On Durkheim's Explanation of Division of Labor

Dietrich Rueschemeyer
1982 American Journal of Sociology  
Durkheim's explanation of the division of labor is shown to be faulty in several major respects. While his metatheoretical critique of utilitarian social theory, which was closely intertwined with his analysis of the division of labor, is still persuasive, his causal explanation of the division of labor is questionable wherever it modifies the earlier body of thought. Ironically, it was his metatheoretical concerns expressed in the critique of utilitarian social theory that flawed his
more » ... lawed his contributions to a causal explanation of social differentiation. In De la division du travail social, Emile Durkheim offered a causal explanation for secular increases in the division of labor and the differentiation of social structure. This explanation is severely flawed; in fact, it fell behind the advances in understanding reached by earlier writers, including Karl Marx in Capital (see Marx [1867] 1959, chap. 14). A critical review of the arguments Durkheim advanced nearly 90 years ago is of more than mere historical interest, because the work has become enshrined as a classic. This is due largely to its forceful criticism of utilitarian social theory, criticism which, together with similar attacks and revisions, established the distinctive perspective of 20th-century sociology.2 Durkheim's discussion of 1 This essay grew out of a chance discovery. The German journal Soziologische Revue had asked me to write a review of the first German edition of Durkheim's work, which was published only in 1977. When I reread the book and some of the secondary literature with a special focus on the causal explanation offered-a subject relevant to my own current work-I realized that certain of Durkheim's arguments were flawed in ways that had been overlooked until now. I wish to thank Robert K. Merton for encouraging me to explain my critical observations in more detail than was possible in that review. After all, writing an essay on what is wrong with a 19thcentury analysis of the division of labor is carrying the division of labor far indeed; it does need encouragement. I wish also to thank Mark Shields and Kurt Wolff for their comments on an earlier draft of this paper and Alessandro Pizzorno for a stimulating discussion of the subject. Requests for reprints should be sent to Dietrich Rueschemeyer, Department of Sociology, Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island 02912. 2 See Parsons (1937). While Parsons leaves Marx out of his review of major social theorists of the 19th century, Marx's comments on classical economics and his theoretical orientation in general can be read as a critique of utilitarian social theory which anticipates and complements that of Durkheim. These critiques remain crucially important even though the utilitarian theory criticized is not, as Camic (1979) has shown convincingly, identical with the ideas of David Hume, Adam Smith, or John Stuart Mill. ? 1982 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.
doi:10.1086/227709 fatcat:ilmbh6iqczeplcro7lolxgw5vq