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Professionalism as Symbolic Capital: Materials for a Bourdieusian Theory of Professionalism

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image of Comparative Sociology
For content published from 1960-2001, see International Journal of Comparative Sociology.

Pierre Bourdieu has given a brief but fierce critique of the concept of “profession” that calls for a more reflexive analysis of the professions and in fact suggests not using the concept at all. In this contribution, we explicate the gist of that critique and argue it is possible to analyze it in a Bourdieusian fashion. We regard professionalism as a form of symbolic capital, the substance of which is constantly at stake in power-driven contexts, both internally and externally. Professional fields are embedded in objective relations with other fields in what Bourdieu describes as a general field of power. Within each professional field, the legitimate substance of what it means to act in a “professional way” is constantly at stake. In turn, across various professional fields, within what Bourdieu describes as a larger field of power, the very idea or “formal content” of “professionalism” is subject to struggle and (re)negotiation. This power-centered view emphasizes professionalism is a scarce symbolic resource, an object of a process of consecration and a source of legitimate forms of acting and interpreting. It thereby de-essentializes talk of professions and professionalization.


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