: Introduction : Summary : The Theory of Conceptual Labor : Glossary : Why We Need a Theory of Conceptual Labor : How to Use The Theory : The Expanded Theory : Author's Note :

Author's Note


One of the unique challenges of writing the Theory was to find an appropriate approach to citing the near-infinite amount of relevant source material. I struggled to respect and acknowledge the vast scope of existing theory that prominent figures in many fields have written about the conceptual labor specific to their disciplines without situating the Theory in any one of them more than the other. Examples needed to be succinct without being glib, and certain terms must be avoided, like a particularly strong pigment, lest they color the whole text with the connotations of a particular industry, discipline, or type of book. Conversely, the subjects in which I do have a depth of experience were even more hazardous to the tone and pretenses to neutrality of this text, being both my native language of conceptual labor and the main arenas in which I can examine it. That the final tenet uses the example of a painter at their easel as a metaphor for major lessons of the Theory is my way of coming clean.

This theory and its resulting framework were distilled from methods and patterns which can be found in the practices and theory of countless other disciplines. It is not meant to define which activities are conceptual labor and which aren’t; that would be as useful and possible as documenting every change in the surface of a river. It is more to say that one can identify patterns of conditions, habits, and questions that tend to be useful in understanding and navigating almost any river.

To go one step further, it suggests that though these patterns of work are not secret, but they are usually hidden in the fabric of the conventional stories we tell about work. By naming and studying these patterns, we should be able to spot them more readily, rather than falling back on comfortable narratives of how work should go.

Some patterns are simple to translate between disciplines. “Put your tools away when you are done” can be easily applied by someone who doesn’t work with physical tools. But ask any expert who loves their field, and they will tell you how their profession has taught them something about the rest of life that they would not have known otherwise. Some might even be ready with a pitch for why everyone should study what they study. We can’t assume that they’ve all discovered the same things, or in the same proportions. It is a compelling thought to imagine that their enthusiasm is justified, and that countless secret methods, useful to anyone who does hard work, lie hidden behind the labels we use to organize professions and subjects.

It is my hope that with this theory, the lessons we learn from the hard work we do in one discipline can be more readily translated and applied to another. The more familiar we are with common patterns of conceptual labor, the more quickly we can recognize them when they show up in new circumstances, dressed up in the appearance of a novel task. I believe that we have yet to appreciate the extent to which valuable practices and knowledge can be transferred from the ontologies of one field to another.

A shared language of conceptual labor can enhance the ease and effectiveness with which such patterns can be understood and shared, in the work that we recognize as work as well as the important areas of our personal lives as citizens that we each labor daily to improve.

So that is all to say that, with the Theory in our back pocket, there is much, much more to discover. When we use it to expand our definitions of work, the Theory can bridge the gap between different disciplines — or different areas of the same discipline — that do similar conceptual labor in their own ways, so we ought to try to build bridges. When we turn to it to articulate and navigate our individual experience of work, it can provide new ways to catalogue the countless effective patterns of working that have been discovered and refined by artists and writers, researchers and engineers, counselors and parents, and so on. So we ought to try to build a card catalogue for this vast library. If we use it to see through established narratives, we can expose important work which is overlooked, willfully or by accident, so we ought to write new job descriptions and build new unions. Perhaps most importantly it can help us figure out if we are thinking what we think we are thinking and if we are doing what we think we are doing. In this era of unintended consequences we ought to double-check on whatever scale we can.