Essays on Professions, Ashgate Classics in Sociology - by Dingwall, R.


Dingwall, R. Essays on Professions, Ashgate Classics in Sociology , Aldershot , Ashgate , 2008 , £55.00 ISBN 978-0-7546-4614-3, (hbk)

This collection of essays is a reprint of a series of Robert Dingwall's articles on professions published between 1976 and 2006. They provide an interesting insight into the development of British medical sociology over the last thirty years, in terms of their theoretical inspirations, methodological approaches and empirical concerns.

In theoretical terms these essays draw on some obvious classic sources such as Max Weber and Emile Durkheim though Karl Marx is conspicious by his absence, as well as some less obvious sources, including John Milton, Adam Smith and Herbert Spencer. Dingwall (pp. 111–126) invokes John Milton in an analysis of the foundation myths of professions, especially the lost golden era of gung-ho innovation which in most myths have been replaced by routininisation, surveillance and bureaucratic control (pp. 61–2), and draws attention to Adam Smith's justification for treating professions differently to guilds and ensuring that professionals are properly rewarded so that the professions are able to attract trustworthy practitioners. Dingwall (pp. 85–98) is concerned to rehabilitate Herbert Spencer's work whose influence on sociology was limited by his lack of Political Correctness and his stand against social intervention and meliorism. He makes a convincing case for Spencer's contribution to the study of professions, especially through Spencer's insight that in various ways modern professions have taken on the creative and moral functions exercised by religion in premodern society.

The essays are selective in the use of more recent sources. There is a strong emphasis on American sociology – especially Talcott Parsons, Elliot Freidson and Everett Hughes – with some referencing of British sociology, especially Phil Strong and Terry Johnson. There is very little reference however to European sociology, some use of Alfred Schütz and a passing reference to Michel Foucault but no use of to Jürgen Habermas or Ulrich Beck, nor to contemporary anglophone sociolgists such as Anthony Giddens or Bryan Turner.

Some of the essays in the collection are theoretical discussions of the origins, development and contemporary role of professions whereas other apply theory to specific empirical case studies. The essays provide important insight into the development of professions as institutions and their changing relationship to the state. In the early essays the emphasis is on the ways in which professions lay claim to expertise and manipulate the divison of occupations to establish an exclusive licence to practice, one that gives them a dominant postion within a sphere of activity. In the later essays, following the economic and political crises of the1970s and the political responses of the 1980s such as New Public Management and the Audit State, the emphasis shifts from the demand for and capturing of professional privileges to the state's role in suppling and withdrawing such privileges. For example, in the UK in the late 1990s the New Labour government substantially restricted medical self-regulation with increased external surveillance and control through clinical governance.

However, given the theoretical inspiration of the essays there are some important aspects of professions of the broader role of professions within society which are relatively underdeveloped. Giddens's important insight that in late modernity individuals take increased responsibility for their own lifecourse, and in doing so they rely increasingly on abstract systems and mediated representations, focuses attention on the way in which professionals represent and provide one point of access to such abstract systems. The role of professionals is particuarly important when individuals have to take ‘fateful’ decisions which will irreversibly change their lifecourse. In this context professionals provide the human face of an abstract body of knowledge and there is a range of important issues this raises, including: the role of professions in constructing and managing individual and collective uncertainty and risks, the ways in which users judge or trust professionals as access points, the facework which professionals engage in, the impact of government policy on users confidence in the system and trust in access points, the role of alternative access points, and the impact of current government policies such as evidence-based practice on the nature of and access to abstract systems. Some of these issues are touched on in the essays but none are addressed in depth.

Branding a publication as a classic raises expectations. While there is much of interest in this collection of essays and some important insights, I am not totally convinced I would see it as the definitive statement on the nature of professions and their role in contemporary society. Articles and book chapters are by their nature limited to a single theme and issue and it is difficult to achieve the complexity and depth of analysis in a short collection of essays which such an important topic merits.