Academic journal article Canadian Review of Sociology

Profession: A Useful Concept for Sociological Analysis?

Academic journal article Canadian Review of Sociology

Profession: A Useful Concept for Sociological Analysis?

Article excerpt

RECENTLY IN CANADA, THE UNITED KINGDOM, and elsewhere, we appear to be witnessing fundamental change to what have traditionally been seen as some of the most autonomous, rewarding, and distinctive jobs in the labor market. Numerous studies document the loss of autonomy, status, and authority within established professions like medicine, and illustrate that while new professional groups are being created, they tend to have less autonomy and authority than did their predecessors (Beardwood 1999; Brazier et al. 1993; Coburn 1999). In common parlance, the term "profession" typically refers to paid employment or any occupation; its sociological usage to refer to a special kind of occupation with status and privileges appears increasingly divorced from social reality. Some scholars have argued that professions are in a state of decline; becoming subordinate and indistinguishable from other forms of expert labor (Leicht and Fennell 2001; Ritzer and Walczak 1988; Rothman 1984).

The apparent decline of professions can be linked to labor market change: with the expansion of the "knowledge economy," an expanding services sector, and credential inflation, there are many occupations in the labor market that require education and expertise, and provide service to the public. Education, training, and a service orientation no longer appear to distinguish professions from other occupations. Furthermore, traditional professions like medicine and law appear to be changing: becoming increasingly controlled in larger bureaucratic settings, and enjoying less autonomy and authority than they did in the past (Coburn 1994; Ritzer and Walczak 1988; Rothman 1984). Occupations not traditionally regarded as professions, like management, are coming to dominate professions, usurping the authority and autonomy once seen to be the perquisites of professional practice (Leicht and Fennell 2001). The end result is a growing belief that professions are in decline, and that the concept itself may not be as relevant a category for sociological analysis as it was in the past.

In the sociological literature, this dim view may also be the legacy of one of the last great American works on professions, Andrew Abbott's (1988) System of Professions. Abbott sought to shift the course of research on professions away from professionalization--the processes through which occupations come to acquire professional status and/or characteristics--toward the work that professionals did, and their ability to lay claim to a scope of practice, or jurisdiction, as well as interprofessional conflict for control of jurisdictions. While Abbott's shift of focus was valuable and spurred research on interprofessional conflict, his emphasis on jurisdiction appears to apply equally to any occupation with a claim to expertise in a specific field of endeavor. In his work there are no apparent differences between expert occupations with professional status, and those without it (Adams 2004; Sciulli 2005). Status--one of the key characteristics traditionally argued to distinguish professions from other expert occupations (Vollmer and Mills 1965)--is largely forgotten.

Is "profession" a useful concept for sociological analysis? Problems with definition have plagued the field for over 60 years. Definitional debates were prominent from the 1950s through the 1970s, before being generally abandoned in the 1980s and 1990s because no single definition could fully capture the complexity of professional employment and its variations across time and place (Adams and Welsh 2007; Macdonald 1995). This move was a beneficial one that enabled researchers to focus on other aspects of professional development and change. The outcome, however, was a plethora of case studies that, while very informative, do not enable us to see professions as a distinct group of occupations, sharing many commonalities, and distinguishable from other occupations. We currently lack the theoretical and empirical tools for identifying and analyzing professions. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.