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  • Democratic Professionalism:Sharing Authority in Civic Life
  • Albert W. Dzur (bio)

"Ours is a society of task-monopolists."

—Nils Christie, 1977

Introduction: Political Theory and the Professions

Professions are more political than the sociologists and applied philosophers who study them think and more interesting than the political theorists who do not study them think. This paper seeks to show how a number of professions have democratic responsibilities—to enable rather than disable citizen participation within their spheres of professional authority—that stem from specific effects of particular professional norms and practices. These democratic responsibilities, I argue, are realistic not moralistic expectations that strengthen the legitimacy of professional authority.

Sociology and philosophy have literatures that are attentive to case differences between professions while being theoretically sophisticated about similarities in professional action. Think, for example, of the insights into the organization and practice of medicine provided by the sociology of medicine and by bioethics analyses. Social theories of professional action and applied ethics treatments of occupational responsibilities show how non-pecuniary norms can develop within organizations (like professional associations), institutions (like hospitals), and practices (like patient treatment) and reveal how important these norms are. Such norms, like the norm of fairness or attention to individual case difference or patient autonomy, are sometimes reinforced by law and explicit policies, but formal constraints and incentives are no substitute for those that emerge out of the professional setting itself and are embraced wholeheartedly by professional actors themselves.

Professions are more political than many social theorists and applied ethicists who study the professions think. Professional norms can both detract from and contribute to democratic practice. In the late 1960s and 1970s radical critics in America and in Europe recognized this when they pointed to the detrimental effects of "technocratic" professional action in democracies. Consider the epigraph to this paper from Nils Christie, who felt that professions take over tasks that should be done by lay people. Christie recognized that modern divisions of labor require that for the sake of efficiency, productivity, not to mention innovation, differently talented and trained people do different things. What worried Christie and other critics of the era, such as Ivan Illich, is not modernity or task-distribution, but a task-monopoly that shrinks the space of democratic authority and immobilizes citizens who might occupy that space.

Professions shrink the space of democratic authority when they perform public purposes that could conceivably be done by lay people. So journalists provide information, doctors aid human welfare, criminal justice administrators serve needs for just security. These services and products have public consequences: they affect us not just as individuals but also as members of an ongoing collective. Sometimes professionals quite literally shrink the space of participation, by deciding public issues far from potential sites of participation off in professional buildings and administrative complexes.

Professions immobilize because in addition to taking over these public-oriented tasks, professionals' sophistication in telling stories, healing, and sentencing makes us less comfortable with relying on our own devices for objective news, good health, and just security. Professions exist by virtue of their application of abstract—not commonly shared—knowledge to serve social needs like information, health, and justice.1 The status and authority of professional work depend upon the deference of non-members, acknowledgment that professionals perform these tasks better than non-members could. But there are negative consequences of this deference, in particular the risk that members of the general public lose confidence in the competence of lay people in making informed collective decisions about issues that relate to professional domains of action. Even the best-intentioned professions demand a vertical trust that threatens our horizontal trust in each other.2 As critics in the late 1960s and 1970s pointed out, we, as individual citizens, as social movements, as communities, as the "general public" become reflected back to ourselves by the professions we trust. In addition to providing services, professions mediate our relations with ourselves, other individuals, and groups. Through the mediation of psychologists, lawyers, public administrators, among others, we can lose trust in how capable we are as persons, how capable our neighbors are, and how we all are in collective action.

How professional actors can help...


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pp. 6-14
Launched on MUSE
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