Criticisms of the neo-Weberian approach

Despite the undoubted value of studies conducted from within the neo-Weberian perspective on professions in comparison with other theoretical

Competing theories of professions 73 approaches, it can be criticised on a number of counts. Although he is a major proponent of neo-Weberianism, Saks (2010) has outlined three areas of criticism of the application of neo-Weberianism to the study of the professions in the Anglo-American context at different stages of his academic career. These are as follows:

  • • The approach has often been implemented without due empirical rigour.
  • • Many of the claims of its advocates have frequently been unjustifiably negative.
  • • Its proponents do not sufficiently link their work to the broader division of labour.

We shall now examine each of these specific areas of criticism in turn, with reference to further publications by neo-Weberian writers on professional groups, before going on to highlight why these do not constitute fatal flaws in its implementation.

The first criticism is that the neo-Weberian theoretical framework has too often been operationalised without adequate empirical scrutiny (Saks, 1983). Johnson (2016) illustrates this well by giving no evidence for his claim that the emergence of the professions auxiliary to medicine in Britain was based on the way in which doctors defined their own roles and consequently resulted in an ‘irrational’ utilisation of resources. Similarly, Perrucci (1973) does not provide any justification for stating that in the United States the public interest is always subordinated to professional self-interests, when the two conflict. Such neo-Weberian contributors instead seem to have been swept along by the more radical climate of opinion about professions that followed in the wake of the 1960s and 1970s counter culture - which we shall consider in more detail in the next chapter. As a result of their unguarded comments on the nature and role of professions based on the exercise of power, interests and exclusionary social closure in the marketplace, such neo-Weberian accounts go little beyond the now much-challenged assumptions of taxonomic writers - instead substituting reflexive negativity for knee-jerk positivity.

This leads on to a second related criticism of the neo-Weberian approach. This is that the claims of its proponents about professions have been prone to be rather too adversarial (Saks, 1998). The neo-Weberian work of Johnson (2016) can again be taken as a key example in so far as he simply asserts that lawyers and other professionals do not act in the public interest because of the lack of relevance of their services to black and feminist groups. Beattie (1995) makes similarlycritical claims about the negative consequences of professional tribalism in British health care. This unsubstantiated view of professions flies in the face of the need to reconstruct, rather than simply to deconstruct, the operation of such groups (Saks, 1998). We must of course avoid unthinkingly viewing professions as a virtuous occupational group like many trait and functionalist writers. Nonetheless, we should also recognise that they can be humanising, as illustrated by contemporary analyses of nursing and midwifery (Borsay and Hunter, 2012; Bourgeault, Benoit and Davis-Floyd, 2004). And although lawyers have sometimes been lampooned by neo-Weberians - not least by using the metaphor of ‘vampires’ to highlight their pursuit of financial self-interest (McGillivray, 2004) - this should be tempered by acknowledgement of the pro bono work undertaken on behalf of the disadvantaged by legal and other professionals (Granfield and Mather, 2009).

The third criticism of the application of neo-Weberianism to professions in the Anglo-American context is that its advocates do not sufficiently connect their work on professions to the wider occupational division of labour (Saks, 2003b). To be sure, a broad span of professional groups has been examined by neo-Weberians - from social workers (Lymbery, 2000) to actuaries (Collins, Dewing and Russell, 2009). However, the work of neo-Weberian writers has been rather too focused on a small band of occupations like medicine and law that have achieved full exclusionary social closure. As a result, the relative position of newly professionalising groups like complementary and alternative practitioners to doctors has frequently been given far less attention than due in Britain and the United States (Saks, 2015a). This is even more pronounced in the study of the relationship between health professions in general and the broader constituency of support workers - where, despite forming the majority of the health workforce, the latter have become the invisible providers of health care (Saks, 2020c). Accordingly, explanations of the relative success and failure of professional projects and depictions of the comparative ascendance that professional groups have obtained in the division of labour have been incomplete.

Moreover, in examining the processes involved in professionalisation in the division of labour, neo-Weberians have all too often overlooked the fact that marginalised groups themselves have interests and power (Cant and Sharma, 1996). Analysing these aspects of the interaction between such groups and more dominant professions, though, can be fundamental in understanding outcomes. This is best exemplified by the way in which American physicians allied with the homeopaths in the late nineteenth century to overcome the antitrust resistance to

Competing theories of professions IS professionalisation (Saks, 2015e). It may have only been through this mechanism that the medical profession was able to gain state licensure across the United States - following which the homoeopathic training schools were completely decimated in the critical medical reviews in the aftermath of the 1910 Flexner Report (Haller, 2009). In terms of the wider occupational division of labour, neo-Weberian contributors have also commonly been guilty of considering the features of top professions without examining how distinct they are compared to groups that have not professionalised. This is illustrated by Svennson (1999) who examined public trust in a number of professions from economists to veterinarians, without external occupational comparators. How do we know that these groups are held in higher regard than non-professionalised, skilled occupations like car mechanics and carpenters? This is a significant question for state policy in the vindication, or otherwise, of particular patterns of professional closure.

In defence of neo-Weberianism, though, these three broad areas of criticism relate more to the operationalisation of this theoretical approach than a fundamental flaw. Many of the issues can be addressed by simply developing more balanced and thoroughgoing evidencebased understanding of professions within this perspective. In addition, more extended holistic research engagement in the division of labour would effectively counter arguments that neo-Weberian studies to date have been rather too myopic - as well as opening up new occupational vistas for its proponents. This undermines the argument by Evetts (1998) that the approach has limited relevance because its focus on exclusionary social closure excludes the analysis of engineering and other knowledge-based occupations in Britain. In fact, it does not matter that certain occupations currently lack full exclusionary closure in the Anglo-American context as they can still usefully be examined both singly and comparatively by neo-Weberians. As Evetts describes, engineers are normally employed in technical work with a degree in science, mathematics or engineering itself and may or may not have chartered status with protection of title in a highly diverse and specialised field. Nonetheless, it remains an interesting question for neo-Weberians as to why engineering has not fully professionalised in Britain as in a number of other professions and modern societies, and what its prospects are in so doing in the future.

Following on from the discussion about the alleged limitations of neo-Weberianism in Britain by Evetts, the claim by Sciulli (2005) that the neo-Weberian approach to professions is restricted because social closure is largely confined to the Anglo-American context is also flawed. Of course, as seen in the previous chapter, there are fewer classic professionsin neo-Weberian terms in continental Europe (Collins, 1990), where Evetts (2000) notes that parallel occupations are often embedded in government bureaucracies and other public sector bodies. Against this, though, many professional bodies are based on exclusionary social closure in countries from Australia and New Zealand to Canada (Allsop and Jones, 2008). In European societies too, neo-Weberian scholars can gain important insights by analysing occupations across the regulatory spectrum - from independent lawyers in Germany with full social closure (Rogowski, 1995) to doctors in contemporary Russia still striving to gain autonomous profession standing following state-induced depro-fessionalisation in Soviet times (Saks, 2018a). Having said this, it should be underlined that in this chapter we have focused on considering mainstream theories of professions - culminating in the more detailed examination of the preferred neo-Weberian approach. We shall now examine two less prominent theories of professions which have the potential to complement the neo-Weberian focus in this book.

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