Sociology Of Professions Research Paper

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The sociology of professions is a branch of the sociology of work concerned with the analysis of expert occupations. It analyzes their patterns of organization, types of work, and social status. Because the sociology of professions first arose in the UK and the USA, it took its name and much of its early conceptual apparatus from the pattern of expert work characteristic of those countries. In recent years, however, the field has become more international, a change that is transforming both its empirical base and its theoretical superstructure.

1. Expert Occupations And The Sociology Of Professions

The sociology of professions first arose to study the particular social form taken on by expert occupations in England and the USA in the course of the nineteenth century. This form was characterized by a combination of independent individual practice with some type of collective association. It usually involved specialized education, examination or licensure, service fees, and some form of autonomous discipline. By the early twentieth century, such a form was characteristic of medicine, law, accounting, architecture, and various other fields in the Anglophone world.

The first systematic analysis of these ‘professions’ was by Carr-Saunders and Wilson in 1933, who set forth a typological analysis of occupations resting on various ‘traits’ that were taken to characterize the professions. The Carr-Saunders and Wilson analysis had a hard time with the military and the clergy, which were certainly ‘professions’ in the English sense of the term. Moreover, it made no effective contact with the quite different organization of expert work on the continent.

The French, for example, have no word with the denotation of the Anglo-American ‘profession.’ The French do distinguish professions liberales, but these include only experts in free individual practice, not all experts of a certain type. Profession itself has much broader purview than the English ‘profession,’ as does the parallel metier. Moreover, the organization of French experts has historically been far more state dependent than has that of Anglo-American ones. Nor was France the only problem. The word and concept of profession were no closer to the German culture of expertism than to the French. Indeed, the characteristic pattern for organizing expert workers on the continent has more often been through quasicivil service arrangements than through autonomous ‘professional’ ones. The sociology of professions thus began as a study of a particular kind of expert occupation. Only gradually have historical and comparative study made the limiting character of that approach clear.

2. Historical Development Of The Field

From the Carr-Saunders book of the 1930s up into the 1970s, typology remained the dominant strategy of the sociology of professions. Millerson (1964) presented a comprehensive summary of all the various qualities that had been used to define ‘professionhood.’ The typological approach eventually strangled inquiry, as investigators worried whether or not various groups really were professions. Indeed, a substantial literature grew up in this period on the ‘semiprofessions,’ usually felt to include teaching, librarianship, nursing, and social work. These fit the typological model in some ways (advanced education, licensing) but missed it in others (independent practice). The so-called semi professions were all largely female occupations, a fact that would later become more emphasized, but engineering, although largely male, shared many of the same characteristics. Within typological thinking, salaried employment of professionals presented a problem. A small literature in the 1950s and 1960s considered this problem under the heading of ‘professionals in bureaucracies,’ viewing such professionals as being under strong role strain because of the conflicting demands of profession and organization.

The typological model enabled the sociology of professions to come to a rapprochement with structural functionalism. In a celebrated essay, Parsons (1954) argued that professions were rationalist (as opposed to traditional), that they exercised functionally specific authority (as opposed to undifferentiated authority), and that they were universalist (as opposed to particularist). The later Parsonian tradition saw the professions as squarely anchoring the pattern maintenance sectors of crucial social subsystems. The typologists’ focus on the organization rather than the content of professional work accorded better with the early Parsons, however, which kept them apart from the later structural functional interest in the professions.

Throughout the early postwar period, students of Everett Hughes and others in the Chicago tradition continued to amass case studies of professions and semiprofessions. Many of these fit the typological model badly. Their dependent nature often mocked the high role structural functionalists assigned to professions. One way around this problem was to argue that professionalization was a characteristic process that many occupations had not yet fully traversed. In the 1960s and 1970s, sociologists of professions argued for a characteristic professionalizing process, a sequence of stages through which all expert occupations developed. (Wilensky in 1964 provided the most famous analysis of such an argument.)

In the later 1960s, the sociology of professions, like many other subfields, turned towards skeptical interpretations. Major reinterpretations came from Johnson (1967), Freidson (1970) and Larson (1977). This new ‘professional power’ interpretation saw the professions in a different light. Freidson brought a generation of detailed studies of medical workplaces and medical knowledge together with a theory of professional organization to argue that the structures of professional organization were hardly the direct outcomes of rational and functionally specific universalism. The power of doctors over nurses suddenly seemed less a matter of advanced training than an enforced local division of labor. At a much more general level, Johnson recast professionalism as one among a number of modes of occupational control. This argument was carried further by Larson’s reinterpretation of professions as collective mobility projects in which expert groups sought rewards through control of certain markets for services.

The rise of the power school coincided with a wide new interest in professions among historians, particularly in the USA. Scattered works had previously considered some major professions—English law and US medicine, for example. But the 1970s and early 1980s brought a flood of works covering various professions in the USA, England, and to a lesser extent France and Germany. These various works covered periods from the early twentieth century as far back as the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Although there were (and remain) important lacunae, theorists of professions began to work with a new empirical base. Perhaps more important, the historians turned to the sociological literature for conceptual guidance and in many cases found little of use to them.

A number of other trends helped recast study of professions in the 1970s and 1980s. Most important was the steady drift of professionals away from independent practice and into corporate settings. On the one hand, this was simply a continuation of the trend towards larger and larger professional firms. In law, accounting, and architecture, sizable firms dated from the first half of the twentieth century, at least in the USA. Legal restrictions generally prevented this development both in the UK and on the continent. On the other hand was the development of multiprofessional firms, a pattern that had begun in architecture and now spread into areas like accounting, finance, and consulting. These largely professional firms were complemented by a much larger body of salaried professionals scattered throughout commercial and nonprofit organizations in the USA. By 1980, few US professions indeed were more than 50 percent made up of independent practitioners.

The rise of salaried professional work in the USA accomplished three things. First, it brought the US professional world much closer to the European pattern. The pattern of large-scale salaried employment by professionals had fascinated the French particularly, who had developed, in the concept of cadres, the notion of a technocratic intelligentsia as a new mode of occupational structure (see Boltanski 1982). Second, the new salaried professional work reawakened the interest in the ‘professionals in bureaucracies’ problem of role conflict. Third, the new pattern led to new concepts of ‘deprofessionalization’ and ‘proletarianization of professionals.’ Although the latter term obviously derived from the attempt to develop a Marxist analysis of professions, both concepts attempted to come to terms with the notion—an absurdity under the ‘professionalization’ concept— that occupations could lose the perquisites and possibly even the form of professions once these had been gained. A wide variety of studies appeared in the 1970s and 1980s examining the degree to which professions and professionals were losing control of work and cultural authority as well as enduring more mundane changes in salaries and tenure.

By the mid-1980s, then, the sociology of professions looked quite different. It had lost nearly all touch with structural functionalism. There was confusion over which professions would develop in which directions at which times. A large new body of research opened to theorizing not only a wide variety of quasiprofessional occupations in the USA and England, but also the expert occupations of the continent. In many cases, this new data had extraordinary historical depth (see, e.g., the comparative work in Cocks and Jarausch 1990). In 1988, Abbott attempted to synthesize the entire area by refocusing the sociology of professions on actual professional work (both cultural and practical), turning away from the strong emphasis on the social structures of professionalism that had become the center of the literature. He envisioned a world of interprofessional competition over jurisdiction of work. Changes flowed into this world both from within professions and from beyond them, recasting some professions, privileging others, destroying yet others. Professions attempted to claim control of work in the workplace, before the public, and within the state, and the course of professions’ histories was determined by the ensemble of this melee of interaction. Abbott explicitly attacked the stillcontinuing typological tradition for eliding large areas of work. For him a profession was anything that competed like one.

Although Larson and others had attempted some international comparisons, Abbott’s heavy reliance on European cases, particularly French ones, presaged what became the major development in studies of professions in the 1990s. This was the trend toward examining the relation of professions and the state. Much of the most interesting work came from Europe, for example, Jarausch’s (1990) comparative analysis of lawyers, teachers, and engineers in Germany in the first half of the twentieth century. Krause (1994) has made the most general attempt at analyzing relations between the state and professions (and also capital), studying the USA, the UK, France, Germany, and Italy by means of case studies of law, medicine, engineering, and academics in each country. Krause’s analysis focuses on the relative decline of professional autonomy and power in all these societies in the years after 1970. Both state and capital have increased their authority over professions.

The relation of state and professions has been underscored as an empirical question by the vast complications of creating standardized professional credentials in the European Union. The future of the sociology of professions will be greatly shaped by the theoretical developments necessary to analyse this process of internationalization of professional life. There is also a ‘relations with capital’ side to internationalization, encompassed in the largely unstudied complexities of the transnational corporations’ use of professional services. There has been some study of ‘offshoring’ of professional services (e.g., of engineering services in telecommunications), but this particular capitalist attack on professional organization has not been studied in detail. In general, there is a startlingly small amount of work on expert occupations in the third world, with the possible exceptions of lawyers and, of course, the military.

3. Current Problems

The central present issue for the sociology of professions, then, is the question of how the professions will be reshaped by the economic reorganization that arose out of the crisis of the 1970s. Many of the recent transformations have long antecedents, particularly the drift to salaried employment with its questioning of professions’ cultural authority. Other trends, however, are new or newly important because of the economic conjuncture. Internationalization has been crucial. By the late 1980s the restrictions on professional firm size began to fall in Europe, largely under the onslaught of US firms, particularly law firms and multiprofessional consulting firms, which were the only firms able to manage some of the huge legal and financial projects characteristic of the new international economy. The new gigantism has transformed relations both within the professions, and, more important, between the professions and the state. It is in the international context, too, that the question of the profession–state relation is most clearly posed.

But there have been important internal effects to rethink as well. The decline of medical power from the pinnacle portrayed by Freidson has given new meaning to the phrase ‘proletarianization of professionals.’ This decline, driven by reorganizations of insurers and regulators, requires revising general theory about how expertise is organized in society. In that sense, the sociology of professions is again confronted with a functionalist question: how is expertise to be produced, controlled and reproduced in modern societies?

The issue of state and capitalist control is only one side of this question. On the other is the issue of commodification of professional knowledge. It is at present much too early to know the effects of computer-aided design systems, medical diagnosis systems, and other expert systems on the future of professions. But it is clear that new theory is required. It is also clear that commodification will be used to further reduce the status of professionals (see Abbott 1991).

Indeed, the field faces again the boundary question that has so long obsessed it. Earlier in this century, the boundary issue was ‘what is a profession?’ Given the new structure of employment relations, even in such highly professionalized surroundings as technological research firms and law firms, it is not clear what kinds of workers ought to be the subject of the sociology of professions. If the pattern of associational professionalism that gave rise to the field itself is either dead or transformed, then the field must retheorize its objects of scrutiny. Abbott’s test—a profession is an occupation that competes by retheorizing others’ work—presupposes fixed and organized occupations of a kind that simply may not exist under modern conditions of employment.

While the main focus of the professions literature has been on organizational and structural levels, some have insisted on a focus at the individual level, on the professionals themselves. The most general theme in this area has been a recurrent attempt to resolve the problem professionals (or expert workers) represent to Marxist theories of work. Originating in Djilas’s book, The New Class (1957), the theme was continued in Bell’s Coming of Post-Industrial Society (1973), with its predictions of a knowledge world of the future. Attempting to synthesize this literature Brint (1994) recognizes the intense pressures brought on older structures of professionalism by modern economies. He sees a decline of ‘social trustee professionalism’ as professionals become mere private citizens with particular interests.

Perkin’s (1989) much broader analysis argues that the idea of profession became a model for modern societies generally in the middle fifty years of this century. The ideal of an individual with personal ‘knowledge capital,’ combined with the notion of just reward, was in Perkin’s view fundamental to the conception of the modern welfare state. In that state’s fall, argued Perkins, fell the professional ideal as well. Perkins’s argument provides a useful conclusion. In his article on ‘professions’ Talcott Parsons (1968) closed with the confident assertion 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 old issues of political authoritarianism and capitalistic exploitation.’ Now that history has shown him wrong, the sociology of professions must develop a theory that can stand the test of major historical change.


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  2. Albott A 1991 The future of professions. Research in the Sociology of Organizations 8: 17–42
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