The professions as an object of study

Several gifted sociologists over the past thirty years have made innovative contributions to the study of the “sociology of professions.” Most recent among these is Andrew Abbott, whose book, The System of Professions: An Essay on the Division of Expert Labor, is a superlative contribution to sociological theory formation. Abbott has also given attention to one profession in particular, university faculty, in two other interesting books, Chaos of Disciplines and Department and Discipline: Chicago Sociology at One Hundred. Earlier contributions to the study of professions include books by Mayer Zald, including Occupations and organizations in American society: The organization-dominated man?, The correctional institution for juvenile offenders: An analysis of organizational “character”, and his first book, YMCA in Atlanta: Environment and adaptation. (As the titles indicate, Zald’s interests cross over between professions and organizations; but the two are plainly linked.)

Examples of professions that are considered by Abbott and Zald include psychiatrists, social workers, accountants, physicians, professors, and pharmacists. And I suppose we might extend the list quite a bit, to include journalists, lawyers, real estate agents, university presidents, property assessors, architects, clergy, and engineers. But what about more borderline examples: skilled auto mechanics, sculptors, acupuncturists, necromancers, landscapers, and tarot card readers? And how about corporate executives, bankers, skilled pickpockets, and pirates? We know what a professional opera singer is: it is a person who can earn her living in this career. But is an opera singer a “professional” in the relevant sense? What is a “professional”, anyway? What are the relationships among profession, occupation, skill, expertise, income, work, prestige, and credential? And how is this a sociological question?

As the examples suggest, there are several dimensions of qualification that we might intuitively consider to define the concept of “professional”. Is it a person who earns his/her living by exercising a skill or talent? Is it a person who has had formal training in a high-prestige type of work? Is it a person who is credentialed by a recognized credentialing agency? Is it a person who is tagged with the social label “professional” by other people in his/her society? Or is it a person who is a member of an organization of people doing the same kind of work?

We might suppose that the concept of “professional” is an overlap concept that involves the intersection of skill, knowledge, credential, association, and prestige — with the implication that there are members of society who have several of these features but not others, and are therefore not regarded as “professionals”.

Notice that these are all conceptual questions; they have to do with how we choose to define a certain category of social action and actor. Here we have quite a bit of choice — though we want our definition of “professional” to have some relationship to ordinary usage. This brings the idea of the social construction of social categories into play; for example, does it make sense to imagine that “bare-foot doctors” constituted a profession in revolutionary China, given the strong ideology of egalitarianism that was present? Presumably bare-foot doctors were regarded as “workers”, not professionals.

Once we have clarified the concept — that is, once we have delineated the domain of social behavior and action that falls under the concept of “the professions” — we can then do specific empirical work. The empirical work falls in many areas, and much of it depends on detailed studies of historical cases. We can examine the training and schooling that is customarily associated with the profession of pharmacy or accounting at a particular point in time; we can trace out the multiple professional organizations and associations that existed for pharmacists or accountants in the 1920s; we can examine in detail the processes involved in accreditation and credentialing for the profession at a certain time; and we can observe the rising and falling fortunes of the professions over time, as they compete for space in the ecology of an existing social system. (Abbott gives a lot of attention, for example, to the struggle between social workers and psychiatrists over the right to treat mentally ill patients.)

The topic of training regimes and professional associations is particularly accessible to empirical study; the sociologist can dig into archives and discover quite a bit of concrete detail about the ways in which accountants or physicians were trained in 1920 and the ways in which they were credentialed by the relevant professional organizations. They can consider the processes by which a segment of the skilled work force becomes “professionalized.” And they can consider in detail the lobbying campaigns and public relations efforts conducted by professional organizations to retain certain skilled performances exclusively for their members. (This is the jurisdictional question that is central in many studies of the professions.)

Abbott’s conceptual approach is signaled by the subtitle of his book: “the division of expert labor.” He highlights abstract knowledge as the prime criterion of an area of skilled work constituting a profession: “For abstraction is the quality that sets interprofessional competition apart from competition among occupations in general. Any occupation can obtain licensure (e.g., beauticians) or develop ethics code (e.g., real estate). But only a knowledge system governed by abstractions can redefine its problems and tasks, defend them from interlopers, and seize new problems–as medicine has recently seized alcoholism, mental illness, hyperactivity in children, obesity, and numerous other things. Abstraction enables survival in the competitive system of professions” (8-9). Expertise is an expression of abstract knowledge; and the possession of knowledge-based expertise is the result of formal training and the foundation of licensure.

For Abbott, then, the sociology of the professions needs to focus on the systems through which the relevant forms of abstract knowledge are created; the educational systems through which pre-professionals acquire this knowledge; and the professional associations that oversee both education and current practice through their power of licensure. These associations turn out to be potent social actors: through their leadership at a given point in time, they take actions designed to improve the profession and improve the social and economic environment for the profession in the future. (This is the competitive part of the story mentioned above.)

The other central sociological question that comes up in Abbott’s treatment is the organizational one: how are the organizations of society arranged in such a way as to incorporate the specialized knowledge of the professions? This takes us into consideration of hospitals, law firms, banks, and universities, and the intricate pathways of development through which each of these organizational forms have developed in the past century. (This is also a point of contact with Zald’s careful work on organizations such as the YMCA and social-service organizations.)

I’ve dwelled on this precinct of sociology because it is one of the areas of sociological research that involves a fascinating mix of objective, case-based research and somewhat ephemeral social entities — the profession of accountancy, the profession of medicine. These are social “things” in some sense — but they are highly abstract entities involving a constant change of personnel, standards, curricula, bodies of knowledge and expertise, and zones of jurisdiction. As such, the study of professions seems to well illustrate a point that seems fundamental to me: that we need to understand the social world as a plastic, heterogeneous, and shifting range of activities, rather than as an ensemble of fixed social structures or entities. The beauty of Abbott’s work is his ability to give some definition to a reality that he fully recognizes to be in flux.


One response

  1. Abbott's work is significant, of course, but it neglects the psychological dimension of the social psychology of professions. Consider that each profession elevates its members in status above the remainder of the workforce. Each profession is a status hierarchy. All professionals strive to win recognition of the value of their work from the "recognition field" of their particular profession, in order to advance in status. Striving for recognition is a major motivating force in the life of the professional. There are other motives, of course, but this striving is central. Lex Crane

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