One project we are enjoying now in ProPEL is looking at professionals’ use of social media. And one of the first things we ran into in this fascinating cyberscape were the new codes of online professionalism: regulations governing what professionals can and cannot do in social media.
Professionalism is one of those hot topics that never seems to lose its sizzle despite frequent, even promiscuous application to issues ranging from industrial accidents to snafus in social welfare services. It’s also a hotbed of sermonising, a flaming pulpit to which many seem called to pronounce what is professionally virtuous or denounce the backsliders with righteous punishment, regardless of expertise or even familiarity with the actual dilemmas or systems involved. These pronouncements surface regularly whenever a new, typically complex and multi-faceted problem emerges in public service delivery. Media and policy concern quickly focuses on what is easy to frame as the irresponsible practice of some individual professionals, or a professional group’s failure to appropriately regulate responsibility. Even a lot of the academic literature on professionalism is characterised by lots of moral assertion, opinion, and prescription. And much of this prescription is for methods to educate individual professionals to perform more responsibly.
Traditionally professionalism has been represented as a normative value system and ideological control, associated with trust, specialized knowledge and discretion that are necessary for managing risk in public service. But the problem with professionalism is this tendency to treat it as a set of dispositions and virtues, something developed by individuals or trained into them, and embodied in their individual actions. This is professional responsibility as a matter of individual agency and ethical decision-making, applying sound professional ethics to make rational, professional decisions – doing the right thing for the right reasons.
Yet most research about professional work shows overwhelmingly the pluralism of professionals’ obligations, and the conflicts in responsibility that they must negotiate. This ‘web of commitments’ means that most professionals in action are forced to perform what Larry May has called ‘legitimate compromises’. Professionals must balance obligations to their employing organization and its rules of practice, to broad social needs served by their profession, to the profession itself and the standards and regulatory codes governing its practices, to individuals for whom the professional adopts a caring responsibility, and to personal allegiances influencing a sense of the ‘right thing to do’. Practitioners often must navigate a path of action that simultaneously balances concerns for different stakeholders without necessarily meeting the full expectations of any one.
Definitions of professionalism themselves are fraught with central contradictions. On the one hand professionalism is defined by organisational claims for increased efficiency, measurable outputs and achieving standardized targets. On the other hand are public claims defining professionalism as care and compassion: the best interests of clients, students and patients. Some professions enforce a different professionalism which emphasizes ‘evidence-based’, high-tech, high-cost interventions often at the expense of human primary care, social justice and democratic inquiry.
Meanwhile policy concerns over the changing nature of professionalism, some voicing the need for more pluralist professionalism models, are accelerating in health and social care. Recent debates in medical professionalism, for instance, have pointed out the inadequacy of singular frames of professionalism in the face of multiple regulators, fast-changing evidence, and diverse contexts simultaneously demanding different practices and accountabilities. In her report on social care, Eileen Munro called for better understandings of professionalism that recognise the complex contradictory demands on practitioners and the excessive proliferation of regulatory audit regimes.
All of this has led to a shift from treating professionalism as an individual set of (virtuous) dispositions to a collective, distributed and relational issue. Some say the problem is treating professionalism as a state of being when we need to understand it as a discourse – actually as various discourses, often competing. These discourses act to regulate individual practitioners, or ‘discipline’ them as ‘good’ teachers, doctors, accountants – to control and contain their activities through a particular set of interests. Julia Evetts argues that there has been a general shift from ‘occupational’ to ‘organizational’ professionalism discourses, where the former derives from a profession’s own altruistic commitments and the latter is driven by employers’ demands and new public managerialism.
Some have argued that entirely new understandings of professionalism are called for by these conflicts. In examining teachers and nurses in practice, Ian Stronach and his colleagues argued for more nuanced professionalisms that recognize the contradictory demands and arrangements of contemporary practice. They show, for example, that successful practitioners become adept at juggling multiple discourses of professionalism in their everyday work, ranging from those related to what they call the ‘ecologies’ of practice (caring, compassion, student-centredness) to the ‘economies’ of practice (quality control, output assessment, etc).
All of this speaks to a more systemic, relational and material approach to understanding professionalism. In our own project examining professionals’ use of social media use, we are registering the competing discourses of online ‘professionalism’ that are afoot. But we also are trying to trace the new possibilities for practice, and the new professionalisms, that may be emerging.
This article now available:
Fenwick T. (Forthcoming/Available Online). Social media, professionalism and higher education: a sociomaterial examination, Studies in Higher Education. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03075079.2014.942275
Full text in STORRE: http://hdl.handle.net/1893/21294
Christmas, S. and Millward, L. 2011. New Medical Professionalism: A scoping study. London: Health Foundation, available online at: http://www.health.org.uk/publications/new-medical-professionalism/
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May, Larry. (1996). The socially responsible self: social theory and professional ethics. University of Chicago Press.
Munro, Eileen. 2011. The Munro review of child protection: final report. UK: Secretary of State for Education (available at http://www.education.gov.uk/publications
Stronach, Ian, Corbin, B., McNamara, O. Stark, S., and Warne, T. 2007. Towards an uncertain politics of professionalism: Teacher and nurse identities in flux. Journal of Education Policy, 17, no. 1: 109-138.