Profession And Professionalisation

Profession and professionalisation

A profession is a vocation founded upon specialized educational training, the purpose of which is to supply disinterested objective counsel and service to others, for a direct and definite compensation, wholly apart from expectation of other business gain. The term is a truncation of the term “liberal profession”, which is, in turn, an Anglicization of the French term “profession libérale”. Originally borrowed by English users in the 19th century, it has been re-borrowed by international users from the late 20th, though the (upper-middle) class overtones of the term do not seem to survive retranslation: “liberal professions” are, according to the European Union’s Directive on Recognition of Professional Qualifications”those practiced on the basis of relevant professional qualifications in a personal, responsible and professionally independent capacity by those providing intellectual and conceptual services in the interest of the client and the public”.

Professions enjoy a high social status, regard and esteem conferred upon them by society. This high esteem arises primarily from the higher social function of their work, which is regarded as vital to society as a whole and thus of having a special and valuable nature. All professions involve technical, specialized and highly skilled work often referred to as “professional expertise.” Training for this work involves obtaining degrees and professional qualifications  without which entry to the profession is barred (occupational closure). Updating skills through continuing education is required through training.


There is considerable agreement about defining the characteristic features of a profession. They have a “professional association, cognitive base, institutionalized training, licensing, work autonomy, colleague control… (and) code of ethics”, to which Larson then also adds, “high standards of professional and intellectual excellence,”  that “professions are occupations with special power and prestige”, and that they comprise “an exclusive elite group,”  in all societies. Members of a profession have also been defined as “workers whose qualities of detachment, autonomy, and group allegiance are more extensive than those found among other groups…their attributes include a high degree of systematic knowledge; strong community orientation and loyalty; self-regulation; and a system of rewards defined and administered by the community of workers.”

A profession has been further defined as: “a special type of occupation…(possessing) corporate solidarity…prolonged specialized training in a body of abstract knowledge, and a collectivity or service orientation…a vocational sub-culture which comprises implicit codes of behavior, generates an esprit de corps among members of the same profession, and ensures them certain occupational advantages…(also) bureaucratic structures and monopolistic privileges to perform certain types of work…professional literature, legislation, etc.” A critical characteristic of a profession is the need to cultivate and exercise professional discretion – that is, the ability to make case by case judgements that cannot be determined by an absolute rule or instruction.


Spanning the Civil War to the First World War, the rise of American professionalism brought about the model of a modern career: a vocation that claims service, not moneymaking, as its aim; that privileges expertise; that defines and protects systems of education that confer such expertise; and that takes for granted the professional’s desire for upward mobility. For writers, the advent of professionalism meant a shift in literary taste from an amateur, romantic, and passively “feminized” style of authorship to one that was typified by training, realism, and traditional masculinity. In 1855 the poet Walt Whitman (1819–1892) expressed his idea of artistic inspiration as “I loafe and invite my Soul, / I lean and loafe at my ease, observing a spear of summer grass” (“Song of myself” ll. 4–5). By 1903, however, in “Getting into Print,” an article in the Editor magazine, the novelist and short story writer Jack London (1876–1916) responded, “Don’t loaf and invite inspiration; light out after it with a club, and if you don’t get it you will nonetheless get something that looks remarkably like it” (p. 57). Replacing Whitman’s reified muse with “something that looks remarkably like it,” London’s description of authorship reveals professionalism’s link to the seemingly unrelated nineteenth-century developments of the steamship, railroad, telegraph, and telephone: technologies of mass communication that created and maintained the literary professions through the buying and selling of words as commodities. Thus, although the progressivist London and his contemporaries favored the reflection of “the real” in writing, at the turn of the twentieth century the profession of literature became increasingly aligned with commercialism—with the look of inspiration instead of its substance. This point is crucial to understanding a central tension for professional authors writing from 1870 to 1920: the tension between high art—intellectual work supposedly performed for social good—and texts that were marketed for individual or corporate profit through systems of mass media.

The culture of professionalism

The historian Burton Bledstein identifies the late nineteenth century in America as a “culture of professionalism”—a culture stemming from the delimitation of clearly defined, service-oriented careers occupied by experts; sustained by schooling; restricted by gatekeeping; and made popular by the association with the traditional American values of radical individualism, productivity, progress, and universal education. Not surprisingly, the Franklinian ideal of the self-made man thrived under professionalism. In an 1889 North American Review essay titled “Wealth,” Andrew Carnegie (1835–1919) claimed that self-made millionaires should and would become the professional arbiters of American life, advancing all citizens with their expert distribution of the nation’s resources. “Individualism, Private Property, the Law of the Accumulation of Wealth, and the Law of Competition,” Carnegie claimed, “are the highest results of human experience. . . . We shall have an ideal state, in which the surplus wealth of the few will become, in the best sense, the property of the many, because administered for the common good, and this wealth, passing through the hands of the few, can be made a much more potent force for the elevation of our race than if it had been distributed in small sums to the people themselves” (pp. 657, 660). In part, Carnegie’s vision of this ideal state resulted in his endowment of large public libraries throughout the 1880s and 1890s to assist the working and middle classes of industrial cities. His libraries are but one example of numerous professional institutions that claimed a kind of manifest destiny—in which the overall improvement of the nation’s citizens seemed inevitable—while simultaneously helping to shape and preserve class stratification in America.

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