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What does an ‘intellectual’ do?

Sunday, November 3, 2013

In the 21st century, working out who are intellectuals (if there are such people) and what their role might be is pretty contested. One thing to say might be that an intellectual is a varied type—more than an academic in a jacket or the person who knows everything.


In anthropological and cultural terms everyone is technically an intellectual. Paraphrasing what the famous Italian cultural Marxist Antonio Gramsci once said, some people may be intellectuals by profession, but everyone serves an intellectual function in the reproduction of culture and society. 


Sociologists, being “groupies,” look at intellectuals through the lens of groups and in three main ways. One is that intellectuals are a “class in themselves.” This means they are not linked to any economic class or other interests. They stand as a group apart, for ideals and righteousness, void of any corporate selfishness, corruption or personal interests. Aside from Superman or maybe Jesus, this first definition, as you might imagine, lacks evidence and lost its explanatory power by mid-20th century. 


Secondly, that intellectuals are “class-bound.” This means that the different classes produce their own intellectuals organically. These people emerge from and are always in the end tethered to the socio-cultural terrain and ideas of the social relations from where they come.


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