A profession is a specialized work function within society, generally performed by a professional. For the monastic sense, see Profession (religious).



In a more restrictive sense, profession often refers specifically to fields that require extensive study and mastery of specialized knowledge, such as law, medicine, the military, nursing, the clergy or engineering. In this sense, profession is contrasted with occupation, which refers generally to the nature of a person's employment.

Terms such as occupational serve the purpose of upholding the distinction between professionals and others who for their living are dependent on their work rather than on their economic wealth. Such usage avoids the confusion caused by vague usage of the words professional and professionalism to express prestige, approval or a sense of exclusivity.

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 behaviour, etc) became less fashionable in the late 20th century.

The distinction between laypersons and professionals denotes the critical aspect of more liberal definitions of a profession: being paid for the work. As such, ball players and movie makers may be professionals, although their work does not fit the strict definition offered above.


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, paramedics, educationalists and even accountants, 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".


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 self-restricted and self-regulated. For example, laywers regulate themselves through a bar association and restrict membership through licensing and accredidation 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. 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 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), Edward Jenner (medicine), and Florence Nightingale (nursing). In modern times, however, there is no standard definition.

See also

es:Profesin nl:beroep ja:職業 pl:Zawód sv:Yrke uk:Професія

Here are the main characteristics of any profession, with reference to home economics (human ecology, family and consumer sciences) when relevant:

  • A profession provides a set of services that are beneficial to society as a whole, a social end. Home economics holds the challenging reality that layman think they can provide services for individuals and families since everyone lives day-to-day in some form of home environment. A profession recognizes this and builds its practice on human ethics and concerns, not just technical how-to practice
  • The set of services provided for the benefit of society involves intellectual activity, especially moral judgements, which require that the professional continually engage in scholarly activity focused on the critique of existing knowledge and how it matches the evolving needs of individuals and families in todays environment
  • Education for the profession (study) is vigorously supervised to ensure that those practising in the field are prepared to engage in morally defensible work. Entrance into the practice of the profession is thoroughly screened through a process of licensing or certification to ensure morally defensible work
  • Because of the level of competence and independent, intellectual thought required to practice in a profession, the scope and purpose of the profession is necessarily limited but not the complexity of knowledge and practice in the profession. Most significantly, even though the field may have to generate specializations in order to deal with the scope of the profession, all off shoots will adhere to the same, agreed to, social end (see first bullet) — that is what makes the profession holistic and sustainable.
  • The knowledge in most professions is unique. The knowledge appropriate to home economics is not unique. What is unique is that the field pays attention to the problems that families encounter from one generation to another (perennial problems) and then draws information and insights from a number of disciplines and, after critically examining them, organizes these into knowledge that has practical use for the social end of the profession, currently the well-being and quality of daily life for individuals and families.
  • To be a profession, home economics must engage in self reflection and self critique so that it can present itself to the public in such a way that society is clear about what we offer. Otherwise the field runs the risk of not asking the appropriate questions, posing the wrong problems, missing the underlying causes of symptoms that families are trying to cope with and, thereby, engaging in unprofessional practice and unethical conduct. To prevent this disastrous circumstance, pre-service and in-service initiatives must respect the spirit of inquiry and facilitate constant attempts to improve and refine theory and practice. As a true profession and professional, we must critique the human condition, which means investigating and denouncing social and individual damages caused by power imbalances in society. We will strive for praxis; that is, remain concerned with real inequality in society and then seek to link the insights gained from our ongoing critique to engage in social and political action.

Brown, M., & Paoulucci, B. (1978). Home Economics: New Directions [Mimeographed]. Alexandria, VA: American Association of Family and Consuemer Sciences.


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