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  • Can Professionalism Still Be a Viable Ethic?
  • William M. Sullivan (bio)

The Unlikely Persistence of Professionalism

We are living in a time when the professions seem an odd fit, if not a bad one, with the world of work. Today's ascendant images of work have made shibboleths of individual "competitiveness" and strategic "flexibility" in career. While the professions are central to the knowledge economy, their structures of corporate membership and loyalty rarely figure in descriptions of work's future. That future is often depicted as a globalizing march toward a "frictionless capitalism" based upon information and communications technology, a global market from which individuals may profit but to which they must unquestioningly submit. Professionals, by contrast, have preferred to work in regulated markets and advance their claims to authority on the basis of a pledge of fiduciary responsibility, quality of service, and accountability. In both the United States and Britain the professions, including law, medicine, the clergy, the academy and others, continue to stand out in the occupational sphere by the unique way they organize their work, recruit and train their members, and deliver their services.

The professions demand long apprenticeships, carried out in formal educational institutions, which are centered on mastery of complex skills and bodies of knowledge. Professionals work in peculiar labor markets. These are often regulated by the state yet governed largely by standards which the professions themselves have set. Perhaps most significantly, professions such as medicine, law, and the academy are still reluctant to embrace the ubiquitous imagery of business and industry, clinging instead to values of institutional mission, and public service. Despite the fact that each of these fields has become more like business (including widening differences in income and opportunity between the upper and lower reaches of each profession), it is as though the professions harbor their own, quite different notions of good work and a good society which are somehow at odds with market-and-technology utopianism that is so much a part of this era.

In fact, I will argue that professionalism in both the United States and Britain points toward an alternative conception of work and society. It is an ideal of social partnership between the public and functional groups which organize to advance social values in the interest of those they serve. The professions are responsible for key public values such as health, civil regulation and social justice, technological safety, the reliability of public information, and education. It is this responsibility and orientation toward public goods that distinguishes professionals from other "knowledge workers." While professionals are often engaged in generating or applying new ideas and advanced processes, they are directly pledged to ideals of public service.

This kind of social partnership demands both accountability and responsibility on the part of the professions. It also calls for active participation and public concern on the part of citizens whom the professions serve. This reciprocity is what I have called civic professionalism.1 The immediate question concerns the prospects for professionalism as a civic ethic at a time when public interest and participation in civic affairs continues to decline, while the conditions of professional work link skills less with public purposes than with market advantage.2

The Significance of the Professions

The ideals bound up with professionalism have been only imperfectly realized in any professional field. But the persistence of these aspirations is itself noteworthy. "Professions are defined," notes historian Sheldon Rothblatt, "by an ethic of service. All agree that education, whether apprenticeship or science, has been the central feature of professional identity."3 Equally true, the professions are highly skilled occupations with a distinctive corporate form of organization. But they are more than this. In their corporate organization they represent a project for bringing into the capitalist marketplace the spirit of public service. In professions, the claims of public safety and welfare have established a beachhead squarely within the realm of self-interested market transactions.

The structure of professions embodies the proposition that capital, specifically human or intellectual capital, ought to be treated as a public trust rather than simply an individual possession to be traded upon without regard for the consequences to others. Consequently, the professions are organized so that...


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