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Two sectors of the professional system

The cultural boundary

Historic position of the university

The discipline-profession complex

The new university system

Place of the newer applied professions

Possible limits of professionalization

Leadership status of the professions


The development and increasing strategic importance of the professions probably constitute the most important change that has occurred in the occupational system of modern societies. The growth of the professions has brought to prominence a set of occupations which never figured prominently in the ideological thinking that, after having crystallized in the late nineteenth century, has tended to dominate public discussion in the twentieth. Professional men are neither “capitalists” nor “workers,” nor are they typically governmental administrators or “bureaucrats.” They certainly are not independent peasant proprietors or members of the small urban proprietary groups.

As for so many categories of social status, the boundaries of the group system we generally call the professions are fluid and indistinct. There are many borderline groups whose professional status is, for one reason or another, equivocal. However, the core criteria within the more general category of occupational role seems to be relatively clear. First among these criteria is the requirement of formal technical training accompanied by some institutionalized mode of validating both the adequacy of the training and the competence of trained individuals. Among other things, the training must lead to some order of mastery of a generalized cultural tradition, and do so in a manner giving prominence to an intellectual component–that is, it must give primacy to the valuation of cognitive rationality as applied to a particular field. The second criterion is that not only must the cultural tradition be mastered, in the sense of being understood, but skills in some form of its use must also be developed. The third and final core criterion is that a fullfledged profession must have some institutional means of making sure that such competence will be put to socially responsible uses. The most obvious uses are in the sphere of practical affairs, such as the application of medical science to the cure of disease. However, the skills of teaching and of research in the “pure” intellectual disciplines are also cases of such use.

Thus the occupational complex we call the professions is organized about that element of the modern cultural system ordinarily called the intellectual disciplines–the humanities, and the sciences, both natural and social–and about their general significance in both modern societies and the cultural systems with which they articulate (Weber 1919a; Shils 1961; Ben-David 1963–1964; Parsons 1965). As this relationship between the intellectual disciplines and society has become institutionalized, it has come to center in the two complexes of universities and research institutions. In the English-speaking world, especially the United States, the tendency has been for both functions to become primarily centered in the universities. In continental Europe, especially the communist countries, the research function has more frequently become institutionalized in separate organizations, usually called academies of science.

As the institutional structure of the professional world has crystallized, the university—academy complex has come to be its center. From this center its structure ramifies in two directions. The first direction concerns the professions’ involvement with elements of the cultural system other than the intellectual disciplines, as well as with these disciplines themselves. Historically, the most relevant area of the cultural system has been religion, but in the modern world the areas of the arts, and of morality and ethics in their relation to ideology, are also involved. The second field of ramification concerns the application of knowledge–that is, of technical competence in the mastery and use of one or more of the intellectual disciplines or sectors of them– to practical affairs in which the interests involved are social and psychological rather than cultural as such.

Two sectors of the professional system

In the course of Western social and cultural development, the two fields of ramification described above have gradually become differentiated from each other. Accordingly, the core of the professional system now lies in two areas: the institution alization of the intellectual disciplines in the societal structure, and the practical application of these disciplines. Hence two primary categories of professions are unequivocally central to the modern system.

First is the profession of learning itself. This is organized in terms of two primary functions: contributing further to learning through research and scholarship, and transmitting the learning to others. The others involved may be successors of the current generation of learned men, or “laymen” who value instruction in intellectual matters, or both.

Second is the “applied” branch of the professions. Its historic focuses, as represented by the two fields of law and medicine, have been the regulation of order in society and caring for the health of society’s individual members. However, the modern list of applied professions includes a much wider range of fields, the boundaries of which are somewhat uncertain. Engineering–the use of professional levels of competence to control physical processes–is the most obvious extension. Various others are reviewed below.

Very broadly, we may distinguish these two main branches of the modern professional system in terms of the cultural primacy of the interests served by the academic branch, and of the social primacy of the applied branch. Safeguarding the health of individuals or controlling physical processes may be considered to constitute social interests, since they are activities that are generally carried out through socially organized groups and processes.

Each of these spheres of primacy gives rise to a main type of problem in defining the limits of the professional pattern. In the applied sphere, the problem concerns the importance, for the practical interests involved, of competence in culturally defined technical subject matter. However, no social system is only, or even primarily, a field for the implementation of the kind of technically specific goal-interests that can ignore complex interrelations with nontechnical concerns. Hence, the question emerges as to whether the nontechnical concerns that impinge on the professional function can be more or less neutralized so that the professional expert need not concern himself too seriously with them. Answers to this question vary according to the nature of the functions involved and the degrees to which they have been institutionalized in a differentiated social system.

The cultural boundary

The modern intellectual disciplines developed through a process of differentiation from a primarily religious matrix. If we go back far enough into the Middle Ages, all “learned men” were in some sense religious specialists. The autonomy of the secular intellectual disciplines crystallized in the Renaissance, yet anything like the full professionalization of competence in them took some time and required the development of a variety of conditions. For the applied fields, the main problem raised by this process of professionalization has been a matter of the penetration of professional competence into fields of noncultural interest which had previously been treated by rule of thumb–that is, treated “empirically,” in the older sense of the word. For the primarily cultural fields, the problem has been the differentiation out of the diffuse cultural matrix of fields of special competence capable of attaining autonomy–in religious matters, for example–relative to sources of more generalized prestige and authority.

In the Judaeo—Christian world the clergy is clearly the primary historical matrix from which the modern professions have differentiated. The sense in which the clergy continues to be a profession, however, is at least partly equivocal. Certainly, one of the most distinctive features of the Western clerical tradition is that from the great writings of the rabbis and the fathers of the church down to the present it has continued to be a major component in the total body of intellectual disciplines. Hence, intellectual training has to some degree been a prerequisite of clerical status, however, incompletely the ideal has been realized at various points.

But in the modern world, the element of intellectual training is central. Only relatively “primitive” fundamentalist groups regard direct inspiration as adequate qualification for clerical functions. Although the clergy includes more specifically professional roles, particularly that of theologian, the central clerical role must be regarded as marginal to the professional system because the “application” of technical competence is only one part of the complex of its role components (Gustafson 1963). In two broad spheres the clergy have not had the insulation from other modes of cultural and social involvement or from the responsibility that is requisite to relatively pure types of professional roles. One sphere concerns the social aspect of the role, which in this case is pastoral in the broadest sense. It is widely recognized that the pastoral role includes an important therapeutic component which in some ways overlaps with that of psychological medicine. However, the typical pastor is also the leader and administrator of a congregation with diffuse social responsibilities within the sphere of the parish as a collective system. These responsibilities are not grounded in any specific technical competence. The second sphere is that of authority. Clerical leadership and authority are grounded not so much in competence in specifically intellectual matters as in the diffuse religious and moral authority of the religious tradition as such. It is the charisma of clerical office which is the primary focus of the legitimation of the authority and influence of the clergy rather than the exercise of competence in a sector of the system of intellectual disciplines [seeCharisma; Religious Specialists].

Nevertheless, it remains of first importance that the clergy share with the more specific professions a basic anchoring in cultural commitments as distinguished from the primary and direct service of some category of social interest, notably economic or political interests.

Art and ideology

As the cultural system has become further differentiated in its articulation in society, two further focuses of institutionalization of roles have become prominent in addition to the more strictly professional and the religious ones. These involve (1) primacy of concern for expressive symbolism (especially for “the arts,” in the modern sense); (2) primacy of concern for the moral problems of the human condition, and particularly of the society. The latter may perhaps be called the “ideological” focus. I think that both types of concern must be classed with the clerical one as marginal to the central professional complex, sharing certain central features with it but having involvements which, in different respects, are incompatible with full professionalization as defined here.

Artists. One critical reference point regarding the degrees of professionalization concerns the extent to which roles can or cannot be fully occupationalized in the sense that the incumbent treats performance of the function as a full-time job–that is, as his primary job or responsibility, on which he can safely depend for income to meet not only his personal needs but very generally also those of a family. In this sense the committed artist, whether in literature, the visual arts, or music, has tended to oscillate between two main nonprofessional focuses of social organization. One alternative assimilates him to the economic entrepreneur in that he exploits opportunities to live from the sale of his product on some kind of market, and so to operate as an “independent” person. The other typical alternative has been that of patronage, whereby the artist as incumbent is sponsored and supported by some individual or organization so that he can do his own work without directly meeting the exigencies of independent continuance. Of course, individuals have often been their own patrons, being artists as a side line while deriving their main subsistence from personally controlled sources such as independent property income or another job.

The performing arts, particularly music, have come to be the most fully occupationalized by and large, the symphony orchestra probably being the most developed example. Here one may truly speak of the “professional musician,” but with the probability that the skill component predominates considerably over that of intellectual mastery, important though the latter may be. When one moves from that focus toward the individual performing virtuoso or the creative composer, however, it becomes decreasingly feasible to professionalize the role in our sense. Yet various forms of economic subsidy for such persons, and of validation of their political and prestige positions, are common. Such forms may, for the most part, be treated as derivatives of patronage institutions which have become impersonalized in various ways—for example, through the common European institution of providing publicly for orchestral music, opera, and stage, or through the American use of philanthropic mechanisms to support (in both economic and other senses) those functions [seeCreativity, article onSocial aspects].

Intellectuals. In the modern world, concern with the expression of moral commitments and with their application to practical problems, social and otherwise, has to a considerable degree become differentiated in the function of ideology and institutionalized as a primary concern of the groups rather loosely called intellectuals. In part because of the emotional fervor and sense of urgency so characteristic of such groups, this concern is perhaps even more difficult to professionalize than the traditional clerical role. In terms of social organization, the intellectuals have hence been in a position similar to that of artists. They have tended either to find some type of combined economic and influence market for their output, generally as authors of publications, or to depend on patronage. On occasion, this shades over into self-patronage, the ideologist himself becoming the major leader of a movement attempting to implement a moral position.

Of course, the function of moral evaluation spreads through a great many types of collectivities and roles. For example, it has always been a major function of the clergy. The modern phenomenon is the emergence of secular moralists who attempt to ground their evaluative judgments in the intellectual disciplines as such. This particular category of ideologists or intellectuals constitutes a major boundary group of the modern academic profession, if by the latter is meant the groups who specialize in different sectors of the intellectual disciplines as such and in their more immediate uses in research and formally organized teaching.

This very cursory and schematic review indicates very generally that what we are calling the central professional type of role and collectivity organization must, with respect to the involvement of its cultural component, be limited to the sector of the cultural system where the primacy of the values of cognitive rationality is presumed. Broadly, this is the case for the “profession of learning” in its various branches. The groups anchored predominantly in religious commitments as such, in expressive symbolization through the arts, or in moral evaluation through ideology, approximate to the ideal type of professional organization, but much less closely and only in forms subject to important restrictions.

Historic position of the university

In view of the central–and in recent decades rapidly increasing–importance of the profession of learning in the total complex of the professions, an outline of the status of the Western university is an appropriate starting point for our discussion of the professional application of disciplined knowledge in the principal socially relevant fields. Both in general structure and in relation to the applied professions, there has long been a striking contrast between the Continental and English systems of higher education, the latter in part determining the subsequent developments in the United States.

The Continental system, which crystallized roughly in the sixteenth century, was organized about the four faculties of theology, philosophy, law, and medicine. In England, there were for a long time only the two universities of Oxford and Cambridge, both organized into colleges, which were generally nonspecialized. This difference had much to do with the fact that in England the center of gravity of professional development, especially in law and medicine, but also in science, lay largely outside the universities, whereas in Continental countries the university has throughout constituted the center of that development. However, the parallelism between the four original faculties of the European university clearly illustrates the sense in which the era of their predominance was one of only partial professional development.

The universities, along with the systems of secondary education which developed in that period, had the very important function of building up a formally educated class to underpin the hereditary aristocracy which played such an important role in the transition from medieval to modern society. In Roman Catholic Europe, of course, celibacy precluded the clergy from becoming a hereditary class in any direct sense. At the same time, the character of the Roman Catholic church, with its special seminaries for training the clergy and its monastic orders, tended to minimize the role of university faculties of theology. In Protestant countries, however, the theological faculties assumed particularly important functions both as the main carriers of the religious tradition and as the training ground for the most important elements of the clergy. Nevertheless, the limitations, described above, on the degree to which the clerical role can be predominantly professional apply also to the place of the universities in the training and organization of the clergy.

The diffuse cultural character of university traditions with a strong emphasis on religion made the English universities generally into something rather more like theological faculties, and related importantly to the failure of training in the applied professions of law and medicine to find a major place in the universities. In spite of some highly distinguished scientific interludes, such as Newton’s period of residence at Cambridge, the English universities came primarily to combine being the focuses of the theological traditions of the Church of England with being finishing schools for the humanistically educated sector of the general social elite. This lasted until the latter part of the nineteenth century, when these universities were caught up in the more general interrelated developments of the intellectual disciplines and of the professional occupations.

In a very broad sense, the Continental law faculties were to the early modern state what theological faculties were to the Protestant church: legal education became the primary prerequisite of qualification for positions in the developing higher civil services of the state. Hence, on the Continent generally, private legal practice has always been something of a junior branch of the profession relative to the civil service. In England, on the other hand, law faculties in this sense did not develop, nor did law come to have the same relation to public administration.

The faculties of philosophy became the trustees of the broad humanistic cultural traditions, which, as a result of the Renaissance, had become institutionalized on a new level. They also became involved in various ways–generally through a pattern that was heavily indebted to the humanistic tradition–in the education of the upper social groups. For all but the highest aristocracy, they gradually took over the functions that had been ascribed to private tutors, some of whom had reached a very exalted intellectual level (Thomas Hobbes, for instance, served most of his life in such a capacity). The line between universities and secondary schools has been hard to trace. It has varied considerably in different sectors of Western society. But perhaps it is safe to say that for most of the period that is important for the early development of the professions only a minority of the European social and political elites were actually educated in the universities, but that by and large the groups who taught them were located there. Both humanistic scholarship and science remained relatively unprofessionalized, as matters of interest only to talented “amateurs,” and were until the important nineteenth-century expansion of the German universities pursued largely outside the university framework. This expansion had certain rather special organizational features which precluded full professionalization, but it was a crucial precursor of the contemporary burgeoning of the university as the center of the whole professional complex.

We thus encounter a historical paradox. Three of the four traditional European university faculties have been absolutely central to the institutionalization of the cultural traditions which have underlain the modern professional complex. But, at the same time, these faculties have been involved in a matrix of social organization that has prevented them from developing very far in the professional direction. Only in England did a private legal profession gain a firm foothold–mainly because it developed outside the university system.

What, then, of the medical faculty? Its history is far harder to interpret than that of any of the other three faculties. Moreover, it is particularly important in regard to the place of the professions in the social system as such. Perhaps we can approach the problem initially by pointing out that both the theological and the philosophical faculties are characterized by a clear cultural primacy. To be sure, they are social in that, since their cultural interests and activities are to be pursued in a disciplined manner, they must be socially organized. Further, I do not deny that both religion and secular humanistic culture are socially important. But I do suggest that both are of relatively diffuse orders of significance for the society as a system, especially in comparison with their significance for the cultural system.

By contrast, law is specifically social, being concerned with the intellectual grounding and systematization of the normative bases of social order. For the status of law, including its professional concerns, a principal problem is its relation to government. Broadly, we may say that the Continental tradition has been to assimilate law very closely to government, whereas the Anglo-Saxon tradition has tended toward differentiating government from what I have elsewhere called, because of its different basis of order, the societal community. In terms of cultural content, the most important difference between the two traditions involves the status of private legal rights either against the government or in independence from it. In terms of social organization, the difference consists in the much more pronounced development in England of an independent legal profession that, in the course of the repercussions attending its development, has also attained control of access to the judiciary.

In this perspective, medicine constitutes the principal historic reference point in Western culture for understanding and controlling the boundary relation between the social system and the concerns of the individual as both biological organism and personality system. The problem of the health of the individual is basically salient to the social system because health is a major condition of normal social participation, and incapacity for such participation is a central criterion of illness. The central position of the body-mind problem in Western philosophical thought is testimony to the critical importance of this area.

In this area, too, the Renaissance and the early modern period that followed saw immense cognitive advances, such as the anatomy of Vesalius, Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of the blood, the work of Linnaeus, and the invention of the microscope. Along with these cultural advances, however, the institutionalization of medicine as a profession, like that of law, was beset with serious difficulties. A special one was the tradition that “gentlemen” (including practically all learned men, obviously) did not work with their hands, and hence were precluded not only from surgery, which was relegated to the barbers, but even from performing physical examinations. Only gradually did a basis develop upon which scientifically trained physicians could actually become the primary agents for dealing with the illnesses of individuals. On the whole, this basis also developed farther and earlier in England than on the Continent. It was not until well into the nineteenth century, however, that the career of the medical profession could be said really to have been launched [seeMedical personnel].

The discipline-profession complex

On the cultural side, the triangle formed by the interrelations of philosophy, law, and medicine provided in an important sense the points of differentiation for the main system of modern intellectual disciplines. In the first place, the differentiation of all three from the religious matrix was crucial. This was particularly the case with the humanities, since they formed the center of the philosophical complex. Law and medicine, then, constituted the framework of the practically applied complex. However, the status of the developing pure disciplines, with their practical implications, long remained highly ambiguous. After the Renaissance the natural sciences, especially physics (and astronomy), had various forms of anchorage in the academic system but were not unequivocally part of it. Thus the Royal Society was for a considerable period a more important center for the sciences than any university complex in England. Teaching or studying the practical applications of physical science knowledge found considerable difficulty in gaining acceptance in the academic system. For example, the German technische Hochschulen (institutes of technology) were long denied the status of universities, including the right to grant doctoral degrees. Indeed, engineering developed at least as much from the “know-how” of the empirical crafts and the contributions of “inventors” as it did from the academically formalized sciences [seeEngineering].

Even greater difficulty attended the development of the social and behavioral disciplines, which in one respect are anchored both in medicine and in law (with religion always in the background). In historical perspective, it is perhaps significant that John Locke, a principal father of the British empiricist tradition in philosophy and, hence, of both economics and psychology, was by main occupation a physician. By the mid-nineteenth century, biological science had begun to reach maturity, and around the turn of the last century one could begin to say the same not only for economics and psychology but also for anthropology, political science, and sociology. Of course, the discipline of history played a very important role in the development of these social and behavioral disciplines, since it served, among other things, as a bridge between them and the humanities.

The circumstances just sketched relate in turn to the fact that the earlier applied professions, predominantly law and medicine, first crystallized in the form of private practice. For law, the most important field of this development was certainly England; the same was at least partly true for medicine. In the United States in the early nineteenth century, law and medicine were organized very much in the English pattern; thus professional training, for instance, was organized almost wholly on the basis of apprenticeship.

Relative dissociation from the university system removed the professional practitioner from the type of large-scale organization most closely related to the professions and placed him in the practical position of being a type of independent artisan with particularly high social status. These circumstances help explain why professional groups have traditionally adopted a guildlike status, and why, in particular, two major features have characterized their orientation. One of these features is the ideology of service which long distinguished the professions from the market-oriented business groups during the period when the latter were gaining increasing prominence. The other was the predilection, where complex organization did emerge, for an associational pattern which differed both from the bureaucratic models that were becoming increasingly prominent in business as well as in government and from the types of strict market orientation which for a time seemed to dominate the economy. The American medical profession has been particularly tenacious in its adherence to the pattern of individual fee-for-service practice and has tried, in ways which include diverse forms of regulation of the relations between members of the profession and their patients or clients, to discourage the involvement of physicians in various types of largescale organization.

The fully modern phase of the development of the professional system is peculiar to the present century—indeed we cannot foresee how nearly mature it has yet become, or what major developments it may still hold in store. Its two major focuses are the development of the modern university, and the demand for and capacity to use university-level training over a very wide range of practical affairs. Since the organization of most practical interests increasingly involves complex organization, it is becoming less and less practicable for a majority of professional personnel in any field to practice in the individual fee-for-service pattern.

But if the involvement of professionals in complex organizations, both governmental and private, has forced very substantial modifications in the way in which professional services are run, the converse is just as true—and probably even more important. The involvement of high-level professional personnel in most types of modern organization has been the occasion for major changes in the character of the organizations themselves. Most conspicuously, the predominance of the older type of bureaucratic “line authority” is no longer characteristic of any but a small set of large-scale organizations. The basically associational pattern of structuring relations between professional peers—which has had to be extended to the relations between professional and executive personnel operating at similar levels in their respective hierarchies—has come to be of paramount importance in the modern type of formal organization (Parsons 1960a, part 1).

The new university system

In a way which few social analysts of even a half century ago would have predicted, the United States has become the spearhead of several major new developments in the field of education. First, it has developed, within a century, an essentially new type of university system, the keystone of which is the graduate school of arts and sciences. In part, this system was borrowed from the German philosophical faculty of the nineteenth century. But it was profoundly modified, precisely in the direction of professionalizing the faculty role. In short, the American system has been devoted to the primacy of teaching and research in the secular and pure intellectual disciplines. On the whole, this has freed the faculty members from their previous assimilation to the gentleman-scholar tradition of the educated upper class—a tradition that has not disappeared but has in general come to focus in the surviving undergraduate college. The typical professor now resembles the scientist more than the gentleman-scholar of an earlier time; the academic emphasis is now much more on achievement criteria and on reputation in a national and international cultural forum than on locally defined status. The graduate faculties, above all, have become the center of gravity not only of teaching, and hence of the mechanisms by which the academic profession perpetuates itself, but also of the newly professionalized large-scale research function. Research, then, has become the primary source of a major set of factors operating in the dynamics of the society as a whole, most conspicuously in the field of technology, but increasingly proliferating far beyond that.

Second, professional training in the United States, in sharp contrast with its English background and with most contemporary socialist countries, has been brought overwhelmingly within the university system. This began with the movement in the late nineteenth century to establish university law schools and medical schools on a new level of intellectual sophistication. This pattern has now extended so far that a major credential of a new applied profession is the acceptance of its training program within the university framework.

A particularly important consequence of this development has been a complex pattern of interpenetration between the faculties of arts and sciences, on the one hand, and the so-called “professional” faculties, on the other. Thus, a university medical school today has a substantial number of basic scientists on its faculty who are not very different in training and type of competence from their peers in the arts and sciences departments. Furthermore, research has entered the professional school in such an important way that the school is no longer only, or even primarily, a teaching institution. Finally, it is highly important in this broad context that the much fuller acceptance of engineering in the academic complex has been accompanied by the incorporation of engineering education into the more general pattern of the university system. For example, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, from an undergraduate engineering school, has become a general university with an over-all scientific and engineering emphasis.

Another important feature of the modern university is its insistence on covering, within its arts and science faculties, the whole range of the primary intellectual disciplines, now generally grouped in the three categories of the humanities, the natural sciences, and the social sciences. The muchdiscussed trend toward specialization has not resulted, except for a scattering of cases, in schools devoted only to one or another of these groups of disciplines, or to specific fields within any one. Thus we have not developed graduate schools of chemistry that have nothing to do with either physics or biology. Moreover, the professionalization of the university complex has not led to an abandonment of the traditional undergraduate college, but rather to its strengthening and to its maintenance as an integral part of the university structure. To an increasing degree, all those destined for the higher occupational levels, whether in an academic specialty, a specialized applied profession, or a nonprofessional role, are expected to undergo the common experience of an undergraduate college program.

Relation to the practicing professions

The marriage of the university system to the practicing professions in the United States was spearheaded by medicine and proceeded more slowly and with greater difficulty in both engineering and law. In the medical case, the crucial stimulus was the bringing to bear of European scientific medicine on medical education and, with this, the emergence of new forms of practice. The primary spearhead was the new bacteriology, with its application, stemming from Pasteur and Koch, to the control of infectious disease, and its further extension, stemming from Lister, to asepsis in surgery. From this basis, the upgrading process has branched out into many fields of organic medicine, very prominently into pathology and more gradually into the psychological and, finally, the social realms. The most direct channel of developmental influence operated through the American medical scientists and entrepreneurs who studied in Europe, especially Germany, in the last third of the nineteenth century and brought their new knowledge back to this country. Particularly central was the Johns Hopkins Medical School in its first generation.

Engineering, except for the electrical and chemical fields, remained more or less “empirical”—that is, it operated by rule of thumb—considerably longer than medicine. Indeed, the massive breakthrough that founded an entire family of applied professions for the physical sciences came with the spectacular success of the mobilization of science for the war effort of World War II. To be sure, some of these applied professions had predecessors, especially in the applications of physics to electrical technology and of chemistry to dyes and explosives. However, the crucial scientific fields in this case seem to have been not only nuclear physics but, especially, electronics, with its close relation to the development of the information theory-cybernetics complex. This “new engineering,” if such a term may be used, has clearly dominated the mid-twentieth-century scene.

The professions’ opportunities for impressive institutionalization at this juncture have been linked with their involvement in certain levels of social structure. A major factor is clearly the anchoring of the university system in the structure of the society. This anchoring includes the university’s financial and other support, as well as the generalization of the belief that it can contribute something special to the public welfare. At the same time, medicine has developed an especially important organizational form, one which is critically different from individual private practice, namely, the teaching hospital. This is rooted in a complex variety of modes of social support—religious and philanthropic, private and governmental. But it has provided a sufficiently complex and flexible form of organization for the testing and working out of the highly complicated clinical uses of the new scientific knowledge. The affiliation of such hospitals with university medical schools has ensured that primacy is given to scientifically based standards of competence, while the other affiliations of these hospitals has provided them with a whole series of links with the wider community. It is crucial that, in the course of its development, the teaching hospital has moved from purely clinical concerns for the immediate welfare of its patients, through concomitant emphasis on use of the patients and facilities for the training of physicians, to a steadily increasing involvement with the research function.

For engineering, the comparable institutional settings have been industry and certain spheres of government, notably the military. The development of industrial laboratories and, increasingly, those controlled by governmental agencies, such as the three national laboratories for research in atomic physics, have played facilitative roles somewhat similar to the teaching hospitals in medicine. These developments clearly rest on the assumption that applied science has come to have a truly massive practical payoff. It should be realized that this situation is altogether new in the present century.

The major new phase in the development of law in relation to society is quite different but exceedingly important. In the latter part of the first half of the nineteenth century, legal thought became increasingly important on the American intellectual scene, somewhat replacing theology as a focus of interest. In its first major phase, it followed the English tradition in centering, above all, about the courts and so about the bases of judicial decision as represented by such figures as Chief Justice Marshall, Chancellor Kent, and Justice Story (Miller 1966). Toward the end of the century, however, the major trends in legal thinking were toward a new affiliation with the university law schools; the social sciences, too, were beginning to exert a more general kind of intellectual influence on law. On the judicial side, certainly justices Holmes, Brandeis, and Cardozo were especially influential; on the academic, perhaps Roscoe Pound was the most important figure.

This development has in turn been related to a practical situation in which, since the United States is a relatively pluralistic society, the legal aspect of the normative elements of societal integration has been able to take a certain precedence over direct governmental disposal of normative issues. Indeed the American constitutional system, combining federalism with the separation of powers, has favored this strong emphasis on law and on the role of the courts as the first-order agencies of its implementation. Moreover, the services of lawyers have been in very high demand in connection with the complicated affairs of large business organizations and with the complex interrelations of governmental agencies involved with one another and with the private sector.

Place of the newer applied professions

As the differentiation of American society has proceeded, and problems of inclusion and upgrading have become particularly prominent, the legal definition of rights and obligations has gained in importance. The most conspicuous example in this field is the use, by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and other civil rights organizations, of the legal path to the definition of the basic rights of its constituency—a process that, more than any other single factor, has precipitated the new revolution in American race relations.

It is perhaps not too much to say that the new legal profession, with the strong involvement of its academic branch, has become the most important professional agency for implementing the moral consensus (incomplete as it is) of American society, in the first instance, but more broadly of modern society in general. The crucial focus, perhaps, is on the concept of right, which controls the area in which moral claims, in one of the most important spheres of interpenetration in all of social structure, fuse with governmental and other social obligations. Law is only partly an intellectual discipline, crucial as its intellectual component may be. Thus, in the present context, it is seen as the crucial link between the cultural system and the practical order of society.

Law and medicine, then, have constituted the frame within which a more elaborate system of applied professions has begun to proliferate. On the cultural side, allowing for the complex involvements of the biological and physical sciences with medicine, and for the kinship between medicine and such fields as agronomy and horticulture, the base for this development has been the behavioral and social disciplines, which are barely a century old, and still far from maturity. Three main sectors of concern with the application of these disciplines may be very tentatively distinguished. At one pole stands the sector which focuses on the problems of the individual as a member of society. Here the intellectual point of departure is the developing discipline of psychology, which interpenetrates in a complex manner with the biological sciences. However, it necessarily ramifies into the more specifically social disciplines, particularly sociology, through the involvement of the individual’s personality in various aspects of social structure, especially the kinship nexus. Psychology as an intellectual foundation underlies three main fields of partly developed professionalization. First is the therapeutic complex, of which the more psychological aspects of medicine constitute the core. This complex focuses in the first instance on the individual—the processes by which he is socialized, and his personal adjustment. Second is the educational complex, which is developing as a ramified profession in the areas where the learning process and its organization take precedence over the technical features of cultural content. Third is the social work complex, which fits into this context at a level of application very similar to that of education. All of these fields have practical antecedents, such as early medical practice, educational common sense, and philanthropy, which are comparable to the antecedents of engineering in the traditional expertise of skilled craftsmen.

At the other pole, closest to law, stand the attempts to apply the intellectual disciplines that are especially concerned with the processes of largescale social systems. By far the most striking success in this area has been attained in the application of Keynesian and post-Keynesian economics to the management of societal-level economies, with special reference to the field of problems once called “the business cycle.” Very fragmentary professionalization has emerged in regard to some aspects of political processes and relationships, particularly in the sphere of international relations, and some problems relating to the social aspects of economic development. Continued concern with these areas may eventuate in fields of professional application comparable to those in economics. However, they are plagued by that functional equivalent of common sense that operates in largescale, fluidly changing circumstances—namely, ideological concern, which can only gradually be brought under the control of a more strictly professional type of intellectual discipline.

In the middle sector of this range lies another complex of emerging professions that are broadly concerned with the management of complex organizations. Particularly in the United States, but also in other nations, this complex has crossed the line between private and governmental sectors of social organization—a development that is expressed in the phrase “business and public administration.” The cultural base of this complex consists both in findings of the several social science disciplines that can be synthesized to bear upon this field of application, and in a rapidly growing technology of information gathering and processing which has become crucial to most responsible executives.

Possible limits of professionalization

Over the whole range of technical competence, including the early reference points of law and medicine, there are serious limits to, and possibly inherent limitations on, the extension of the process of professionalization, a process which in one aspect is almost synonymous with that of rationalization. These limits have implicitly entered into many of the basic intellectual movements and controversies of this century. Thus law impinges on religious charisma through the problems of the ultimate legitimation of authority and legal order, not only in general but of specific types of authority under specific auspices. Similarly, the supposed irrationality of man’s so-called instinctual drives and interests is often said to be only very partially and precariously amenable to organization into any kind of orderly system. Other considerations arise at all points along the spectrum of areas of professional concern. Perhaps the organizational executive in particular, because he must deal with so many diffuse intangibles (including the basic uncertainties of changing situations in complex environments), must always “play it by ear” instead of submitting to codified rules or definitions of essential technical knowledge (Barnard 1938). In the cultural sphere, it appears to be the special mission of the arts in the modern era to emphasize what is in the present sense the irrational component of the human condition. At any rate, the arts do seem at times to be opposing, in the name of freedom of expression, any attempts to reduce the emphasis that they place on irrationality. Perhaps it is permissible at this point to warn that even such basic distinctions as rational-irrational must be treated with a certain relativity. In current parlance, the relation between them is more likely to be one of dialectical opposition than of insoluble conflict. Moreover, the main historical trend certainly seems to be extending the range of rationally ordered organization.

Leadership status of the professions

It is my view that the professional complex, though obviously still incomplete in its development, has already become the most important single component in the structure of modern societies. It has displaced first the “state,” in the relatively early modern sense of that term, and, more recently, the “capitalistic” organization of the economy. The massive emergence of the professional complex, not the special status of capitalistic or socialistic modes of organization, is the crucial structural development in twentieth-century society.

Every major innovation in the organization of societies involves a new leadership element—in structural rather than personal terms—which tends to precede that innovation’s massive institutionalization. For the modern state, the critical leadership element seems to have been institutionalized aristocracy. Kings and their lineage were the hereditary focuses of what, in terms of our sketch, was basically the extension, by legal means, of rationalized order through the major politically organized units of Western society. Royalty, alone, without backing from a broad aristocratic system, could not have accomplished this.

In organizational terms, the capitalistic aspect of the industrial revolution was that it “democratized” the royal—aristocratic system. Careers came to be open to talents; the hereditary basis was no longer legitimized. But the famous capitalistic business firm was a “petty monarchy,” with the position of its proprietor being legitimized in terms of his services to his lineage. In turn, the lineage shared in the benefits of the proprietor’s success through the legitimacy that it afforded him as its head, and especially through the mechanism of inheriting and bequeathing property.

The differentiation of ownership from control, which became evident in the large-scale sector of American “capitalism” in the 1920s (Berle & Means 1932), was comparable to the democratization of the national state, an institution that has undergone many vicissitudes since it first became salient in the Age of Revolution at the end of the eighteenth century. Since that period, the ultimate support of organizational order and authority has had to rest on some kind of nonhereditary, if not democratic, basis, although legitimation was generalized to more universalistic levels in such conceptions as the “national” or, better, the “public” interest.

The old leadership element was clearly the “capitalistic” upper class—or, as I have put it elsewhere, the “decentralized” aristocracy—which could also legitimate its status in achievement terms. The new leadership element is based on cultural criteria of legitimacy rather than criteria of political power or economic success. Given the general secularizing trends of modern society, these criteria could not be religious in the older sense. They have had to command both moral and intellectual authority, while being at the same time religiously pluralistic.

One possible contender for leadership is the “artist”—of course, as category not individual. His leadership may be characteristic of certain developing societies, but it cannot provide an adequate basis in the organization of technical functions for the modern social world. As a result, whatever may happen in the long run, at least a temporary leadership status seems to have settled on the representatives of the intellectual disciplines. Clearly, the primary organizational locus of these disciplines in the modern world is the university. The fundamental origin of the modern professional system, then, has lain in the marriage between the academic professionals and certain categories of practical men. These latter have taken responsibility, on a basis more of specialized competence than of a diffuse religious or ideological legitimation, for a variety of operative functions in the society.

We do not know what lies in store for the next phase of professionalization. I suggest, however, that the professional complex has already not only come into prominence but has even begun to dominate the contemporary scene in such a way as to render obsolescent the primacy of the old issues of political authoritarianism and capitalistic exploitation. Indeed, most of our sensitive contemporary dissidents stress quite other themes, such as alienation.

Talcott Parsons

[Directly related are the entriesCivil service; Engineering; Fine arts, article onthe recruitment and socialization of artists; Intellectuals; Journalism; Law , article onthe legal profession; Medical personnel; Military; Occupations and careers; Religious specialists; science, article onscientists; Social work; Teaching. Other relevant material may be found inBureaucracy; Education; Knowledge, sociology of; Medical care, article onsocial aspects; Status, social; Universities; and in the biographies ofWeber, Max; Znanieckl]


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The idea of a "profession" did not exist in ancient times. Although there were people who did what is currently denoted as professional work, these "professionals" often labored in dependent positions. For example, physicians in the Roman Empire were slaves in wealthy households, and architects worked as salaried public employees. Lawyers in ancient Greece were merely friends of the litigants who spoke before a gathering of their peers. Neither lawyers nor physicians received formal training (Carr-Saunders and Wilson 1937). By medieval times, the three classic professions—medicine, law, and the clergy (which included university teaching)—began to approximate more closely the modern conception of professions. With the development of universities, then under religious auspices, would-be professionals completed lengthy training in their chosen fields. They also began to constitute a new class of intellectuals. As society increasingly secularized, the professions emerged from under religious control and began to organize professional associations. By the eighteenth century, they had achieved independent status.

In the nineteenth century, middle-class occupations such as dentistry, architecture, and engineering began to professionalize, aspiring to the gentlemanly status of the classic, learned professions (Dingwall and Lewis 1983). "Gentlemanly" was the appropriate description, since the majority of professionals were men. It was not until the 1970s that women began to make significant inroads into these occupations, and even today men predominate in the status professions.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, professionalism developed in concert with the increasing division of labor and rationalization characteristic of industrializing Europe and the United States. As competitors in market economies, occupational incumbents sought to professionalize to improve their status. In addition, they wanted to better their economic positions by securing occupational niches for their services (Ritzer and Walczak 1986). In the United States, at least, universities played the key role of transferring both the technical know-how and the culture of professionalism to new generations of professional aspirants (Bledstein 1976).


Today the term "profession" includes a range of occupations arrayed along a continuum of high to medium levels of prestige. At the high end of the continuum are the classic, or "status," professions of medicine, law, clergy, and university teaching. Incumbents in these occupations usually receive high incomes, exercise job autonomy, and receive deference from the public and those lower in the status hierarchy. Although women have begun to gain entry into some of the professions, most professions remain predominantly male: in 1998, women's representation among physicians, lawyers, and the clergy was 27, 28, and 12 percent, respectively. Women have made more progress moving in to college and university teaching, representing 42 percent of incumbents by 1998 (all 1998 data are from U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 1999, Table 11).

Somewhat lower on the continuum are the "newer" professions such as dentistry, engineering, accounting, and architecture, which also command respect and relatively high salaries. Men also predominate in these occupations: 20, 11, and 18 percent of dentists, engineers, and architects, respectively, were women in 1998. Only in accounting have women made significant inroads: 58 percent of all accountants and auditors were women in 1998. This feminization is attributable largely to accounting's dramatic occupational growth in the 1970s (Reskin and Roos 1990, pp. 40–41).

Still lower on the professional continuum are the "marginal professions" (e.g., pharmacy, chiropractic) and the "semiprofessions" (e.g., nursing, public school teaching, social work, librarianship). These occupations exhibit some characteristics of the classic professions but have not acquired full professional status because of opposition from established professions and an inability to convince the public that they command unique expertise. These occupations are less prestigious and their incumbents are paid less than those in either the classic or the new professions. Moreover, because they are concentrated in bureaucratic settings, these professionals exercise less job autonomy than higher-status professionals. An important difference between the marginal professions and the semiprofessions is that males are in the majority in the former (although pharmacy, an occupation that has feminized rapidly in recent years, is now 44 percent female), whereas semiprofessions have long been predominantly female (in 1998 women composed 92, 75, 68, and 83 percent of nurses, public school teachers, social workers, and librarians, respectively).

Paraprofessionals work with, but as subordinates to, members of the other professions. They are generally technicians associated with various professional occupations. Paralegals, for example, work closely with lawyers, and physicians delegate certain tasks and responsibilities to physicians' assistants. As in the semiprofessions, women tend to predominate in paraprofessional occupations. These data clearly show the sex-stratified nature of professional occupations, but these occupations are also stratified by race: in 1998, for instance, 5 percent of physicians were black, 6 percent of college and university teachers, 4 percent of lawyers, and 9 percent of clergy, notably less than their 11 percent representation in the labor force as a whole. Blacks are overrepresented, relative to their labor-force representation, in the following professions: dietitians (18 percent); respiratory therapists (12 percent); prekindergarten and kindergarten teachers (14 percent); educational and vocational counselors (13 percent); social workers (23 percent); recreation workers (16 percent); athletes (13 percent).


Given the stratification of the U.S. occupational structure, it is clear why workers desire to professionalize. Professionalization brings higher income, higher prestige, greater job autonomy, and higher job satisfaction. It also protects incumbents from competition. The "process of professionalization" posits a common sequence of development that occupations undergo. Some scholars accept Harold Wilensky's depiction of this process (1964). First, people begin to work full time at a specific set of tasks that will form the new occupation's core jurisdiction. Second, those in the occupation establish a university-affiliated training program, and some incumbents undertake the responsibility for training new generations of practitioners. Third, practitioners and teachers combine to form a professional association that identifies the occupation's core tasks and makes claims regarding skill jurisdiction. Fourth, occupational incumbents seek to protect their jurisdictional claims by political means. Professionals lobby for legal protection, in the form of licensing and certification requirements, to generate labor-market shelters that ensure their monopoly of skills. Finally, incumbents develop a formal code of ethics that embodies rules to protect clients, eliminate the unqualified, and spell out the occupation's service ideal. As we shall see, later theorists have come to question this linear sequence of events.


What distinguishes the professions from other occupations? Theoretical approaches in studying this question have changed over time and remain in flux. Scholars have also developed new methods to address these questions.

The Trait Approach. After World War II, the trait approach was dominant in scholarship on the professions (Freidson 1986). Scholars—mostly American academics—tried to define the professions by generating an exhaustive list of characteristics. These traits, scholars hoped, would distinguish professions from nonprofessions and higher-status professions from those of lower status. The main method used was the case study.

Scholars carefully scrutinized particular occupations to determine how well they approximated the four major criteria, or traits, of the ideal-typical profession (Hodson and Sullivan 1990). First, professionals are experts with abstract, esoteric knowledge and skills that set them apart from others. Second, because of their unique expertise, professionals exercise autonomy on the job. Codes of ethics help to ensure autonomy from outside control by permitting professionals to police misconduct internally. Third, their esoteric knowledge allows professionals to claim authority over their clients and subordinate occupational groups. Finally, the professions are altruistic, that is, service-rather than profit-oriented. Underlying these four traits is a fifth: the public must recognize the occupation as a profession. Regardless of an occupation's claim of unique expertise, if the public does not view the occupation's knowledge as abstract, it is difficult for those working in it to claim professional status and the perquisites that accompany it.

Scholars used these criteria to differentiate among the professions, most particularly in comparing the female semiprofessions to the typically male status professions. While the semiprofessions have a body of knowledge, they lack a monopoly over that knowledge. They also have a difficult time convincing the public that their skills are professional. The public is less likely to recognize their expertise (e.g., teaching children, servicing library patrons) as particularly esoteric. Semiprofessionals typically work in bureaucratic settings and, as a consequence, are subject to heteronomy, or supervision by organizational superiors and professional colleagues. Their ability to claim autonomy is limited.

The Power Approach. In the 1960s, scholars in the United States and Great Britain began to criticize the trait approach as static and ideological. Recognizing the salience of culture and social structure, power theorists also shifted to historical methods to understand the sources of professional power. They argued that occupations we view as professions do not necessarily exhibit the requisite traits, but rather have the power to convince the public that they do. Power theorists viewed the professions as monopolistic organizations intent on gaining and retaining professional control and ensuring their status in the stratification system. Eliot Freidson (1986), for example, focused on how professions establish protected labor markets for their services. Magali Sarfatti Larson (1977) argued that the professions are market organizations in the capitalist economy, explicitly seeking to dominate the market for their expertise.

For these theorists, the so-called objective characteristics of the trait approach are ideological attempts to preserve the professions' status and privilege (Freidson 1986). Rather than being truly altruistic, professional incumbents create the myth of service orientation to gain public goodwill, enhance their status, and minimize external control. According to this view, professionals sometimes abuse their autonomy by failing to police themselves, and incompetent doctors and lawyers fleece the public with little fear of reprisal from their peers. Finally, the professional's authority over clients has also declined in recent years as a more educated public has become active in activities seen as the province of professionals (e.g., getting second opinions on medical recommendations and becoming more educated consumers regarding medical and legal issues).

The historical battles between physicians, on the one hand, and pharmacists and chiropractors on the other, illustrate how an established profession exercises power against competing occupations (Starr 1982). When the pharmacist's traditional task of compounding drugs shifted to pharmaceutical companies, they lost their diagnostic expertise (and hence monopoly over their knowledge). With respect to chiropractors, the American Medical Association restricted access through licensing laws or blocked reimbursement from private insurance companies. As a consequence, pharmacy and chiropractic have yet to become fully professional.

What enables professions to wield power? Theorists point to the occupational characteristics indeterminancy and uncertainty (Ritzer and Walczak 1986). The professions that have achieved and maintained power are those whose tasks cannot be broken down or otherwise routinized (indeterminancy). Similarly, those that deal with areas of uncertainty are also likely to preserve their power. As Wilensky (1964) described it, professional knowledge involves a "tacit" dimension, in Polanyi's (1967) terminology. Their lengthy training and years of practical application ensure that physicians "know" what treatments to use for which symptoms. Similarly, lawyers "know" what legal strategies work best and college professors "know" what instructional strategies are most effective in enhancing student learning. Reading a textbook or consulting computerized data bases is not equivalent to tacit knowledge. This kind of knowledge—expertise refined by years of experience—is not easily routinized. Physicians and lawyers also deal with areas of high uncertainty for their clients, the former with physical health and the latter with legal affairs. Clients need these professionals to translate medical and legal jargon into everyday language they can more readily understand.

The System of Professions. Andrew Abbott's (1988, 1995) theory of professions critiqued the notion that professions undergo a common process of development. Employing historical and comparative methods, Abbott provided a wealth of evidence that the history of the professions is much more complicated than that represented in a linear process of professionalization. Rather than a history of professions that established systems of control (e.g., schools, professional associations, licensing and certification), Abbott's account is of ongoing interprofessional competitions, squabbles over jurisdictions, and professional births and deaths.

Abbott contended that professions make up an interdependent "system of professions." Understanding modern professions entails articulating their histories of conflict with other professions. Comprehending the realities of modern medicine, for example, depends more on investigating its historical conflicts with closely related professions such as psychiatry and chiropractic than on the particulars of medieval or nineteenth-century medicine.

Recognizing the interdependence of professions is important because it clarifies that professions emerge, grow, change, and die within the historical context of competition with other professions. This competition takes the form of jurisdictional disputes over the control of abstract knowledge. Professionals can use their abstract knowledge to define a core set of tasks (their jurisdiction), defend that jurisdiction from others, or appropriate the tasks of others. Interprofessional boundary wars reflect professions' attempts to "enclose" jurisdictional tasks within the boundaries of their profession's sphere of influence (Abbott 1995, p. 553; see also Witz 1992). One recent example of such a jurisdictional dispute was pediatric medicine's partially successful attempt to expand their sphere of influence to include children's psychosocial disorders (Halpern 1990). Whether professions succeed or fail in such jurisdictional disputes, any changes reverberate throughout the system. The professions reequilibrate, with some occupations accepting a subordinate or advisory role, some agreeing to split jurisdictions or clients, and others exiting the professions altogether. To adequately theorize and model jurisdictional disputes, Abbott (1993, p. 205) advocated a multilevel analysis that links micro-level information on careers, to meso-level data on the network structure of careers and jobs, to the macro-level work and occupational structures.


In 1998, women composed 46 percent of the employed labor force and 53 percent of professionals, suggesting that women do quite well in the professions. However, a closer look reveals a different story. As noted, women are heavily concentrated in the semiprofessions (as nurses, public school teachers, social workers, and librarians) and men in the higher-status professions (as physicians, lawyers, and engineers). Incumbents in the former earn less and exercise less autonomy than in the latter. As in the occupational structure as a whole, the professions are highly segregated by sex.

Even within the higher-prestige professions, women work in different, lower-paying, and less prestigious jobs than men. Women lawyers, for example, work in government jobs, in research rather than litigation, and in certain specialties such as trust and estates; women physicians are more likely than men to specialize in pediatrics and to work in health maintenance organizations (HMOs); female clergy specialize in music or education (Reskin and Phipps 1988; see also Tang and Smith 1996).

Part of the reason for this differential job distribution by sex has to do with a characteristic unique to the professions. The high level of uncertainty inherent in prestigious professional jobs means that employers are careful to choose recruits who "fit in" with those already on the job. Thus, as Rosabeth Moss Kanter (1977) suggested, employers tend to recruit people much like themselves, a process she calls "homosocial reproduction." The predominance of males in the status professions thus helps to reproduce sex segregation.

Other factors reducing women's access to high-status professions are entrance restrictions such as certification and licensing. Physicians, for example, consolidated their control over medical jurisdictions by successfully pressing for legislation to outlaw midwives and prohibit the licensing of those trained at "irregular" schools, activities that disproportionately affected women. In 1872, the Supreme Court restricted women's ability to practice law, arguing that "the natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life" (Reskin and Phipps 1988, p. 192). Male professionals were thus able to establish labor-market shelters to protect themselves from competition from women as well as other "undesirables."

Since 1970, women have gained greater entry into some of the professions, including occupations such as medicine, law, and pharmacy. Indications are, however, that internal differentiation within the professions perpetuates job segregation by sex (Reskin and Roos 1990). For example, Polly Phipps (1990) found that women's representation in pharmacy nearly tripled (from 12 to 32 percent) between 1970 and 1988, and has continued to increase since then, reaching 44 percent by 1998. However, women pharmacists concentrate in the lower-paying hospital sector, while men predominate in the higher-paying retail sector. Similar ghettoization exists in other professions that are admitting more women (see, for example, Reskin [1990] on book editors; Donato [1990] on public relations specialists; Roos and Jones [1993] on academic sociologists; and Roos and Manley [1996] on human resource managers and professionals).


Some view the future of the professions as bleak, predicting that ongoing proletarianization or deprofessionalization will eliminate the professions' unique traits. The proletarianization thesis argues that an increasing division of labor and a bureaucratization within the professions are routinizing knowledge and transferring authority from professionals to organizational superiors. The deprofessionalization thesis documents declines in the professions' monopolistic control over their knowledge, their exercise of autonomy on the job, their ability to protect their jurisdiction from encroachments, and the public's deference to professional authority (Ritzer and Walczak 1986).

Some occupations, of course, have lost some of their professional status. As noted, as pharmaceutical companies increasingly absorbed the compounding of drugs, and as chains replaced independent pharmacies, pharmacists lost some of their autonomy and monopoly of their knowledge to physicians. Taking a broad view of the professions, however, Freidson (1984; 1994, p. 9) argued that professionalism has been "reborn" in a hierarchical form in which bureaucratization and professionalization are often quite compatible. Working in organizations, he argued, has been the norm for many professions from their inception, with engineers the most obvious example. In addition, organizations that employ professionals tend to diverge enough from the ideal-typical bureaucracy to protect professional privilege. For example, professionals in organizations often exercise a lot of autonomy, working under senior members of their own profession rather than nonprofessional managers. Freidson thus portrayed most organizations as working to accommodate professionals, and operating under an "occupational principle" of authority, as opposed to an "administrative principle" of organizing and controlling work (1994, p. 61). Wallace (1995) also described how some bureaucratic work systems—specifically a "corporatist" model of control—can be quite compatible with professionals' self interests.

Like Freidson and Abbott, Brint (1994) viewed the professions as social forms that evolve historically in conjunction with other occupations and work organizations. Rather than look to professions interacting through jurisdictional disputes, however, Brint contextualized changes in the professions within the workplace itself, in the occupationally and organizationally based ties professionals have, and the markets in which they work (see also Leicht and Fennell 1997). He described the ascendance of a new, organizationally based profession—expert professions—that relaxes traditional assumptions about professional work. Pursuing profits, closer interconnections with business, and lesser attention to larger public interests, are all hallmarks of "expert professionalism" (Brint 1994, p. 8), which Brint juxtaposed with "social trustee professionalism," the traditional conception of professions as the trustees of socially important knowledge (p. 4). In Brint's view, the professional class has splintered into highly skilled experts in resource-rich organizations as opposed to professionals with less marketable skills in resource-poor organizations, especially in the public and nonprofit sectors (p. 11). These differing organizational locations have predictable consequences for incumbents' political and social views. Even with such changes, Freidson (1984, 1994) found no evidence that the prestige of the professions as a whole has declined. Nor did he find that public trust in professionals has deteriorated relative to other American institutions. Moreover, the professions' continuing ability to erect labor-market barriers to competition is important evidence of their enduring power. Professionals today remain strong enough to exert their will against others lower in the occupational hierarchy. Professional privilege remains intact in the American occupational structure.

As the professions change, theorizing must evolve as well. Some have begun to call for a broader, synthetic theory of occupations, one that situates the professions in a comparative way within the larger occupational structure (e.g., Abbott 1993; Freidson 1994). Central to such a broader theory is a method that sets occupations not only in their historical, comparative contexts, but also in the organizational and market context in which occupational incumbents work (e.g., Brint 1994). Freidson (1994, p. 21) has argued for moving beyond a theory that defines professions by fiat, to one that recognizes the professional aspirations of a variety of other nonprofessional occupations. In Freidson's terminology, how do ordinary occupational incumbents invoke their day-to-day work activities so as to claim professional status, regardless of whether the larger public would recognize them as professionals? Such a conceptualization opens up the possibility that other occupations can organize in their own self-interest to generate their own "professional projects." Claiming a unique expertise or specialized knowledge, developing professional associations, and convincing the state that certification is appropriate are first steps toward claiming professional status. Ultimately, the true test of professional status will be to convince others that the expertise one has entitles one to professional privilege, and to the right to establish labor market shelters. Only then will professional status and earnings rise to accompany claims of professional privilege.


Abbott, Andrew 1988 The System of Professions: An Essayon the Division of Expert Labor. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

——1993 "The Sociology of Work and Occupations." Annual Review of Sociology 19:187–209.

——1995 "Boundaries of Social Work or Social Work of Boundaries." Social Service Review 4:545–562.

Bledstein, Burton J. 1976 The Culture of Professionalism:The Middle Class and the Development of Higher Education in America. New York: W. W. Norton.

Brint, Steven 1994 In an Age of Experts: The Changing Roleof Professionals in Politics and Public Life. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Carr-Saunders, A. M., and P. A. Wilson 1937 "Professions." In Edwin R. A. Seligman and Alvin Johnson, eds., Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences. New York: Macmillan.

Dingwall, Robert, and Philip Lewis 1983 The Sociology ofthe Professions: Lawyers, Doctors and Others. London: Macmillan.

Donato, Katharine M. 1990 "Keepers of the Corporate Image: Women in Public Relations." In Barbara F. Reskin and Patricia A. Roos, eds., Job Queues, GenderQueues: Explaining Women's Inroads into Male Occupations. Philadelphia, Pa.: Temple University Press.

Freidson, Eliot 1984 "The Changing Nature of Professional Control." Annual Review of Sociology 10:1–20.

——1986 Professional Powers: A Study of the Institutionalization of Formal Knowledge. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

——1994 Professionalism Reborn: Theory, Prophecy, andPolicy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Halpern, Sydney 1990 "Medicalization as Professional Process: Postwar Trends in Pediatrics." Journal ofHealth and Social Behavior 31:28–42.

Hodson, Randy, and Teresa A. Sullivan 1990 The SocialOrganization of Work. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth.

Kanter, Rosabeth Moss 1977 Men and Women of theCorporation. New York: Harper and Row.

Larson, Magali Sarfatti 1977 The Rise of Professionalism: ASociological Analysis. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Leicht, Kevin T., and Mary L. Fennell 1997 "The Changing Organizational Context of Professional Work." Annual Review of Sociology 23:215–231.

Phipps, Polly A. 1990 "Industrial and Occupational Change in Pharmacy: Prescription for Feminization." In Barbara F. Reskin and Patricia A. Roos, eds., JobQueues, Gender Queues: Explaining Women's Inroadsinto Male Occupations. Philadelphia, Pa.: Temple University Press.

Polanyi, Michael 1967 The Tacit Dimension. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor.

Reskin, Barbara F. 1990 "Culture, Commerce, and Gender: The Feminization of Book Editing." In Barbara F. Reskin and Patricia A. Roos, eds, Job Queues, GenderQueues: Explaining Women's Inroads into Male Occupations. Philadelphia, Pa.: Temple University Press.

——, and Polly A. Phipps 1988 "Women in Male-Dominated Professional and Managerial Occupations." In Ann H. Stromberg and Shirley Harkess, eds., Women Working. Theories and Facts in Perspective. Mountain View, Calif.: Mayfield.

Reskin, Barbara F., and Patricia A. Roos 1990 Job Queues,Gender Queues: Explaining Women's Inroads into MaleOccupations. Philadelphia, Pa.: Temple University Press.

Ritzer, George, and David Walczak 1986 Working. Conflict and Change, 3rd ed. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Roos, Patricia A., and Katharine Jones 1993 "Shifting Gender Boundaries: Women's Inroads into Academic Sociology." Work and Occupations 20:395–428.

Roos, Patricia A., and Joan E. Manley 1996 "Staffing Personnel: Feminization and Change in Human Resource Management." Sociological Focus 29:245–261.

Starr, Paul 1982 The Social Transformation of AmericanMedicine: The Rise of a Sovereign Profession and theMaking of a Vast Industry. New York: Basic.

Tang, Joyce, and Earl Smith (eds.) 1996 Women andMinorities in American Professions. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press.

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 1999 Employment andEarnings, vol. 46. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Wallace, Jean E. 1995 "Corporatist Control and Organizational Commitment among Professions: the Case of Lawyers Working in Law Firms." Social Forces 73:811–839.

Wilensky, Harold L. 1964 "The Professionalization of Everyone?" American Journal of Sociology 70:137–158.

Witz, Anne 1992 Professions and Patriarchy. New York: Routledge.

Patricia A. Roos


views updated May 23 2018


traits of a profession
professionalization as process
patterns of professionalism
problems of professionalization
attractions of professionalism

The word profession has become so imprecise by inflated usage that it needs to be defined so as to recover its historical meaning. From sports to hairdressing, all sorts of occupations have started to claim the adjective professional in order to suggest a degree of competence beyond the amateur level. Originally the English noun profession derived from the Latin verb profiteri, indicating the act of professing, that is, declaring something publicly. In contrast to a mere craft or trade, this linguistic derivation implies the pursuit of a livelihood that is based upon specialized knowledge beyond a mere skill and directed less toward private gain than toward rendering a public service. Through their transformation from learned guilds to modern self-governing associations, professions have come to be defined as special kinds of occupations based on higher learning, organized autonomously and dedicated to serving society.

traits of a profession

During the course of the nineteenth century the traditional "learned" occupations gradually became modern professions by acquiring such traits as specialized knowledge, rigorous examinations, independent associations, and autonomous practice. To begin with, the expertise of so-called professionals such as theologians, lawyers, and doctors rested on a broad liberal education in the classics, which endowed the holder with an aura of being a "gentleman." Increasingly, it went beyond scholarly information and included scientific training that made it possible for professionals not just to apply memorized rules of the craft but also to address problems creatively by researching new solutions. Nonetheless, there remained an important component of practical competence that codified the accumulated wisdom gathered from the actual practice of the profession in the past. This unique blend of cultivation, expertise, and experience set professionals apart from their predecessors and untrained competitors.

Professional expertise had to be learned during an extensive period of study that combined elements of apprenticeship with formal academic instruction. The polish of liberal education was generally acquired by boys in classical secondary schools such as boarding schools in Britain, lycées in France, or Gymnasien in Germany. Scholarly information was accumulated and scientific methods were assimilated subsequently during university study, whether at British colleges, French hautes écoles, or German Universitäten. Usually practical experience (Berufswissen) was gathered in some kind of apprenticeship as a probationary preacher at a church, as an intern in a law firm, or as a famulus helping an established physician. This lengthy process of training tended to be costly and could therefore be afforded only by members of the middle class.

In order to persuade a wary public of the proven expertise of professionals, a rigorous set of examinations was established so as to weed out the incompetent. While university access required some kind of demonstration of success at secondary school (A-levels, the bac, or the Abitur), the entry examinations into a profession, which were administered either by committees of experienced practitioners or by panels of government officials, tested both academic knowledge and practical competence. Public proof of passing was a degree that bestowed a title like Herr Doktor, certified in a diploma, which could be hung on the wall. Intended to keep charlatans from practicing on an unsuspecting public, this examination also served as social gate-keeping to bar undesirable elements and to restrict the number of newcomers in order to assure a comfortable living.

For the sake of sharing information and sociability, the practitioners of these elevated occupations tended to band together in so-called professional associations. Originally local, these societies gradually evolved into regional and national organizations so as to pursue their common interests more vigorously. To begin with, such groups merely provided social contacts that helped cushion competition between rival professionals. With time, lectures and congresses also made it possible to share in the further advancement of knowledge, especially important in the medical fields. More important yet were the efforts to promote the interests of the members by taking public positions, lobbying legislators, and influencing bureaucrats. During the nineteenth century, these initially social associations therefore increasingly transformed into vigorous professional interest groups.

In contrast to government servants or business people, professionals generally insisted on autonomy and on self-policing. Describing themselves as disinterested in material gain, the professions claimed to serve the public best when following the dictates of their expertise and not obeying bureaucratic orders. That meant that they

observed an independent standard of judgment, based on rational problem-solving rather than self-interest. In order to guard against an abuse of autonomy, the members elaborated extensive "codes of professional ethics" that defined what practitioners were allowed to do and imposed severe penalties in case of violations. Usually professional associations had ethics committees that possessed the power to punish errant members in order to reassure the public of the integrity of the remaining professionals. But since colleagues were often reluctant to censure each other, this arrangement worked only in really crass cases of malfeasance.

professionalization as process

A product of this internal transformation, the process of professionalization led to the displacement of competitors, a gain in practical authority, and imitation by other occupations, which resulted in a rapid increase in the number of practitioners as well as of professional groups during the nineteenth century. As mentioned above, one central element in this success was the shift from practical experience to scholarly knowledge or scientific methods in the resolution of problems. This involved questioning traditional practices and supplanting them with new solutions that provided superior results. In the area of medicine this change was most dramatic, since the introduction of antibacterial and antiviral drugs triggered a quantum leap in successful cures and turned physicians from psychological advisors or recorders of death into effective healers of disease. Even if theologians or lawyers did not develop comparable advances in problem solving, they could also trade on the "scientific" aura that their advanced training provided.

As a result of being able to offer actual benefits based on their institutional education, professionals gradually succeeded in displacing their academically uneducated and nonlicensed rivals. For centuries, university-trained practitioners had been forced to compete with untutored lay preachers, uncertified legal advisors, and academically untrained midwives or other folk healers. Backed by scholarly instruction and academic examinations, professional organizations demanded a monopoly of practice for their respective trade, insisting on civil penalties for charlatans or amateurs. In most cases this lobbying effort was successful in reserving professional titles like "attorney" for the academically trained and in forbidding public advertising by their rivals. In churches, courts, and hospitals, professionals thereby erected a monopoly of practice, which claimed to protect the public from malpractice, but in effect also guaranteed an elevated standard of living to licensed practitioners.

Professionalization also meant that the professions succeeded in reversing the power relationship between patrons and practitioners. In the early modern period the nobility and wealthy members of the middle class condescended to employ the services of practitioners who were their social inferiors, firing them at will if the results did not please them. But during the nineteenth century, the claim of superior knowledge proved strong enough to endow the professional with unassailable authority, because he could now decide questions of life and death on the basis of scientific evidence. As a result, the erstwhile superior patron eventually became a supplicant client who had to compete for the services of prominent professionals and follow their instructions to the letter unless he wanted to risk dire consequences. This reversal of the power relationship raised the social standing of the professions in general.

Another facet of the transformation was the competition of newer occupations for elevation to the attractive status of a profession. Most of these pretenders came from the graduates of the arts and sciences faculty, such as the teachers of academic secondary schools, who campaigned tirelessly for acceptance among the ranks of the professions. Although not free practitioners like lawyers and doctors, university-trained educators wanted to gain control over their classrooms, obtain permission to organize, and achieve similar remuneration as their fellow graduates in other fields. In Germany, the Gymnasium teachers succeeded in getting nominal parity in the last decades before World War I, receiving a new title, Studienrat, which was modeled on the already existing designations Konsistorialrat, Justizrat, and Medizinalrat. But their elevation meant that primary schoolteachers would continue to be excluded from university training and superior rank. Another group of pretenders that had somewhat indifferent success were the graduates of new technical institutions, such as engineers.

The general increase in material prosperity created a rising demand for professional services that triggered an impressive expansion in the numbers of professionals throughout the nineteenth century. Whereas there were only a few thousand pastors, lawyers, and doctors in most countries during the early nineteenth century, one hundred years later their number had multiplied about tenfold. For instance in England the size of eight professions had risen to 191,384 by 1922, in France the number of liberal professionals and intellectuals reached 122,257 by 1906, and in Germany the increase reached 335,252 by 1933. While the number of theologians only modestly increased, the figure for lawyers and doctors multiplied steeply, and the share of practitioners in new professions such as teaching or engineering virtually exploded. This development also shifted the balance somewhat away from the traditional learned professions toward new white-collar callings in government and industry. In spite of the expansion, the overall share of the professions in the workforce remained rather limited, not surpassing 2 percent before World War I.

The rapid expansion was, however, not a linear success story, but rather a crisis-ridden process marked by cycles of oversupply of educated men. In central Europe the post-Napoleonic expansion reached a peak in the early 1830s, producing much-lamented unemployment of university graduates and impoverishment among beginning professionals. As a result, higher-education enrollments fell, and a deficit of professionals developed by the 1860s. This perceived lack of trained experts encouraged a second expansion cycle, which peaked in the late 1880s, triggering another over-crowding crisis and producing a veritable "academic proletariat." Government efforts to steer these academic cycles, demanded by the professions, were generally ineffectual, because restrictions, if they came too late, only exaggerated the deficits, and calls for higher enrollment added to the subsequent oversupply. Academic unemployment tended to have deleterious political consequences, since it fed into the unrest behind the Revolution of 1848 in France and into the radicalization of the intelligentsia in Russia.

As a result of their proliferation, the professions gradually transformed the face of the noneconomic middle class. In contrast to the financiers, industrialists, or merchants, professionals were not primarily interested in accumulating wealth, but rather propounded an ethos of public service. While they competed in a market of their own, this competition was regulated by barring rivals and insisting on ethical behavior. Unlike university trained bureaucrats, many professionals were not directly employed by the state either, and could therefore practice more freely, without having to obey political pressures or bureaucratic mandates. This intermediary position within the middle class, without a fixed salary but also without direct supervision, made professions an attractive calling, because they provided considerable freedom for personal choice. As a result, the professional ideal exerted a powerful pull on university graduates, since such a life promised to liberate them somewhat from the twin evils of the market and the government.

patterns of professionalism

Although the process of professionalization was universal in character, its institutional pattern varied considerably according to national context. Ironically, the British experience of the "self-governing professions," which is often taken as the classic case, was actually somewhat peculiar because of weak academic training and lack of state regulation. Until the middle of the nineteenth century, young professionals were essentially apprenticed to older practitioners at the Inns of Court or the Royal Colleges of Physicians and examined by "qualifying associations." Only in later decades could the development of the red-brick universities begin to shift more of the training back into higher education, but testing remained a prerogative of the professional organizations. Hence the strength of autonomy regulated by ethics and the freedom from bureaucratic control provided an inspiring model, but proved surprisingly unique.

In contrast, the French case of state supervision is more typical of the Continental pattern, albeit with a peculiar competitive twist. In its enthusiasm for les carrières ouvertes aux talents (careers open to talent), the French Revolution abolished the traditional self-governing corporations and introduced unrestricted competition that destroyed solidarity. Ironically, Napoleon I (r. 1804–1814/15) reestablished the professions under tight government control, allowing collective representation to the lawyers alone, leaving the rest fragmented. Only in the second half of the nineteenth century did French professionals manage to restore some of their associations and regain a measure of collective identity through a revitalization of university training and restrictions on competition. Lawyers in particular succeeded so much in politics that critics called the Third Republic a République des avoués (republic of lawyers). Less successful was the rapidly growing group of writers, artists, and journalists, dividing the educated therefore between professionals and intellectuals.

The German variant of the process, with strong state involvement and academic training, has been called "professionalization from above." From the late eighteenth century on, the introduction of a series of rigorous state examinations for clergymen, lawyers, doctors, and eventually also teachers created bureaucratically controlled academic occupations whose members were intensively trained at the universities. During the middle of the nineteenth century, liberal opinion forced the government to disestablish the medical (1869) and legal (1879) professions, allowing them to enter into free practice and to establish powerful professional associations. However, in the wake of the overcrowding crisis of the 1880s, many professionals gravitated toward establishing a kind of neocorporatism characterized by self-governing chambers with public authority that might restrict competition and reestablish a suitable income. The central European pattern therefore consisted of a mixture of practitioner self-assertion within a framework of bureaucratic control.

Although the state was strongest in Russia, a limited kind of professionalism emerged under the tsars as well. Initially, the weakness of primary and secondary schooling as well as the hierarchical structure of estate society and the heavy hand of the bureaucracy left little room for the emergence of independent professions. But in the wake of the reforms set in place by Alexander II (r. 1855–1881), academic practitioners began to band together, founded their first associations, and became active in the liberal zemstvo (local government) movement that tried to modernize Russian society from the bottom up. Frustrated by the slow pace of reform, the often unemployed higher-education graduates around the turn of the century began to join the radical intelligentsia instead, trying to promote revolutionary change.

In the smaller European countries, the pattern of professionalization tended to reflect the arrangements of the larger state that served as chief cultural reference point, modified somewhat by local tradition. The traditional model of corporate self-government of the professions survived longest in Italy. The British practitioner-control system was rare, except for a similar grassroots approach in Switzerland. The French mixture of state control and market freedom somewhat influenced the Belgian practice. The German example of professionalization from above could be found in Austria, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, and Greece. Finally, the Russian pattern of delayed professionalism coupled with a radical intelligentsia became typical of the emerging eastern European and Balkan countries. Beyond a basic similarity in the overall thrust of professionalization, cross-national comparison therefore reveals a bewildering variety of time sequences and institutional arrangements.

problems of professionalization

The spread of the modern professions throughout Europe should, however, not obscure the existence of a series of fundamental problems associated with the process of professionalization. One of the key conflicts concerned the tension between professed altruism and practiced self-interest. Especially in treating legal or medical clients, individual practitioners faced many choices between rational reasoning or personal gain, which could not be governed by codes of ethics. When trying to get public approval for expanding their prerogatives, following their advice, or undertaking social reforms, the professions collectively resorted to arguments that claimed service to society through better justice, health, or technology. However, behind these unselfish protestations often lurked material considerations of barring competition, raising fees, or carving out new areas of practice. The discrepancy between pious protestations and crass abuses time and again tarnished the image of professions so that they could be ridiculed in satire.

Another area of contestation was the loss of public accountability in the face of expert authority. No doubt, the switch from oral tradition to a scholarly knowledge base and from old wives' tales to scientific medicines, just to pick one example, was on the whole beneficial. But the displacement of unlicensed competitors also made advice in matters of religion, law, or medicine unavailable to the working masses, who could not afford to pay for professional counsel. Moreover, the rise of academic medicine also ruptured traditions of folk-healing, not all of which were ineffective, as the recent rediscovery of herbal medicine shows. Instead of being responsible for its own decisions, part of the public became accustomed to deferring to the opinions of professionals also in matters where they were hardly any better informed. Already around the turn of the twentieth century critics, especially life-reformers, began to rail against excesses of "medicalization" and against similar losses of independence in law and education.

The politics of professionalization were also not unproblematic, since the general promotion of liberalization tended to give way to restrictive responses in moments of crisis. No doubt, the advancement of professionalism was generally associated with the rise of liberalism in the nineteenth century, since many of the leaders of liberal parties were lawyers, doctors, or educators. Aspiring professionals bought into the broader project of lifting the heavy hand of state so as to allow the emergence of a self-governing civil society, because they wanted to carve out an area of free practice for themselves. However, they did not envisage totally free competition, but rather preferred a regulated kind of freedom in which the state would protect their monopoly, guarantee a suitable standard of living, and follow their professional advice in questions of public policy. When threatened by overcrowding, assault on their privileges, or general impoverishment, the professions often entered alliances with conservative forces in order to protect their hard-won prerogatives.

A drastic case in point is the struggle over the admission of outsiders such as proletarians, Jews, or women, in which insiders used social prejudices and legal prohibitions to prevent their entry. As they could not be kept completely out, "undesirable" newcomers from the lower orders tended to be channeled into peripheral and subordinate positions. Jews had to overcome much social prejudice in western Europe, and they were forced to congregate in law and medicine in central Europe, because they were largely barred from state employment. In the more restrictive eastern Europe they had even less of a chance. The so-called weaker sex was excluded from the professions until the turn of the twentieth century by inferior secondary schooling that did not permit admission to university study and therefore prevented graduation. When social reformers managed to open higher education (in Prussia as late as 1907–1908), heated battles ensued over the acceptance of women into the professions, even if they had managed to acquire the right kind of credentials. Eventually the barriers were breached, especially in areas that seemed suited to the talents of "social mothering" such as in nursing or primary school teaching.

attractions of professionalism

In spite of its attendant problems, the rise of the professions in the nineteenth century profoundly reshaped the lives of the educated middle class. All across Europe the traditional learned pursuits began to formalize academic training, tightened up entrance examinations, improved the standards of practice, founded associations, and struggled for greater autonomy. In short, they refashioned themselves into modern professions: in England the free professions became the dominant form of the noneconomic middle class; in France professionalized officials vied with the intellectual literati; in the German speaking countries, the akademische Berufsstände (academically trained pursuits) reorganized themselves along professional lines; in the Slavic societies national and liberal professionals competed with the radical intelligentsia. While the specific institutional arrangements varied drastically, the general thrust of professional development therefore transformed the noneconomic middle class.

The professional social ideal proved so attractive because it suggested a fulfilling lifestyle, free from the constraints of the market and from the dictates of the bureaucracy. The academic knowledge base provided a superior competence that could outflank various rivals; the autonomy of practice allowed an independent existence that was able to follow its own preferences; the association of like-minded individuals offered a sense of community and an instrument for pursuing collective interests. Compared with other occupations in the economy and government, these were powerful advantages, even if professional life contained its own risks of intellectual failure, economic insecurity, and personal ostracism. Most powerful for many was, however, the ideal of service to the public that justified personal exertion and collective privileges. The novels of the British writer Archibald Joseph Cronin (1896–1981) describe this professional ideal as a kind of secular faith in the bettering of humanity that required personal sacrifice.

The success of professionalization therefore rested on persuasive public representations of the idealism of some practitioners and the provision of superior services. In speeches at their congresses and the pages of their journals, the professional associations conveyed a positive self-image to the public that stressed the altruism as well as the real benefits of their practice. Journalistic portrayals made the dedication of famous researchers like Louis Pasteur (1822–1895) or Rudolf Virchow (1821–1902) into "culture heroes" whose contributions were more constructive than those of poets or musicians, because they helped solve social problems. Graphic descriptions of the proliferation of new technologies based on chemistry, electronics, or the internal combustion engine also pointed to concrete advances that improved the lives of many people. With such powerful arguments, professionals could therefore claim that in the conduct of research, the growth of economies, the solution of social problems, and the governing of states the contributions of competent experts were becoming indispensable.

See alsoBourgeoisie; Education; Engineers; Intellectuals; Intelligentsia; Nurses;


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Konrad H. Jarausch


views updated May 21 2018


In Renaissance Europe, the word "profession" referred not to a career in general, but to a career in one of several high-prestige fields, such as law, medicine, the church, civil service, or teaching. Those who entered the professions earned more than most nonprofessionals, aside from nobles and wealthy merchants. Most professionals also held high social positions.

All professionals needed to be able to read, write, and speak Latin. Boys preparing for the professions began studying the language around age six or seven. Future lawyers and some physicians continued their education at universities. In southern Europe, boys entered universities at age 17 or 18 and received a doctorate in law or medicine after five to seven years of study. In northern Europe, boys of 13 or 14 received instruction from masters and older students. After four years they received a bachelor's degree and could continue on to earn a doctorate in law, medicine, or theology*.

After completing this formal training, a person had to be accepted into a professional organization, such as a guild* or college, in order to practice. Guilds were more likely to accept locals—especially those with male relatives in the guild—than strangers. Most professionals came from families in which several generations of men had entered the same profession.

Levels of training varied within each profession. For example, only some medical professionals held university degrees. Others took up practice as surgeons and empirics (practical doctors who treated wounds or fractures). These doctors could enter a medical guild after passing an examination, but they did not enjoy the status or income of universitytrained physicians. Similarly, teachers needed a degree to instruct students in a university or even a secondary school. However, teaching elementary school did not require a degree. This position offered little in the way of pay or prestige. It was also the only profession open to women.

The church gave boys from poor or nonprofessional families more opportunities than other professions. For example, Pope Pius V (reigned 1566–1572) was the son of a peasant. The church offered a variety of positions for priests, secretaries (who served popes and bishops), and lawyers for religious courts. These different positions called for varying levels of training. Parish priests needed little formal schooling. However, those who wished to rise in the church hierarchy* needed a university degree—usually in the field of law. Most of the Italian popes, cardinals, and bishops during the Renaissance had degrees either in church law or in both church and civil law.

The professions of law and civil service expanded throughout the Renaissance. As Renaissance states grew, so did the demand for civil servants such as judges and secretaries. Some states established special schools to train boys for government careers. Professionals who recorded legal agreements, known as notaries, were also essential. Most notaries learned their profession through apprenticeship*.

(See alsoClergy; Education; Guilds; Law; Medicine; Notaries; Universities. )

* theology

study of the nature of God and of religion

* guild

association of craft and trade owners and workers that set standards for and represented the interests of its members

* hierarchy

organization of a group into higher and lower levels

* apprenticeship

system under which a person is bound by legal agreement to work for another for a specified period of time in return for instruction in a trade or craft


views updated May 23 2018

professions. In English, the word ‘profession’ has since the 16th cent. been applied to a limited number of occupations in which a specific body of knowledge is used to solve problems for clients. By the 18th cent. these involved a social status well above that of trade and handicrafts and included the upper ranks of law, medicine, the church, and maybe the military. The authority of knowledge was often linked to the status of gentleman, which many had by birth, and others gained by achievement.

Social and economic change in the first half of the 19th cent. brought many challenges to the authority of the ‘traditional’ professions. The medical men faced rising expectations, the failure of urban public health, and public anger over body-snatching and dissection. The lawyers met the demands of the rational law reformers and the ridicule of people like Charles Dickens in his account of Chancery in Bleak House. The authority of the church was already compromised by the disputes between establishment and dissent. The military met mid-century condemnation for the incompetence of the Crimean War.

Response centred upon the reform and creation of a series of qualifying associations. There were 7 in 1800, 20 more by 1880, to which 39 were added by 1914. They sought to control entry, to set standards, and ultimately to supervise training and the development of professional knowledge. The British Medical Association was formed in 1856 and its authority gained legislative backing in 1858. It had developed from the Provincial Medical and Surgical Association (1834) which itself had recognized that the old division between physicians, surgeons, and apothecaries had been replaced in functional terms by the general practitioner. The Law Society, founded in 1825, came to supervise examinations in the 1870s. New areas of knowledge and knowledge application also organized. The Institute of Civil Engineers, founded in 1818, came to supervise examinations in the 1890s. Other groups, such as schoolteachers, did not gain full control of entry and work conditions but a variety of organizations worked to raise standards and improve public perception of their work. By 1900, an increasing amount of professional training was taking place in universities and colleges, rather than through the personal relationship of apprenticeships.

The 20th cent. not only saw a rapid increase in the areas of work and knowledge regarded as professional but also fundamental changes in the workplace relationships of many professions. In the 19th cent., doctors, lawyers, and self-employed schoolteachers collected fees directly from clients. A few like the poor law surgeon from the 1830s and the school board teacher (1870/2) had begun to work for salaries. After 1900, this trend accelerated. Professional people worked for a growing number of state agencies and private sector corporate bodies. Here they joined a new group of career salaried managers, who applied new management ‘science’ to industrial organization and created their own professional organizations. Professional and managerial occupations accounted for less than 10 per cent of the occupied male population in 1900 but grew to around 20 per cent by the 1970s. They were distinguished from wage labour by a greater degree of workplace autonomy, by better working conditions, and often by career progression, sick pay, holidays with pay, and pensions. In some senses the emphasis on service and standards, and on status derived from knowledge and training, challenged profit and capital accumulation in the value system of British society. At the same time the experience and often the ideological views of professionals in the public sector were very different from those in the private sector, where the market and profits still dominated, although usually mediated by professionals like accountants.

R. J. Morris


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professions, professionalism, professionalization Respectively a form of work organization, a type of work orientation (see WORK, SUBJECTIVE EXPERIENCE OF), and a highly effective process of interest group control. As an organizational form, a profession includes some central regulatory body to ensure the standard of performance of individual members; a code of conduct; careful management of knowledge in relation to the expertise which constitutes the basis of the profession's activities; and, lastly, control of numbers, selection, and training of new entrants. Max Weber contrasted professions with bureaucracy, and regarded them as the paradigm form of collegiate authority, in which rational-legal power is based on representative democracy and leaders in principle are first among equals.

The work orientation of the professional supposedly entails exclusive concern with the intrinsic rewards and performance of a task, and is typically associated with personal services involving confidentiality and high trust, as found for example in medicine, education, religion and the law. In the mainstream of the sociology of work and organizations, professionalism is contrasted with bureaucracy, and the so-called bureaucratic mentality.

Recent sociological work has tended to view professionalization as the establishment of effective interest-group control over clients with socially constructed problems as a method of exercising power in society. This approach treats professional ethics as an ideology, rather than an orientation necessarily adhered to, or meaningful in practice. Entry and knowledge controls function as a form of status exclusion from privileged and remunerative employment In this respect, professional organizations make an interesting comparison with trade unions, for although formal professional ethics preclude collective bargaining and industrial conflict, in practice many associations have found themselves becoming more unionate, whilst many unions practise quasi-professional job-entry control. From the huge literature of potential relevance to this entry (much relevant material occurs, for example, in discussion of labour-markets, gender, and the sociology of medicine) see Andrew Abbott , The System of Professions (1988)
, Eliot Friedson , Professional Powers (1986)
, and (for an interesting case-study) Paul Starr , The Social Transformation of American Medicine (1982)
. See also CLOSURE.


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PROFESSIONS. SeeLegal Profession ; Medical Profession .


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This entry consists of three separate articles: Clergy, Lawyers, and Physicians.

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