Book Review: The System of Professions – An Essay on the Division of Expert Labor


This book was written in 1988 by Andrew Abbott, who served as Distinguished Service Professor of the Department of Sociology and the College at the University of Chicago. The author explores central questions about the role of professions in modern life: Why should there be occupational groups controlling expert knowledge? Where and why did groups such as law and medicine achieve their power? Will professionalism spread throughout the occupational world? While most inquiries in this field studied one profession at a time when the book was published, Abbott here considered the system of professions as a whole. Through comparative and historical study of the professions in the nineteenth- and twentieth-century England, France, and America, Abbott builds a general theory of how and why professions evolve.

The movement from an individualistic to a systematic view of professions organizes this book. The twenty main takeaways I got out of it are presented below:

  1. The professions dominate our world. They heal our bodies, measure our profits, save our souls… Most authors study professions one at a time. Most assume that professions grow through a series of stages called professionalization. Most takeaways less about what professions do than about how they are organized to do it. These assumptions seem to emerge from our central questions about professions. Why should there be occupational groups controlling the acquisition and application of various kind of knowledge? Where and why did groups like medicine and law achieve their power?
  2. The Professions Literature – some theorists of professionalization stated that the diversity of the would-be professions arose because professional status was an end state that few had yet achieved. Diversity would disappear with time, as groups gradually acquired all the marks of true professions. The concept of professionalization thus consummated the marriage of naturalism and typology. Professionalization was a natural process, as in the case of study literature, but that process entailed a series of types.
  3. Although the professions derive from medieval and in some cases ancient origins, the first systematic attempts to study them came in the twentieth century… Early work on professionalization had rested on the functional assumptions characteristic of postwar sociology. It attributed the collegial organization of professions to their position as experts. The ‘asymmetry of expertise‘ required the client to trust the professional and the professional to respect both client and colleagues. These relations were guaranteed by various institutional forms – associations, licensure, ethics codes. But theorists rejecting functional assumptions disputed the whole picture. In a lucid analysis of professionalism a a form of control, Johnson argued that the professions did not serve disembodied social need but rather imposed both definitions of needs and manner of service on atomized customers.
  4. The Concept of Professionalization – probably, the most common theme of past work is that professions tend to develop in a common pattern, called professionalization. Is there, in fact, a common story of how professions develop? To answer this question, we must first answer the preliminary one of what we mean by a ‘common story’, and this question is quite complex. There have been many theories of professionalization, and they differ along two distinctly different dimensions – the formal and the substantive.
  5. Professions begin when people “start doing full time the thing that needs doing”. But the issue of training arises, pushed by recruits or clients. Schools are created. The new schools, if not begun within universities, immediately seek affiliation with them. Inevitably, there then develop higher standards, longer training, easier commitment to the profession, and a group of full time teachers. Then the teaching professionals, along with their first graduates, combine to promote and create a professional association. The more active professional life enabled by this association leads to self-reflection, to possible change of name, and to explicit attempt to separate competent from incompetent.
  6. Professional Work – for some, the relation between professions and their work is simple. There is a map of tasks to be done and an isomorphic map of people doing them. Function is structure. But the reality is more complex; the tasks, the professions, and the links between them change continually. To some extent, these changes arise beyond the professional world. Technology, politics, and other special forces divid tasks and regroup them… A profession is always vulnerable to changes in the objective character of its central tasks.
  7. Diagnosis – diagnosis and treatment are mediating acts: diagnosis takes information into the professional knowledge system and treatment brings instructions back out from it. Inference, by contrast, is a purely professional act. It takes the information of diagnosis and indicates a range of treatments with their predicted outcomes. Occasionally professions separate the three of them explicitly.
  8. Treatment – the effects of treatment parallel those of diagnosis. Like diagnosis, treatment imposes a subjective structure on the problems with which such a profession works. Like diagnosis, treatment is organized around a classification system and a brokering process. In this case the brokering gives result to the client, rather than takes information from the client; colligation is replaced by prescription.
  9. Inference – professional thinking resembles chess. The opening diagnosis is often clear, even formulaic. So also is the endgame of treatment. The middle game, however, relates professional knowledge, client characteristics, and chance in ways that are often obscure. Nonetheless, like diagnosis and treatment, this middle game – professional inference – has qualities that make a profession’s work more or less accessible to competitors. Inference is undertaken when the connection between diagnosis and treatment is obscure. The composite of diagnostic and treatment classification cannot narrow the range of outcomes acceptably.
  10. Academic Knowledge – diagnosis, treatment, and inference are aspects of professional practice. In most professions, that work is tied directly to a system of knowledge that formalizes the skills on which this work proceeds. Some writers have viewed the knowledge system as equivalent to the profession… A profession’s formal knowledge system is ordered by abstractions alone. Like any knowledge, it is organized into a classification system and an inferential system… The ability of a profession to sustain its jurisdictions lies partly in the power and prestige of its academic knowledge.
  11. To investigate the relation of a profession to its work is no simple task. To be sure, the tasks of professions have certain objective qualities that resist professions’ efforts to redefine them. But many basic qualities of tasks turn out to be subjective qualities assigned by the profession with current jurisdiction. These objective and subjective properties have a dynamic relation in which neither one predominates.
  12. External sources for system change – external forces directly disturb the system by opening new task areas for jurisdiction and by destroying old jurisdictions. A new task appears, and some profession achieves jurisdiction over it, at the expense of weakening its other jurisdictions. Those others become vulnerable to invasion, and the changes propagate throughout the system. Likewise, a professional task can disappear and the group that held it may contest and win another jurisdiction, or may strengthen other jurisdictions it already holds… In summary, chains of effects in the system of professions begin sometimes in external events, sometimes with the professions themselves. Tasks can be created or destroyed by changes in technology and organizations. New groups can emerge through client differentiation or through the forces leading to enclosure. There are also forces within professions that strengthen or weaken jurisdictions – the development of new knowledge and skill and the structural changes like professionalization and organizational development.
  13. How does internal differentiation affect the system of professions? Like other properties of professions, it has its effects through a profession’s position in the system. Thus, internal differentiation can generate or absorb system disturbances; a challenged profession can respond not only by fighting a contest or changing its level of abstraction, but also by changing internally. Conversely, internal changes can generate such system disturbances.
  14. Internal stratification – the professionals who receive the highest status from their peers are those who work in the most purely professional environments. They are professionals’ professionals who do not sully their work with nonprofessional matters, consultants who receive referrals only from others professionals. Barristers and modern-day surgeons are. examples. Such high-status professionals may have exceedingly high incomes and extensive professional education, but their distinguishing mark is their work in purely professional environments.
  15. Client differentiation – client differentiation can be contrasted with task differentiation (specialization). The later changes the strengths of jurisdictions, usually increasing them, but does not generate a vacancy in the system. Client differentiation, on the other hand, can have profound system implications… Most importantly, it may also lead to specialization, with the consequent possibility of division.
  16. Career patterns – every profession has typical careers. As in most aspects of professional life, there is one official pattern and a variety of unofficial ones. Career differences often reflect status differences. careers aiming at high intra-professional status generally have longer training periods and are more fixed in form than other careers… But quite exclusive of differentiation in careers, the general career line itself is an important differentiation within professions: it too means that professionals are not interchangeable.
  17. The Cultural Environment of Professional Development – great cultural changes have also remade the work of professions… the rising amount and complexity of professional knowledge, the new types of legitimacy claimed for that knowledge, and the rise the university. The new knowledge, the new legitimacy, and the new university are, of course, three facets of one thing, and concepts like Max Weber’s Zweckrationalitat treat them so.
  18. The Rise of Universities – among the external developments affecting professions, few have been so discussed as the modern university. Most professional education occurs within universities, and Americans in fact define universities by the presence of professional schools. The association of universities with professions seem to follow ineluctably, because professions rest on knowledge and universities are the seat of knowledge in modern societies.
  19. Universities can play several roles in professional life – they can serve as legitimators, providing authoritative grounds of the exclusive exercise of expertise. They can house the function of knowledge advancement, enabling academic professionals to develop new techniques outside of practice. They can train young professionals, often in conjunction with the function of research. Finally, universities, like states, may become another arena for inter-professional competition. Often a set of professional techniques is not legally restricted – quantitative techniques for project evaluation are an example – and professions compete by attracting students and monopolizing the teaching of courses in such subjects. The battles of the workplace, court, and public continue into academia itself. These four roles of the university in professional life have dominated at different places and different times.
  20. In the United States there were no universities, in the German sense, prior to the foundation of John Hopkins in 1876, closely followed by Clark in 1887 and the University of Chicago in 1892. Earlier foundations included colleges of the unreformed Oxbridge type, usually training young men for clergy, schoolteaching, or both, and the post-Civil War state universities, oriented towards the diffusion of useful knowledge and democratic principles… America also has, in West Point (1802), Rensselaer Polytechnic (1824), Annapolis (1845), MIT (1861) and the Stevens Institute (1870), the rudiments of a separate technical education system. The founding of German-style research universities forced the older institutions to compete, and by the turn of the twentieth century, the modern American university had emerged. The research university of the Germans was married to an American version of Lernfreiheit – the elective system – justified for its contribution to “useful” and “democratic” education… American state legislatures and alumni accepted the new university more for its production of useful citizens than for its production of knowledge.

‘Why Professionalism?’ is a deep question that the author also tackles throughout the book. We have professionalism, in the first place, because our market-based occupational structure favors employment based on personally held resources, whether of knowledge or of wealth. Such employment is more secure, more autonomous, and usually more remunerative, partly because it is organized in ‘careers’, a strategy invented in the nineteenth century to permit a coherent individual life within a shifting marketplace. We have professionalism, secondly, because nearly all kinds of knowledge are organizable as common resources for a body of individuals. We have professionalism, third, because competing forms of institutionalization have not yet overwhelmed it. It may seem odd to argue that professionalism itself competes with alternate forms of structuring expertise, in particular, with commodification and organization. But this competition arises in part because the commodities embodying expertise require development, maintenance and support that increasingly exceed the resources of individual professionals.

Overall, the author treats professions at three general levels. His central focus is on the system of professions, which he takes to be a structure linking professions with tasks. He shows these structural relations to so bind the professions that movements of any one affect others. Below the system level, he investigates the differentiation between professions themselves, less for its intrinsic interest than for its relation to system conditions. Above the system level, he investigates larger social forces, again focusing on how those forces affect individual professions under certain conditions.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: