Theoretical frameworks used in studying professions

Nigel Malin


Abstract: This article outlines some of the main theoretical perspectives used as a basis for providing an analytical framework for understanding how different professions have developed their identity. The focus is upon the delivery of health, social care and education services and a principal consideration is to examine in whose interests professionals work - themselves, their clients, the general public, the State, patriarchy? Also what role does power play in their operations. For example the Neo-Durkheimian framework emphasises ‘disinterestedness’, ‘bringing cohesion’ and implies commitment for instance to welfare state values or particular altruistic codes of behaviour. A Neo-Weberian framework emphasises ‘social closure’ and ‘professional dominance’ and introduces the notion of professionals seeking to exercise power over others. This is developed further in an analysis of Neo-Marxist and Post-Structuralist frameworks which draw out the nexus of power relations that underpin professional relationships including that which a profession holds with the state, specifically with regard to the latter’s capacity as an employing authority. A fourth main perspective, Managerialism, is singled out as a feature of modern times as its characteristics of professional governance have become embedded gradually throughout professional practices to scope demands for increased efficiency, accountability and achieving greater responsiveness to client groups. Linked to this is a separate framework of Democratic or Collaborative professionalism which extends the role of accountability to widen the range of stakeholders. This raises questions about the conduct of professional practice, either directly or indirectly, in terms of upwards, downwards, inwards and outwards accountability processes and techniques. Finally some ideas underpinning the concept of a ‘professional project’ are floated illustrating for example how there is a starting point, overall objectives and sub-goals set and steps outlined towards a monopolization of professional knowledge. A fault line may emerge when one of the eventual outcomes of professions simulating a competing standards narrative leads to a notion of ‘de-professionalisation‘, arising for example from a breakdown in public services and failure to achieve high quality standards resonant of the situation characteristic of parts of the UK today.

Keywords: sociology of professions; theoretical perspectives and professional practice; social closure; power structures; specialist knowledge and expertise; professionalisation and the professional project

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