Part A: Summary
Andrew Abbott’s book, The System of Professions: An Essay on the Division of Expert Labour contains a mix of comparative historical analysis and current evaluation, which is assembled within an analytical model that looks at professions from the viewpoint of their jurisdictions, the tasks they do, the expert knowledge needed for those tasks, and how competitive forces internally and externally work to change both the jurisdictions and the tasks. Abbott attempts to show that professions are interdependent systems, containing internal structures. He accomplishes this task by means of analyzing the emergence of modern professions and their relationships with each other cooperatively and competitively.
Section I: Work, Jurisdiction, and Competition
Abbott’s book takes on an individualistic direction in its inception then moves to a more systematic view of professions. Modern studies of formal professions began with the rise of the discipline of social sciences in the 19th century. In the beginning, scholars debated about the theoretical interpretations of professionalism. There was a split between proponents of functionalist and monopolistic approaches. However, academics on both sides agreed, “that a profession was an occupational group with some special skill” (Abbott 1988: 7). Abbott mentions that there have been four different perspectives that have sought to interpret professionalization, a functional, structural, monopolistic, and a cultural view.
Abbott states that the tasks of professions are to provide expert service to amend human problems (Abbott 1988: 33). These problems can be objective, in that they originate naturally or through technological imperatives. Problems can also be subjective, whereby they are imposed by society or a culture either from the present or past. Abbott argues that the “real difference between the objective and subjective qualities of problems is a difference in amenability to cultural work” (Abbott 1988: 36). Abbott outlines that there are several types of objective foundations for professional tasks. Some being technological, some organizational, other sources of objective qualities lay in natural objects and facts, while others came from slow-changing cultural structures. Abbott also argues that a “profession is always vulnerable to changes in the objective character of its central tasks” (Abbott 1988: 39). Besides the objective qualities, professional tasks also have subjective qualities, which make them susceptible to change. Unlike objective tasks, change does not come from the vagaries of external forces, but from the “activities of other professions impinge[ing] on the subjective qualities (Abbott 1988: 39).
According to Abbott, three acts helped to embody the cultural logic of professional practice. The three subjective modalities being diagnosis, inference, and treatment. Diagnosis is the process wherein information is taken into the professional knowledge system, and treatment is wherein instruction is brought back out from it (Abbott 1988: 40). During the process of diagnosis, relevant information about the client is assembled into a picture of the client’s needs. This picture is then categorized into a proper diagnostic category. This process consists of two sub-processes known as colligation and classification. “Colligation is the first step in which the professional knowledge system begins to structure the observed problems (Abbott 1988: 41). Colligation is the forming of a picture of the client, and consists primarily of “rules declaring what kinds of evidence are relevant and irrelevant, valid and invalid, as well as rules specifying the admissible level of ambiguity (Abbott 1988: 41). Classification is the referral of “the colligated picture to the dictionary of professional legitimate problems” (Abbott 1988: 41). Colligation and classification help to define which type of problems fall under which body of profession, and specifically what kind of problem it is in that particular profession. Abbott mentions that sometimes problems of classification arise. For some problems are constantly shifting classifications, and fall under more than one classification, due to their defining traits. This may lead to intervention or competition by other professions who want to assimilate the unclear problem into their own professional repertoire (Abbott 1988: 44). The procedure of “treatment is organized around a classification system and a brokering process,” whereby results are given to the client and prescription is offered (Abbott 1988: 44). One major problem associated with treatment is the client’s willingness to accept treatment. A profession that adamantly forces clients to take treatment risks losing clients to their competition who may be more flexible to their client’s wishes (Abbott 1988: 47). Inference is the process that takes place “when the connection between diagnosis and treatment is obscure” (Abbott 1988: 49). Inference can work in one of two ways, either by exclusion or construction. With regards to the ideals of inference, is the fact that professions that have several chances to infer solutions to a problem will consequently have more failures, than a profession that gets only one chance. In addition, professions with multiple chances are generally more vulnerable to intervention and competition, or what is known as ceteris paribus, for treatment failure is the main attacking point for invading professions (Abbott 1988: 49). Another factor that leaves professions prone to external attack is the existence of a problem where no treatment can be inferred. To counteract this potential downfall, Abbott suggested that professions often direct these unsolvable problems to elite consultants or are academicized as ‘crucial anomalies’ (Abbott 1988: 50). These procedures help to make the difficult problem connected with a vague public label, “which serves as a stopgap against dangerous questioning” (Abbott 1988: 51). This in turn removes direct and stigmatizing responsibility of treatment failure away from a profession, which “protects a profession’s jurisdiction” (Abbott 1988: 51).
“Diagnosis, treatment, inference, and academic work provide the cultural machinery of jurisdiction” (Abbott 1988: 59). However, Abbott argues that this is not enough for an organized structure to claim jurisdiction. In order to claim jurisdiction, a profession must ask “society to recognize its cognitive structure through exclusive rights” (Abbott 1988: 59). Jurisdictional claim by a profession can be achieved in several possible arenas, within the legal system, the realm of public opinion, and within the arena of the workplace. Claiming jurisdiction is only one means of overcoming jurisdictional disputes by professions, Abbott mentions that there are five other known types of settlement options.
A profession’s social organization is comprised of three distinct internal structures, they being groups, controls, and worksites. These modules of professional organization work in unison to create a more bonded and organized professional structure. Together they influence professions in several ways. First, the more organized a profession is, the more effective it is at claiming jurisdiction. Second, organization of a profession into “a single, identifiable national association is clearly a prerequisite of public or legal claims” (Abbott 1988: 83). Third, in some conditions oddly, some relatively less organized professions due to their internal structures have a certain advantage in workplace competition. For these professional organizations lack rigid focus, and thus have freedom to move back and forth from different tasks, whereas more organized professions lack this flexibility to venture into other areas of work to increase diversity, to become more competitive. Finally, professions that have highly organized internal structures are more resilient to attacks by less organized professions.
These facts illustrate that the social structure of professions is neither fixed nor uniformly beneficial; the nature of it is “constantly subdividing under the various pressures of market demands, specialization, and interprofessional competition” (Abbott 1988: 84). In addition, these facts demonstrate that different competitive conditions favour a more or less organized profession. Taken together these factors imply that the professions as a group will develop in the structured dynamic pattern that Abbott calls the system of professions.
Abbott upholds in his book the ideal that professions constitute an interdependent system, and that jurisdiction is exclusive (Abbott 1988: 86). That being true, then a move by one inevitably affects the others. Change occurs within professions according to Abbott through two sources. One source is from external factors, these initiate the “opening or closing [of] areas for jurisdiction and by existing or new professions seeking new ground” (Abbott 1988: 90). New tasks areas of jurisdiction are opened; some professions prosper by the acquisition of these new jurisdictions by procedures such as enclosure at the expense of destroying old jurisdictions, that lead to the weakening of the jurisdiction of other professions (Abbott 1988: 91). A second source of change comes from internal factors, these causes unlike external factors do not create or abolish jurisdiction. Change is initiated internally within the dynamic structures of professions through the development of new knowledge, and expansion of jurisdictional consolidation by processes such as professionalization or reduction (Abbott 1988: 91).
Section II: The System's Environment
Abbott defines professional power “as the ability to retain jurisdiction when system forces imply that a profession ought to have lost it” (Abbott 1988: 136). The power of professions to expand their cognitive domain, and thus their jurisdiction, Abbott maintains is dependent on their use of abstract knowledge to annex new areas of work, and to define then as their own (Abbott 1988: 102). Abbott also adds that knowledge must not be too abstract or concrete to be jurisdictionally advantageous for a profession. Two mechanisms help professions to maintain an optimal level of abstraction, these being the processes of amalgamation and division.
Within professions there exists internal differentiation between the organized groups of individuals that comprise the profession. One major source of internal stratification comes from the phenomenon of professional regression. This is a process whereby professionals withdraw into themselves, working in more purely professional environments, as a consequence of gaining greater status (Abbott 1988: 118). They inevitably become segregated from the tasks for which they claim jurisdiction, and from clients, the public, and other subordinate professionals. Besides professional regression there is the concept of client differentiation, which leads to specialization within professions, this creates internal divisions of labour.
A process correlated to labour division is that of degradation. Degradation is the progression whereby work is systematically segmented from professional to non-professional status, which leads to the division of labour between “an upper, truly professional group and a lower, subordinate one” (Abbott 1988: 128). An interrelated issue of labour division is that of career patterns, Abbott argues that career patterns are often quite rigid, and that interchangeability between work of different professions is impossible. For due to demographic rigidity, some professions size and reproduction mechanisms prevent them from expanding or contracting rapidly, thus constraining their professionals from practicing outside of the profession (Abbott 1988: 129). Abbott proposes that large scale general changes on the structures that make up the system of professions, and not their effects on individual professions must be examined, to generate an accurate picture of the variables that mediate change (Abbott 1988: 143). Abbott mentions that two significant circumstances have helped in the advancement of professional jurisdictions. One being the rise of the large-scale organization, and the other being the rise of technology (Abbott 1988: 144). Beyond technology and organizations, social movements have also been responsible for the creation and abolishment of professional work.
With the organizational revolution of the 19th century professions became more bureaucratic. The rise of bureaucracies has increased competition between professions, by absorbing certain forms of work, and thus creating struggle for work that remains (Abbott 1988: 157). As a consequence, there has been a split between workplace and public jurisdiction, and subsequently a division between administrative and legislative authority. This Abbott contends leads to "various changes in audiences for professional claims" dependent on the social environment (Abbott 1988: 157). Related to the increase of bureaucracy is that of co-optation, the phenomenon of professions shrinking in number and becoming more monopolized in power. This process has not decreased interprofessional competition, but "has simply changed its location.... and involving different arrangements of 'friendly' groups" (Abbott 1988: 176).
Besides the many social organizational and structural changes of professions that have occurred throughout the short history of professions, great cultural changes have also been involved in remaking the work of professions. The three of most significance have been the growth in size and complexity of professional knowledge, the emergence of new types of legitimacy claims for that knowledge, and the rise of the university. The changes in professional knowledge have involved two processes, that of growth and replacement. Growth has lead to the subdivision of knowledge, while replacement has pressured knowledge towards abstraction (Abbott 1988: 179). Legitimation of professions justifies what forms of work they can do and how they are to do it (Abbott 1988: 184). The emergence of new forms of jurisdictional legitimacy has been warranted by cultural shifts such as secularization, and changing cultural values. This has led to a shift in professional legitimation from "a reliance on social origins and character values to a reliance on scientization or rationalization of technique and on efficiency of service" (Abbott 1988: 179). The ascent of the modern university has been a great external force behind the development of professions. Universities have served as legitimators of professional knowledge and expertise. They have helped to generate new techniques of practice, and have been the training ground for professionals. Finally, universities have also "become another arena for interprofessional competition" (Abbott 1988: 196).
Section III: Three Case Studies
In his discussion of information professionals Abbott states that there are two types. There are those who reside in qualitative information, such as librarians, academics, advertisers, and journalists, and those who abide in quantitative information, such as cost accountants, management engineers, statisticians, operations researchers, and systems analysts. The move by qualitative professions into technical organization has been attributed to the concept of scientific management. Qualitative information work has been "shaped decisively by organizational and demographic developments... [as well as by] major technological events" (Abbott 1988: 219). The area of quantitative information has developed through the advent of two detrimental disturbances. One being the invention of mechanical devices for calculation and tabulation, which helped to rountinize the work, and the other being the birth of cost accounting, which helped professions to become more competitive (Abbott 1988: 228). The 1930's were the beginning of the unification between qualitative and quantitative information. This brought about the emergence of two practical claimants of this new area of information jurisdiction. The first was information science (IS) which took a purely theoretical perspective on the topic, and the second was management information systems (MIS), which had a more practical orientation.
The initial structural development of the English legal profession began in the early 19th century, while the onset of that of the Americans came at a much later time. Two organizational structures attributed to the growth in demand for legal services in the 19th century. One was large commercial enterprise, the other was administrative bureaucracy. In its infancy legal work outgrew its profession. This led to three types of conflict between competitors within the profession. The first case known as excess jurisdiction occurs when an incumbent profession cannot grow to meet demand, or increase output, and thus faces invasion by outsiders. The second kind of conflict arises when a professional group's potential output exceeds its current jurisdiction. The third type of conflict occurs when groups who provide equivalent services at lower prices seek to invade into a settled jurisdiction. Due to the structure of the American legal profession these conflict problems were less severe than in the British system (Abbott 1988: 252). The American system because of its use of large firms and the replacement of clerkship with law school, helped it to produce higher output, thus it avoided problems related to demand and supply (Abbott 1988: 252). Taken together, this shows that the differences in the development of the English and American legal system was caused by the actions of the two professions themselves, the general social environment, and by competitors trying to secure control of areas of importance to the legal profession (Abbott 1988: 275).
Abbott posits that the birth of professions coincided with the rise of personal problems (Abbott 1988: 285). Thus, the history of professions is a biography of the relationship between problems and the tasks that seek to resolve them. The first groups that attempted to assert professional jurisdiction over these personal problems were the clergy and neurologists. This was the beginning of a "gradual recognition of personal problems as legitimate categories of professional work" (Abbott 1988: 286). Other groups that subsequently joined the race for professional jurisdiction were gynecologists, psychiatrists, as well as weaker groups such as psychotherapists.
In his book, Abbott outlines the history of professional development by showing that professions have evolved simultaneously through similar patterns of development. In chapters six and seven he argued that professions are organizational structures made-up of many internal components and divisions of labour. Related to this issue was his belief that professions were interdependent structures. Abbott believed that the power of professions lay in their jurisdictional power, which set the boundaries of what an occupation's work embraced. Work and claims to jurisdiction over tasks for Abbott was what defined a professions power. He illustrated this by showing that professions struggle and compete against each other to gain control over undefined and unclear areas of tasks, to expand their jurisdictional and overall strength. Chapters two to four devote most of their attention to addressing these issues of work, competition, and claims to legitimacy, which are related to jurisdictional power. The primary goal of Abbott's book was to attempt to show that professions exist within a system, he did this by demonstrating that changes in one affects the other, and that one profession preempts another's work. This was shown by his outlined principles in chapter four of his book, which posit that external and internal changes in one profession causes disturbances through the systems of professions. For professions as he advocated constitute an interdependent system. Therefore, relations between professions and their work determine the interwoven history of professional development. In other words, one has helped to transform the other, similar to the system whereby the factors of genetics and environment symbiotically influence the direction of evolutionary processes. Abbott wanted to address the issue that to study the evolution of professions completely and accurately, it is not enough to study them individually, that researchers have to examine the relationship and development of all professions to understand any of one them. For professions are as he states interdependent systems, which influence each other prospectively.
Part B: Discussion
The social construction of skill and its relationship to workers' autonomy and discretion relate to Abbott's discussion for it was mentioned that workers derive their skill by means of educational attainment and achievements of credentials. These merits are defined and constructed by the professions, it is up to their discretion to design the skill requirements for entry into the professional body. That being so, professions have a structured path for its prospective employees. This would make the career pattern for many workers quite rigid, providing them with very little autonomy and discretion in the career choices (Abbott 1988: 129). We alluded to in class that sometimes the social construction of skill may help to restrain the worker's ability for autonomy and discretion. For instance, in the French system of the 1970's, the government pushed education to be highly specific in its professional focus (Abbott 1988: 133). Thus, the educational system produced skilled, but specifically skilled workers for society. Workers knowledge and skill was highly specific and not broad or generalizable. The French society socially constructed its own definition of skills needed for society and education. However, the inevitable consequence of such actions caused the problem of low interprofessional mobility. Workers there had very little autonomy or discretion with regard to their work (Abbott 1988: 133). Here, we see a situation where the social construction of defining skill has led to the restriction of workers' occupational freedom.
Even with the social construction of skills that defined the potential autonomy for workers, factors related to the organizational structure of professions can limit such freedom. It was discussed in class that workers choices and freedom to choose what they want to do is often restricted by structural factors, such as division of labour and company size. Abbott alludes to this in his discussion of career patterns, he posits that the career paths in professions are often quite rigid, with very little chance for interchangeability between professions (Abbott 1988: 129). For example, a doctor cannot move into the profession of law with his present skills, and vice versa for a lawyer. The demands of those professions constrict the autonomy professionals within those professions have, with regards to interprofessional flexibility. Although the case may be that within their own prospective professions, professionals have their own forms of discretion and occupational autonomy dependent on their skill and expertise. This inflexibility in interprofessional and career pattern autonomy is controlled by the factor of demographic rigidity. Some professions, due to their size and reproduction mechanisms, prevent them from expanding or contracting, this constrains their professionals from practicing outside of the profession (Abbott 1988: 129). This illustrates that factors of a professions structure mediates the affect of socially constructed skill with worker's autonomy and discretion, that the organization of a profession can confine a professionals occupational freedom.
However, the situation of restricted freedom for occupational alternative is not always the case, as has been mentioned in class, sometimes through conditions of an individual's skill and by organizational forces, workers find themselves confronted with opportunities for advancement or differentiations. Abbott illustrates that through the phenomenons of specialization and labour division workers can increase their status and thus allow themselves chances for expansions into other tasks areas (Abbott 1988: 128). Abbott advocates that for some workers their professions allow them great autonomy and discretion, this is based upon the set of socially constructed skills they obtained. For example, the skills that society has required librarians to acquire for their occupations, has given them more opportunity for personal autonomy and discretion regarding their work (Abbott 1988: 123). Librarians are differentiated and restricted only by their own diverse choice of clientele (Abbott 1988: 123). They can choose to work in schools, industry, government, public, and even in academic areas. Their socially demanded skills in research and knowledge allow them to move from one professional arena to another with ease, for their skills are highly generalizable (Abbott 1988: 123).
Sometimes, an individuals credentials so happens allow him or her access into other professions, giving him or her discretion to choose where he or she wants to work, or what tasks he or she wants to do. Abbott argues that some credentials allow individuals to claim jurisdiction under more than one profession, allowing them autonomy to choose where they want to reside, and allowing them the opportunity to switch over to another jurisdiction as they wish (Abbott 1988: 103). For example, Abbott proposes that a degree such as a M.B.A, because of its broad coverage of diverse forms of knowledge and training, allows its owners numerous areas for claimants (Abbott 1988: 103). Thus, students of diverse specialties as psychology, sociology, law, economic, etc. can claim jurisdiction in business management even though their primary study has no relations, as long as they possess the certification of a M.B.A degree. Simply by possessing credentials under a certain expertise and skill that society has defined as expert, individuals can increase their autonomy of career choice by great folds. This points to the fact that the attainment of what society constructs as expert skill, can help in ones' achievement of autonomy and discretion.
Another process that leads to the autonomy of the individual is through the process of degradation. Degradation leads to the explicit division of labour, which inevitably allows workers different career directions and alternatives (Abbott 1988: 126). In his discussion of the profession of computer programmers, Abbott illustrates that the sudden explosion in the computerization of industry in the 1970's created a large demand for computer programmers. This led to a division in the work between normal and specialist programmers, and while causing the subordination of some, this created many new opportunities for specialty (Abbott 1988: 127). Specialists in that field were presented with total autonomy and discretion with regards to their work. They could set their own standards and jurisdiction, for there existed no forbearers in their expertise to restrict the creation of their own jurisdiction (Abbott 1988: 123).
As it has just been illustrated, the social construction of skill and its relationship to workers' autonomy and discretion has not always been a positive one. In some circumstances, workers are provided with great freedom with regards to their work, but in others, the defined skills constructed by society help to restrict the autonomy and discretion of workers. Factors such as government intervention, the organizational structure of professions, individual merit and choice, and processes of labour division and destruction all play a role in determining the occupational free choice of workers. Abbott's book outlined many of these factors, his findings helped to substantiate ideals related to this topic discussed in class.
Abbott, Andrew. The System of Professions: An Essay on the Division of Expert Labour.
Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1988.
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