Intellectuals don’t matter. (Unless we want a sustainable economy, better security, a creative culture, and social justice.)

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Seriously Social Team

Raewyn Connell

Professor Emerita (social science)

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Beyonce, Cristano Ronaldo, Harry and Meghan: for many of us, pop stars, sports starts and (ex) members of another country’s royal family regularly capture our attention. But the same cannot be said for folk who work with their minds – the world’s intellectual workforce.

Australian sociologist Professor Raewyn Connell says in many cases, governments and economic powers simply don’t want a lively intellectual culture – they’d prefer the status quo rather than a culture that pushes us to try new things.

“Intellectual work invites us to reconsider our purpose and not just settle for those that are given to us by the culture we arrived in,” says Professor Connell.

As Professor Connell pointed out in a recent talk that’s now available in full online, “intellectual work” plays a key role in helping us build a certain kind of society.

“If we want for the future the kind of society that we have been moving towards now for the last generation or so…one that is dependent, precarious and fearful, then there is no need for intellectuals. But, if the society we want involves a sustainable economy and considerably greater measures of security and social justice, then the answer is yes, we do need an intellectual workforce,” she says.

So, how does intellectual work matter?

“The most obvious way… is simply that it produces knowledge that can be put to practical use,” says Professor Connell.

We are familiar with the contribution to technology, biomedical research and science, but it’s also vital to the social sciences.

Practical examples of intellectuals’ work can be found right here on Seriously Social. Our recent podcast episode with historian Professor Jenny Hocking, follows her ten year journey to the High Court, in order to make secret documents available for all Australians. Transport expert Professor David Hensher has crunched the numbers on our commute – happily the figure went down significantly during COVID.

But there’s more to intellectual work than its potential practical application. Intellectual work is necessary to sustain our knowledge resources. Research can’y stand still. Indeed, it is estimated that the world’s researchers now publish around 2.5 million papers every year, yes, 2.5 million!

So, how do we put more emphasis on the good work intellectuals are doing and how do we get governments to listen? Professor Connell quotes the old adage: “don’t agonise – organise!”

“Internet forums open up a lot of possibilities for circulation of intellectual work and production. But none of that is going to work simply by making statements that go “out into the air”,” she says.

“Serious organising, the grassroots organising that’s involved with unions, social movements, and neighbourhoods, is really important. The more we bring intellectual skills and resources into that work, the more creative it’s likely to be. And the more effective in the long run,” says Professor Connell.

Although COVID-19 has had many downsides, in Australia at least, there has been one plus: we’ve sought expert opinion, and then (mostly) followed the advice. Does this bode well for the future? Professor Connell has a mixed experience of giving policy advice to governments in her fields of research.

“We have to recognise that in certain circumstances we will not be listened to at all. But good knowledge, solid research and well-prepared materials do have their uses. Over a long period of time, those resources count,” she says.

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