Revisiting the Concept of Professional Authority

Wednesday, 13 July 2016: 11:15
Location: Hörsaal 17 (Juridicum)
Oral Presentation
Lars Thorup LARSEN, Aarhus University, Denmark
There is not an elaborate tradition of research on authority within the sociology of professions. In broader social and sociological debates, however, the changing roles of professions and professionals are typically used as a key example of how authority positions in society are not what they used to be. While some social theorists claim a larger dependence on specialized expertise in 'reflexive modernization', the most common narrative is one of erosion, either because individualized citizens trust professionals less or because professions as a whole have been run over by political regulation.

The concept of authority has a Weberian origin, and yet does not fit clearly within the power-centered Neo-Weberian tradition. This is because a strong professional authority requires not simply a monopoly on certain tasks nor is it just an ideological legitimation of monopoly. It further includes what Starr terms 'legitimate complexity', i.e. whether citizens, society or the state considers the profession as having a necessary ability to interpret a piece of reality. Having a profession's judgments accepted as necessary does not depend directly on the legal protection of monopoly, but rather on the profession's ability to constitute themselves as an exclusive cultural authority on the area in question. It is thus essential to consider different dimensions of authority, while still associating it with the generic phenomenon of authority in society.

This paper revisits and elaborates on the concept of professional authority. The purpose is not simply to identify a forgotten tradition or elaborate on the alleged loss of professional authority. The aim is rather to clarify the notion as to allow a systematic and comparative empirical scrutiny. How does authority vary between professions and between different citizen groups and how may different forms of political regulation likely affect or challenge professional authority?