E. O. Wright's class model is valuable as an analytic tool to measure dimensions of control within the workplace. However, culture is also a critical part of the picture, and it is not addressed by this framework. Culture involves subjectivity (values, beliefs, and interpretations) and practice (rituals and collective patterns of action). It is ambiguous, full of contradictions and varied interpretations of the same event. Culture is not so much a single phenomenon as what Clifford Geertz terms "systems of interacting symbols, patterns of interworking meanings" ( Geertz, 1973: 207). This chapter seeks to explain the context and patterns of varied cultural meanings found among hospital nurses. It attempts to understand the ways in which "sociopolitical thought [and actions are] bound up with the existing life situation of the thinker" for nurses ( Mannheim, quoted in Geertz, 1973: 194).
Although class position does act as a powerful determinant of the subjective views and behaviors of nurses, it does not tell the whole story. In nursing, an important role is played by interpretations of individual professionalism.
Professionalism, as it permeates American culture in general, and professional schools and hospitals in particular, conjures up wholesome images of expertise, autonomy, and altruism ( Wilensky, 1964); it carries a sense of unquestionable social and economic superiority of white collar over blue collar workers. Such professionalism has been historically symbolized by the physician, who (at least until recently) was thought to possess autonomy, specialized knowledge, altruistic service, and rapid social mobility. There are also other concepts of professionalism. Taken together they shape an ideology. Though nurses, self- described occupational have-nots, strive toward what they perceive as the prize in American society, true professionalism, they understand this goal in different ways.