It is surprisingly difficult to pin down what a profession is, or was – if you don’t believe me, try reading around for yourself. It is an immensely depressing voyage of discovery, as though Magellan set off to find the route to Asia but found himself sailing down Bromley High Street instead.
Skipping a millennium of boring stuff about divinity and guilds and semi-secret all-male professional societies with a trowel and apron fetish, I’m given to understand that in the early twentieth century, the West’s budding sociologists made an early stab at these questions and produced “trait-based models” of professionalism: this largely consisted of using a remarkably blunt instrument to nail down a few jobs everyone pretty much agreed were probably professions, and then listing the elements they all had in common. To this day, you will still see the same general kind of list in textbooks or on the pamphlets and websites of regulators under the heading of something like “professional standards”:
A member of a profession:
- has a specialist set of skills informed by abstract knowledge
- has been educated to a high level, usually at university
- is certified to practice
- is part of a formally organised, self-regulated and autonomous body
- adheres to a Code of Ethics or Conduct or Practice
- provides services out of altruism
The lists do vary – there might be five, seven, nine items – but these six are representative. There are many problems with them but the glaring one is the horrible circular logic that informed their selection. Listing the features of something you found lying around is not explaining it or understanding it (sadly, Bloom’s taxonomy was yet to be invented), so this is really just a hall of mirrors. If a profession has these qualities because doctors, lawyers and surveyors are professionals and they have them, why then are doctors, lawyers and surveyors professionals? Because … they also have those qualities. The ones they … already had … because they are … professionals. The list, standing alone, does nothing to explain why any of these things are necessary in order to constitute a profession, or why some different attributes would not do just as well instead (or be even better). As an explanation of why a “profession” has these things, it’s about as mature as stamping your foot and saying “Because”.
You’ll also notice that payment is not listed. Many people’s (and some dictionaries’) first definition of a professional would be “someone who is good enough at what they do to get paid”, the antonym of “amateur” (from French via Italian via Latin, “someone who does it only for the love of it”). So why do wages (or love) not appear in the trait list? We are concerned here with the differences between a profession and an occupation, what is special and better about a professional. Bin men, abattoir workers and even the untouchable scum that work in advertising also get paid but they are not “professionals” in these terms, notwithstanding jokes with a particle of truth about the elevation of bin men to “sanitary engineers”.
A more thoughtful version of the trait model was the “functional-structural model” of professionalism, developed mid-20th century. Attempts were made to logically link certain of the traits together in order provide an interdependent web of justifications for their a priori existence. For example, if a professional requires expertise in the form of abstract knowledge (1), that knowledge must come from somewhere reputable and its attainment should be independently verifiable, which connects logically to the requirements of higher education (2) and certification (3). Likesay, traits 4 to 6 can be explained as mutually necessary due to the understandable public concern that an expert in a position of power requires some form of oversight and restraint, due to mankind’s more regrettable instincts: to protect the hapless public, and since a professional’s competence can only really be verified by another professional, we require peer scrutiny, which requires autonomous self-organisation and a prescriptive framework; a general sense of do-goodery and selflessness won’t hurt either in putting a limit (or at least a spotlight) on exploitative or harmful and therefore “unprofessional” behaviours. But despite these improvements, the model was still a lot more descriptive than explanatory: the specifics and first causes of professionalism are still pretty much bootstrapping themselves out of vacuum and do not explore alternatives or improvements.
At very roughly the same time, artisans and other skilled and semi-skilled workers (who unlike medics and lawmen rarely held actual powers of life and liberty over others but were still very able to influence and be valued by the community) realised that if all it takes to become a “professional” is that you follow this recipe, we could all become professionals. Remember that the 1950s was a time when the spectre of world war was seemingly forever exorcised and a dog had died in orbit: it was being confidently predicted that any day now, obsequious robots would be doing all our housework (and definitely not becoming self-aware and exterminating us), and we would all be flying around in atomic jetpacks on our six out of seven days off, or eating space food in space hotels in space, served to us by someone with an amazing beehive hair-do. “Progress” and “social mobility” must have seemed to have no horizon, not merely in terms of automation and the re-division of labour across class/race/gender/robot boundaries, but with the tantalising promise of ever-rising standards for all human endeavours. “Professionalisation”, the process of becoming more like a profession, became a real word and a trend, and over the next few decades, the “old professions” rapidly lost their exclusivity.