Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Professionalism: A con in search of a definition

The expression "Professional" is often used to imply competence, effectiveness and superior capability. A profession, such as law or medecine requires years of study and on-the-job training. A professional is thought to be one who can best meet the requirements of a client.

Three criticisms of the term , and hence the notion of professionalism spring to mind;

1. A professional is by definition practicing in a given field for money. So the imperative to meet a client's needs is always subject to the potential profit. While a professional doesn't want to develop a bad reputation, this amounts to balancing damage to their personal brand versus losing money(or time and energy) on a unprofitable relationship with a given client. Caveat emptor.

2. Professionalism creates a pack-mentality among it's practitioners. This in turn causes "best practices" to ossify. This is particularly true in the pseudo- professional fields such as restaurents, crafts and creative /media fields. The following is an example:

"You can make anyone sound professional," says Mitchell Froom, a producer who's worked with Elvis Costello and Los Lobos, among others. "But the problem is that you have something that's professional, but it's not distinctive. I was talking to a session drummer, and I said, 'When's the last time you could tell who the drummer is?' You can tell Keith Moon or John Bonham, but now they all sound the same."
-ROBERT LEVINE 'The Death of High Fidelity: In the age of MP3s, sound quality is worse than ever' Posted Dec 26, 2007 1:27 PM in Rolling Stone

Again, this issue reflects on the intrinsically commercial imperative of the professional ethic. In this case the calibre of sound recording reflects commercial demands, rather than other aesthetic concerns. A pro in this case(although I would argue it is always the case) is a prostitute.

3. The term professionalism is used in it's negative form, to mean "the professional failed to satisfy my requirements" hence they were 'unprofessional'. This is roughly analogous to those who describe an elected government as un-democratic because it doesn't enact a policy that reflects what some fragment of the polity desires. In another case, it is used to chastise behavior of groups who do not have the position of a true professional;that is to say, those who can set their own terms of labour amongst themselves. A professional journalist is a misnomer, as there is no corporation of journalists, handing down guidelines for working in the field. The few states where journalists have to be licensed can hardly be considered as having what we would consider professionals in journalism. I have been described as professional because I show up for work(teaching) in a timely fashion. By this standard, most Walmart 'associates' are professionals. But how many parents want their children to grow up to work the floor at Walmart? In another case, someone described their underling as 'not professional', because they wore sandals to work. Since the subordinate in question was working as a backroom copywriter in a government PR office, I wonder what core-competency was being undermined, and what professional body had determined the appropriate footwear required for editing press releases. Ultimately, the term professionalism is stripped of meaning, because it is used so broadly, vaguely and contradictorily.

While I don't want to slander the many competent, well-meaning people working in many fields, I would like to see the notion of professionalism limited, and its obsfuscatory uses abandoned.

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"If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country."
-E.M. Forster