Professions are one of the main forms of institutionalizing expertise in western societies (Giddens 1991). The term “profession” is a curious one. It immediately conjures up images drawn from television shows featuring lawyers or medical doctors. Such representations point to the hold that certain professions have on our imagination. In Bleak House, Charles Dickens’s celebrated novel, Richard Carstone considers which profession he wants to take up. The realm of possibilities – according to the definitional criteria of the age – is the military, the clergy, the law, and medicine. Professions such as law and medicine have successfully maintained both their power and status across several centuries and are seen as quintessential exemplars of what constitutes a profession. In the late nineteenth century and throughout the twentieth, a raft of new professions emerged. Some, like accountancy, have accrued consider able power.

While the dazzling array of different professions renders a definition of a profession difficult (Friedson 1986), the legacy of structural functional research suggests that features of a profession include: a body of abstract and specialized knowledge; a professional’s autonomy over the labor process; self regulation by the profession; legal rights restricting those who can practice; control of the supply and licensing of practitioners by the professional body; altruism; and the enjoyment of high status within society. Such characteristics form an ”ideal type” of professional labor -one which is rarely observed in professions themselves.

The professional associations of many so called ”new” professions, such as marketers and human resource specialists, have expended considerable effort in trying to emulate the traits of the more established professions. Professions are complex and variegated and there are crucial distinctions in their relative status, the length of their history, and power (Friedson 2001).

The Sociology of the Professions

The early influential thinkers on the professions included Durkheim (1957), Parsons (1951), and Tawney (1921). Their views held sway for much of the twentieth century and saw professions in a benign way, representing them as the bearers of a neutral and technocratic logic. Being experts in a specific area, professions came into being because there was a functional need for them and they used their skills and knowledge toward the betterment of society. This was particularly so in their role in mediating between individuals and society. Parsons did not regard professionals as selfless; rather, he saw their interests as being non pecuniary and directed toward enjoying high status and reputation in society, which in turn ensured the provision of the best possible services to society. Structural functionalist research was generally directed to ascertaining the characteristics of a profession in contrast to a non profession (Etzioni 1969). This research did much to establish the trait approach to understanding professions – something that has been influential to many occupational figurations seeking to establish themselves as professions.

Resonant with structural functionalism was the developmental approach to studying professions over time. Wilensky (1964) argued that increasing numbers of occupational groups were laying claim to professional status. This had the effect of stretching the definition of professions to the point where it was meaningless. In his seminal study of the professions, Wilensky analyzed 18 different occupations. He developed a sequential model of the development of professions, which highlighted the stages in the development of a profession. Wilensky concluded that many of the aspirant occupations would fail in their quest to achieve professional status as many of the stages took considerable time.

The Parsonsian orthodoxy was subject to radical critique from the 1960s onwards. A generation of writers theorized professions through looking at the prevailing relations of power. Many writers, coming out of the Chicago School tradition, sought to debunk the notion of professionals as disinterested and altruistic. Instead they sought to understand the means through which professions organized themselves, how they were able to uphold their privileges and status, how they managed their relations with the state, and the effects they had on other groups (Friedson 1970). British sociologist Terry Johnson (1972) analyzed professions from a neo Marxist perspective, seeing them as mechanisms of control where a profession is able to control its own members. For Johnson, the state had an important role to play in upholding the power of professions. In the late 1970s, Margali Larson’s The Rise of Professionalism (1977) integrated both Marxist and Weberian perspectives and argued that professions are interest groups whose objective was a ”collective mobility project” aligned to the class system of capitalist societies. Achieving professional status allowed occupations to ameliorate both their economic and their social standing. Similarly, MacDonald and Ritzer (1988) argued that professional groups seek to establish monopoly control over a particular jurisdictional area. They then seek to control the related activities, while keeping a distance from subordinate groups.

The critique of functionalism shifted attention to the means through which professions achieve and retain power. Andrew Abbott (1988) developed this work further by outlining a dynamic theory of professions. According to Abbott, competition ensues between aspirant groups, thereby creating stratified professions which vary markedly in their levels of jurisdiction. He argued that expertise became institutionalized through this jurisdictional competition, which established who controlled which domain, which in turn determined relative status and prestige. Abbott’s analysis emphasizes that there is an ongoing process of competition among different groups, which means that over time the relative power of a profession might change dramatically.

Professions, Organizations, and Management

Many professions have changed dramatically over the last 20 years with the economic restructuring that had its genesis in the election of Margaret Thatcher in the UK and Ronald Reagan in the US. Welsh sociologist Mike Reed (1996) argued that the experience of professions differs markedly. According to Reed, it is useful to draw a distinction between three distinct forms of profession. They are the “liberal,” “organizational,” and ”entrepreneurial” professions, respectively. Liberal professions are those such as law and medicine. Their characteristics are that they are independent, work for fees, and enjoy autonomy over their work organization. Organizational professions owe their status and professional warrant to the organization in which they work. Many organizational professions are employees of the state. They are typically a product of the great expansion of the state experienced during the twentieth century. Schoolteachers, social workers, government scientists, and the utility engineers would count among the ranks of the organizational professionals. ”Entrepreneurial” professions exploit opportunities offered by markets, such as IT and management consultants.

Liberal professions such as law, chartered accountancy, and medicine have encountered many changes. Research carried out at the University of Alberta in Canada identified two archetypes within professional service work, which were titled ”professional partnership” and ”managed professional business.” The former emphasizes collegiality, serving the client and the public interest, while being dismissive of managerialism. In contrast, the managed professional business (MPB) embraces the market and is resolutely corporate in its approach to the conduct of the profession. MPB professional service firms have developed corporate brands in their own right and their interpretive schemes owe as much to the discourse of strategic management as to law or accounting. Hanlon (1994) has characterized this broad shift as the commercialization of the service class, which involves large law and accounting firms being engaged in capital accumulation strategies. In a fascinating study of the socialization of trainee accountants, Grey et al. demonstrate that commercialization has redefined what constitutes professional conduct. Broader civic concerns have been displaced by ”pleasing the client,” which in the case of accounting firms is the company that pays for the audit. The wave of accounting scandals – such as Enron, Parmalat, and WorldCom – are for many the consequence of the commercialization of the accounting profession.

In contrast to the expansionary climate experienced by many liberal professions, the last 20 years have witnessed organizational professions encountering hostility from new right governments and attacks in the media. State sponsored professions such as teachers, social workers, and utility professionals have seen their status and autonomy eroded. This has led to speculation as to whether we are seeing the twilight of some professions – mainly those that expanded through state support in the twentieth century. In some cases the decline is for material reasons. In the United States, the high cost of higher education combined with the relatively low economic rewards make many professions unattractive to newcomers. Throughout the western world, industries have been privatized. In some cases this has led to a managerialist assault on established organizational professions. Carter and Mueller (2002) report the removal of a previously dominant cadre of professional engineers from a British electricity utility in the years following privatization. More generally, new public management or managerialism has challenged the autonomy and self governance of professions throughout the public sector. Professions such as nursing have been much changed in an attempt by western health authorities to respond to the challenges of the increasing demand and costs of health care. Nurses’ responsibilities have been expanded greatly. The needs of western health care systems cast a long shadow over developing world countries as nursing staff are lured to the West by the promise of relatively good wages and conditions.

Entrepreneurial professions are those that have gained the most over the last 20 years. For purists, they do not constitute professions at all, yet occupational figurations such as management consultants and IT consultants have experienced unprecedented growth in both their turnover and their influence in civil society. The commercialization processes discussed above led many of the large accounting firms away from core accounting activities. For instance, Arthur Andersen billed Enron for $25 million for con suiting services and $27 million for the audit in their final year of trading. Of course, consulting does not fall into any neat categories of professional work. Many have characterized the activity as knowledge work or immaterial labor, whereby ”symbolic analysts” manipulate signs, symbols, and images. Lacking an obvious ”right answer,” knowledge work is inherently ambiguous. Consequently, Mats Alvesson has suggested that technical expertise – whilst important – is becoming increasingly secondary to image and rhetoric intensity, which help persuade a client of the efficacy of a knowledge worker’s proposed course of action. In short, it is not so much a case of being an expert as appearing to be an expert. Entrepreneurial professions do not typically possess the institutional pillar of a strong professional body and it will be interesting to see how such groups develop. In time will they emulate the traditional liberal professions, or do they represent a new form of professional organization centered on brand, image, and reputation?

It is a fascinating time for analysts of the professions, especially those with a management focus. Managerialism, commercialization, and privatization have radically changed the context in which professions operate. Professions are likely to remain important means of institutionalizing expertise, although how professions organize and what it is to be a professional are likely to be fruitful areas for research.


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