Unfortunately, rose-tinted faith in a leisurely future was misplaced: the light at the end of the professional tunnel turned out to be fire on the tracks. Leading up to and past the turn of the millennium (in the First World at least) the same social mobility and technological progress that enabled professionalisation to sprout also resulted in higher education (and information in general) becoming more and more accessible, more democratised, which in turn made expertise gradually less rare and thus less socially and economically valuable. A few ivory towers crumbled: nowadays, even commoners are allowed to be critical thinkers. In terms of “knowledge capital”, both old and new professions increasingly began to lose their monopolies, and their reflex response was more professionalisation. An arms race ensued, a vicious circle that demanded ever more education, regulation and organisation, spreading even as far down as the skilled trades – today most people would not notice anything strange about the term “professional plumber” but Jane Austen would have slapped you in the face in shock.
Generally armed with more knowledge and generally possessed of less natural deference to elders or betters, people felt increasingly confident in challenging a professional opinion. The social capital of professionals also took a series of sharp knocks at the marketplace due to some very public scandals (local examples at random: Harold Shipman, Lehman Brothers, Baby P, and most recently the crisis and dismemberment of the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust, which is inexplicably making waves for sign language interpreters despite their absolute lack of involvement in it). Those events were undoubtedly appalling, and the media (whose own processes of professionalisation and rabid competition had honed their ambulance-chasing skills to a fine art) expertly stoked wave after wave of distrust for professionals.
Their response: even more professionalisation, but also a tendency and occasional mandate to include more “lay persons” in the governance of professions. The safeguards of professionalism were no longer seen as sufficient and its core value of autonomy was increasingly seen as mere self-interest: society wanted to be closer to the alarm button and, in a rather unfortunate metaphor originating from the land-grabbing of the American gold rush, to have more of a stake; the stakeholder was born, not to the sound of trumpets but the deafening wheeze of a billion snores. In a “risk society”, autonomy must be replaced by accountability; the original values of professionalism get buried another layer of dust and professionals gradually cede control of their work to non-practitioners in the name of public protection.
As well as elevating existing occupations to professions, many new occupations were created by the professionalisation movement (perhaps we should talk more about “occupationalisation”) which went on to spawn yet more occupations themselves. For example, the UK’s sign language interpreters of 1982 dragged themselves, panting, out of the primordial muck of social work and were suddenly standing on hind legs with a real job that commanded a wage and a title and qualifications and everything. The process had demonstrable benefits to the Deaf community despite a couple of robot-related accidents along the way, and everything seemed to be going very well until a cad and bounder at Jobcentre Plus had the gall to turn some filthy dole-scroungers into Communication Support Workers, and the grubby cycle of life began anew. (This account of the rise of the CSW is brought to you via ASLI.)
Capitalist industry didn’t miss the opportunity here (it never does). With the sheer proliferation of professions and occupations, the economic response was to use and even accelerate the process by encouraging the demarcation of labour into ever smaller fractions: knowledge capital was spread ever thinner. Demarcation saves money, increases profits: it can be far cheaper to employ (and replace) ten drones to do one simple task each than to recruit and train a super-drone who can do all ten. This tendency, mainly found in the manufacturing and energy industries but also in softer “semi-professional” settings such as education (“teaching assistants”) and social work (“care managers”) started to be referred to as “deprofessionalisation”. And as the stock of knowledge capital went into free-fall, so too did the social value of professional status. This was obviously a blow upside the head for professionals, because the whole point of social status is to have more of it than someone else. What is the point in being elevated if there is no-one to look down on? Professionalism is essentially a matter of class.
But working conditions and “class struggle” were already tied fast to our collective notions of “a profession”. A profession’s status is supposed to be proportional to society’s level of need for the functions it performs. If the need is great enough, stable working conditions are likely to be created: salaries, contracts, tenure, working rights, piffling benefits such as sick pay, maternity leave, holidays, healthcare … A small occupation that is composed almost entirely of disposable freelancers and zero-hour contract staff is clearly not that highly valued and can’t really consider itself to be a “profession”. Are anyone’s working conditions really guaranteed in the 21st century?
Returning to the spiral of professionalisation, an arms race by definition requires bigger and bigger guns, and the nuclear deterrent here is statutory regulation. This measure was originally reserved only for the “old professions” and later for those few whose potential for abuse or exploitation was above a fairly high threshold, but in theory, if distrust and suspicion of a large and important enough profession begins to run so high that no measures of increased accountability and decreased autonomy can allay society’s concerns – or, alternatively, when the professionals’ anxiety about their status becomes debilitating enough and their wish that it be protected in law becomes unbearably shrill (“but anyone can call themselves a sanitary engineer!”) – it can, very rarely, be deemed no longer sufficient that professionals organise themselves voluntarily: the state will intervene and mandate some form of “protected status”.
Leaving aside for a moment the question of whether a government can really control the use of an agent noun formed from a very flexible verb in common everyday use (to pick an example at random, “to interpret”), it’s unfortunate for statutory regulation campaigners that successive governments blow very hot and cold on the issue; we’re currently in an ice age. The problem here is that society, not being the monolith we all pretend it to be, is fickle and has many voices, no matter how much a regulator wishes it would speak in perfect unison. The state, meanwhile, is torn between its desire to control and its newly-found antipathy to bureaucracy or, indeed, spending any money on anything at all. The perfect example of the unreliability of government support for statutory regulation in recent years is the current situation for Further Education teachers, who went through the following blink-and-you’ll-miss-it professionalisation and deprofessionalisation process accompanied by the birth, swelling and punctured collapse of the Institute for Learning, like a supernova with elbow-patches:
- Teaching in FE is an unqualified occupation;
- becomes a voluntarily regulated and mandatorily qualified profession with 266 initial registrants;
- becomes a statutorily regulated profession with 200,000+ members, some with new letters after their names;
- goes back to being a voluntary one with 33,000 members following the Lingfield report;
- gives up and becomes an occupation again, with no compulsory qualifications and no professional body.
All in the space of just twelve years; the time lasted under statutory regulation was a mere five years. So are those 200,000 teachers “unprofessional” now? Were they ever professionals? Clearly no-one else cares. Perhaps they shouldn’t either: they have much more important things to worry about.
Teachers know better than anyone else that if you hand over control of your job to non-practitioners, you open the door to performativity and the death of the soul of your work, which we have already covered. However it is also just about possible, if you work really hard, that you might just nudge the definition of professionalism onto a slightly new course, perhaps sneak in another “trait” or two. In many of the social professions, you will now find some new bullet points on the list of “professional standards”, most commonly a requirement to undertake Continuous Professional Development (CPD, or Continuing Education Units in other English-speaking countries) and a directive to engage in reflective practice. There is nothing wrong with these aspirations. No-one sane could argue that there is no value in learning new things and refreshing what you think you know, and in actually examining your reactions to your work and being just the tiniest bit thoughtful. The real issue is having adequate time and provision of resources to do those things, and the question of how those activities are going to be measured and accounted for does not have a particularly happy answer. Performativity will infect and corrupt even the best of intentions. The observer’s paradox is a real problem: measuring something changes it, usually into something drab and fake.
And you have to be careful with creating new weapons: your arsenal can be taken and turned against you. Part of the Lingfield review’s justification for the deprofessionalisation of Further Education was that there is no evidence that fashionable “best practice” in the form of make-work, tick-off-the-bare-minimum CPD has had any effect on improving the standard of teaching. What other ideas about “enforced professionalism” are a matter of blind faith?
All of these forces inevitably result in the planks of specialist knowledge and “professional practice”, for which the requirements for most of the rest of the traits of professionalism are supposed to logically follow, being more and more frequently kicked out from below until there is no status left for the professional to stand on. By the 1990s, sociologists (who arguably got us into this mess in the first place) had, for the most part, long since abandoned the term “professional” as not especially precise or useful, and – apologies for using the W-word – began talking instead in terms of “knowledge workers”. Professionals have become that which they most wanted to escape, just another worker: today there is no practical difference between the organisation and attributes of most “professions” and most “occupations”.
But many aspiring “professionals” didn’t get the e-mail and have carried on regardless, still gate-keeping, still trying to stay on top by putting others down, still robotically trying to forge a status for themselves that no longer really exists except as a medieval figment, a bedtime story, a lullaby.
The question of whether we are in a profession or not is not so much a red herring as a massive crimson whale. In a wide variety of fields, even trainees’ textbooks and their tutors openly discuss the arbitrary smoke-and-mirrors nature of much of the trait-based “professional standards” criteria. Most “professions”, such as mine, can only consistently tick the first one of them off, anyway: we are not necessarily educated to a high level; we are not “certified to practice” the way other “professions” understand the term; we are certainly not autonomous and self-regulated (although we have bags and bags of formal organisation – there seems to be no limit on the number of factions our professional bodies can split themselves into); research repeatedly shows that we only opportunistically adhere to prescriptive, deontological codes of ethics (and our working conditions often force us to ignore them); and we’re somewhat hit-and-miss on the altruism too. There are many other things we also do not have that people expect from a profession, but this is all well known and again, we have been here before.
So we have essentially failed to achieve something which was completely made up in the first place. That is even harder to do than it sounds. Well done us.
And I still don’t have a jetpack.
I’ll leave you with this:
No code can replace the need for psychologists to use their professional and ethical judgement. … Thinking is not optional. The code has been written primarily to guide, not to punish.
– British Psychological Society’s Code of Ethics and Conduct, 2009
A rulebook which has a rule which says that rules are only rules. That is better than “professional”: it is true. And truth is beautiful.
Let’s try for a bit more beauty in our lives, while we still have a shred of collective soul.
Ball, Stephen (2003): “The teacher’s soul and the terrors of performativity”, Journal of Education Policy, 18:2, 215-228
British Psychological Society (2009): Code of Ethics and Conduct, accessed online on 22/7/2014 at http://www.bps.org.uk/system/files/documents/code_of_ethics_and_conduct.pdf
Lingfield et al. (2012): “Professionalism in Further Education: Interim Report of the Independent Review Panel”, Department of Business, Innovation & Skills, accessed online on 22/7/2014 at https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/32351/12-670-professionalism-in-further-education-interim.pdf
IfL (2014): “The proposed future of IfL: FAQs”, accessed on 4/7/2014 at https://www.ifl.ac.uk/our-work/what-were-working-on/the-proposed-future-of-ifl-faqs/
Lunt, Ingrid (2008): “Ethical Issues in Professional Life”, in Cunningham, B. (ed.) Exploring Professionalism, pp. 73-97, Bedford Way Papers
Runté, Robert (1995): “Is Teaching a Profession?”, in Taylor, G. & Runté, R. (eds.) Thinking about Teaching: An Introduction, Harcourt Brace
TES Connect (2014): “Institute for Learning to close over fears it will run out of money”, accessed on 4/7/2014 at http://news.tes.co.uk/further-education/b/news/2014/07/01/institute-for-learning-set-to-close-over-cash-fears.aspx