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Innovative History: Divison of Labour

In this installment of the Innovative History series we’ll be looking at the division of labour. Unlike the last two topics in this series which have focused on anthropological perspectives, this one has many more political, economic and philosophical interpretations and has been a consistent topic of academic discussion from the times of Plato until today. In this article, I’ll be exploring the division of labour as it relates to our Innovative History timeline and how it played and continues to play a part in the evolution of our societies.

If you missed my last post, please check out Innovative History: Agriculture. To preface this post, I won’t be going in depth into the division of labour as it relates to the Industrial Revolution, that will be covered in a separate post later in the series. I’ll be taking a politically neutral view and exploring the division of labour from a socially functional perspective, mainly focusing on Emilé Durkheim’s theory of the division of labour which I will link below. If you are interested in the other theories surrounding the division of labour, they’ll be included at the end of the post.

The division of labour is exactly how it sounds, it’s how the labour amongst a society is divided to provide the necessities for the entire group. Before the Neolithic Revolution, the division of labour was much looser. For the most part, each individual person provided the basic necessities of life, like food, water and shelter, for themselves. Individuals in social groups had help to gather all the resources for survival, which made social groups evolutionarily preferable. As these social groups started to grow in population and settle into sedentary societies, the division of labour became a necessity. Providing everything one needed for themselves to survive proved to be inefficient for large social groups when individuals could have designated tasks to focus on. It wasn’t enough any longer to be able to provide basic needs for yourself; these new societies needed more complex shelter, stable food sources, medical care and help with child rearing to accommodate larger social groups. When labour became divided into separate occupations, it allowed these societies to have specialized people for specific tasks like farming, medicine and building that could help provide for the rest of the group. Specializations allowed individuals to become experts in certain fields and share their knowledge with others accordingly. This meant that we could now store knowledge as a collective rather than as individuals; one person didn’t need to know how to do everything themselves anymore. 

After the Neolithic Revolution, agriculture became an important feature in sedentary societies and it called for specialized individuals to maximize crop yields and provide enough food for the rest of the group. Imagine what your life would be like if you had to grow all of your own food, build your own home, take care of your children and build all the tools you needed to complete those tasks yourself. Spending so much time on just surviving leaves very little time for intellectual pursuits. Thanks to the division of labour, individuals no longer had to do it all themselves which left much more time for abstract thinking, philosophizing and inventing. Without the extra time in our days for thinking, it’s likely that our societies couldn’t have advanced as far as they’ve been able to in the time since. 

The broad divisions of labour have allowed humans to form complex and interdependent societies where each individual has an important role to play and the opportunity to hone a singular skill rather than trying to be a master of many. In the Middle Ages that meant each village had farmers, artisans, medicine people, builders and merchants. With the rise of the Merchant class came even further occupational diversification, social interconnectedness through trading and Mercantilism, and the riches that marked the start of the Renaissance. With the newly acquired wealth, Merchants became patrons of the arts and sciences which brings us into the next post in the series: the Scientific Revolution. 

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About the author

Sara Richards is our Social Media Coordinator and Visual UI Designer based in Edmonton, Alberta. She has a background in industrial design and sociology and is a recent graduate from the University of Alberta. In her free time she loves to do film photography and snuggle with her cat, Lasagna. Sara is passionate about putting the fun in functional to design new and interesting things. Follow her on instagram!


About the artist

Tayson Martindale is a cartoonist and graphic novelist from Edmonton, Alberta. He loves storytelling and by far his favourite way to tell a story is through the medium of comics. His first graphic novel 'BOX BOY' was released in 2018 and he is excitedly anticipating the release of his next book in 2022. You can find him on instagram and facebook!

He writes "Another great article!  'The broad divisions of labour have allowed humans to form complex and interdependent societies where each individual has an important role to play and the opportunity to play to their specific strengths' -- this part jumped out at me and inspired this illustration which symbolizes that sentence in the form of many streams leading to and contributing to one body of water."



Additional Resources

Some of the most well-known discourse on the division of labour has come from politically and economically controversial figures like Adam Smith, Karl Marx and Frederich Hayak. For any of you interested in going more in-depth into the theories that discuss the division of labour as a fundamental building block of Classical Liberalism, Neoliberalism, Socialism and Communism, some resources are linked below. I encourage you to keep an open mind to the various perspectives. 


The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith (1776)

Wage Labor and Capital by Karl Marx (1891)

The Division Of Labor In Society by Emilé Durkheim (1893)   

The Use of Knowledge in Society by Freidrich von Hayek (1945)