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"A profession is a vocation founded upon specialized educational training, the purpose of which is to supply disinterested counsel and service to others, for a direct and definite compensation, wholly apart from expectation of other business gain".[1]


Jesus and the doctors of the Faith,
by the entourage of Giuseppe Ribera

Classically, there were only three professions: Divinity (academic discipline), Medicine, and Law.[2] The main milestones which mark an occupation being identified as a profession are:

  1. It became a full-time occupation;
  2. The first educational institution was established;
  3. The first university school was established;
  4. The first local Voluntary association was established;
  5. The first national association was established;
  6. The codes of professional ethics were introduced;
  7. State licensing laws were established.[2]

The ranking of established professions in the United States based on the above milestones shows Surveying first (George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln were all land surveyors before entering politics), followed by Medicine, actuarial science, Law, Dentistry, Civil Engineering, Logistics, Architecture and Accounting.[3] With the rise of technology and occupational specialization in the 19th century, other bodies began to claim professional status: Chiropractic, Pharmacy, Logistics, Veterinary Medicine, Nursing, Teaching, Librarianship, Optometry and Social Work, all of which could claim to be professions by 1900 using these milestones.[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.[5] 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.[citation needed] Accordingly more recently-formalized disciplines, such as architecture, which now have equally-long periods of study associated with them.[6]

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

Formation of a profession

A profession arises when any trade or occupation transforms itself through "the development of formal qualifications based upon education, apprenticeship, and examinations, the emergence of regulatory bodies with powers to admit and discipline members, and some degree of monopoly rights."[7]


Professions are typically regulated by statute, with the responsibilities of enforcement delegated to respective professional bodies, whose function is to define, promote, oversee, support and regulate the affairs of its members. These bodies are responsible for the licensure of professionals, and may additionally set examinations of competence and enforce adherence to an ethical code of practice. However, they all require that the individual hold at least a first professional degree before licensure. There may be several such bodies for one profession in a single country, an example being the British qualified accountants (Association of Chartered Certified Accountants, Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, etc., all of which have been given a Royal Charter although not necessarily considered to hold equivalent-level qualifications.

Typically, individuals are required by law to be qualified by a local professional body before they are permitted to practice in that profession. However, in some countries, individuals may not be required by law to be qualified by such a professional body in order to practice, as is the case for accountancy in the United Kingdom (except for auditing and insolvency work which legally require qualification by a professional body). In such cases, qualification by the professional bodies is effectively still considered a prerequisite to practice as most employers and clients stipulate that the individual hold such qualifications before hiring their services.


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"[8] This usually means "the freedom to exercise their professional judgement."[9]

Professional autonomy which is an essential characteristic of the concept of professional ideology is based on three claims.

  • First, the work of professionals entails such a high degree of skill and knowledge that only the fellow professionals can make accurate assessment of professional performance.
  • Second, professionals are characterized by a high degree of selflessness and responsibility, that they can be trusted to work conscientiously.
  • Third, in the rare instance in which individual professionals do not perform with sufficient skill or conscientiousness, their colleagues may be trusted to undertake the proper regulatory action.[10]

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 "[11] 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.

Status and prestige

Professions enjoy a high social status, regard and esteem [12][13] 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." [14] 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.[15] 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,[16] rebuffing competition from ancillary trades and occupations, as well as subordinating and controlling lesser but related trades.[17] 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.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Extensive period of education: The most prestigious professions usually require at least three yearsTemplate:Updateneed at university. Undertaking doctoral research can add a further 4–5 years to this period of education.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. Licensed practitioners: Professions seek to establish a register or membership so that only those individuals so licensed are recognized as bona fide.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. 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. Though this is sometimes done in good intention but can be proven good when the partner, family or mentor recommend something contrary to the general norms. This was further buttressed in the world bank essay paper written by Idiaro AbdulazeezPaper Challenges and associated solutions for companies working together in collective action to fight corruption. This has caused for global audience and even the worldbank launched an international competition in it people are used to Some professions set standard scale fees, but government advocacy of competition means that these are no longer generally enforced.[citation needed]
  13. High status and rewards: The most successful professions achieve high status, public prestige and rewards for their members.[citation needed] Some of the factors included in this list contribute to such success.
  14. Individual clients: Many professions have individual fee-paying clients.[dubious ] For example, in accountancy, "the profession" usually refers to accountants who have individual and corporate clients, rather than accountants who are employees of organizations.
  15. Middle-class occupations: Traditionally, many professions have been viewed as 'respectable' occupations for middle and upper classes.[18]
  16. Male-dominated: The highest status professions have tended to be male dominated although females are closing this gender gapTemplate:Updateneeded Women are now being admitted to the priesthood while its status has declined relative to other professions.[citation needed] 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.[19]Template:Updateneeded
  17. Ritual: Church ritual and the Court procedure are obviously ritualistic.Template:Who[citation needed]
  18. 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.[citation needed]
  19. 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.Template:Old fact
  20. 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.[citation needed]
  21. 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.[20]

See also


  1. New Statesman, 21 April 1917, article by Sidney and Beatrice Webb quoted with approval at paragraph 123 of a report by the UK Competition Commission, dated 8 November 1977, entitled Architects Services (in Chapter 7).
  2. 2.0 2.1 Perks, R.W.(1993): Accounting and Society. Chapman & Hall (London); ISBN 0412473305. p.2.
  3. Perks, p.3.
  4. Buckley, J.W. & Buckley, M.H. (1974): The Accounting Profession. Melville, Los Angeles. Quoted by Perks, p.4.
  5. Zola, I.K. (1977): Healthism and disabling medicalization. Marion Boyars Publishers, New York. Quoted by Perks, p.4.
  6. 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.
  7. Alan Bullock & Stephen Trombley, The New Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought, London: Harper-Collins, 1999, p.689.
  8. Bayles, Michael D. Professional Ethics. Belmont, California: Wadsworth, 1981.
  9. The World Medical Association Declaration of Madrid on Professional Autonomy and Self-Regulation, 1987.[dead link]
  10. Velayutham, Sivakumar, & Perera, Hector: The historical context of professional ideology and tension and strain in the accounting profession (The Accounting Historians Journal, Birmingham, Alabama, June 1995) p.95[1][dead link]
  11. "Hoogland J. & Jochemsen H., ''Professional Autonomy and the Normative Structure of Medical Practice,'' Theoretical Medicine, 21.5, September 2000, pp.457-475". 2006-06-16. Retrieved 2009-11-07. 
  12. "Ron Tinsley & James C Hardy, ''Faculty Pressures and Professional Self-Esteem: Life in Texas Teacher Education.''" (PDF). Retrieved 2009-11-07. 
  13. "Royal College of Pathologists, ''The role of the College and benefits of membership,'' 16 Dec 2005". 2008-05-20. Retrieved 2009-11-07. 
  14. [2][dead link] 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.
  15. Terence Johnson, Professions and Power, London: Heinemann, 1972.
  16. Gerald Larkin, Occupational Monopoly and Modern Medicine, London: Tavistock, 1983.
  17. Peter E. S. Freund, & Meredith B. McGuire, Health Illness and the Social Body A Critical Sociology, New Jersey, USA: Prentice Hall, 1995, p.211.
  18. Perks, p.6-11.
  19. Perks, p.11.
  20. 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.

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