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This is the article about work professions. For religious professions, see Profession (religious).

A profession is an occupation that requires extensive training and the study and mastery of specialized knowledge, and usually has a professional association, ethical code and process of certification or licensing. Examples are accounting, law, medicine, finance, the military, the clergy and engineering.

Classically, there were only three professions: ministry, medicine, and law. These three professions each hold to a specific code of ethics, and members are almost universally required to swear some form of oath to uphold those ethics, therefore "professing" to a higher standard of accountability. Each of these professions also provides and requires extensive training in the meaning, value, and importance of its particular oath in the practice of that profession.

Sociologists have been known to define professionalism as self-defined power elitism or as organised exclusivity along guild lines, much in the sense that George Bernard Shaw characterised all professions as "conspiracies against the laity". Sociological definitions of professionalism involving checklists of perceived or claimed characteristics (altruism, self-governance, esoteric knowledge, special skills, ethical behavior, etc.) became less fashionable in the late 20th century.

A member of a profession is termed a professional. However, professional is also used for the acceptance of payment for an activity, in contrast to amateur. A professional sportsperson, for example, is one who receives payment for participating in sport, but sport is not generally considered a profession.


Historically, the number of professions was limited: members of the clergy, medical doctors, and lawyers held the monopoly on professional status and on professional education, with military officers occasionally recognised as social equals. Self-governing bodies such as guilds or colleges, backed by state-granted charters guaranteeing monopolies, limited access to and behaviour within such professions.

With the rise of technology and occupational specialisation in the 19th century, other bodies began to claim "professional" status: engineers,educationalists and even nurses, until today almost any occupational group can -- at least unofficially -- aspire to professional rank and cachet, and popular recognition of this trend has made possible the widespread recognition of prostitution as "the oldest profession".

With the church having receded in its role in western society, the remaining classical professions (law and medicine) are both noted by many as requiring not just study to enter, but extensive study and accreditation above and beyond simply getting a university degree. Accordingly more recently-formalised disciplines, such as architecture, which now have equally-long periods of study associated with them, and which are becoming considered as their equal.

Common qualities of professions

In modern usage, professions tend to have certain qualities in common. A profession is always held by a person, and it is generally that person's way of generating income. Membership in the profession is usually restricted and regulated by a professional association. For example, lawyers regulate themselves through a bar association and restrict membership through licensing and accreditation of law schools. Hence, professions also typically have a great deal of autonomy, setting rules and enforcing discipline themselves. Professions are also generally exclusive, which means that laymen are either legally prohibited from or lack the wherewithal to practice the profession. For example, people are generally prohibited by law from practicing medicine without a license, and would likely be unable to practice well without the acquired skills of a physician. The term 'architect' is protected by law in many countries. Professions also require rigorous training and schooling beyond a basic college degree. Lastly, because entrance into professions is so competitive, their members typically have above average mental skills.

There is no standard definition of a modern professional, however. Beyond the classical examples (lawyers, doctors, etc.) there are many groups that claim status as a profession, and many who would dispute that status. For example, school teachers often refer to their occupation as a profession, even though it is not exclusive (people teach others outside of the traditional school environment), nor is entrance competitive, nor are they self-regulating (laypeople in state legislatures or on boards of education typically set the rules for and regulate teachers). The process when trade unions or other bodies try to elevate an occupation to the level of profession is called 'professionilization, and it's often an attempt to enhance one's position in the labour markets.

The existence of a traceable historical record of notable members of the profession can serve as an indicator of a profession. Often, these historic professionals have become well known to laypersons outside the field, for example, Clarence Darrow (law) or Edward Jenner (medicine). In modern times, however, there is no standard definition.

It has also been suggested that some professionals feel an obligation to society, beyond their client relationship. Doctors may not merely sell their service if a procedure is inappropriate, however much the client may want it undertaken, architects may refuse to work on a project that would be detrimental to its surroundings, lawyers may refuse to take cases which are merely exploitative. The obligation to educate the client is often seen as a key part of the definition.

How to find definitions of professionalism

Many organisations have codified their conduct, often designated “code of ethics”, and what they require for entry into their organisation and how to remain in good standing. Some of these codes are quite detailed and make strong emphasis on their particular area or expertise, for example, journalists emphasise the use of credible sources and protecting their identities, psychology emphasis privacy of the patient and communications with other psychologists, anthropologists emphasise rules on intrusions into a culture being studied.

Most of the codes do show an overlap in such concepts as,’ do no harm’, ‘be honest’, ‘do not use your position for private gain,’ etc.

Another area of enquiry that will allow a student of this subject to define concepts of professionalism may be inferred from guarantees. But these are inferences only. The idea behind a guarantee is that the person offering the guarantee is accountable to the extent of damages that will be compensated.

One thing these sources hold in common, implicit or explicit, is the idea of accountability—those who are members of these organisations or professions are held accountable for what they do. Links to these sources are made in External Links.

See also

External Links

  • New Zealand Teachers Council Code of Ethics [
  • New Zealand Post-Primary Teachers association response to the NZ Teachers Council Code of Ethics [1]
  • National Education Association (USA) Code of Ethics [2]
  • American Librarians Association (USA) [3]
  • Association for Computing Machinery (USA) [4]
  • Society of Professional Journalists [5]
  • American Psychological Association (USA) [6]
  • National Association of Realtors [7]
  • Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers [8]
  • American Anthropological Association (USA) [9]
  • National Society of Professional Engineers [10]
  • Radio and Television News Directors Association [11]

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