Attributes of a Profession

Ernest Greenwood
In the July 1957 issue of Social Work
Cited five basic attributes of professions.

The Paper

I.  Systematic Theory

Knowledge organized into a body of theory based on
abstract propositions

that describe the classes of phenomena

comprising the profession's focus of interest

Preparation to practice must be intellectual as well as practical experience

But, a profession cannot be “bound to its theory” but must have “rationality.”

Willingness to replace any aspect of theory with newer formulations that are more valid

Explains a division of labor in many professions between practice and research

Causes the “body of knowledge to change and often increase

II.  Authority

Professional Authority stems from the contrast between:
The extensive education that Imparts a professional knowledge that Highlights the comparative ignorance of lay people
Not superior skill, but the nature of the skill

The difference is illustrated in the difference between

clients [professionals] Clients must rely on what the professional determines and must either seek other counsel or accede to professional judgment


customers [non-professionals] Customers determine what service he wants/needs, and shops around to find them

Recent societal changes have eroded this professional authority since Greenwood 's time.

III.  Community Sanction

Certain powers and privileges enforced through community police powers
Professional licensing

Minimum criteria to enter profession




Like having a monopoly, granted by government

This explains why many non-professional occupations seek professional status

IV.  Ethical Codes

Uniquely professional, to the point that “ethical” has often been considered “professional”

Essentials are uniform, and describe

proper client/professional relations, and

proper professional/professional relations

Professionals must be motivated less by self interest and more by quality, as defined by the needs and interests of the client and the public

Non-professionals in contrast can withhold service on rather arbitrary basis, and can dilute the quality of his commodity or service to fit the size of the client's pocketbook

Compliance with ethical standards must be enforced by the profession

V.   A Culture

Social Value: The service that a professional provides to society is so vital that regulation is required to prevent unqualified persons from performing them.

Norms: There are proper ways to behave, e.g. to progress within the profession, to securing appointments, to make referrals, to obtain clients.

Symbols: Insignia, emblems, distinctive dress, history, forklore, buzzwords.


Other Professionalism and Ethics links of interest

Ernest Greenwood Biography

Business Ethics


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