A profession is an occupation 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 (2005/36/EC), "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".
Major milestones which may mark an occupation being identified as a profession include:
- an occupation becomes a full-time occupation
- the establishment of a training school
- the establishment of a university school
- the establishment of a local association
- the establishment of a national association of professional ethics
- the establishment of state licensing laws
Applying these milestones to the historical sequence of development in the United States shows surveying achieving professional status first (note that George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln all worked as land surveyors before entering politics), followed by medicine, actuarial science, law, dentistry, civil engineering, logistics, architecture and accounting.
With the rise of technology and occupational specialization in the 19th century, other bodies began to claim professional status: mechanical engineering, pharmacy, veterinary medicine, psychology, nursing, teaching, librarianship, optometry and social work, each of which could claim, using these milestones, to have become professions by 1900.
Just as some professions rise in status and power through various stages, others may decline. Disciplines formalized more recently, such as architecture, now have equally long periods of study associated with them.
Although professions may enjoy relatively high status and public prestige, not all professionals earn high salaries, and even within specific professions there exist significant inequalities of compensation; in law, for example, a corporate/insurance defense lawyer working on a billable-hour basis may earn several times what a prosecutor or public defender earns.
A profession arises when any trade or occupation transforms itself through "the development of formal qualifications based upon education, apprenticeship, and examinations, the emergence of regulatory bodies with powers to admit and discipline members, and some degree of monopoly rights."
Originally, any regulation of the professions was self-regulation through bodies such as the College of Physicians or the Inns of Court. With the growing role of government, statutory bodies have increasingly taken on this role, their members being appointed either by the profession or (increasingly) by government. Proposals for the introduction or enhancement of statutory regulation may be welcomed by a profession as protecting clients and enhancing its quality and reputation, or as restricting access to the profession and hence enabling higher fees to be charged. It may be resisted as limiting the members' freedom to innovate or to practice as in their professional judgement they consider best.
An example was in 12, when the British government proposed wide statutory regulation of psychologists. The inspiration for the change was a number of problems in the psychotherapy field, but there are various kinds of psychologist including many who have no clinical role and where the case for regulation was not so clear. Work psychology brought especial disagreement, with the British Psychological Society favoring statutory regulation of "occupational psychologists" and the Association of Business Psychologists resisting the statutory regulation of "business psychologists" – descriptions of professional activity which it may not be easy to distinguish.
Besides regulating access to a profession, professional bodies may set examinations of competence and enforce adherence to an ethical code. There may be several such bodies for one profession in a single country, an example being the accountancy bodies of the United Kingdom (ACCA, CAI, CIMA, CIPFA, ICAEW and ICAS), all of which have been given a Royal Charter, although their members are not necessarily considered to hold equivalent qualifications, and which operate alongside further bodies (AAPA, IFA, CPAA). Another example of a regulatory body that governs a profession is the Hong Kong Professional Teachers Union, which governs the conduct, rights, obligations and duties of salaried teachers working in educational institutions in Hong Kong.
The engineering profession is highly regulated in some countries (Canada and USA) with a strict licensing system for Professional Engineer that controls the practice but not in others (UK) where titles and qualifications are regulated Chartered Engineer but practice is not regulated.
Typically, individuals are required by law to be qualified by a local professional body before they are permitted to practice in that profession. However, in some countries, individuals may not be required by law to be qualified by such a professional body in order to practice, as is the case for accountancy in the United Kingdom (except for auditing and insolvency work which legally require qualification by a professional body). In such cases, qualification by the professional bodies is effectively still considered a prerequisite to practice as most employers and clients stipulate that the individual hold such qualifications before hiring their services. For example, in order to become a fully qualified teaching professional in Hong Kong working in a state or government-funded school, one needs to have successfully completed a Postgraduate Diploma in Education ("PGDE") or a bachelor's degree in Education ("BEd") at an approved tertiary educational institution or university. This requirement is set out by the Educational Department Bureau of Hong Kong, which is the governmental department that governs the Hong Kong education sector.
Professions tend to be autonomous, which means they have a high degree of control of their own affairs: "professionals are autonomous insofar as they can make independent judgments about their work". This usually means "the freedom to exercise their professional judgement."
However, it also has other meanings. "Professional autonomy is often described as a claim of professionals that has to serve primarily their own interests...this professional autonomy can only be maintained if members of the profession subject their activities and decisions to a critical evaluation by other members of the profession " The concept of autonomy can therefore be seen to embrace not only judgement, but also self-interest and a continuous process of critical evaluation of ethics and procedures from within the profession itself.
One major implication of professional autonomy is the traditional ban on corporate practice of the professions, especially accounting, architecture, medicine, and law. This means that in many jurisdictions, these professionals cannot do business through regular for-profit corporations and raise capital rapidly through initial public offerings or flotations. Instead, if they wish to practice collectively they must form special business entities such as partnerships or professional corporations, which feature (1) reduced protection against liability for professional negligence and (2) severe limitations or outright prohibitions on ownership by non-professionals. The obvious implication of this is that all equity owners of the professional business entity must be professionals themselves. This avoids the possibility of a non-professional owner of the firm telling a professional how to do his or her job and thereby protects professional autonomy. The idea is that the only non-professional person who should be telling the professional what to do is the client; in other words, professional autonomy preserves the integrity of the two-party professional-client relationship. But because professional business entities are effectively locked out of the stock market, they tend to grow relatively slowly compared to public corporations.
Status and prestige
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 (see Licensure) without which entry to the profession is barred (occupational closure). Updating skills through continuing education is required through training.
All professions have power. This power is used to control its own members, and also its area of expertise and interests. A profession tends to dominate, police and protect its area of expertise and the conduct of its members, and exercises a dominating influence over its entire field which means that professions can act monopolist, rebuffing competition from ancillary trades and occupations, as well as subordinating and controlling lesser but related trades. A profession is characterized by the power and high prestige it has in society as a whole. It is the power, prestige and value that society confers upon a profession that more clearly defines it. The power of professions has led to them being referred to as conspiracies against the laity. On the other hand, professionals acquire some of their power and authority in organizations from their expertise and knowledge. As such they can bend rules, reduce bureaucratic inertia and increase problem solving and adaptability.
Public Service as a Profession to Moderate Abuses of Power
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," (Larson, p. 221) that "professions are occupations with special power and prestige", (Larson, p.x) and that they comprise "an exclusive elite group," (Larson, p. 20) 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.
The Public Service Profession
Bureaucratic theory has roots in early human civilization. Throughout the pre-modern era, ancient empires demonstrated foundational concepts of a proto public profession, with the earliest regional power structures developing and maintainingthe beginnings of a civil service. At least four major ancient empires created government service careers with unique characteristics suitable for a contemporary PA profession. For example, the Chinese institutionalized standardized education and certification via a civil service exam (Columbia University, 2009); the Sumerians pioneered socialized bureaucracy and rule of law with the presumption of innocence (Nagarajan, 2011); the Mughals showed how to adapt a public service ethos to serve all society (Eaton, 1993); and the Egyptians built a full-service bureaucracy to counter the vagaries of individual leader competence (Niskanen, 1971).
A profession of public administration.
These contributions to a public service profession were an early attempt to overcome the inherent weaknesses in governance caused by nepotism, cronyism, and an entrenched system of patronage. Moreover, one reason these empires were able to wield effective administrative power, across vast expanses of space and time, is their reliance upon a professional civil service. Conversely, today, PA in the US is not a profession—a corps of public servants, recruited, trained, educated, certified, and disciplined to produce uniquely expert work (Abbott, 1998) and (Freidson, 1994). Most fundamentally, a profession must also dedicate itself to a required ethic—a standard for self-regulating professional behavior—and possess an ethos—a corporate culture for communicating authority.
Intrinsic necessity for a profession.
So, we see the beginnings of bureaucratic theory emerge in the premodern era. Though not formally recognized as theory,relevant and enduring parts of what becomes modern PA theory evolved naturally as civilizations grew larger and more complex. Inchoate and barely recognizable, that theory germinated within premodern societies because of an intrinsic necessity for a public service profession.
Beyond this foundation, PA theory languished or advanced as an outgrowth of Western tradition and culture, from Greco-Roman roots of rationalism, to the middle ages with Charlemagne’s integration of secular and religious canon (Berman, H. J. 1975), through Renaissance humanism, to the Age of Enlightenment that featured reason, science, a skeptical mindset, and promoting moral value of people. So far from inventing theory from whole cloth, the US founding brothers (Ellis, J. J. 2000) brought with them an underpinning of theoretical ideas and concepts that together set the context for PA theory in America. Thus, from 18th century European ideals of governance and possessing both anti-colonial and anti-authoritarian sentiment, the US effort to develop effective and accountable public administration evolved via four approaches: Hamilton’s strong executive, Jefferson’s decentralized power, Madison’s balance of power, and Wilson’s separation of administration and policy-making (Kettl, 2002). These modern theorists gave rise to a group of science-based concepts including empiricism and the scientific method, and collectively set the stage for the bureaucratic theory that Maximilian Karl Emil Weber, a late 19th and early 20th century German sociologist, introduced. Weber (1925) described a bureaucracythat incorporates appointed officials conducting official duties supported and constrained by the three elements of “bureaucratic authority…[official duties—] a distribution of activities…rules…backed by physical, sacred, or otherwise compulsive means”, and certified officials with “regulated qualifications” (Weber, p.63). Additionally, he noted bureaucratic organization is a hierarchical structure “which affords the highly regulated opportunity of the governed office to appeal decisions to its superior” (Weber, p. 63). In Weber’s view, the official shoulders office duties as an occupation requiring much experience and certified expertise, as well as committing to a professional oath of office. Moreover, he asserted bureaucratic officials seek reward through higher esteem and social position, are appointed and not elected, and can hold their positions for life. Also, officials receive “regular compensation—in the form of a salary, normally fixed, and a pension for old age security” (Weber, p. 67). More encompassing, the official is bound within a hierarchically ordered career of public service, and “expected to progress from lower, less important, and lower paid positions to higher positions” (Weber, p. 67). Finally, he contends there is set promotion standards with commensurate salary advancements, which “creates a tendency to view the office as a “commission” for those qualified through educational certification” (Weber, p. 67).
Intrinsic description of a profession.
In describing bureaucracy, Weber provides a near perfect description of a PA profession intrinsic to the successful function of a bureau. For example, professions are structured, have special authority, and are certified to do specific work for the benefit of society. Moreover, members of a profession closely resemble Weber’s description of a bureaucrat, as both serve society for personal esteem and higher social position; and professionals are loyal to the profession and commit to life-long service with regular promotion and salary standards. The similarities are almost identical. However, professions also are recruited, trained, and employed as members of an elite classdesigned to perform unique work that society generally is unable to do. Moreover, professions maintain an ethic standard upheld by all members. Also, a profession must have the autonomy to be self-regulated. Most fundamentally, professions must continually prove they are professions by regularly demonstrating all the attributes of the profession to the customer, i.e. the people.
Power sharing challenge.
So, now we see more of the setup to US PA theory as a leaping of ideas across the Atlantic. Based on Western culture but with ancient empirical roots, these concepts seek to address the power sharing challenge inherent in Kettl’s trifecta of politics, administration, and the public. It is useful here to borrow a dialectic description and an analogy from Carl von Clausewitz, an 19th century Prussian military officer and strategist. Writing after the Napoleonic wars, Clausewitz (1832) introduced the idea of a incompatible contrast between war in theory versus war in reality, where the theory allows the theorist to imagine an ideal war unconstrained by politics but also, when driven to the extreme, war becomes completely irrational, e.g. “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it” (Arnett, 1968). Whereas war in reality must always retain a rational logic dictated by politics. Thus, for example, the first paradigm of US PA theory advances the apolitical ideal of maximizing efficiency, but when pushed to the irrational extreme, this paradigm ceases to serve the people and exchanges their interests for mere bureaucratic output. Since, PA theory is constrained by politics, the theorist must anticipate those constraints by preparing the theory to function successfully within political limitations.
- First professional degree
- Professional association (or body)
- Professional boundaries
- Professional class
- Professional development
- Professional responsibility
- Professional ethics
- Centre for the Study of Professions
- List of professions
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