Multiple meanings of professionalisation

Edgar Burns, La Trobe University:  Professionalisation, like other concepts in the crosshairs of intense and sustained social contestation, has multiple, even contradictory, meanings. Its most conventional usage refers to the 200+years historical development of occupations and professions within Western modernity. This linear model assumes progress from craft to occupation to profession, building modern knowledge, sometimes traced to earlier centuries. Often progressive science is presumed to be the basis of the evolution of professions, but this sits oddly with professions like law, social work, teaching, journalism and divinity that are not science- or technology-based. At different times many occupations have been thought to be professionalising but are not recognised as such today. Some that did not fully professionalise are described as semi-professions, but that explains little. Today, exclusion by social class, gender and ‘race’ make much better sense of stalled professionalisation (e.g. Witz, 1992).

A second use of professionalisation refers to mid-20th century efforts of functionalists to revive their increasingly inadequate naturalised and ahistorical trait theory. They did this by ‘bolting on’ a change-over-time dimension. This over-asserted a liner narrative, but it did not work; functionalism still ended up justifying the status quo of then-successful professions. In contrast was the reconfiguration in the functionalist account of professions, led by Freidson (1970), Johnson (1972) and Larson (1977). Each of these theorists did substantive historical analysis that challenged functionalist professionalisation narratives of trait theory, providing a fundamentally different account of professional change. Various summaries of professionalisation have been offered (e.g. Macdonald 1995; Dingwall, 2008).

Third, professionalisation has mostly been naturalised in its Western forms, but in the contingency of globalisation today this is steadily changing in a new era of professionalisation. Primary authority in cross-national validation of qualifications will change, with more non-Western professionals training in each other’s countries, e.g. Indian training of medical doctors in China. Further, non-Western social hierarchies, occupational divisions of labour and new professionalisation sequences in today’s digital era will mean differently formed professional groupings and state sanctioning. The ideology of the professional as an independent and autonomous practitioner, never very true, will become increasingly constrained.

Fourth, professionalisation may not refer to history at all, but is here conceived as internal to present-day professions. As one example, a person acting, dressing and talking in the appropriate manner and language is deemed to be professional. Acquisition of expertise and goodness traits are presumed through formal qualification; but unfortunately, there is limited correlation with skills and knowledge and no necessary correlation with ethical conduct.

Fifth, a quite different internalist use of professionalisation references the co-opting of skills/effort to organisational norms that may run counter to expertise, goodness, or fiduciary norms, or which may commodify and exploit the skills and knowledge of individuals (Fournier, 1999; May, 2007). The claims by managers to be professionals also masks reassertion of hierarchical control.

Sixth, a more positive use of professionalisation is its resurgent application as a quasi-theoretical construct that indicates change in the status or economic rewards or quality outcomes and competencies of a profession or another occupational group. This reads off contemporary census/survey data, empirical trends and proportions of sectoral workforces.

Seventh, Susskind and Susskind (2015) argue that in the new digital era – Internet, AI, robotics, algorithms, etc. –  professionalisation will eat into professional work in major ways far more than basic labouring work, and hence induce a whole new period of professionalisation through processes of disintermediation, work decomposition, de-professionalisation and commodification.


Dingwall, R. J. (2008). Essays on Professions. Farnham, UK: Ashgate.

Freidson, E. (1970). Professional Dominance. New York: Atherton.

Johnson, T. J. (1972/2016). Professions and Power. London: Routledge.

Larson, M. S. (1977). The Rise of Professionalism: A Sociological Analysis. Berkeley, CA: UCLA Press.

Macdonald, K. M. (1995). The Sociology of the Professions. London: Sage.

Susskind, R., & Susskind, D. (2015). The Future of Professions: How Technology Will Transform the Work of Human Experts. Oxford UK: OUP.

Witz, A. (1992). Professions and Patriarchy. London: Routledge.






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