Rethinking the Professions

It is an odd thing to say that professions may be dying. If anything, experience would typically suggest the opposite: Never before, such prestige was attached to the professions much as Law, Accounting, Medicine or Engineering. In fact, one would suspect a professional credential is absolutely essential to get by in the modern world, and therefore, practitioners in many non-professionalised fields, such as Business, want to be professionalised.

However, it is usual to see the future with the patterns of the past, and I would argue that the Professional Society may actually be behind us now. The evidence may be all around us: Andrew Keen moans this fact in The Cult of the Amateur. We can debate whether this is good or bad (for Mr Keen, it is a disaster) but the sense of seize is all around us. The Accountants who fear self-assessment returns, the lawyers who hate the legal advice websites, the karaoke hating professional musician, the journalist made redundant by internet news. Every time I see my Doctor searching and printing off medical advice for me, I feel he may soon be on the line.

But, one must hear the arguments on the contrary. Isn't availability of free information makes the professionals more indispensable, because one may soon lose the sense who to believe. This is essentially Mr Keen's argument in his dystopian book. But this argument equates profession with expertise. Indeed, there is no argument that a professional needs to be competent, but a profession is more than that. It necessarily presumes a social contract, a certain protected privilege in return for doing a socially useful job with reasonable competence and within a reasonable cost. This social aspect of it is currently being challenged.

There may be different reasons for this challenge to the professions, but before we turn to them, we must recognise that this social contract is somewhat broken. The professions often treated their protected status as a privilege, and forgot the other side of the bargain. Some Accounting bodies I know of would spend more time and energy in shutting out global firms from entering their home territory, and accountants from other bodies, from the privilege of doing audit, than they would ever do in developing the ethics and professional competence of their members. They have somewhat failed to learn from the declining fortunes of the trade unions: They have failed to wake up to Globalisation and Technology.

But it will be a mistake to ascribe the decline of the professions to just one or the other thing, like globalisation, technological change or the arrogance and insularity of some of the professional bodies: This decline may be part of a broader social change relating to how work is done, how information is sought and used and how respect for authority plays out. And, it will also be a mistake to think that the fate of the professions will be uniform across cultures and societies: It is unlikely to be. In Bangladesh, it is far more likely to meet someone who uses his profession as a banker or an Engineer as a title (as in 'Engineer Supriyo Chaudhuri') than in England. Surely, one would love to see the trades, such as electrical work or plumbing, professionalised in a country like India. But, there is still an overarching pattern in where professions are going, down, across the cultures: Their influence seem to be passé with the decline of the Industrial Age.

So if professions are somewhat in decline (some professions more than others, the only one thriving being, arguably, that of the politician), but expertise is in ever greater demand, what may we be heading towards? Howard Gardner argues that to be successful in the future, one must have a discipline, a certain way of thinking, believing and arguing grounded in certain area of knowledge. Gardner's idea has an intuitive appeal, when professions face the challenge and known ways of organising work is certainly under threat. We need experts, but we don't want to value knowledge in the form and in the way we did before.

One must therefore the point of reconciliation between the claims that knowledge is being commoditised with the idea of disciplinarity. As socially mandated norms and boundaries of knowledge and expertise become transient (and commoditised), a new form of expertise gains ground. It may no longer be about a narrow but deep skill, but a complete way of thinking, designated to address a wider variety of problems, that become valuable. In earlier ages, this was simply not possible, and hence was never recognised: Now, with most mechanical functions related to storage, discovery and retrieval of knowledge safely relegated to the realm of the machine, a distinctive way of deep thinking centred around broader problems (not medicine, but how to be heathy) may define the new expertise. This is indeed a familiar ground well explored by Ivan Illich, and we are staring at his notion of 'counter productivity' in its face - the institutionalisation of knowledge led its decline and obsolence. 

The time may have arrived to 'disable' the professions.


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