Knowledge, Status or Trust? Sources of Professional Authority in Denmark and the U.S.

Friday, 20 July 2018: 11:15
Oral Presentation
Gitte Sommer HARRITS, Aarhus University, Department of Political Science, Denmark
Lars Thorup LARSEN, Aarhus University, Denmark
Authority is generally understood as legitimated power in the Weberian tradition, i.e. as something which is not entirely free from power, but at the same time is not backed by brute force. The key to understand authority in general, and professional authority in particular, is thus to assess these sources of legitimacy. Following the literature on professionalism, an obvious expectation will be that professional authority is based on what Paul Starr has called legitimate complexity, i.e. the implicit understanding that specialized expertise is required to understand and give advice on specific problems, and that a given professional group possess this type of expertise. Additionaly, some scholars point towards social status and closure as well as trust in a profession’s altruism and ethics as alternative bases. Typically, the literature on professions focuses on the role of expertise, closure and ethics in the establishment of professional groups and jurisdictions, which thereby ignores the question of how citizens actually evaluate professional advice and decide to accept or contest it. However, since authority is a relational phenomemon, i.e. established in the relationship between an advice given and the extent to which this advice is followed, research on professional authority must focus on exactly such evaluations. In this paper, we therefore use survey data and survey experiments conducted in representative samples from Denmark (N=1720) and the U.S. (N=1728). These surveys focus on how respondents in general evaluate different professional groups, as well as how they respond to concrete advice in a hypothetical vignette experiment. Further, the data allows for testing the impact of different factors, applying a range of individual level controls, including gender, social class, political values, authoritarian valules, trust in science and previous interaction experience with professionals. Further, we use interview data to explore in-depth the ways in which such evaluations are constructed.