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The Third Revolution - The Sociology of the Professions
May 10, 1996

Despite a common focus on professionalisation and a desire to place Britain in an international context, these two books have little in common. Keith Macdonald's is a textbook seeking to restore the study of the professions, after some 15 years, to mainstream sociological analysis. Harold Perkin, in contrast, has produced an essay on postwar history with the objective of identifying and remedying the causes of our present discontents.

The professions, according to Macdonald, lost their sociological allure because of the dead hand of functionalism; but their fortunes can be revived by the adoption of a Weberian interactionist approach. This requires the substitution of the old and essentially static question of "what part do the professions play in the established order of things?" by the more challenging and dynamic question of "how do such occupations manage to persuade society to grant them a privileged position?" At root, after all, the professions are just another interest group in society which, in the search for economic reward and social status, have successfully sought to monopolise (and thereby define) a given body of knowledge and range of practices.

The achievement and maintenance of this monopoly, or the "professional project" as Macdonald calls it, was never inevitable and has always been contested. It required, and requires, an evolving "regulatory bargain" with the state and accommodation with other interest groups. It has also been influenced by, and in return influences broader forces in society. For instance, the upward social mobility of professionalising occupation groups has been shaped by and has then itself reinforced existing class structures; and the "social closure" required to establish a monopoly typically adds to the structural disadvantages of race and gender. In consequence Macdonald does not just enrich the study of the professions by fully contextualising them. He also uses them as a case study to illuminate more fundamental issues in society such as social stratification, patriarchy and the nature of knowledge.

As in any good textbook, the conceptual framework and empirical evidence are clearly presented. The author's theoretical position is eclectic but nonetheless rigorous. His "ideal type" of professional project is qualified by an awareness of national and sectoral differences. Interesting contrasts, for example, are drawn between the establishment of professions in the United States and Britain where the relative importance of democratic and class pressure have traditionally placed a different emphasis on examination qualifications and "gentlemanliness". Both countries are alike, however, in that the professions emerged out of civil society rather than being, as is more typical of Germany, creations of the state. The success of occupations in achieving professional status, such as medicine, law and accountancy, is also contrasted to the failure of others, such as nursing. In the latter case an attempt to define a given body of people or responsibilities was defeated by internal feuding and overpowerful opponents: in the eyes of many matrons as well as male doctors, existing hospitals rather than some nascent professional body were the "natural" locus of power and responsibility. There is even time in the text for some practical advice. If accountants wish to succeed they should apparently wear neither beards nor brown suits.

Whether these are the attributes of a successful sociologist remains to be seen. The book is clearly the product of lengthy rumination, but on occasion over-elaboration detracts from the incisiveness of the text. It is also disappointing that Margaret Thatcher's attack on the professions is not directly confronted. Finally, a wide range of relevant evidence from social historians has been unevenly used; and among those whose work is wholly ignored is the self-styled "grandfather of social history", Harold Perkin.

Perkin bestowed this epithet upon himself as the result of the success of his Origins of Modern English Society, 1780-1880 (1969), an idiosyncratic book that caused the scales to fall from many historians' eyes, including my own. Its long-awaited successor, The Rise of Professional Society: England since 1880 (1989) was less well received; and this latest volume, which seeks to extend its thesis to the rest of the world, largely repeats its strengths and weaknesses.

The great strength of the book is its humanity, commitment and eloquence. In his demand for a return to a "responsible civil society" in Britain and the US, Perkin is critical of high-paid consultants in thinktanks ("the true welfare scroungers") and free marketeers. Hayek, Perkin recalls, once described Keynes as an illustrious man whose name would go down in history as the grave digger of the British economy: "He was too modest: that title belongs to Hayek himself". The weakness is that, as in the past, such statements rely largely on assertion which dissipates rather than advances his argument. There is little analytical clarity: professionalism is never defined (although, sensibly, it would seem no longer to embrace trade unionists). The relationship between economic, social and political developments is oversimplified. Postwar economic growth, for example, is taken as "proof positive" of the efficacy of Keynesianism and the recent rise in crime and drug abuse as the inevitable consequence of the free market. Many relevant works, including the report of the Labour party's commission on social justice, have also been overlooked. As a result the book represents a missed opportunity rather than a successor to Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of Great Powers for which, in a US election year, the author is clearly hoping.

One potent conclusion to be drawn from the two books is the relative lack of professionalism within the academic world itself. Macdonald overlooks much recent social history. Perkin, for his part, could have greatly benefited from Macdonald's "bottom-up" approach that questions from the start the altruism, ethical standards and commitment to service of all groups seeking professional status. Mutual distrust and incomprehension between, and even within disciplines have clearly undermined the professionalism of academia and helped to reduce economic rewards and social status. The remedy is clear for all to see.

Rodney Lowe is reader in economic and social history, University of Bristol.

The Third Revolution: The International Professional Elite since 1945

Author - Harold Perkin
ISBN - 0 415 14337 3 and14338 1
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £45.99 and £14.99
Pages - 245

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