: 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 :


What the Tenets Say

To do conceptual labor, one must be able to conceive of and manipulate a dynamic mental model of work. These models can be described by three fundamental components: actors, work, and context. Individuals attempting to work on a project do so through their models, whether or not those models accurately represent real world conditions. The whole, subjective experience of attempting to do work on a project, including nonwork activities and the management of models, is called labor.

Conceptual labor begins at any point in a given project when actor, work, and context components all have the capacity to change themselves and each other. Conventional labor may resume when every instance of at least one component can be treated as a fixed quantity. By definition, conceptual labor is a continuous process that occurs as long as one of each type of fundamental component in an actor’s model can change itself and at least one of each other type.

In this process, actors represent and compare models and their components within the scope of a project to align them with the changing requirements of their labor. The decision to keep changing or to stick with what is known is a self-reflective process that must critique and defend its own rules and progress. This process generates meta-methods that apply to labor in general. These methods extract abstract principles from direct encounters with specific kinds of work. In this way, conceptual labor proceeds from direct experience to abstraction and returns to direct experience, without regard to conventional definitions of work.

What the Core Concepts Say, as Grouped by Theme

Tenets 1 and 2: Modeling Labor

Tenet 1 is the core proposition of the Theory — that we can imagine a useful and dynamic representation of labor — a model — and that we can place the fundamental parts of that representation into three distinct categories. Tenet 2 acknowledges that individuals are the ones doing the imagining, each operating with models of their own conception.

Given any description of a project, we cannot assume that everyone who does the work it demands will understand it in the terms and structure used by that description. Nor can we assume that the description is exhaustive for all circumstances. Even when labor is thought to be “brainless” and routine, we review the conditions of a project and load them into our own mental model. Though this model may refer to external instructions or materials, our models are what we directly engage with.

“What am I trying to do here?” is a classic statement to initiate a new model. We ask this question of ourselves and our circumstances, and then work according to the best answer we can get.

Tenets 3 and 4: Labor changes

Though work involves change by definition, it can still be systematized, described, and planned in effective ways if at least one of its fundamental components can be treated as a known quantity. This is conventional labor — the work we do when we think we know what to do. In this narrative of work, being confused about the project is not part of the project.

However, work behaves much differently when all significant components are dynamic. When the actor, labor, and context are all able to change on their own accord, and able to change the other types of components, the work takes on another dimension. In this type of work, solving one’s confusion, coming up with new instructions, and executing them are all considered part of the same project.

Tenets 5 and 6: Competing Narratives

There is work involved in understanding why conventional labor fails or why a narrative of how one should work is wrong. When the conditions of work meet Tenet 3, conventional labor is no longer effective, but it is the mode we will employ by default (Tenet 4). Therefor, attentiveness and sensitivity to the changing requirements of a project can be considered skills in their own right.

Tenet 7: Patterns of Conceptual Labor

Models, by nature, are abstractions. They may abstract detailed qualities of external, real-world conditions or specific ideas as they are understood by an actor. To some degree these specific qualities of work need to be encoded as a mental model, personalized to the actor imagining it. In this way, they are always a translation from one context to another. Any conscious actor can model their own mental state enough to create self-referential models, further abstracted from the original context. So while conceptual labor may be rooted in specific conditions and real-world problems, it tends towards abstraction. This implies that conceptual labor that we call by one name can share the same mental context as conceptual labor that falls under an entirely different label. Though the abstract similarities between methods and types of conceptual labor may not translate fully, fundamental and useful patterns can emerge. This means one can consciously practice these patterns to develop them as skills of conceptual labor that can be applied across disciplines.