expectations (Willis, 1982).

In terms of industrialisation, Marx essentially expresses the idea that the capitalist nature of the post Industrial Revolution society is a cause of alienation. It is commonly perceived that

“Alienation is a theoretical concept… that describes the isolating, dehumanising, and disenchanting effects of working within a capitalist system of production.” (Crossman, 2017)

The mundane and repetitive nature of proletariat work following industrialisation arguably causes

individuals to perform less ‘like humans’ reducing their behaviour to that of animals, or non-human machines, in the work they become forced to carry out. Marx (1844) said this is evident in a capitalist society whereby the desired results of industrialisation transforms human conscious life to merely a physical existence. The result is a mass of people who are unable to express their essential human qualities: a mass of alienated workers (Giddens, 2000).

Essentially, Marx’s theory of alienation stems back to class conflict amidst the division of labour, which he theorises is between the capitalist-fuelled elite and the working class. The dehumanising aspect, he suggests, derives from the working class (proletariats) becoming separated from their ‘natural self’  by the capitalists, who take their labour and accumulate profit for themselves (Klistler, 2002). The ‘natural self’ of the working class, according to Marx, would have previously worked at a level of subsistence to provide for themselves and their dependents (family). The new division of labour and the process of industrialisation meant that the remodelled society saw that the many were working entirely for the benefit of a select few (ibid.).  In relation to earlier arguments, therefore, the inception of capital in society during industrialisation can be argued as a cause of alienation.

By contrast, Durkheim viewed class division as a force for good that could allow independence. In fact, he suggests that it was the concept of anomie that was problematic post-industrialisation. Anomie is the idea of the absence of societal norms, coined in sociological terminology as “normlessness”. It is thought to occur in disorganised societies attempting to adapt to, or undergoing, change causing “deregulation… marked by the absence of norms altogether” (Dohrenwend, 1959, p.472). In terms of industrialisation, Durkheim’s theory can be viewed in the context of

“the collapse of regulations in the industrial sector of society so that there is a “lengthy period of unregulated economic behaviour” (Fish, 2017, p.103).

Taking the idea of deregulation, Durkheim's theory of anomie, therefore, can be directly compared to the Marxist concept of ‘natural self’. It contrastingly stems from the idea that we (man) are controlled and restrained by institutions (such as religion), as ‘naturally’ man is an ‘uncontrolled being’ (Klister, 2002). Durkheim suggests that deregulation can occur under two conditions: the development of an industrial society; and dominance of the economy over other institutions. Following development of technologies and world markets during industrialisation, societal norms became freed of previous moral limitations and replaced by a focus on individual economic desires (Macionis et al, 2002). The naturally impulsive, and therefore uncontrolled, attitude of humans towards the new (post-industrialisation) primary focus of society (economic), according to Durkheim, caused an increased risk of crisis: society sets desires that cannot be achieved by everyone who holds ambition to do so. These desires can be conceptualised as egoism.

Whilst the basis of each theory is conflicting, both sociologists do share the viewpoint that post-industrialised society has caused the desire for economic self-advancement amongst all classes. There is a clear sense of similarity between the ‘constants’ creating the foundation of both alienation and anomie (Ritzer, 2000). Marx and Durkheim both emphasise, in their ideas, the fact that human qualities, needs and motives are dictated by societal norms and expectations. In response, they both acknowledge a flaw in the theory of political economy and treat egoism as the foundation of a theory for social order (Morrison, 1995). Therefore, both Marx’s and Durkheim’s ideas by no means

“alleviate these processes which are at the core of social and actor systems….” but argue that “…to reduce the levels of alienation and anomie requires adjustment in the division of labor.” (Dudley, 2002).

Basically, the difference between the two concepts (alienation and anomie) stems from exploitation. In Marx’s idea of alienation he discusses an exploitation of the working class by the capitalists, which causes societal dysfunction. Contrary, in Durkheim’s idea of anomie, the dysfunction of the working class is not caused by exploitation by the capitalists but more so by the complexity of the society, and a reliance on societal norms.


Following the Industrial Revolution, the transformation of society led Marx and Durkheim to have differing ideas on the resulting society in terms conflict and solidarity. The two sociologists disagree on whether the effect of industrialisation caused conflict or solidarity in society, and whether the recognised conflict that was created had a positive or negative impact.

The capitalist influence on society following the Industrial Revolution meant that a few people accounted for lots (both means of production and wealth). One possible consequence of industrialisation is that individuals gain autonomy, as they are granted freedom to make specialised contributions. Clarke (1976) identified that:

“a principal source of trouble for an industrialised society is the incipient sense

of incoherence among its members, who, although they know that they depend on others' skills, may come into contact with only a few of those skill groups, and in comparison with smaller, more homogeneous societies, lack a strong degree of appreciation that they form a cultural unit” (Clarke, 1976, p.246-247).

Durkheim believed that if the potential consequences to each social class, post industrialisation, were made clear then solidarity between those who oppose conflict would emerge. He conceptualised this in two ways:

1. Mechanical solidarity: a society with similar values, beliefs and culture as well as a similar type of work or economy. For example: villages or farm towns in the UK. (Durkheim,1933)

2. Organic Solidarity: a society that encloses different values, cultures and type of work. As such, within complex societies, inequality rewards different skills. For example: New York or London. (Giddens, 1971)

The post Industrial Revolution societal structure encompassed a division of labour: the practising of organic solidarity (that continues today) proved that, in the same cities like London and New York, different occupations can co-exist without being obliged to cause or experience conflict. Every member of society can attain relative success without preventing the others from attaining theirs (Gingrich, 2003).

Solidarity is founded on the sharing of societal norms and collective belief to create a universal structure (Crow, 2002). Arguably, solidarity can be viewed as encompassing inspiration from perhaps the largest and most universal societal structure of religion, when interpreting Durkheim’s ideas. Whilst he was in no way divinely inclined in his theorisation, his idea shows obvious motivation from a set of collective beliefs, that shape societal norms and values (Aupers, et al. 2010). In turn, Durkheim suggests that religion provided a common ground for both the elite and poor, as they are able use it to find a common identity. Due to this, conflict and tension is reduced or removed between the two groups (a positive consequence of a capitalist society). He also suggests that the only chance of conflict arising would be when an individual or group breaks the solidarity, whether it be mechanical or organic, by not adhering to the societal norms, values and collective beliefs (Gingrich, 2003).

Although the two theories differ, there is a similarity in the idea’s of Marx and Durkheim’s socialist attitudes towards conflict and solidarity. Despite the previous argument that Durkheim’s ideas were entirely optimistic where the development of the division of labour in developing an organic solidarity was concerned, he (like Marx) was also concerned with the state of modern society (Kristi, 2012). The division of labour undoubtedly carried risk of causing a conflicted split in society, at which Durkheim falls back on the social security of the state, which is somewhat Marx’s leading ideology. Ritzer notes that for Durkheim, socialism

“…represented a system in which moral principles discovered by scientific sociology could be applied.” (Ritzer, 1992 p. 73). 

Both Marx and Durkheim discuss how the principles of morality had to be present in society in order for it to remain functional following the Industrial Revolution. From a communist inspired and hypothetical perspective, the state could embody these principles within it’s structures, fulfilling functions such as justice, education, health, social services, etc.,  and avoiding conflict whilst managing a wide range of sectors in society (Grabb, 1990). Grabb goes on to say that the state

“should also be the key structure for ensuring that these rules are moral and just. The appropriate values of individualism, responsibility, fair play, and mutual obligation can be affirmed through the policies instituted by the state in all these fields.” (Grabb, 1990 p. 87).

The key difference, therefore, is that Marx suggests that society experiences constant conflict between two opposing social classes: the Bourgeois and the Proletarians, whereas Durkheim suggests a cooperation creating solidarity. In his communist manifesto, he portrays this as a battle between the oppressor (the elite Bourgeois) and the oppressed (the proletarians) which creates a dysfunctional society (Marx, 1848). It is this that fuels Marx’s communist attitudes, as he argues that the post-industrialisation capitalist society loses any chance of being one in which all members are equal and all the means of production are distributed fairly. These views essentially optimise the idea of the ‘class struggle’ and inequalities amongst society, defined as

“one’s relationship to the means of production, specifically whether one controls it/them or not” (Chilton, 2006).

Historically, society has always been ordered in social ranks within different categories – this is conceptualised as social stratification by Marx (Saunders, 2006). It appears to be on this basis that Marx maintains the idea that a post-industrialisation society continues to be one in which the Proletariat class remains ostracised, and therefore likely to result in conflict over solidarity.


In conclusion, for both Marx and Durkheim, it seems apparent that the basis of their ideas surrounding industrialisation is formed on their attitudes and ideas towards the post-revolution division of labour. Durkheim appears to have a positive approach in that he believes that the new social structure means that there is no need to compete or any sense of struggling just to survive. Rather, he seems to present the idea that the division of labour may signify that there are sufficient material resources for all in society. This resulting division allows a certain form of co-operation, which he conceptualises through the idea of solidarity. There is, however, a recognition towards the fragility of organic solidarity by Durkheim. He makes effort to overcome this hypothetical weakness through presenting the idea that there is as a potential requirement to uptake a more socialist attitude, which relies more on the state to enforce the morality and principle required to ensure the continuation of no conflict. Both Durkheim and Marx identify that the likely conflict would be between members of, what Marx identifies as, social stratification- essentially every person in society being a member of a sub-society determined by social class. Therefore, whilst both sociologists do share some ideas, Marx presents his idea of alienation caused by the division of labour and consequently discusses an exploitation of the working class by the Capitalists. He argues that this causes societal dysfunction and is likely to cause conflict over solidarity. Generally, Marx presents a much more pessimistic tone than Durkheim does towards the movement away from subsistence living, following the inception of capital (which is viewed as a denouement of industrialisation) into society, and the resulting industrialised society.

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