The basic characteristics of the professions are more or less uniformly recognized today, although specific decisions as to which occupations are professions might depend upon which characteristics the classifier emphasizes. Greenwood, in "Attributes of a Profession," suggests that occupations may be placed along a continuum with the universally recognized professions such as medicine, law, or college teaching at one end and the manual occupations at the other.
In general, the professions are seen as "intellectual" occupations, based upon a long process of formal assimilation of theoretical knowledge upon which professional activity is based. "It is this characteristic, the possession of an intellectual technique acquired by special training, which can be applied to some sphere of everyday life," says Carr-Saunders, "that forms the distinguishing mark of a profession." Although agreeing in general, T. H. Marshall feels that the "essence of professionalism" is the individual qualities of the professional which makes for individual judgment and the assumption of individual responsibility "not concerned with self-interest, but with the welfare of the client."
Interestingly enough, the professions as a special class in the family of occupations are perhaps most anomalous. Rooted in the traditionalism of medieval Europe, they alone among occupations made a relatively successful transition from the protection of cloister to the protection of the community. While the guilds of merchants and artisan were destroyed by a changing social order which saw the rise of industrial capitalism, the guilds of professionals (which were really groups of teachers and students attached to the universities under ecclesiastical control) retained an honorable and relatively unchanged position in the community. This process is described by Carr-Saunders in his article.
Despite such changes as rising capitalism, the restructuring of the class system, the increasing importance of the market, and redistributions of political power, the professions maintained their guild-like character