Mapping the “New Professionalism”

On January 21st, Associate Professor of Sociology Timothy Hallett gave a Poynter Roundtable presentation on his work-in-progress with Matthew Gougherty, an in-depth study of a “Masters of Public Affairs” program. The project was originally inspired by an interest in the explosion of “accountability” logics across sectors; one research question being how educational programs might be functioning as incubators of this phenomenon. In the course of gathering extensive data on a cohort of MPA students and their faculty, the researchers found the concept of “professionalism” coming up repeatedly – yet not in a way that fits the dominant sociological definitions. What can this study tell us about the meaning of “professionalism” today?

One theoretical approach to defining a profession is functionalism. On a functionalist account, a profession is distinguished by having a recognized civic role, entailing that its members define themselves by a role-specific code of ethics and exercise a high degree of autonomy, both in applying their skills to meet public needs and in regulating themselves as a group. As a result of public trust and responsibility, they enjoy high social status. This view aligns with the self-understanding of fields such as law, medicine, the clergy, and engineering, the classic professions.

An approach based in a theory of power will emphasize the opposite side of the coin, arguing that professions emerge when members establish monopolies: through licensure and internal policing mechanisms like professional associations, the classic professions control access to a field of practice. This view might lend itself to more cynical or critical arguments, attributing high social status to successful power management rather than to social service — but like functionalism it is best tailored to explain the classic professions.

The MPA degree doesn’t seem to lead to anything that fits either of these definitions of “professional.” Graduates don’t expect to exercise the autonomy of judgment that functionalism predicts, instead being trained in the logic of “accountability,” which trends in the opposite direction. And degree holders don’t have a jurisdictional monopoly of power; there is no analogue to the American Medical Association. And social status is contingent on a variety of factors beyond the control of the degree program: the term “MPA” itself does not, as yet, have much of a vernacular status value.

Yet faculty and students in the program alike are deeply concerned with “becoming more professional,” “acting professional,” etc. Of course, as pointed out in the Roundtable discussion, these terms can have a vernacular meaning that points to working in an office or following a certain dress code, in opposition to working in the service industry or other explicitly low-status jobs. However, the class background of students in the program suggests that the majority of students would be destined for some type of suit-and-tie or business-casual employment no matter what. So their interest in the MPA is not primarily about accessing middle-class status in the first place, but implies a more particular set of concerns to which the new meanings of “professionalism” (as well as “mission” and other signifiers) provide some kind of answer. The current phase of the project is exploring what light newer theoretical approaches may shed on these emergent meanings.

Many aspects of this outline ring true for other emerging fields, degrees, and job types – there is a clear need for new theory to really explain how today’s college graduates are sorting themselves out in the contemporary social order. We look forward with interest to Hallett and Gougherty’s conclusions, as they promise to prove relevant not only to understanding MPA programs and the proliferation of accountability logic, but also to contribute to our understanding of 21st-century professionalism more broadly.

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