The Rise of Professionalism: A Sociological Analysis

By Magali Sarfatti Larson | Go to book overview

Chapter 8
PROFESSIONAL PRIVILEGE IN A DEMOCRATIC SOCIETY

Professions came of age in America after the Civil War, a period in which economic, administrative, and political power were consolidated and centralized. In the period between 1870 and 1920, the establishment of national organizational nuclei served by vast bureaucracies was so distinctive that many authors, following Kenneth Boulding, refer to it as the "organizational revolution." They tend to see it as the rather paradoxical culmination of the "great transformation" which had begun half a century earlier under the auspices of laissez-faire.

Corinne Gilb observes, for instance, that "professional organizations came relatively late in the organizational revolution" and suggests that "to articulate and sustain the new and needed levels of professionalism, and to hold their own in a society whose various other members were increasingly organized, the professions, too, formed organizations."1 It is true that neither in Europe nor in the United States did professional organizations attain their present form or create their present relationships with state power until this century.2 The radical changes in the larger market had fundamental consequences for the structure of professions, old and new, as they strove to establish or maintain their own secondary markets of services. To these general consequences I shall return later. We can expect them to be more visible, widespread, and far-reaching in the United States than in other advanced capitalist countries. Indeed, in America's passage from local or regional to national organizations, all the central institutions were distinctively formed or transformed: the structure of the federal government, the corporate nuclei of industrial capitalism, the industrial trade unions, the educational system, and the professions bear little resemblance to the institutional forms which fulfilled their functions before this phase, in which the United States became the world's leading industrial power.3

It would be misleading, however, to assume that there was a total discontinuity between the early attempts at professionalization and the consolidated forms of mature and successful professionalism. The professional project can be identified by its related objectives of market monopoly and social status. These goals were pursued at different times by different groups of professional reformers, using the resources that were accessible in their specific environments. The "organizational revolution" did not so much alter the nature of the professional project as it altered

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