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  • Civic Participation in Professional Domains:An Introduction to the Symposium
  • Albert W. Dzur (bio)

Professionals have a unique capacity to encourage, distract, inform, and limit democratic deliberation. The contributors to this symposium share a belief in what can be called "democratic professionalism," the view that a number of key professions have civic roles to play in contemporary democracy and that such civic roles both strengthen the legitimacy of professional authority and render that authority more transparent and more vulnerable to public influence. In distinct ways, each contributor shows how professionals can help mobilize citizen participation inside and outside their professional domains.

Significantly, the contributors to this symposium draw attention to "democratic professional" activities that are already having an impact on civic life. We reflect on contemporary reform movements within professions, such as the restorative justice movement. And we notice how social movements, such as the battered women's movement, have helped activate democratic professionals. We observe that in seeking to change governing norms of practice within the academy, medicine, law, and elsewhere, reform-minded professionals have demonstrated how their own domains can have positive democratic potential. Reformers described in these pieces raise the intriguing possibility that professionals might have a hand in helping reverse the depressing trends of diminished trust, efficacy, and participation in contemporary democracy.

Why would professionals seek out more democratic roles and encourage, for example, more lay participation in their decision-making? Our essays point to a number of motivating factors. A merely commercial- or technocratic-minded professionalism is vulnerable to problems of legitimacy stemming from its remoteness from the publics served. As William Sullivan argues, professionals are given social status and legal protections to serve social purposes; failures to live up to this "social compact" can lead to loss of status and protection. And as Frank Fischer points out, professionals who do not work closely with lay people to establish relations of trust and to adjust to local knowledge cannot adequately address complex policy problems. Professionals more embedded in the civic life of their communities can do a better job, especially when that job requires citizens to play some role. John Braithwaite's restorative justice practitioners and Rekha Mirchandani's domestic violence court judges provide "better" justice because of their close connections to the communities affected by the offenses they hear. Further, professionals can often make the difference in providing empowering knowledge and skills (and preventing disabling civic asymmetries), like the healthcare workers discussed by Bruce Jennings who encourage greater public awareness of and participation in genetics policy.

In sum, a more democratic professionalism has benefits for professionals themselves, for their clients, and for the polity. Yet [End Page 1] [Begin Page 4] none of the contributors are naïve about the prospects of democratic professionalism. Commercial and technocratic imperatives hold sway in the professional world, and regularly undermine the civic imperatives discussed here. Still, because of the advantages of democratic professionalism and the risks of its alternative, these essays are hopeful that more professionals will see their domains as facilitative of an active and engaged democracy.

William Sullivan's paper argues that professionalism is an alternative to the dominant market model of work and social organization, one of "social partnership between the public and functional groups which organize to advance social values in the interest of those they serve." Doctors, lawyers, the clergy, academics, and others are responsible for key public values essential for good lives: "health, civil regulation and social justice, technological safety, the reliability of public information, and education." In exchange, professions are granted privileges, such as the monopoly on practice that licensing provides. Sullivan sees this social partnership faltering under the pressures of new technologies, the extension of market processes in broad areas of social life, and a widespread ideology of self-reliant strategic thinking. The cost is a reduction of public trust in professions and an attendant identity crisis in many professions. In law and medicine, for example, the erosion of an ethos of public service has led many individual practitioners to feel alienated and disempowered. Sullivan urges the leadership of legal and medical associations to reawaken ideals of civic professionalism. The university can also root civic ideals more deeply in...


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