SLAYING THE MINOTAUR: REFLECTIONS ON THE SOCIOLOGY OF PROFESSIONS
University of Essex Sociology Seminar Series 8 December 2011 SLAYING THE MINOTAUR: REFLECTIONS ON THESOCIOLOGY OF PROFESSIONS Professor Mike Saks Provost and Chief Executive University Campus Suffolk, UK
SLAYING THE MINOTAUR: REFLECTIONS ON THE SOCIOLOGY OF THE PROFESSIONS1. Introduction: The Myth of the Minotaur and the Intellectual Labyrinth2. The Human Side of the Professions: The Taxonomic Approach3. The Beast: The Critiques of Professions4. Confronting the Minotaur: The Neo- Weberian Approach to Professions5. Slaying the Minotaur: My Personal Work on Professions6. The Golden Thread: Value Relevance and the Myth of a Value-free Sociology7. Conclusion
1. INTRODUCTION: THE MYTH OF THEMINOTAUR AND THE INTELLECTUALLABYRINTHIn Greek legend, when Theseus slayed theMinotaur, he made his way to the heart of thelabyrinth to discover the creature before findinghis way out by following a golden thread.I see this as emblematic of my own complexpersonal journey through the intellectuallabyrinth to understand and contribute to thereform of the professions – which variouslyappear in sociological work on professions likethe Minotaur as half human, half beast.
2. THE HUMAN SIDE OF THEPROFESSIONS: THE TAXONOMICAPPROACHThe task of analysing professions seriouslybegan in sociology with the taxonomicapproach of the 1950s and 1960s.Professions were seen as possessingintrinsically unique characteristics differentiatingthem from other occupations.Such characteristics centrally encompassedknowledge and expertise, as well as playing apositive part in society.
There were two variants of the earlytaxonomic approach:(a) Trait contributionTrait writers generated many differing listsof attributes of professions (eg Greenwood1957 and Wilensky 1964).Most lists included such items as esotericknowledge, codes of ethics, altruism,rationality and high quality educationalcredentials.
(b) FunctionalismFunctionalists presented more theoreticallycoherent accounts – arguing for a functionalrelationship between professions and society(eg Goode 1960 and Barber 1963).Specifically, occupations with knowledge ofgreat importance to society were seen asbeing granted a high position in the socialsystem in return for protecting the publicand/or clients.
The taxonomic approach under attackThe uncritical and ahistorical taxonomicperspective has rightly been criticised:• This was highlighted by the focus of the trait approach on constructing league tables glorifying one or other professions, based on the range and weighting of the elements.• The characteristics were often assumed rather than established – trait and functionalist writers may have presented professional ideology rather than reality.
3. THE BEAST: THE CRITIQUES OFPROFESSIONS(a) InteractionismInteractionists in the 1950s and 1960scompared professions with less prestigiousand stigmatised occupations such as garbageattendants and prostitutes (eg Becker 1962and Hughes 1963).They failed to see significant differencesbetween such occupational groups andtherefore regarded professions simply ashonorific symbols in the politics of work –viewing sociologists as the ‘dupe’ ofprofessions in legitimating their dominance.
(b) MarxismInteractionism has the downside of seeing a‘profession’ simply as a label and does notoffer a structural explanation of success orfailure.Marxism, though, strongly emerged in the1970s and 1980s. It has a macro structuralapproach based on the relations of production.Professions are most commonly viewed byMarxist accounts as agents of surveillance orcontrol for a dominant class, maintaining thecapitalist status quo – despite ideologies ofpublic service (eg Ehrenreich & Ehrenreich1979 and Esland 1980).
(c) FoucauldianismA different, but also negative, stance onprofessions was provided by Foucauldians atthe same time, which challenged the rationalityof scientific progress associated withprofessions in schools, prisons and other areas(eg Foucault 1979).This is in part centred on ‘governmentality’involving the ‘institutionalisation of expertise’ inmodern societies in which professionalexpertise is politically incorporated into stateformation as a key resource of governance(Johnson 1995).
(d) Discourse analysisLeaving behind the high level abstraction ofMarxist and Foucauldian approaches, a morerecent perspective offering an alternative tothe taxonomic approach centres on thediscourse of professionalism (eg Fournier1999 and Cohen 2005).This provides critical insight into the culture ofprofessionalism, opening up a wider range ofoccupations to the purview of the sociology ofprofessions – focusing on the use ofprofessionalism as part of occupationaldiscourse.
4. CONFRONTING THE MINOTAUR: THENEO-WEBERIAN APPROACH TOPROFESSIONSThe foregoing perspectives thereforechallenge – each in their own way – the traitand functionalist notion that professions arenecessarily a positive, humanising force insociety.For me, though, the analytically most helpfulperspective going beyond taxonomy inrelation to professions is the neo-Weberianapproach (eg Parkin 1979) – which has forlong driven my own work (eg Saks 1983 andSaks 2010) .
The nature of neo-WeberianismProfessions are defined by neo-Weberians interms of exclusionary social closure in themarketplace sanctioned by the state.Professionalisation is based on legalmonopolies with registers creating insidersand excluding outsiders – enhancing theincome, status and power of professions.The neo-Weberian approach is centred onseeing professions as part of a competitiveworld of macro political power and interests, inwhich they gain and/or maintain professionalstanding.
Advantages of the neo-Weberian approachThe benefits of a neo-Weberian approach are: • It avoids the unnecessarily positive assumptions of taxonomy through the key defining concept of social closure. • Unlike interactionism it considers macro structural and historical processes. • It avoids limiting assumptions about the role of professions in the capitalist state from a Marxist perspective. • It sidesteps the methodological problems and shaky evidence base of the no less critical Foucauldian approach. • It provides more clarity and analytical and policy leverage than discourse analysis.
The role of neo-Weberianism in confrontingthe MinotaurNeo-Weberians have frequently been guilty ofbeing unduly critical of professions – focusingon their self-interests vs. public orientation(eg Perrucci 1973 and Beattie 1995).However, there is nothing intrinsic in theapproach that leads it in this direction (egHalliday 1987). The difficulty is that it too hasoften been driven by assumption rather thanevidence in practice.In fact the neo-Weberian approach providestools enabling professions to be assessed asmuch as a positive as a negative force insociety (eg Benoit 1994 and Porter 1996).
As such, having negotiated the intellectuallabyrinth occupied by the range of theories ofprofessions, the neo-Weberian approachprovides an ideal base for empiricallyassessing the professions as both human andbeast.This means that neo-Weberianism has alsobeen able to act as a driving force for mylongstanding desire to reform the professions –wherever they manifestly fall short ofadvancing the public interest.This involves using the neo-Weberianapproach to the professions to confront theMinotaur at the heart of the labyrinth, whodevoured human sacrifices.
5. SLAYING THE MINOTAUR: MY PERSONALWORK ON THE PROFESSIONSMy personal research work on the professionshas been oriented in my own small way towardsslaying the professional Minotaur – to move theprofessions positively forward.In this respect, in my career I have conducted awide range of research on professions,particularly in the health arena, which hashelped to advance the professional reformagenda.
Internationally this is illustrated by my work onthe following projects:• Russian Physicians: Their Attitudes and Strategies for Adaptions to Change INTAS funded with the Russian Academy of Sciences: 1998-2003 – this helped to prepare the ground for professional formation in medicine in post-Soviet Russia.• Shifting between Hospitals and the Community: Policy Implications for Care, Clients and Providers Canadian Institutes of Health Research funded with the University of Toronto 2006-11 – this has facilitated the increase of community care in Ontario.
I want to focus selectively, though, on my workon professions in the UK:(a) Professions and the Public InterestSaks (1995) discussed the relationship betweenprofessions, self-interest and the public interest– arguing from an empirical case study that themedical profession had illegitimately obstructedthe development of acupuncture in Britain.This case study and related research led me tobecome Chair of the Research Council forComplementary Medicine from 2002-06 which,working with the House of Lords SelectCommittee, led to official Department of Healthresearch funding for complementary therapies.
(b) Health Support WorkersI was Chair of a Steering Group (includingDe Montfort University and WarwickUniversity) commissioned by the UKDepartments of Health that produced amajor report (2000) looking at the role andfunctions of health support workers.This highlighted the significance of supportworkers in the health care division of labourand proposed a mandatory register forthose involved to safeguard the public –which was controversial, but it is stillactively under discussion by governmentand the health professions.
(c) The Shipman InquiryI was invited by both the Department of Healthand the General Medical Council (2005) toassist them in assessing the implications of,and advising on, the report on professionalregulation following the Inquiry into Shipman,the serial killing general practitioner.What followed was a debate about the futureof the medical profession in the UK in whichmyself and academic colleagues contributed tonew appraisal and re-accreditationarrangements for the profession – includingthrough the study of medical regulation inseven different countries as part of theDonaldson review.
(d) The General Social Care CouncilI delivered a commissioned report (2010) tothe General Social Care Council about thefuture of social work profession in England,in the wake of the scandal over the killing of‘Baby P’.This report fed into the Social Work TaskForce that reinforced the value of a socialwork profession and paved the way to thegovernment establishing new regulatoryarrangements for the profession under theHealth Professions Council.
In the ways described, I like to think that Ihave recently contributed as a sociologistof the professions to their reform in healthand social care – and thereby to the atleast partial demise of the professionalMinotaur in these fields in the publicinterest.
6. THE GOLDEN THREAD: VALUERELEVANCE AND THE MYTH OF AVALUE-FREE SOCIOLOGYAs my own work highlights, the goldenthread out of the labyrinth of the sociologyof professions is conceptual and is centralto the successful slaying of the Minotaur.It involves understanding that in neo-Weberian terms, while value freedom is notpossible, the study of the professions isvalue relevant – and, through this, it cancreate the possibility of social policy reformfor the betterment of society.
Alvin GouldnerThis is a key message which was set out inthe classic article by Alvin Gouldner (1963),appropriately entitled ‘Anti-Minotaur: TheMyth of a Value-free Sociology’.Here Gouldner argues that the pursuit bysocial scientists of value freedom is a mythwhich is liable to create ‘a generation willingto serve in a future Auschwitz’.He highlights that Weber was simply strivingto separate the expression of political valuesfrom academic work – and fully accepted thatsocial science must be value relevant.
In this sense, values shape the sociologist’sselection of problems, preferences for certainhypotheses or conceptual schemes and theneglect of others – but within such parametersit should be possible for sociologists from anyculture or political persuasion to agree.Gouldner, though, identifies crassinterpretations of Weber’s position as beingakin to a Minotaur – half human, half beast –because, in the pursuit of value freedom,social scientists may be led to rejectresponsibility for the cultural and moralconsequences of their work.
However, I see in Weber a more positive wayof reconciling values and objectivity – inrelation to the analysis of groups likeprofessions which themselves exhibit featuresof a Minotaur.Most notably, a Weberian notion of means-end relationships enables us to presentscenarios related to research in terms of itsapplication to different policy objectives,without directly entering the realm of politicsas social scientists.As such, sociologists could take greateraction in making their research amenable toapplication to serve the cause of reform.
Implementing social science researchThis is indeed the case I make in a keynoteaddress I am giving next week at a majorinternational conference to celebrate the 10thanniversary of the Portuguese Journal of SocialScience at the University of Lisbon.I argue that the strict search for ‘value freedom’in a university ivory tower needs to be avoidedand that we need to understand ways in whichthe application of relevant research can beencouraged – for example, through the way thatresults are communicated, timeframes andpolitical visibility.
The Research Excellence FrameworkThis is also pragmatically very helpful in thenew Research Excellence Framework (REF)which now requires universities to provideimpact analyses in their submissions, as partof the periodic assessment of research qualityfor 2014 in competition for QR funding.Impact for the REF is seen as ‘an effect on,change or benefit to the economy, society,public policy or services, health, theenvironment or quality of life, beyondacademia’ (HEFCE 2011).
7. CONCLUSIONWhen Theseus sailed away from thelabyrinth, having slain the Minotaur, disasterstruck.He had told his father that his boat woulddisplay a white sail if he had been successfuland was alive or a black one if he had died atthe hands of the Minotaur.Seeing the black sail – which Theseus hadforgotten to change – his father, King Aegeus,committed suicide by tragically throwinghimself into the sharp rocks in the sea.
Our future journeyOur journey could have the same dispiritingending because, having escaped from theintellectual labyrinth of the sociology ofprofessions, it is apparent that many otherareas of sociology have their own Minotaursto slay to public benefit – from the economicworld to organisation and management.In so doing, I would urge sociologists to followthe same golden thread of value relevance(vs. the pursuit of value freedom) that I havefound so useful in my career as a sociologistof the professions to enable the positiveapplication of research knowledge to publicpolicy.
SELECTED READINGA. Gouldner (1964) ‘Anti-Minotaur: The Myth ofa Value-Free Sociology’, in M.Stein and A.Vidich (eds) Sociology on Trial, EngelwoodCliffs: Prentice-Hall.M. Saks (1983) ‘Removing the Blinkers? ACritique of Recent Contributions to theSociology of Professions’, Sociological Review.M.Saks (1995) Professions and the PublicInterest, London: Routledge.M. Saks (2010) ‘Analyzing the Professions: TheCase for the Neo-Weberian Approach’,Comparative Sociology.
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