Claiming membership of an official occupation involves something more than checking a box on a census form. That act does represent a process of self-definition, of identification as an engineer rather than a production manager, a director of a small company rather than a jobbing plumber, or a part-time nurse rather than a housewife. At the same time, it is a claim to belong to a group whose boundaries are socially rather than individually defined. To represent oneself as a member of an occupation is to assert that one should be included in a category of people who share some distinctive skill.
An occupation consists in part in the implied or explicit licence that some people claim and are given to carry out certain activities rather different from those of other people and to do so in exchange for money, goods or services. (Hughes 1971:287)
The idea of a licence is more than just a metaphor. In modern societies all occupations are, in a sense, defined by law. At its most basic, anyone claiming the status of an occupation member is under a legal duty to perform their work to the standard of competence that can reasonably be expected of any member of that group. Failure to do so may be the basis for a claim of negligence, whether the task is mending radios or giving injections.
In some occupations, however, the process of claiming membership is formalized by a legally backed system of credentialling. Legitimate claimants are identified by their possession of specific certificates which confer the right to use the occupation’s title. For example, only people with qualifications recognized by the General Dental Council may legally describe themselves as ‘dentists’, ‘dental surgeons’, or ‘dental practitioners’. In a few cases, it is actually made illegal for anyone who does not hold a