Rise of the White Collar Worker, Ideology of Professionalism, and White Collar Strategies: The Case of Nursing
A variety of economic and political processes transformed the organization of work beginning in the 1870s. These transformations gave rise to new occupations, changing a vast component of the American workforce into what are known collectively as white collar workers, though some enjoy nearly complete control over their work while others are virtually unable to exercise any discretion on the job at all. Along with the emergence of white collar work came a human capital interpretation of professionalism--a stalwart belief in individualized means of attaining social and economic status. According to this ideology, such status is achieved through increased educational credentialism and "proper behaviors." As these new salaried, white collar workers fought to secure some degree of autonomy in the workplace, they legitimized their struggle with the human capital ideology.
The occupation of nursing was, like other white collar pursuits, subject to pressures of diminished control and became enmeshed in struggles among different interpretations of professionalism. There are, indeed, very different segments within the nursing workforce, which, according to position in the workplace, have regarded very differently the ideology of professionalism. In addition, each group within nursing has employed a different organizational strategy to secure its goals: professionalization, professional unionism, or trade unionization. In each case, ownership over the imagery of the professional, as either educated expert or experienced, autonomous worker, became the focal point in the battle for workplace control.
It is critical to situate nursing within a broader context of economic and occupational change in order to understand its stratified workforce and divergent responses to the work environment. Between 1870 and 1920, the organization of