The Sociology of the Professions

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Keith M. Macdonald

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    Dedication

    To Eric Norman Macdonald: true professional and great amateur

    Epigraph

    We trust our health to the physician; our fortune and sometimes our life and reputation to the lawyer and attorney. Such confidence could not safely be reposed in people of a very mean or low condition. Their reward must be such, therefore, as may give them that rank in society which so important a trust requires. The long time and great expense which must be laid out in their education, when combined with this circumstance, necessarily enhance still further the price of their labour.

    (AdamSmith, Wealth of Nations, BK 1 Ch. 10)

    Preface

    The announcement of death of the sociology of the professions now appears every bit as exaggerated as the report of his own death seemed to Mark Twain, when he read of it in the newspapers; but at the time, the supposed demise of that branch of sociology had the warrant of a content analysis of American sociological journals (as well as the French journal Sociologie du Travail), which was then compared with similar studies that had been carried out some years earlier (Smigel, 1954; Smigel et al., 1963). The viewpoint therefore carried considerable weight, and although the criticism was raised that Hall's method had limited him to an inappropriate sample and that there was plenty of material being published elsewhere, if he only looked for it (Macdonald and Ritzer, 1988), it certainly seemed as though some sort of change had come over the sociology of occupations.

    What now seems likely is that the decline of interest in the professions in the principal journals of sociology in America was a consequence of the major shift in theoretical orientation, particularly in American sociology, from the structural functionalist orthodoxy of the 1960s, to a much more pluralistic scene, in which action-based theory in a variety of forms played an important part. The change was of consequence for the sociology of the professions, because this topic had played an important role in the functionalist depiction of modern society: while work and occupations in general were ethically neutral, the professions were seen as being ethically positive and (as will be seen in the Chapter 1) embodiments of the ‘central values’ of the society. The father figure of functionalism, Emile Durkheim, had written on professional ethics (1957), while the doyen of mid-century structural-functionalism, Talcott Parsons, had also made important contributions to the topic. At the same time the preoccupation with legal-rational bureaucracy (an action-based idea that had been hi-jacked by the structuralist opposition!), provoked a concern that the values of professionalism were in danger of being seriously restricted by the ‘Iron Cage’ of bureaucracy.

    With the demise of functionalism, the professions left the centre of the sociological stage – or so it would appear from Hall's study quoted above. It would probably be more accurate to see the sociological enterprise as becoming multi-centred, rather than dominated by one paradigm, with the result that professionalism became no longer a topic ancillary to a central theoretical theme, but part of a number of areas of interest, that combined theoretical and empirical material. Amongst these are social stratification, the state, the social division of labour, and patriarchy as well as the continuation (with rather different emphases from those of the 1960s) of the interest in professional ethics and the relationship between professionalism and bureaucracy. Most important, however, was the removal of the professions from their privileged position in the sociological order of things: with this shift in emphasis from structure to action the sociological question changed from ‘What part do the professions play in the established order of society?’ to ‘How do such occupations manage to persuade society to grant them a privileged position?’

    An account of this sea-change is the starting point for the present work (Chapter 1), and in particular the emergence of a conceptual framework which has as its central feature the notion of a ‘professional project’. This approach is concerned with the ways in which the possessors of specialist knowledge set about building up a monopoly of their knowledge and, on this basis, establish a monopoly of the services that derive from it. This draws on a mainly Weberian tradition, especially the concepts of ‘exclusion’ and ‘social closure’ as mechanisms whereby the social standing of a group is achieved and maintained. The work of Larson (1977) in developing this approach and applying it to the achievement of monopoly of services based on the exclusive use of a particular field of ‘scientific’ knowledge, is particularly important. The relevance of these ideas for the study of social stratification is then pursued in Chapter 2.

    Chapter 3 widens the scope of the study by comparing the historical development of professions in four Western cultures – Britain, the United States of America, France and Germany. The objective is to draw attention to the variety of ways in which professions have developed and to the crucial place of the state and political culture in any explanation of this variation. At the same time this material is intended to meet the criticism raised by some sociologists, that the lack of development of professionalism on Anglo-American lines, in for example Germany and Scandinavia, casts serious doubt on the utility, and even the validity of the ‘professional project’ as a concept for societal and intercultural analysis.

    No monopoly can be obtained and guaranteed in a modern society (nor probably in any other) without the active cooperation of the state – or at the least, a very benign neglect. Chapter 4 therefore builds on the foregoing cross-cultural comparison and examines the relation between the state and professional occupations and in particular the nature of the ‘regulative bargain’ that exists between them. This term refers to the almost inevitable consequence that a bid for monopoly will, if successful, elicit from the state the imposition of a number of restrictions and requirements. The particular examples considered are those of medicine, accountancy and architecture in Britain.

    A special case of exclusion is the way in which male professionals have excluded women – a theme that is taken up in Chapter 5. The concept of the professional project is not only valuable in exploring the exercise of patriarchal power, but it is equally useful in understanding the attempts of professional groups with female membership to advance their cause in an inherently hostile environment.

    If the state is the omnipresent external feature of the professional project, the sine qua non of its internal structure is knowledge. The origins of any profession lie in the existence of an area of knowledge which those who possess it are able to isolate from social knowledge generally, and establish a special claim to. As important as retaining control of it, is its development and presentation to society as the special province of the members, who alone can be trusted to use it in an ethical manner. The way that this constitutes part of the professional project is the subject matter of Chapter 6, together with a consideration of the way that the social influence of a profession varies according to the nature of its knowledge base.

    Finally, Chapter 7 draws these themes together to present a synthetic model of the professional project and illustrates its practical applicability to empirical cases.

    The theme of this book is therefore a consideration of the ‘professional project’ as a means of understanding and explaining professions and professionalization. It is a concept that comes from the ‘Chicago School’ of American sociology, and more particularly its Symbolic Interactionist tradition; and from the action orientation to be found in the work of Max Weber. Both schools of thought emphasize ‘action’, with how things get done in society and a concern with the social construction of reality. Glaser and Strauss (1965) convey this idea by saying that this kind of sociologist wants answers to the question ‘What is going on here?’, while Larson (1977: xii), paraphrasing Everett C. Hughes, asks ‘What do professions actually do to negotiate and maintain their special position?’; and Abbott (1988: 310) declares that ‘Case studies of professions are both the raw material of theory and the audience that [gives] thumbs up or down.’ It is this kind of sociological work that will be attempted in what follows.

    Before proceeding further, I must acknowledge a debt to my colleagues at the University of Surrey, who for years have listened patiently to my seminars on professions and who have responded helpfully. Thanks are especially due to Martin O'Brien and Nigel Fielding, who read and commented on earlier versions of Chapters 3 and 4 respectively. Crucial to my decision to pursue this topic was George Ritzer (University of Maryland) who, (some years ago now!) provided both general encouragement and the particular stimulus of asking me to collaborate with him on The Sociology of the Professions – Dead or Alive? But neither he nor my other colleagues are responsible for the shortcomings in what follows.

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