The problem of being ‘professional’- some notes on occupational closure and protection of title

The failure of Carmel Sepuloni’s Social Workers Registration (Mandatory Registration) Amendment Bill to pass its first reading in the house this week has provoked some discussion about the importance of protection of title. This post aims to shed some light on this aspect of registration and why it is fraught for social work. It is largely based on my doctoral research and the ideas are further expanded in Beddoe 2011, 2013a, 2013b.

While other professions were regulated much earlier, social work in New Zealand has struggled with both the internal and external conditions that would facilitate registration (Beddoe & Randal, 1994).

Based on the different issues raised in defining professions several possible explanations for social work’s position can be offered: 1) gender and power constraints on social workers’ ability to influence lawmakers; 2) social workers’ qualms about the politics of professionalizing; 3) the lack of a clearly articulated body of knowledge; 4) the associated low levels of autonomy and lastly, 5) the lack of a clearly demarcated social space or field (Bourdieu, 1984).

This set of circumstances may have lasted for many more decades but for the changes in the public sector brought about through the growth of audit culture in which governments faced a crisis of trust in the professions, (O’Neill, 2002). In spite of the marginalized nature of social work, by the early 2000s the importance to governments to at least be seen to be ‘doing something’ about ensuring high standards for public services outweighed any concerns about adding to the number of occupations able to professionalize. For social workers (political patronage aside) the professional project was inextricably enmeshed with aspirations to greater power and control.

Regardless of how it has been achieved, this professional journey of registration is, in essence, a project of occupational closure in which groups “create exclusionary shelters…to secure privileged access to resources and opportunities’” (Parkin, 1979, p.46). For the social workers and social work managers I have spoken to in my research, the professional project seemed to offer some greater control, as they expected registration would mandate and legitimize their aspirations. It is interesting to note that there is no one single union for social workers in New Zealand. The largest group of social workers is to some extent unionized, as public service workers, though this for a long time was a weak force for social work, and union activity was not a significant feature of the debates about professionalization in the period 2000-2003. This has changed recently, with greater political activity and the growth of the Social Workers Action Network in the Public Service Association.

The case for registration usually focuses on the strengthening of a profession to be gained by regulation. A key question  though, is about the extent to which the ‘profession’, as a stakeholder of significance, can empower individual workers within social work agencies, given the degree of managerial control present (Beddoe, 2010, 70). Social workers internationally have joined many other occupations in seeking occupational closure in order to control, define and manage their expertise. A focus on a ‘process’ approach to professional journeys is useful at this point, primarily because it suggests a less elitist stance than earlier work such as the traits perspectives of Flexner (1915) and Greenwood (1957).

A process account also avoids the highly gendered approach in constructing the idea of ‘semi-professions’ provided by Etzioni (1969) and continued uncritically by others including Rueschemeyer, (1986), while acknowledging issues of power and control. What a profession is, is not a fixed, objective matter: a profession is constructed and given meaning by the stakeholders who are part of it or interact with it. At its core a profession is an exchange, it needs at least two parties to function. Modernity, even in the so-called ‘oldest profession’ has brought new stakeholders into the relationship: there are risks to be managed, costs to be determined and boundaries to be stated and policed. (Beddoe, 2010, 66). In modernity everyone is a professional (Wilensky, 1964).

Witz, citing Wilensky (1964) favoured a ‘less static’ approach to the examination of “what an occupation had to do to turn itself into a profession” (Witz, 1992, p.40) and noted that ‘”professionalisation is not simply a process of occupational closure, but is locked into broader sets of structural and historical systems”, (p.56). Witz examines the gendering of professional projects: “indeed, gender was integral to the very definition of a ‘semi-profession’ which according to Etzioni (1969) has two defining features. It is an occupation located within a bureaucratic organization and one in which women pre-dominate” (Witz, 1992 p.57). In Witz’s feminist analysis, professions are constructed as a feature of patriarchal societies. Gendered activities of caring and support, developed last century into paid roles in health and social care, underpin the nature of the helping professions. Witz’s case study of midwifery, (1992, p.104) for example, demonstrates the processes in which midwives battled with the new medical specialization of obstetrics for autonomy within the territory of childbirth. This remains a potent example of ‘turf-conflict’.

“Social work’s status as a profession is dubious. Without ‘protection of title’ occupational closure has not been achieved. While registration requires the attainment of ‘benchmark’ qualifications, as long as registration is not mandatory, then there is inherent in this state a lack of acceptance of the knowledge claim considered essential in professions” (Beddoe, 2010, p.250). “Social work lacks the ‘distinctive space’ (Bourdieu,1986), it may appear in the school and the clinic but it is not so assured of its continuing place in those territories which are unequivocally the space of teachers and nurses. It may have a role in the hospital or the court but it lacks the accoutrements that mark a special contribution-no stethoscope around the neck, no wig and gown. Social work can articulate its knowledge in the courtroom, but the room belongs, without doubt, to the lawyers. Social work may frequently be a rather accidental profession, rather than an occupation aspired to from childhood” Beddoe, 2010, p.252).

So where to?
This is where social work is located at this time: using the best strategy available to us in this current era. The impact of the risk society and the associated rise of intense public scrutiny, plus manifestly less trust in professions, means that the best political strategy may be to seek the safety of occupational closure. The continuing confusion in the press about the roles of social worker, counsellor, mentor and so forth is clear evidence of the problems raised above. The problem with occupational closure is that is raises the spectre of elitism which is why it is so contentious in social work. A future post will address the issues raised in opposition to protection of title.

I finish with the question- the public complains vociferously about ‘cowboy’ tradesmen (unregistered), so why do we have so many qualms about saying that social workers should be qualified, trained and regulated, and thus protect their professional and personal investment in their vocation? I find it an ongoing source of curiosity that hairdressers do it, plumbers do it, even real estate agents do it, so why are we so reluctant to name and claim a territory?


Beddoe, L. (2010). Building Professional Capital: New Zealand Social Workers and Continuing Education. School of Health and Social Development Deakin. Victoria, Australia.

Beddoe, L. (2011). Investing in the future: Social workers talk about research. British Journal of Social Work, 41(3), 557-575. doi:10.1093/bjsw/bcq138. Read here

Beddoe, L. (2013a). Health social work: Professional identity and knowledge. Qualitative Social Work, 12(1), 24-40. doi:10.1177/1473325011415455

Beddoe, L. (2013b). A ‘Profession of faith’ or a profession: Social work, knowledge and professional capital. New Zealand Sociologyy 28(2), 44-63. Read here.

Beddoe, L., & Randal, H. (1994). NZASW and the professional response to a decade of challenge. In R. Munford & M. Nash (Eds.), Social work in action (pp. 21-36). Palmerston North: Dunmore Press.

Bourdieu, P. (1986). The forms of capital. (R. Nice, Trans). In J. G. Richardson (Ed.), Handbook of theory and research for the sociology of education. (pp. 241-258). New York: Greenwood Press.

Etzioni, A. (Ed.). (1969). The semi-professions and their organizations; teachers, nurses and social workers. New York: Free Press.

Flexner, A. (1915). Is social work a profession? Research on Social Work Practice (reprinted, 2001) 11(2), 152-165. (Google title and you will find a free copy!)
Greenwood, E. (1957). Attributes of a profession. Social Work, 2(3), 45-55.
O’Neill, O. (2002). A question of trust. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Parkin, F. (1979). Marxism and class theory: A bourgeois critique London: Tavistock.

Rueschemeyer, D. (1986).Power and the division of labor, Stanford CA: Stanford University Press,

Wilensky, H. L. (1964). The Professionalization of Everyone? The American Journal of Sociology, 70(2), 137-158.

Witz, A. (1992). Professions and patriarchy. London ; New York: Routledge.


About socialworknz

I'm a social work researcher in Aotearoa New Zealand
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