Several attributes set professionals apart from nonprofessionals : (1) establishing formal means of recruiting and training members for the occupation; (2) creating associations to disseminate knowledge in the field, represent and promote the interests of its practitioners, and regulate and standardize its practices; (3) establishing stringent membership requirements and standards in practice; (4) getting official recognition; and (5) developing a code of ethics to make exclusive claims on qualifications, expertise, and jurisdiction. Taken together, these elements are critical in the making of a profession.
Formal education has gatekeeping as well as status-claiming functions. Requiring someone to receive formal training in a field, via university education, is the first step toward securing monopoly control of specialized knowledge. Formalizing the training process serves to invalidate the claims made by those who have obtained such knowledge solely through experience. Implementing this process would potentially limit the number of people acquiring formal education in the field and, in turn, gain control over who might enter the profession. Having everyone undergo similar training would also standardize the socialization process for all practitioners in the field.
Besides requiring formal training at schools, establishing professional organizations contributes to professionalization. Stringent membership criteria underscore the overall strength of a professional organization, which could be a unifying force for its practitioners. If the practitioners could agree on a set of universal standards to clearly define themselves, they could restrict membership to those who can meet the stringent requirements for full memberships and, more important, set the stage for a full closure in the profession (i.e., collective control over entry Page 516 | Top of Articleinto the profession). Thus, nurturing unity and maintaining a strong spirit of professionalism would enhance the professional standing of its practitioners. Conversely, changing or lowering membership requirements reflect practitioners’ loose attachment to the profession and a lack of closure.
The process of securing closure is incomplete without legal backing from the state. Licensure allows practitioners to ward off competition from outsiders. Aside from restricting entry, state laws give all practitioners the exclusive right to perform certain tasks or to provide services in the market. State licensure constitutes the “grand prize” in securing control over one’s work. For example, certification by degree and examinations allows medical doctors and lawyers to eliminate potential competitors from related fields. In these professions, experience cannot be substituted for certification.
Developing and accepting a code of conduct is vital for the development of a profession. A professional society sets clear boundaries of acceptable professional values and conduct for its practitioners. Adopting an ethics code also signifies members’ commitment to the interest of the public (or clients) rather than to a third party. To gain and maintain the public’s confidence in practitioners’ integrity, skills, and performance, practitioners are expected to live up to the code of ethics. Developing professional guidelines can be construed as the final stage of securing jurisdiction control. A set of professional ethics for, by, and of the practitioners preserves their professional standing as well as autonomy. It is a means of maintaining internal control as much as a measure of minimizing external interference.
The code of ethics for professionals first and foremost proclaims members’ commitment to the public and their dedication to the values of the profession. The profession requires members to have a strong sense of dedication and commitment to the profession. The code also spells out the obligations and responsibilities of the practitioners to the profession and to their peers: being loyal, trustworthy, and honest; using discretion and exercising good judgment; and holding one’s and others’ actions to the highest standards.
Being a professional is a tall order. The code of ethics for a profession not only unifies practitioners, it implies that the practitioners themselves have the desire, ability, and obligation to monitor their own professional behavior. The penalties for those who fail to live up to the pledge would be reprimand, suspension, or termination of licensure. This code of conduct is developed to fulfill a sense of professionalism among practitioners. It is also a self-declaration of the profession’s autonomy, high status, commitment, and self-policing.
The career model of professional development postulates that professionalization is sequential in that there is a fixed pattern of development, evolution, and internal differentiation. Each of the elements noted earlier constitutes a chronology of events in professionalization. Social scientists have used the career model to make sense of the developmental process for established fields (e.g., medicine, law, theology) and new occupations (e.g., computer science, engineering).
Practitioners in “new” professions are organized differently from those in “old” professions. For instance, medical doctors have kept jurisdiction control firmly in their hands through formal training and mandatory licensing. They strive for autonomy, status, and recognition in the society, rather than aspiring to be entrepreneurs.
The functional model pays attention to how and to what extent these activities foster professional development. The sequencing of these functions is closely linked to professionalization. Practitioners first call for exclusion, followed by the establishment of jurisdiction, internal controls, and external relations. Professional development is seen as an outcome of different stages of securing control over jurisdiction in a field.
The professional model focuses on the characteristics shared by professions, rather than on the processes of professional development. All professions share several commonalities. A profession is an occupational group with an abstract, theoretical knowledge base, acquired primarily through extensive formal training. A profession is an activity based on formal training and higher learning. Its practitioners are agents of formal knowledge. Professions enjoy the autonomy to establish their own standards of assessment and control. Hence, self-policing members’ behavior and practices becomes an obligation of a profession. Its practitioners see their vocation as a “calling” rather than simply a job. Members of a profession are expected to have a lifetime commitment to their careers and to develop a strong sense of professional identity and dedication to their work.
There are differences among the three models of professional development in their emphasis on sequence of events, functions, or properties. To set themselves apart from nonprofessionals, professionals ought to have ways and means of defining and maintaining their monopoly power. This common theme highlights the ideological and organizational aspects of professionalism. All three models share a common theme that, due to their unique knowledge bases, professions have the desire for authority and freedom, though in varying degrees, to set their own boundaries of expertise, internal and external control, and activities.
Not all professions are truly “free” professions. Medicine, law, and dentistry come close to having all of the characteristics of a profession. Doctors and lawyers have been able to maintain control over their jurisdiction. Dentists also enjoy a high degree of professional autonomy compared to their counterparts in accounting. Entry to medicine, law, and dentistry is regulated by academic and nonacademic requirements. Only licensed doctors, lawyers, and dentists can practice in the United States. These gatekeeping techniques are so effective that even foreign nationals with similar credentials or experience from abroad cannot practice in the United States unless they satisfy the U.S. licensing requirements.
In contrast, there are fewer restrictions to move into other professions. Engineering will never come close to being a truly autonomous profession. It is a semiprofession in that it has a body of specialized knowledge and requires extended training. However, in the absence of mandatory licensing for all entrants, it cannot effectively block anyone without a college degree from becoming an engineer. Engineers do not enjoy legitimate protection from competition in the labor markets. Contemporary engineering can be considered a bureaucratic profession. Due to the organization and nature of engineering work, it is impossible for its practitioners, including the self-employed, to insulate themselves from business and industrial influence. Not only do engineers not have the means to be completely independent from the patrons of their services, they may not have the desire to be independent. Engineers tend to seek power, status, and mobility within an organization. A strong orientation to their profession may be counterproductive to career advancement in bureaucratic institutions.
Experience can substitute for formal education in computer work. Employers can promote an experienced worker without an advanced degree in management to head a division of young, college-educated workers. Degrees in social work are required for some but not all social workers. The military is different from other professions in that extensive training is required for all participants. Compared to their counterparts in civilian employment, workers in this “total institution” do not enjoy a high degree of professional independence. However, one can make the argument that the rites of passage into the military may induce a relatively strong sense of professional commitment. Advanced degrees in one’s field, such as a doctorate, are usually required for teaching in higher education. Yet, a medical degree is not required for teaching in medical schools. None of these professions in the civilian sector has a monopoly of jurisdiction control. The good news is that outsiders enjoy greater access to these professions than to the legal or dental professions. On the other hand, talented individuals may be more attracted to professions with tighter gatekeeping for social status, autonomy, and earnings.
Administrative and managerial positions have been classified as “professional occupations” in the U.S. Census and in scholarly research. Those who perform primarily administrative or managerial tasks may have received formal (e.g., a master’s degree in business administration) and ongoing professional or organizational training. There are professional associations (e.g., the American Management Association) for managers to advance members’ career interests. However, administrators may not possess as much professional autonomy as do doctors or dentists. Like scientists or engineers, managers are semi-professionals.
Abbott, Andrew. 1988. The System of Professions: An Essay on the Division of Expert Labor. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Bell, Daniel. 1973. The Coming of Post-Industrial Society: A Venture in Social Forecasting. New York: Basic Books.
Tang, Joyce, and Earl Smith, eds. 1996. Women and Minorities in American Professions. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Trice, Harrison M. 1993. Occupational Subcultures in the Workplace. Ithaca, NY: ILR Press.
Wilensky, Harold L. 1964. The Professionalization of Everyone? American Journal of Sociology 70: 137–158.
Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3045302074