Lee S. Shulman, Stanford University
Daedalus / Summer 2005
Whether one sees the professions as a high point of human achievement, or, in George Bernard Shaw’s piquant phrase, as a “conspiracy against the laity,” there is little question that they have played a dominant role in industrial and postindustrial society since the early twentieth century. It is difficult to envision our era without the physicians, lawyers, and accountants to whom we turn for help at crucial times; or the architects and engineers who shape the environments in which we live; or the journalists and educators to whom we look for information, knowledge, and, on occasion, wisdom.
Some forty years ago, in a Dædalus issue devoted entirely to the professions, guest editor Kenneth Lynn declared, “Everywhere in American life, the professions are triumphant.” He went on to comment, “Given this dramatic situation, it is truly extraordinary how little we know about the professions.”
We appear to know much more about the professions now than we did forty years ago; certainly there is no paucity of scholarly and popular literature on specific professions, if less on the professions in the aggregate. But the professions themselves have not remained frozen over that time. Indeed, they have recently been subjected to a whole new set of pressures, from the growing reach of new technologies to the growing importance of making money.
In recent years, the professions have not always had good press. Worried by evidence of incompetence and dishonesty, the general public seems to have lost its uncritical admiration for the pro-fessional. Some in higher education see creeping professionalism as the enemy of liberal learning. Perhaps most dramatically, potent market forces, untempered by forces of equivalent power, have made it increasingly difficult to delineate just how professionals today differ from those nonprofessionals who also have power and resources in the society.
Triumphant on the one hand, under critical scrutiny on the other, the professions stand in need of fresh attention today. In the essays that follow, our authors review the professions in contemporary America–and the very idea of having a vocation or calling. We raise the question of whether the professions will survive in their recognizable form, evolve into quite different entities, or dissolve entirely; and whether the methods that have been developed for educating professionals are adequate to the current intellectual, practical, and ethical demands of these roles.
Generically, professions consist of individuals who are given a certain amount of prestige and autonomy in return for performing for society a set of services in a disinterested way. At midcentury, American sociologists like Bernard Barber, Everett Hughes, Robert Merton, and Talcott Parsons limned the defining characteristics of the professions. Barber, for example, identified four attributes: a high degree of generalized and systematic knowledge; a primary orientation to community interest rather than personal interest; a high degree of self-control of behavior through a code of ethics; and a system of monetary and honorary rewards that symbolize achievements of the work itself. In more recent times, important studies of specific professions have been carried out by Andrew Abbot, Howard Becker, Elliot Freidson, Anthony Kronman, and Paul Starr–just to name a few who have approached the professions from a sociological perspective. These authorities have stressed the role of explicit training regimens, formal licensure, and procedures whereby untrained, incompetent, or unethical individuals can be excluded from practice.
In our view, six commonplaces are characteristic of all professions, properly construed: a commitment to serve in the interests of clients in particular and the welfare of society in general; a body of theory or special knowledge with its own principles of growth and reorganization; a specialized set of professional skills, practices, and performances unique to the profession; the developed capacity to render judgments with integrity under conditions of both technical and ethical uncertainty; an organized approach to learning from experience both individually and collectively and, thus, of growing new knowledge from the contexts of practice; and the development of a professional community responsible for the oversight and monitoring of quality in both practice and professional education.
The primary feature of any profession –the commitment to serve responsibly, selflessly, and wisely–sets the terms of the compact between the profession and the society. The centrality of this commitment defines the inherently ethical relationship between the professional and the general society. It also sets up the essential tension between the two poles of professional responsibility: the duty to serve the interests of one’s immediate client and the obligation one has to the society at large. The lawyer’s dual responsibilities of serving as both an officer of the court and as a zealous advocate for her clients exemplify this tension. Failure to deal responsibly with this tension frequently creates the conditions that we have termed ‘compromised practice.’