I had a writer today ask me about finding the significance of her work.
Thinking about it, it seems like significance is context-dependent, or rather viewer-dependent. What counts as significant depends on point of view. We all, I imagine, have memories of feeling a deep significance in somethings that we just wouldn't worry about now. Those are situations where our view of significance changes; they should give us some insight into the basic truth that the significance that we place on something is not the same that others will.
That being said, I think that we can recognize a number of different levels at which we can find significance for a work, or at least these levels are levels at which we can seek to find significance.
Personal Significance. The obvious first place to seek significance is for yourself. If you don't feel that a work has any significance, then it can be mighty difficult to persevere, especially at the times that the project seems difficult. This is the sense of purpose that should drive the work. There are different types of personal significance: there is simple interest and curiosity; or, by contrast, there is also the personal significance of the crusader. There are probably other flavors of this, but I don't want to pursue that too far.
Academic Significance. As an academic writer, an obvious place to look for significance is within the academic community and the academic discourse. Are there publications that address similar issues as you hope to look at? Are there any publications that call for the kind of research that you hope to do? Are there authors whose work might be supplemented or challenged by your work?
Political Significance. An academic writer might also be concerned with the possibility that their work might shape political discourse in some way. There's some overlap here with the next type of significance.
Practical/Policy/Protocol Significance. Does the research tell us about the way we do things? If we carry out a research project, what does it show us about how we do do things--are we doing them well? And is there any way we could do them better?
Are there other types of significance I've missed? Quite possibly. In truth I'm rushing a little o get something written after missing yesterday, but I don't really feel like spending a lot of time on this right now. Hence, a short post; but better a bad post on time than a good post late.