Anthropologists refer to the division of labor as the different tasks that people do to provide for their physical needs and to reproduce their culture. We base these tasks on such criteria as age, gender, and skill. How this division is manifested varies across cultures and according to societal type.
In the foraging, tribal, and peasant societies, labor tends to divide along gender lines. Among foragers, such as the !Kung, men hunt large game animals, while women collect wild edible plants and care for children. Within tribal societies such as the Yanomami, women keep garden plots and care for children, while men engage in hunting and trade. Among peasants in Latin America and Asia, men tend to farm and women manage the household. In these societies, there is little specialization in that a man or a woman does just one job, although they learn most of the tasks that their respective gender does.
Among people living within state societies, in contrast to foragers, tribal people, and peasants, there is a high degree of job specialization. From farmers to craftspersons, government administrators to cooks and teachers, men and women dedicate their labor to one specific task. In industrialized societies, a person can specialize even further by making only a component of a product rather than the entire product. Service industries are similarly divided into multiple tasks. In these societies, members cannot learn all the jobs that are performed, but there are fewer gender- and age-based divisions of labor.
This deceptively simple definition belies both the complex classificatory practices used by earlier ethnographers as they described how people provide for their needs and wants and the diverse analytical practices used by contemporary ethnographers studying why people do the tasks they do. Anthropologists have long recognized that human beings divide their labor into distinct tasks according to age, gender, kinship, skill, and knowledge. Classic ethnographies by Bronislaw Malinowski, A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, and Margaret Mead contain obligatory chapters explaining the division of labor within a structural-functionalist framework. In such ethnographies, the ways in which labor is divided illustrates how labor functions to reproduce the members and culture of that society.
In more contemporary ethnographies, anthropologists have moved away from the mere classification of the division of labor and functionalist explanations. Instead, anthropologists study the division of labor by analyzing why people do the jobs they do. They aim to show how people work within their respective societies and across diverse cultures and to learn why the division of labor in society changes.
In part, this line of research grows out of Adam Smith’s 1776 book, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. A proponent of industrialism, Smith argued that, not only does the division of labor increase productivity, the specialization of tasks into subtasks makes the workers more productive and allows them to increase their skills. By focusing on a particular subtask rather than the whole task, workers are more efficient and contribute to a superior product.
Early anthropologists such as Herbert Spencer in Principles of Sociology combined Smith’s analysis with evolutionary perspectives of societal change to argue that, as individuals compete for jobs and compete to improve the products they make, societies would progress from simple to complex. Civilization, as conceived of by Americans and Europeans in the late 1800s, is the ideal. Along the way, a new, more efficient division of labor would replace the division of labor in less complex societies.
More contemporary anthropologists who study the division of labor may be influenced by the theoretical perspectives that Emile Durkheim presented in his 1983 book, The Division of Labor in Society, and those that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels presented in works such as Capital and The German Ideology. Both Durkheim and Marx were concerned with how industrialization and increased commodification affected society. Although they shared Spencer’s evolutionary theoretical orientation, they did not agree that industrialization would necessarily lead to utopia, but in a contrary direction.
Durkheim argued that society helps maintain order and keep individuals’ self-interests and desires in control. In societies characterized by mechanical solidarity, such as the !Kung, members are integrated according to likeness: moral ideology, nonoccupational specialization, and kinship. In those characterized by organic solidarity, however, such as the industrialized United States, members are not well-integrated and differences and divisions are more common among individuals. The causes for this are a division of labor in which there is greater specialization. Unlike the division of labor within societies based on mechanical solidarity, those based on organic solidarity lose their moral bonds and sense of community.
Marx and Engels also believed in the destructive nature of industrialization. They focused on the material conditions of human labor to show how increased specialization and commodification contributed to the development of social classes and caused workers to develop poorer skills overall and to lose their pride in their work. In other words, these workers’ labor is alienated from the item being made because they learn only some small part of the process. Marx did regard the division of labor as a necessary form of cooperation, but it is within a commodity-driven society that the divisions of labor are deleterious to the well-being of individuals and ultimately to that society itself.
These theoretical perspectives have influenced a great number of anthropological studies that question the relationship between work and culture, the nature of social classes and class struggle, and the links between work and gender roles. In particular, the analysis of the division of labor according to gender has helped transform how we think about why women and men do the tasks that they do. In Sex and Temperament in Three Societies, Mead showed that the division of labor by gender varies from society to society, dispelling Western cultural biases about the supposedly natural jobs that men and women do to maintain their material bases and cultural practices. Later, feminists Louise Lamphere and Michelle Rosaldo used Engels’s work, Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State, to question the ways that capitalism and industrialization have changed the gendered division of labor. The biases they describe about what we consider woman’s work and how labor benefits are culturally and materially allocated in favor of men are also discussed by Ruth Behar and Deborah Gordon in Women Writing Culture.
From early anthropological descriptions of the tasks that people do from society to society to maintain their culture, anthropological research on the division of labor has progressed to analyses that ask why people do the tasks they do, who does them, and how they are rewarded.
- Behar, R., & Gordon, D. (1996). Women writing culture. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Durkheim, E. (1983/1997). The division of labor in society. New York: Free Press.
- Mead, M. (1935/2001). Sex and temperament in three societies. New York: HarperCollins.
- Smith, A. (1776/1977). An inquiry into the nature and causes of the wealth of nations. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Spencer, H. (1876/2002). Principles of sociology. Piscataway, NJ: Transaction.