Friday, April 22, 2011

The professional

Professionalization, we have noted, is a kind of socialization in which powers and privileges are received in exchange for meeting a given profession's standards and norms. How we judge this process depends on how we feel about the ultimate ends that such professions serve. Lawyers, for example, make their own contribution toward what is both "good" and "bad" about society; in evaluating the legal profession as a whole, one can draw certain conclusions about its social impact. But the standards by which any profession comports itself evolve out of the goals it pursues under particular circumstances. Every profession wants to succeed, and this implies an economic motive. Under conditions of advanced inequality, we can expect a profession's goals, and the underlying socialization it promotes, to be oriented accordingly.

The goals of the professions, in other words, are informed by the broadest goals of the society. The broad economic goal of capitalism is economic growth, or what Marx calls capital accumulation. The professions are shaped by this -- and any of you who are professionals can speak to this more eloquently than I. Whatever the nominal, socially-accepted goal of your profession might be, it competes with money considerations all the time. This happens so regularly that well-meaning professionals are disheartened to think that their career is more obligated to profit than to people.

Anytime socialization becomes subordinated to a specific goal, the "right" and "wrong" that people learn is an ethics only as it relates to achieving that particular goal. If you are a doctor, it's "wrong" to spend an hour with a patient, even if you want to advise them better, because it's "right" by institutional requirements to do seven more evaluations in the same amount of time. Being a doctor, in this case, means withholding patient care in order to maximize economic efficiency -- the broad goal of the for-profit health industry.

The purpose of professionalization within the context of US society, then, is to produce a culture within the professions which serves their broad goals as informed by that society. This culture may have components that we would endorse in any context, and that might be lacking in the general socialization of the population at large. Let's consider here the relationship between feminism and US professional culture.

There is a very good reason why major US corporations have come to implement certain feminist initiatives as policy within their ranks. That this has anything to do with a consistent advocacy for the interests of women is laid bare by their refusal to consider other important requests all the time. But in the face of legal action or needless disruption within the workplace, many firms have come to embrace "zero tolerance" sexual harassment policies which women broadly endorse. And this in turn informs the professional culture of corporations.

But lawsuits and workplace disruption which arise in response to hostile behavior are placed by for-profit institutions in the same category as other feminist goals, like equal pay or paid maternity leave: they are expenses to be avoided. In the case of sexual harassment, the interests of women and the interest of corporations coincide insofar as women have made it too costly for employers to ignore their demands. A corporation may institute sexual harassment and cultural sensitivity trainings as a result, but this is because it speaks the language of profits, not feminism.

Nevertheless, this "feminism by decree" contributes to the liberal contours of professional culture in the US in a way that the general population, not similarly socialized, frequently lacks. Even if a don't-gape-at-your-coworker's-breasts-because-you-might-lose-your-job approach has its limits, US professionalism is credited as having accomplished something within its domain that US culture in general has yet to achieve. The point to remember here is why it has done this -- not merely that it has -- so that we might anticipate the boundaries of its benevolence.


Todd S. said...

This happens so regularly that well-meaning professionals are disheartened to think that their career is more obligated to profit than to people.

I wonder how long out of school the typical engineer has to be before this little gem is realized. Probably not long, I imagine.

almostinfamous said...

@ Todd S. that is the reason why i quit my engineering course and eventually decided to become a photographer. fun fact in our country, becoming an engineer and hence a slave to multinational companies looking to benefit from the disparate costs of living across borders have become the in-thing with promises of social mobility and great material wealth(though still very tightly restricted to what used to be the upper end of the middle class - the middle class is quite large in itself), and it is now hard (and scary) to imagine how the millions and millions of people we have trained as engineers would feel once they pass through this profound realization.

Biggayslut said...

Another interesting question is why the focus on gender inequality at the workplace, in fact the focus on civil rights in the workplace is overwhelmingly on sexual harassment.

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Peter Ward said...

In fact, "professional" jobs have been the last to tolerate women...-many shit jobs have welcomed women form day one-and the continue to abuse women in all sorts of "under the radar"ways-typically pay and promotion, where discrimination is very hard to prove.

Its great there's no more quid pro quo...but the pro occupations are hardly at the cutting edge of workplace feminism. If anything, working stiff unions are...and they leave a lot to be desired.

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