The New Meaning Of Work Essay

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To write a good essay, you firstly need to have a clear understanding of what the essay question is asking you to do. Looking at the essay question in close detail will help you to identify the topic and ‘directive words’ (Dhann, 2001), which instruct you how to answer the question. Understanding the meaning of these directive words is a vital first step in producing your essay.

This glossary provides definitions of some of the more typical words that you may come across in an essay question. Please note that these definitions are meant to provide general, rather than exact guidance, and are not a substitute for reading the question carefully. Get this wrong, and you risk the chance of writing an essay that lacks focus, or is irrelevant.

You are advised to use this glossary in conjunction with the following Study Guides: Writing essays and Thought mapping written by Student Learning Development.

Essay termDefinition
Break an issue into its constituent parts. Look in depth at each part using supporting arguments and evidence for and against as well as how these interrelate to one another.
AssessWeigh up to what extent something is true. Persuade the reader of your argument by citing relevant research but also remember to point out any flaws and counter-arguments as well. Conclude by stating clearly how far you are in agreement with the original proposition.
ClarifyLiterally make something clearer and, where appropriate, simplify it. This could involve, for example, explaining in simpler terms a complex process or theory, or the relationship between two variables.
Comment uponPick out the main points on a subject and give your opinion, reinforcing your point of view using logic and reference to relevant evidence, including any wider reading you have done.
CompareIdentify the similarities and differences between two or more phenomena. Say if any of the shared similarities or differences are more important than others. ‘Compare’ and ‘contrast’ will often feature together in an essay question.
ConsiderSay what you think and have observed about something. Back up your comments using appropriate evidence from external sources, or your own experience. Include any views which are contrary to your own and how they relate to what you originally thought.
ContrastSimilar to compare but concentrate on the dissimilarities between two or more phenomena, or what sets them apart. Point out any differences which are particularly significant.
Critically evaluateGive your verdict as to what extent a statement or findings within a piece of research are true, or to what extent you agree with them. Provide evidence taken from a wide range of sources which both agree with and contradict an argument. Come to a final conclusion, basing your decision on what you judge to be the most important factors and justify how you have made your choice.
DefineTo give in precise terms the meaning of something. Bring to attention any problems posed with the definition and different interpretations that may exist.
DemonstrateShow how, with examples to illustrate.
DescribeProvide a detailed explanation as to how and why something happens.
DiscussEssentially this is a written debate where you are using your skill at reasoning, backed up by carefully selected evidence to make a case for and against an argument, or point out the advantages and disadvantages of a given context. Remember to arrive at a conclusion.
ElaborateTo give in more detail, provide more information on.
EvaluateSee the explanation for ‘critically evaluate’.
ExamineLook in close detail and establish the key facts and important issues surrounding a topic. This should be a critical evaluation and you should try and offer reasons as to why the facts and issues you have identified are the most important, as well as explain the different ways they could be construed.
ExplainClarify a topic by giving a detailed account as to how and why it occurs, or what is meant by the use of this term in a particular context. Your writing should have clarity so that complex procedures or sequences of events can be understood, defining key terms where appropriate, and be substantiated with relevant research.
ExploreAdopt a questioning approach and consider a variety of different viewpoints. Where possible reconcile opposing views by presenting a final line of argument.
Give an account ofMeans give a detailed description of something. Not to be confused with ‘account for’ which asks you not only what, but why something happened.
IdentifyDetermine what are the key points to be addressed and implications thereof.
IllustrateA similar instruction to ‘explain’ whereby you are asked to show the workings of something, making use of definite examples and statistics if appropriate to add weight to your explanation.
InterpretDemonstrate your understanding of an issue or topic. This can be the use of particular terminology by an author, or what the findings from a piece of research suggest to you. In the latter instance, comment on any significant patterns and causal relationships.
JustifyMake a case by providing a body of evidence to support your ideas and points of view. In order to present a balanced argument, consider opinions which may run contrary to your own before stating your conclusion.
OutlineConvey the main points placing emphasis on global structures and interrelationships rather than minute detail.
ReviewLook thoroughly into a subject. This should be a critical assessment and not merely descriptive.
Show howPresent, in a logical order, and with reference to relevant evidence the stages and combination of factors that give rise to something.
StateTo specify in clear terms the key aspects pertaining to a topic without being overly descriptive. Refer to evidence and examples where appropriate.
SummariseGive a condensed version drawing out the main facts and omit superfluous information. Brief or general examples will normally suffice for this kind of answer.
To what extentEvokes a similar response to questions containing 'How far...'. This type of question calls for a thorough assessment of the evidence in presenting your argument. Explore alternative explanations where they exist.


Dhann, S., (2001) How to ... 'Answer assignment questions'. Accessed 12/09/11.

The following resources have also been consulted in writing this guide:

Johnson, R., (1996) Essay instruction terms. Accessed 12/09/11.

Student Study Support Unit Canterbury Christchurch College (no date) Common terms in essay questions. Accessed 22/02/08.

Taylor, A.M. and Turner, J., (2004) Key words used in examination questions and essay titles. Accessed 12/09/11


1 This essay is dedicated to Harry Magdoff. It was inspired by Magdoff, H. (1982) “The Meaning of Work,” Monthly Review 34 (5): 1-15.

2 For an important book on ecological-economic sustainability that nonetheless devotes only a small portion of its analysis to the subject of work, see Jackson, T. (2011) Prosperity Without Growth. London: Earthscan.

3 See Gorz, A. (1985) Paths to Paradise: On the Liberation from Work. London: Pluto Press; Latouche, S. (2009) Farewell to Growth.Cambridge: Polity. First-stage socialist thinkers, like Gorz attempted to create a hybrid version of Green analysis and socialist theory, with the former often preempting the latter. In contrast, second-stage ecosocialists or ecological Marxists have sought to build on the ecological foundations of classical historical materialism. On this distinction see Foster, J. and Burkett, P. (2016) Marx and the Earth. Boston: Brill, pp. 1-11.

4 Tilgher, A. (1958) Homo Faber: Work Through the Ages. Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, pp. 3-10; Aristotle (1958) The Politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

5 Smith, A. (1937) The Wealth of Nations.New York: Modern Library, pp. 30-33.

6 Anonymous author (attributed to J. Cunningham) quoted in Lafargue, P. (1883) “The Right to Be Lazy”, Chapter 2,;  Marx, K. (1976) Capital, vol. London: Penguin, pp. 685, 789, 897.

7 Spencer, D.A. (2009) The Political Economy of Work. London: Routledge, p. 70.

8 Rätzel, S. (2009) “Revisiting the Neoclassical Theory of Labour Supply—Disutility of Labour, Working Hours, and Happiness,” Faculty of Economics and Management, Otto-von-Guericke-University, Magdeburg, FEMM Paper No. 5,, p. 2.

9 Rätzel, in the study cited above, demonstrates that even in current conditions work is not simply a disutility but a basis for human happiness. It is obvious that this would be even more the case in non-alienated work environments.

10 Farrington, B. (1947) Head and Hand in Ancient Greece. London: Watts and Co, pp. 1-9, 28-29. See also Wood, E.M. (1998) Peasant-Citizen and Slave. London; Verso, pp. 134-45.

11 See Foster, J.B. and Burkett, P. (2016) Marx and the Earth. Boston: Brill, p. 65.

12 Marx, K. (1973) Grundrissse. London: Penguin, pp. 611-12. Marx was here referring to the same passage from Smith quoted above. Marx was using a French translation of Smith at the time and this was later translated into German and then into English with some distortion in the text. Where Marx in the English translation of the Grundrisse quotes Smith as referring to “tranquility” the original word was “ease.”

13 Marx, K. (1974) Early Writings. London: Penguin, pp. 322-34.

14 Fracchia, J. (2017). “Organisms and Objectifications: A Historical-Materialist Inquiry Into the ‘Human and Animal,’” Monthly Review 68 (10): 1-16.

15 Fromm, E.  (1960). “Introduction,” in Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward. New York: New American Library, p. v.

16 Bellamy, E.  (1960) Looking Backward; Magdoff, H. (1982) “The Meaning of Work,” Monthly Review 34 (5): 1-2.

17 Thompson, E.P. (1976) William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary. New York: Pantheon, p. 792.

18 Morris, W. (2003) News from Nowhere. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 79; Morris W. and Bax, E. B. (1893). Socialism: Its Growth and Outcome. London: Swan Sonnenschein, p. 215; Beecher, J. (1986). Charles Fourier. Berkeley: University of California Press, 274-96.

19 Thompson, William Morris, 35-37; Ruskin, J. The Stones of Venice, vol. 2. New York: Peter Fenelon Collier and Son, 1900), 163-65.

20 Morris, W. (1910) Collected Works. New York: Longmans Green, vol. 23, p. 173, Morris, W. (1962) News from Nowhere and Selected Writings and Designs. London: Penguin, pp. 140-43, Morris, W. (1896) Signs of Change. London; Longmans Green, p. 119.

21 Morris, W. (1936) William Morris: Artist, Writer, Socialist, vol. 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 478-79.

22 Strauss, M. (2010.) “Ten Inventions that Inadvertently Transformed Warfare,”, September 18,; Foster, J.B., Holleman, H., and McChesney, R.W., “The U.S. Imperial Triangle and Military Spending,” Monthly Review 60 (5): 1-19.

23 Magdoff, H., and Foster, J.B., What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2011), 46-53.

24 On Marx’s analysis of food adulteration in nineteenth-century England, which undoubtedly influenced Morris, see Foster, J.B. (2016) “Marx as a Food Theorist,” Monthly Review 68 (7): 2-8.

25 The critique of economic and ecological waste, and theorization of this in terms of the social reproduction of society has long been central to Marxian political economy, including concepts of specifically capitalist use value and negative use value. See for example, Baran, P.A. and Sweezy, P.M. (1966) Monopoly Capital. New York: Monthly Review Press; Kidron, M. (1974). Capitalism and Theory.London: Pluto Press; Foster, J.B. (2011) “The Ecology of Marxian Political Economy” 63 (4): 1-16. In such analyses, waste is not seen primarily in “ethical” terms but in economic and ecological terms, in terms of criteria of social reproduction. A nuclear weapon, for example, is a dead end, with no direct contribution to social reproduction.

26 Morris, Signs of Change, 148-49.

27 Marx, K. (1976) Capital vol. 1. London: Penguin, p. 799; Morris, W. (1901) “Art and its Producers” in Morris, Art and its Producers    and The Arts and Crafts To-day: Two Addresses Delivered Before the National Association for the Advancement of Art. London: Longmans and Co., 1901, pp. 9-10

28 Morris, “Art and its Producers”, 9-10. The three dots here are Morris’s own, meant to indicate a pause, and are not in this case ellipses for omitted material inserted by the present author.

29 Morris, W. (1994) Political Writings. Bristol: Thoemmes Press, pp. 419-25.

30 Morris, News from Nowhere (Oxford), 40, 78-85, 140, 153-55.

31 Boltanski, L. and Chiapello, É. (2005) The New Spirit of Capitalism. London: Verso, 38, 466-67, 535-36. On the historical contradictions of Fordist and post-Fordist thought see Foster, J.B. (1988) “The Fetish of Fordism,” Monthly Review 39 (10): 1-13.

32 Morris, News from Nowhere (Oxford), 148-51. Morris’s feminist intent here is made evident in the name Philippa, which was meant to refer to the gifted mathematician Philippa Fawcett in his own time, who he much admired, and who stood for the intellectual equality of women.

33 Morris, News from Nowhere (Oxford), 154; Marx, K. (1981) Capital, vol. 3. London; Penguin, 1981, p. 911.

34 See Morris, News from Nowhere (Oxford), 59; J. Bruce Glasier, William Morris and the Early Days of the Socialist Movement (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1921), 76, 81-82.

35 Thompson, E.P. William Morris, 37-38; Marx, Capital, vol. 1, 481.

36 Ruskin, The Stones of Venice, vol. 2., pp. 163; Thompson, William Morris, 37-38.

37 Braverman, H. (1998) Labor and Monopoly Capital. New York: Monthly Review Press.

38 Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital, 320.

39 Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital, 8-11. Beginning in the 1930s, human relations psychology was introduced into management, ostensibly to make labour more pleasurable and less alienating, though this did not involve a fundamental shift away from the objective degradation of work itself. Braverman dealt with this in a chapter of his book significantly entitled “The Habituation of the Worker to the Capitalist Mode of Production.”

40 Much progressive analysis of the future substitutes a kind of technological determinism for human agency, thereby gaining a sense of credence in the present, that is soon dispelled. See, for example, the arguments in Mason, P. (2015) Postcapitalism. London: Penguin.

41 Latouche, Farewell to Growth, 81-88.

42 Gorz, Paths to Paradise, 29-40, 53, 67, 117; Applebaum, H. (1992) The Concept of Work. Albany: State University of New York Press, pp. 561-65.

43 Thompson, D. (2015) “A World Without Work,” Atlantic, July-August,

44 McChesney, R.W. and Nichols, J. (2016) People Get Ready: The Fight Against a Jobless Economy and a Citizenless Democracy.New York: Nation Books, 2016, 96-114.

45 Vonnegut, K., Jr. (1952) Player Piano. New York: Simon and Schuster.

46 Marx, K. Early Writings, 327-29.

47 Epicurus (1994) The Epicurus Reader. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, p. 37.

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