The term profession is applied to those persons who have specialized and technical skill or knowledge which they apply, for a fee, to certain tasks that ordinary and unqualified people cannot ordinarily undertake. The term derives from the Latin: "to swear (an oath)". The oath referred to dictates adherence to ethical standards, which invariably include practitioner/client confidentiality, truthfulness, and the striving to be an expert in one's calling, all three of these being practiced above all for the benefit of the client. There is also a stipulation about upholding the good name of the profession.

The term profession thus refers to an occupation, vocation or high-status career, usually involving prolonged academic training, formal qualifications and membership of a professional or regulatory body. Professions involve the application of specialized knowledge of a subject, field, or science to fee-paying clientele. ["Oxford English Dictionary", Second Edition (Oxford University Press, 1989).] It is axiomatic that "professional activity involves systematic knowledge and proficiency." [ Asa Kasher, "Professional Ethics and Collective Professional Autonomy A Conceptual Analysis," Ethical Perspectives, 12/1 (March - 2005), pp.67-97.] Professions are usually regulated by professional bodies that may set examinations of competence, act as a licensing authority for practitioners, and enforce adherence to an ethical code of practice.

Examples of the professions

Professions include, for example: Nurses, Dentists, Physicians, Pharmacists, Lawyers, Accountants, Vets, Engineers, Teachers, Diplomats, Commissioned Officers, Professors, Clergy, Town & Transport Planners, Architects, Pilots, Physical Therapists, Chiropractors, Librarians and some other specialized technical occupations etc.

Formation of a profession

A profession arises when any trade or occupation transforms itself through "the development of formal qualifications based upon education and examinations, the emergence of regulatory bodies with powers to admit and discipline members, and some degree of monopoly rights." [Alan Bullock & Stephen Trombley, "The New Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought," London: Harper-Collins, 1999, p.689.]

The process by which a profession arises from a trade or occupation is often termed professionalization and has been described as one, "starting with the establishment of the activity as a full-time occupation, progressing through the establishment of training schools and university links, the formation of a professional organization, and the struggle to gain legal support for exclusion, and culminating with the formation of a formal code of ethics." [ Jennifer Roberts & Michael Dietrich, "Conceptualizing Professionalism: Why Economics Needs Sociology," The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, Oct, 1999.]


Regulation enforced by statute distinguishes a profession from other occupations represented by trade groups who aspire to professional status for their members.Perks, R.W.(1993): "Accounting and Society". Chapman & Hall (London); ISBN 0412473305. p.2.] . In all countries, professions have their regulatory or professional bodies, whose function is to define, promote, oversee, support and regulate the affairs of its members. For some professions there may be several such bodies. [ List of professional bodies in the UK.]


Professions tend to be autonomous, which means they have a high degree of control of their own affairs: "professionals are autonomous insofar as they can make independent judgments about their work" [Bayles, Michael D. "Professional Ethics." Belmont, California: Wadsworth, 1981.] This usually means "the freedom to exercise their professional judgement." [ "The World Medical Association Declaration of Madrid on Professional Autonomy and Self-Regulation", 1987.] However, it has other meanings. "Professional autonomy is often described as a claim of professionals that has to serve primarily their own interests...this professional autonomy can only be maintained if members of the profession subject their activities and decisions to a critical evaluation by other members of the profession " [ Hoogland J. & Jochemsen H., "Professional Autonomy and the Normative Structure of Medical Practice," Theoretical Medicine, 21.5, September 2000, pp.457-475.] The concept of autonomy can therefore be seen to embrace not only judgement, but also self-interest and a continuous process of critical evaluation of ethics and procedures from within the profession itself.

tatus and prestige

Professions enjoy a high social status, regard and esteem [ Ron Tinsley & James C Hardy, "Faculty Pressures and Professional Self-Esteem: Life in Texas Teacher Education."] [ Royal College of Pathologists, "The role of the College and benefits of membership," 16 Dec 2005.] conferred upon them by society. This high esteem arises primarily from the higher social function of their work, which is regarded as vital to society as a whole and thus of having a special and valuable nature. All professions involve technical, specialised and highly skilled work often referred to as "professional expertise." [ P. C. S. Lian & A. W. Laing, "The role of professional expertise in the purchasing of health services," Health Services Management Research, 17.2, 1 May 2004, pp.110-120.] Training for this work involves obtaining degrees and professional qualifications (see Licensure) without which entry to the profession is barred (occupational closure). Training also requires regular updating of skills through continuing education.


All professions have power. [Terence Johnson, "Professions and Power," London: Heinemann, 1972.] This power is used to control its own members, and also its area of expertise and interests. A profession tends to dominate, police and protect its area of expertise and the conduct of its members, and exercises a dominating influence over its entire field which means that professions can act monopolist, [Gerald Larkin, "Occupational Monopoly and Modern Medicine", London: Tavistock, 1983.] rebuffing competition from ancillary trades and occupations, as well as subordinating and controlling lesser but related trades. [Peter E. S. Freund, & Meredith B. McGuire, "Health Illness and the Social Body A Critical Sociology", New Jersey, USA: Prentice Hall, 1995, p.211.] A profession is characterised by the power and high prestige it has in society as a whole. It is the power, prestige and value that society confers upon a profession that more clearly defines it. This is why Judges, Lawyers, ClericsFact|date=April 2008, and Medical personnel enjoy this high social status and are regarded as true professionalsFact|date=April 2008.


Classically, there were only three professions "(Edit: there is evidence indicating that the Military was also classically deemed a profession (= a calling requiring the swearing of an oath - see beginning of entry, above). The oath for the military contains the same criteria as the others, keeping in mind that the "client" for the military is a government or leader.)": Divinity, Medicine, and Law. The main milestones which mark an occupation being identified as a profession are:

# It became a full-time occupation;
# The first training school was established;
# The first university school was established;
# The first local association was established;
# The first national association was established;
# The codes of professional ethics were introduced;
# State licensing laws were established.

The ranking of established professions in the United States based on the above milestones shows Medicine first, followed by Law, Dentistry, Civil Engineering, Logistics, Architecture and Accounting [Perks, p.3.] .With the rise of technology and occupational specialization in the 19th century, other bodies began to claim professional status: Pharmacy, Logistics, Veterinary Medicine, Nursing, Teaching, Librarianship, Optometry and Social Work, all of which could claim to be professions by 1900 using these milestones [Buckley, J.W. & Buckley, M.H. (1974): "The Accounting Profession". Melville, Los Angeles. Quoted by Perks, p.4.] .

Just as some professions rise in status and power through various stages, so others may decline. This is characterized by the red cloaks of bishops giving way to the black cloaks of lawyers and then to the white cloaks of doctors [Zola, I.K. (1977): "Healthism and disabling medicalization". Marion Boyars Publishers, New York. Quoted by Perks, p.4.] . With the church having receded in its role in western society, the remaining classical professions (law and medicine) are both noted by many as requiring not just study to enter, but "extensive" study and accreditation above and beyond simply getting a university degree. Fact|date=July 2007 Accordingly more recently-formalized disciplines, such as architecture, which now have equally-long periods of study associated with them. ["Ideas and Beliefs in Architecture and Industrial design: How attitudes, orientations and underlying assumptions shape the built environment". Oslo School of Architecture and Design. ISBN 8254701741.]

Although professions enjoy high status and public prestige, all professionals do not earn the same high salaries. There are hidden inequalities even within professions.

Gender inequality

There is a long-standing and well-documented male domination of all professions, even though this has weakened over the last forty years or so. For example, well-qualified women rarely get the same pay as men. "There is a 15 per cent pay gap between men and women across Europe. The situation is particularly bad in Britain. A report by the 'Women and Work Commission' last year found that women in full-time work are earning 17 per cent less than men on average...significant numbers of women enter professions such as the law and medicine every year. They are increasingly well represented as heads of professional bodies and national arts organisations. Overall, since 1975, the pay gap has narrowed by 12 percentage points." [ [ "Bridge the pay gap, it is outdated discrimination," The Independent, 23 February 2007] ]

Although in Britain, "the fulltime gender pay gap has shrunk in the past 30 years, it is still 17%, while for part-time work it is stuck at a shameful 40%....all this is happening when, at school and college, women are outshining men. In the medical and legal professions there has been a 'genderquake,'" [ [,,1643134,00.html Malcolm Dean, "Ending inequality is a work in progress", "The Guardian", November 16, 2005] ] which means these professions are gradually becoming female-dominated. Yet their pay continues to lag behind that of their male colleagues.

This situation is by no means limited to the law and medicine. "Research from the profession's leading body, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), has discovered that there is a 23% pay gap between men and women in senior HR positions. This all the more embarrassing because HR is considered a women's profession....and (although) a professional qualification is a hallmark of practice, some professionals are better rewarded than others, and that the better rewarded tend to be men. This is not solely because men are more likely to reach the top of their professions. Gender gaps have been found in the starting salaries of newly qualified solicitors. And there are segregated professions, and occupations." [ [,,1319028,00.html Bill Saunders, "Pay differentials," The Guardian, October 4, 2004] ]

However, the situation is fluid, and some improvements can be detected here and there. For example, in 2007, women comprised 63% of students enrolled in US professional pharmaceutical programs and 51.3% of PhD candidates in that same field. [ [ AACP, Academic Pharmacy's Vital Statistics, April 2008] ] Similarly, women comprised 47.3% of those entering US Law Schools in 2007 and are projected to comprise as much as 49.4% of law students by the end of the decade. [ [ "First Year and Total J.D. Enrollment by Gender1947-2007"] ] Such welcome shifts seem to herald a gradual weakening of male domination in the professions.

Racial inequality

Equally qualified blacks get paid less than equivalent whites. "the percentage difference in earnings between Blacks and Whites was smallest (5%) in the lowest-paid occupations and greatest in the highest-paid dentists and physicians earned 80 cents for every dollar earned by their White colleagues. Black lawyers earned 79 cents for every dollar earned by White men have made inroads into the most highly paid occupations, but once they get there, they find they still don't earn as much as equally qualified White men." [ [ Anon, "Despite Rising to top Professions, Black Men still don't earn top Pay," Jet, Sept 3, 2001] ]

Characteristics of a profession

The list of characteristics that follows is extensive, but does not claim to include every characteristic that has ever been attributed to professions, nor do all of these features apply to every profession:

# Skill based on theoretical knowledge: Professionals are assumed to have extensive theoretical knowledge (e.g. medicine, law, scripture or engineering) and to possess skills based on that knowledge that they are able to apply in practice.
# Professional association: Professions usually have professional bodies organized by their members, which are intended to enhance the status of their members and have carefully controlled entrance requirements.
# Extensive period of education: The most prestigious professions usually require at least three yearsUpdateneed at university.
#Testing of competence: Before being admitted to membership of a professional body, there is a requirement to pass prescribed examinations that are based on mainly theoretical knowledge.
#Institutional training: In addition to examinations, there is usually a requirement for a long period of institutionalized training where aspiring professionals acquire specified practical experience in some sort of trainee role before being recognized as a full member of a professional body. Continuous upgrading of skills through professional development is also mandatory these days.
#Licensed practitioners: Professions seek to establish a register or membership so that only those individuals so licensed are recognized as bona fide.
#Work autonomy: Professionals tend to retain control over their work, even when they are employed outside the profession in commercial or public organizations. They have also gained control over their own theoretical knowledge.
#Code of professional conduct or ethics: Professional bodies usually have codes of conduct or ethics for their members and disciplinary procedures for those who infringe the rules.
#Self-regulation: Professional bodies tend to insist that they should be self-regulating and independent from government. Professions tend to be policed and regulated by senior, respected practitioners and the most highly qualified members of the profession.
#Public service and altruism: The earning of fees for services rendered can be defended because they are provided in the public interest, e.g. the work of doctors contributes to public health.
#Exclusion, monopoly and legal recognition: Professions tend to exclude those who have not met their requirements and joined the appropriate professional body. This is often termed "professional closure," and seeks to bar entry for the unqualified and to sanction or expel incompetent members.
#Control of remuneration and advertising: Where levels of remuneration are determined by government, professional bodies are active in negotiating (usually advantageous) remuneration packages for their members. Some professions set standard scale fees, but government advocacy of competition means that these are no longer generally enforced.Fact|date=July 2008
#High status and rewards: The most successful professions achieve high status, public prestige and rewards for their members.Fact|date=July 2008 Some of the factors included in this list contribute to such success.
#Individual clients: Many professions have individual fee-paying clients.Dubious|date=May 2008 For example, in accountancy, "the profession" usually refers to accountants who have individual and corporate clients, rather than accountants who are employees of organizations.
#Middle-class occupations: Traditionally, many professions have been viewed as 'respectable' occupations for middle and upper classes. [Perks, p.6-11.]
#Male-dominated: The highest status professions tend to be male dominated.Updateneeded For example, the proportion of women in school-teaching has increased as its status has declined, and women are now being admitted to the priesthood while its status has declined relative to other professions.Fact|date=July 2008 Similar arguments apply to race and class: ethnic groups and working-class people are no less disadvantaged in most professions than they are in society generally. [Perks, p.11.] Updateneeded
#Offer reassurance: Professionals are able to offer reassurance to their clients that although there appear to be problems, everything is normal or being dealt with properly, and this reassurance may be offered rather than solutions to particular problems. For example, sick people may be reassured that they will probably get better in a few days.
#Ritual: Church ritual and the Court procedure are obviously ritualistic.Who|date=July 2008Fact|date=July 2008
#Legitimacy: Professions have clear legal authority over some activities (e.g. certifying the insane) but are also seen as adding legitimacy to a wide range of related activities.Fact|date=July 2008
#Inaccessible body of knowledge: In some professions, the body of knowledge is relatively inaccessible to the uninitiated. Medicine and law are typically not school subjects and have separate faculties and even separate libraries at universities.old fact
#Indeterminacy of knowledge: Professional knowledge contains elements that escape being mastered and communicated in the form of rules and can only be acquired through experience.Fact|date=July 2008
#Mobility: The skill knowledge and authority of professionals belongs to the professionals as individuals, not the organizations for which they work. Professionals are therefore relatively mobile in employment opportunities as they can move to other employers and take their talents with them. Standardization of professional training and procedures enhances this mobility. [Perks, pgs. 12-14.] .


* P.J. Corfield, "Power and the Professions in Britain, 1700-1850," Routledge, London, 1995.
* Yves Dezalay and David Sugarman, "Professional Competition and Professional Power," Routledge, 1995, ISBN 0203977211.
* Eliot Freidson, "Professional Powers: A Study of the Institutionalization of Formal Knowledge," Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986, ISBN 0-226-26225-1.
* Joseph M. Jacob, "Doctors and Rules: A Sociology of Professional Values," Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick and London, 1999.
* Jonathan Montgomery, "Medicine, Accountability, and Professionalism," 1989.

ee also

*Professional class
*Professional development
*Professional degree
*Professional responsibility

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