Spreading the Word: Emotional and Hermeneutic Labour

Managing one’s own emotions and those of others is a form of labour. Some people get paid for this work (e.g., flight attendants). However, often the effort that goes into becoming an emotional management expert goes unnoticed and stays in the invisible background of what appear to be naturally flowing relationships. But what about another form of labour that may be even less visible – hermeneutic labour – the hard work of interpreting, understanding, articulating, and bringing your and others’ emotions, motivations, and intentions into context, and coming up with solutions for any interpersonal tensions?

This is a new concept introduced in philosopher Ellie Anderson’s recent paper titled “Hermeneutic Labor: The Gendered Burden of Interpretation in Intimate Relationships Between Women and Men”, published in January 2023 in Hypatia: Journal of Feminist Philosophy. In this paper, she offers the following definition:

Hermeneutic labor is the burdensome activity of: understanding and coherently expressing one’s own feelings, desires, intentions, and movitations; discerning those of others; and inventing solutions for relational issues arising from interpersonal tensions.

Anderson (2023)

Perhaps this concept could apply also in other contexts. For example, might it be a useful way of thinking about some of the migrants’ experiences when they arrive in a country that is new for them and are expected to adjust or integrate as quickly as possible? After all, adjustment and integration in a new environment, whatever they mean in each individual case, entail the burdensome activities of understanding one’s own desires, intentions, and motivations in the context of this new environment, which, crucially, needs to be discerned and comprehended as the new context, to then come up with scenarios of fitting oneself into it to feel and be accepted as part of it. Could this be a disproportionally high burden of hermeneutic labour imposed on the newcomers as a precondition for the right of belonging (something like a set of very tough rites of passage)?

Here is an Overthink podcast episode where both of its creators discuss the notions of emotional and hermeneutic labour (mostly in the context of intimate relationships), and Ellie Anderson shares her thoughts about the concept she introduced in her recent article: Emotional Labour. Enjoy!

Keeping up the “Spreading the Word” tradition, I hope to share an insightful and thought-provoking article, podcast episode or video every weekend. Humans have always turned and returned to storytelling to find meaning. My weekends’ “Spreading the Word” posts are an online version of sharing meaningful stories.   

keep exploring and storytelling!

Image credit: Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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