What Is Intellectual Work?

I recently published an initial post in what will become a short series reflecting on my choices related to doing intellectual work outside of the academy. In that post, I avoided actually defining what I mean by “intellectual work,” so I’m going to do that now.

The Doer and the Product

I wrote a little bit in the first piece about the dominant assumptions that are drummed into us about what intellectual work is. You would think that the core of defining anything described as “work” would be the description of a particular kind of activity. Yet it is fascinating to me that the boundaries that the dominant assumptions about intellectual work outline are not directly about activity at all. They do not leave us with a clear sense that if any of us were to do X, Y, and Z today, we would be broadly recognized as doing intellectual work. Instead, the dominant cluster of assumptions has more to do with the identity of the doer and the form and character of the product, while the activities engaged in by the doer as they produce the product are left somewhat mysterious.

The ‘who’ whose doing is most easily accepted as intellectual work is most often the holder of some sort of advanced degree, and often a salaried employee in a university or other sort of institution devoted to such work. Occasional allowance is made for the isolated genius, who may be detached from normal human society not by credentials and institutional location but by personal ability and quirk, though more commonly not only those things — generally the popular cultural figure of the ‘mad scientist’ has a PhD, even if s/he works at creating the living dead in a rundown warehouse rather than curing cancer in a university hospital, though often the ‘reclusive novelist’ who produces ‘great literature’ must rely more on quirk and product than a fancy piece of paper to make her suitably ‘not like the rest of us’ for her labours to be treated as intellectual work. The products that define ‘real’ intellectual work, in the more common instance when they are not interested in consuming the brains of the living, are usually understood to be texts that are hard for ordinary people to read, and that would be of little interest to them anyway because they are disconnected from ‘real life.’

Those are the direct categories. They map quite strongly onto a lot of other social divisions, often in ways related to the distinction that works its way through so much Western thought between body and mind. Being female, racialized, and/or working-class have been historically associated not just with having your socially mandated and permitted activities organized in ways that present barriers to doing certain kinds of intellectual work and that define out of social recognizability much of the intellectual work that you do, but also with the oppressive assumption that you just have an inherently more physical way of being in the world. The life of the mind has historically been explicitly permitted, broadly recognized, and assumed to be a result of inherent characteristics in those who bear maleness, whiteness, and class privilege. That may not be quite as starkly reflected in the composition of those who gain access today to the credentials and institutional spaces that allow one to define what one does as intellectual work, but there is plenty of powerful writing out there about how universities and similar institutions are usually to this day hostile spaces for women and men of colour, white women, and working-class people. It is also notable that when people with the right credentials, in the right institutions, start to produce work that ceases to conform with disciplinary and institutional norms, its legitimacy (and theirs) is challenged, and that this happens more often and more starkly when such work comes from people who already face the experience of being treated like they don’t quite belong because of their race, class, and/or gender.

The Activity

I think it makes a lot more sense to start from the activity, the actual work being done. I would like to start with a broad definition, too, and narrow down from there to the particular subset of intellectual work that I’m talking about in this series of posts.

So here is my defintion: Intellectual work is activity devoted to making sense of the world, which is often but not always connected to forming judgments about acting in the world.

Perhaps someone else will point out a way in which this definition includes things that don’t really make sense as intellectual work, or leaves out things that inarguably should be included. But I like it because not only does it focus on grounded doing rather than the identity of the doer or the character of the product, it also includes a number of apparently different kinds of activities which are all worth understanding as intellectual work.

An obvious one that is relevant to me is that it captures the various things that I have done that I have come to see as intellectual work — journalistic writing and radio in alt/indy contexts; this blog; community-based research reports for social service agencies; book reviews; op-ed piece; my book; lots of media releases and pamphlets written as part of participation in movement groups; even the handful of scientific papers I got my name on as an undergrad; and the smattering of hired-gun technical writing I’ve done from time to time. All of those involve me making sense, making meaning, from the world — mostly the social world, but not in every instance.

This definition also captures intellectual work as conventionally understood, i.e. many things that academics do as part of their jobs. This is work that results in laboratory research on auto-immune disease and air pollution, in new theories about medical education, in historical sociology about the attacks on queers by the canadian state, in philosophical musings on whiteness and knowledge production, in explorations of the works of 16th century woman authors, in writing about the lineages of folk songs in rural Nova Scotia, in the study of ancient Sanskrit texts. It may or may not be interesting to very many people. It may or may not produce knowledge that has any redeeming political value. It may or may not be comprehensible to more than half a dozen other people on the planet. But even if it is obscure and the corner of the world it is making sense of is obscure — subatomic particles, minute variations in the whistling of song birds, analysis of stories by an author hardly anyone likes, a language long dead — it is still making sense of the world, and it is still intellectual work.

Perhaps most important among the things that this definition captures that conventional understandings of intellectual work erase is the kind of theorizing that all of us do in our everyday lives, which some authors particularly draw attention to in the context of navigating everyday experiences of oppression. For example, a woman in a physically abusive relationship has no choice but to develop practical theory for guiding her choices. She may or may not ever communicate it to anyone else. It may or may not have much reach beyond her immediate circumstances (that is, it may or may not have much to say about how those circumstances were extra-locally organized). It may or may not be enough to protect her in any given moment. But there is no doubt that this situation requires the woman in it to constantly do work to make sense of her world — that is, to do intellectual work. Similarly, a person of colour who exists in white-dominated spaces constantly does intellectual work around the racism they face, and a closeted gay man is constantly making sense from signals of safety and danger and the heterosexist dynamics of his everyday life. And anyone who has talked to, say, mine workers, can’t help but be blown away by the keen insight many of them have developed about both technical processes in ore refining and the global issues affecting their industry, metal prices, and labour relations. The conventional assumptions about intellectual work would completely erase all of these things, but I think any halfway useful understanding has to capture it.

Narrowing the Field

In this series of posts, though, I’m not talking about all aspects of intellectual work, as understood above. My intention is to use these posts to think through a particular area of my own experience, so there are lots of kinds of intellectual work that I won’t talk much about. I’ve already been quite explicit, for example, that I’m mostly talking about intellectual work done outside of the academy — not exclusively, but mostly. And I think there are two other ways to narrow the kind of intellectual work that I’m talking about here.

Intellectual work can be done entirely for the use of the person doing it and perhaps a very small, intimate circle — the theorizing done by the woman surviving abuse, for example, at least in some instances. I think that it is useful to distinguish between that kind of everyday intellectual work, on the one hand, and intellectual work that is done with the deliberate intent of producing knowledge for purposes of communication. That is, I think there are some important specificities, some meaningful differences in goals and constraints, for making sense of the world that is done with the intention of more broadly informing the sense-making processes of other people. You could think about this as intellectual work as vocation. I don’t mean that word in the narrow sense of paid employment, but more to echo the older meanings of the term as something which you feel called to do — perhaps by the pull of money, but also perhaps spiritually, politically, philosophically, or through some other mix of drives. I also don’t think it should be treated as any more important or as somehow more intellectual than everyday intellectual work, but it is subject to different priorities and pressures, and I think it is useful to talk about it as distinct in some ways.

This more vocational intellectual work still covers a lot of ground, including ground that I don’t think I can legitimately talk about. For instance, I think it includes lots of people who express their vocational intellectual work in primarily oral, unmediated ways. You could think about the role taken on by many indigenous elders on Turtle Island as doing a specific kind of vocational intellectual work — they make sense of the world, and they see it as part of what they are called to do to share the results of that sense-making with others who are on their own journeys to make sense of the world. In a similar way, I think many working-class leftists in generations past did something similar, and deliberately shared the results of their own extensive efforts to make sense of the world in oral ways with co-workers in the same factory or lumber camp or mill.

Again, these are absolutely crucial examples of intellectual work — of vocational intellectual work — but I’m not sure I can say much about them. They are very embedded in immediately experienced relations which are very local and specific. The dynamics shaping how that work is done probably differ quite a bit from my own circumstances. My own work, and the work that I’m most concerned about in these posts, is vocational intellectual work that is intended to be communicated in mediated ways. It results in a book, an article, a radio signal, a podcast, a pamphlet. Because of this, the social relations shaping how that work happens are very different than for unmediated vocational intellectual work, and so I think it is meaningful to talk about it, at least in some ways, on its own. (I would be tempted, by the way, to include things like formal teaching in this category even though it is done orally and directly, because it isn’t done in the context of organic, existing webs of relationships. Rather, it is a kind of amplification of voice that happens in institutionally mediated ways.)

To recap: Intellectual work is any activity which involves making sense of the world, which often but not always is connected to making judgments about how to act in the world. The particular kind of intellectual work that I’m writing about in these posts is work that is done with a certain kind of explicitly embraced purpose (a sense of vocation) to make sense and to communicate it to others, and is communicated in mediated ways.

In the next post in this series, I will talk more about what it means to think about the social character of intellectual work.

[Scott Neigh is a parent, activist, and writer based in Sudbury, Ontario. This post originally appeared on his personal blog.]

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