Categorising bears and other beings

The Cassandra Complex by Mark O’Neill ( @marxculture ) connected with a few memories buried in my mind. In it, he raised questions about what professions and professionalism are these days. Thinking about these issues, they are closely related to current debate about the use of social web tools by governement people, Big Society, and the impending plans to cut public spending.

Suitable attire – one definition of ‘professional’

Photograph of Isambard Kingdom Brunel and others on 3rd November 1857. National Maritime Museum collection.

Photograph of Isambard Kingdom Brunel and others on 3rd November 1857.

One of my American friends who works in the UK says that our professional standards are not as high as American ones because… Well, it’s a long argument, but some key points of American professional standards apparently include:

1) one should dress smartly (and, for women especially, as un-sexily as possible) in black, charcoal grey or very dark navy;

2) work all the hours of the day and night apart from 7 hours for sleeping, eating and washing;

3) never tell anyone anything about your life outside work;

4) have a serious expression upon one’s face and do not smile too much.

It sounds rather too corporate and joyless an approach to professionalism to me.

For several years, I was vaguely amused daily when walking past a School of Business at the sight of university students and staff in dark suits. One MBA student told me that they were not allowed to attend unless they were wearing a traditional suit. So, professionalism for them is impossible without a uniform. It seemed strange that there should be such rigid thinking about suitable attire. I had imagined that business studies encouraged flexible and agile thinking to cope with the vagaries of commerce. I could write a whole thesis on professional attire, and what people expect it to be.

‘Professional’ equals bigger, higher, longer, better

Exercising on the beach. Photograph from the National Media Museum, UK.

Exercising on the beach, 1935. Photograph, National Media Museum, UK.

The distinction between professional and non-professional jobs seemed to be woven into the fabric of the first public organisation in which I was first employed full-time. The grades and pay were based on categorising jobs as professional, technical, administrative and manual. The higher levels of pay and benefits went to the professional and technical staff (and, incidentally, almost all were men, of course). Their trade union was also the strongest, protecting their benefits when cuts were made.

Roles that were classed as professional included:

accountants (chartered)


architects and landscape architects

civil & mechanical engineers (but only the chartered ones)


estates surveyors (chartered)

lawyer (there was only one)

quantity surveyors

Most “professionals” were chartered or had a doctorate level degree in a relevant subject, together with work experience.

The benefits of being categorised as a professional were:

  • much longer pay-band ladders;
  • larger amount of floor space in the office;
  • bigger desks;
  • better quality chairs;
  • higher rates of travel and subsistence;
  • rarely being questioned about how little time one spent in the office;
  • manager rarely questioning what one was doing when not in the office (only one person in the organisation had a mobile phone in 1988);
  • being given priority by the reprographics staff when requiring photocopies;
  • being able to get some junior member of staff to minute meetings.

A quick dash from now to medieval to modern

Dictionaries provide three definitions for the noun “professional’ in three ways:

  1. A person qualified in a profession [unhelpful]
  2. A person who does a specific activity as his or her main paid work
  3. A person who is competent or skilled in a specific activity.

The definition of ‘profession’ is more helpful. It is an activity or occupation that someone is skilled or competent to do and for which they get paid; and for which the person had to train for a long time and obtain a qualification before they could do it.

‘Profession’ apparently first appears in Middle English, that is, between the early 1100s and late 1400s (approximately), and was related to entering monastic orders.

Many of the occupations that are now recognised as professions emerged slowly during the 18th and 19th centuries. Standardising training and technical developments helped them to evolve.

A specific example

Photograph of Sir James Young Simpson, around 1860.

Photograph of Sir James Young Simpson, around 1860. He discovered the use of chloroform as an anaesthetic. National Galleries of Scotland collection.

When Henry Tate (1819 – 1899) commissioned Luke Fildes (1843 – 1927) to paint something for his collection of modern art, the artist decided to portray a doctor.

Although the practices of the barbers had been separated from those of surgeons in 1745, the modern medical doctors were then only just establishing themselves as respectable professionals and shaking off the image of quacks and barber-surgeons, and the early 19th century associations with body-snatchers. Doctors had only just begun to understand the underlying causes of contagious diseases in the late 19th century. Sterilisation of surgical equipment did not happen before the mid-1870s because the need for it was not understood.

Print after Luke Fildes, The Doctor, 1891.

Print after Luke Fildes, The Doctor, 1891. Private collection.

Doctors vied with each other to sit for Fildes, each wanting to be the face of his profession. Fildes mostly used a professional model to sit for the figure and the face is deliberately not a portrait of one individual. His painting possibly influenced to some extent the view that doctors had of their professional selves. He entitled the painting The Doctor, and exhibited it for the first time at the Royal Academy in 1891. His composition put the doctor in the centre. Fildes portrayed the doctor as more than a man with medical knowledge. He showed a kindly, selfless, dedicated, compassionate man, prepared to spend a whole night looking after a sick child whose parents, a labourer and his wife, were likely to be too poor to pay for even half an hour of his time.

Some of you might refer to it as ‘brand-building.’ Luke Fildes’s vision of a modern, professional doctor became the icon for decades, held up as a good example to medical students. It was endlessly referenced, copied and purloined by doctors and pharmacists all over the world.

I expect more than technical excellence and specialist knowledge from professionals. Maybe because I grew up with a copy of Luke Fildes’s Doctor on the wall, I also expect professionals to think about and abide by ethical standards. I expect them to:

  • behave with courtesy;
  • act with decorum;
  • be honest people whom one can trust;
  • aim to be unprejudiced;
  • be able to put aside personal feelings.

Sometimes, a professional does not act with the professionalism I expect. Threatening, shouting and swearing at a colleague does not seem professional behaviour, unless one is role-playing during a training session on how to deal with difficult clients.

Maybe I expect too much?

There is also something else that I have been trying to add into the recipe for professional behaviour since I first started work: being human as well as professional. It is a delicate balance, and I am not at all sure that I get it right.

For most, it would be inappropriate to waft a bleeding heart around or smother clients with bear hugs. It is about risking being an individual human being sufficiently to connect with others, but still maintaining enough distance for the relationship with others to be a professional one.

When I first started work, there were people who still expected to be addressed formally. There are still occasions or individuals for whom that level of formality seems more appropriate. These days, I would consider a chief executive of a public organisation to be unduly stuffy if he or she expected me to address them formally.

I have had many discussions with people over the use of social web tools and professional standards over recent years. People do confuse the medium with professional standards at times.  Maybe the social web is making the misfit between the expectations of professional standards by some against others’ more visible? There always have been control freaks and bullies who thought that any form of dialogue in whatever medium had the potential to be dangerously subversive. Before Facebook, people simply got up to embarrassing things in real life, and gossip spread with word pictures.

I was interested and amused when Dominic Campbell said something on Twitter that seemed to indicate that he expects government blogs to be ‘professional’ by having comprehensive links rather than just a few. I wonder whether it is time for government to admit that public services are not carved in granite, are not definitive, but are entities in states of constant beta. Today’s professionalism should be able to admit to constant evolution rather than hiding behind a facade of unchanging traditions. Professional civil servants, for example, have an image of stuffy rigidity. Many whom I have met are positively feline in their flexibility and agility.

Shooting down professionalism?

Tom Stoneham made me think about another way in which professionalism can be viewed (and abused, maybe) through his post for Saturday 18th September 2010:

“gratuitous ‘professionalization’ of ordinary activities is a waste of time and money.”

I am intrigued at what he considers to be “gratuitous ‘professionalization’” (and look forward to finding out at some point). It is obvious enough with the specific example he provides in that post: a simply-made sign with an apparently clear meaning.

I did wonder what might happen if someone unable to read English saw that same sign. Would they even understand that a red sign denotes a warning usually in our culture? Colours can mean opposite things in different cultures. Maybe an image of a skull with an arrow in its eye is required as well?

What I think that he might mean is the kind of slick corporate branding that seems to be considered essential for everything, including snake oil salesmen and social media gurus. I certainly feel that I have wasted time in recent years trying to comply exactly with the corporate image rules for universities and funding bodies (try fitting all the logos and accompanying text they require on to a web page, and still leave room for the prime content!).

There can be benefits in conveying information effectively and efficiently, and the rough and ready method is not best for all situations. I might feel nostalgic about the golden age of academic idealism when quality of teaching and research were the most important things. In fact, it probably never was like that. Today, universities are brands that trade in an international market, and have to make an impression on business people as well as potential students and their funders.

I have had to consider warnings to prevent people seriously injuring or killing themselves, in the distant past. It was part of everyday work, as was dealing with the consequences if someone did get injured or die on or falling from one of the sites we managed. Ancient monuments can be inherently dangerous, but making them totally safe would result in wrecking their visual appeal and historical integrity. Getting the balance wrong can mean someone dies as a result. Consistency in visual clues to danger can help to prevent accidents.

So, taking responsibility is another factor in a professional approach. Taking responsibility, needing to consider the potential risks of decisions (or lack of decisions), should be part of the ethical equipment of a professional.

Why does any of this matter?

Get back in the knife drawer

Cutting back? Cutting out? Or cutting edge public services?

Maybe because we know that our corner of our world needs to change in a fundamental way. The Government introduced the phrase “Big Society” on 18th May 2010. It also has stated the intention to make major cuts to public budgets. People are talking about volunteers replacing professionals, or how the ‘Big Society’ is not about that at all. It has prompted us to think more deeply about what professionals are in our society today; to compare and, where necessary, to contrast with the amateurs.

The professional’s general image has been eroded by scandals in the ‘Red Tops,’ and confused with a concept of specious arguments about the pay of a few at the top, and with class privilege. The begrudging politics of envy, the unpleasant British habit of thinking “if I don’t have that, nobody else should” (someone I know would call it “chippy”).

The cuts threatening public services are making us think about the difference between public servants and volunteers. It is especially important that we are clear on why we need professionals in public culture since many people see work within that sector as “nice.”

People sometimes tell me that they see heritage management as being a wonderfully pleasant, relaxing and civilised occupation. Plenty of people are engaged in cultural activities in their spare time. I can see why they should think that most of the work could be done by volunteers. I also know that this view is impractical and wrong, and will argue this at length another time.

Back to the beginning

Bear Puzzle Postcard Set, 1907.

Bear Puzzle Postcard Set, 1907. Cornell University Library collection.

I started writing this with the idea of categorising bears. I was thinking at the time about the different types of bears in the wild, and the different styles used to depict bears. A bear is still a bear, whether he is Winnie the Pooh, Iorek Byrnison, Paddington or Euston Bear (the latter is a character on Twitter who is the opposite to Paddington).

Bear is also the nickname of Mark O’Neill who wrote the blog post that sparked off my writing this post. I have seen Mark in his professional role once so far, and I found him inspiring in his very 21st century approach: being an intelligent, humorous human rather than a stuffed shirt bureaucrat. I have observed that many people seem to have more respect for that approach to being professional.

Professionals can still be professional when they are not called “Mr” or “Dr” or “Sir.” Whilst T-shirt and jeans may not work as professional garb for all, it is everyday wear for many highly respected people. Professionals can even have a regional accent these days.

Just as there is an essential bear quality to the different types and depictions of bears, there is an essential professionalism. I think that it involves intelligence, training, knowledge, experience, skills, ethics, responsibility, and being human. What do you think?


Mark O’Neill, ‘The Cassandra Complex,’ Lost consCIOusness [ last accessed 22/09/2010]

Simon Wakeman, ‘Professional institutes, PR and marketing,’ Simon Wakeman public sector communications and marketing [ last accessed 22/09/2010]

Tom Stoneham, [Archery Range. Shooting in progress.] practically satisfactory [ last accessed 22/09/2010]

‘Government puts Big Society at heart of public sector reform,’ Cabinet Office [ last accessed 22/09/2010]

Big Society Network [ last accessed 22/09/2010]

Big Society In The North Forum [ last accessed 22/09/2010]

Dave Briggs [ last accessed 22/09/2010]

Public Strategist [ last accessed 22/09/2010]


2 thoughts on “Categorising bears and other beings

  1. Tom Stoneham

    Hi Janet,

    Interesting post. I am more in agreement with the early parts than the later. However, I think you are absolutely right to bring out that it is in fact an evaluative term, not a purely descriptive one: to describe something as (un)professional is to cast a judgement upon it. The point of my comment about gratuitous professionalization is that the norm or standard used to make this judgement is often at odds with what really matters. And in the case of the archery sign, it was certainly unprofessional, but to point this out and think it requires something to be done is to overlook what really matters.

    Human values, even those accepted by a given individual, are plural and incommensurable and none the worse for that. But that is a digression, so let’s head back to professionalism.

    It seems to me that the way the term is used is better captured by your discussion of the Americans and the doctors. To be professional is to project a certain image, namely that you take what you do seriously and will make your best efforts for your ‘clients’. So professionalism is, as your comments about universities and brands make clear, effectively a marketing tool and as such there is nothing wrong with it. If you want your clients to be confident in you, then it is a good idea to be professional.

    But the problem is that it is often much easier to project the image than to do the job properly. Going back to my archery sign: it is much, much easier to have a ‘professional’ printed sign with a logo than to give archery lessons to kids at a range next to a public footpath while ensuring the kids have fun and no one is put at risk. And I expect that the image of the doctor in Fildes painting was welcomed by the medical profession (different sense of word) precisely because it obscured the reality that most doctors are as concerned about making money as improving the health of society. It is not surprising to discover ( that the best pay in the public sector goes to GPs – and those well-paid few are almost certainly much more ‘professional’ than the scruffy, stressed, under-equipped volunteers working in war zones or disaster areas. And don’t get me on to the professions with the biggest concern for projecting that professional image: banking, law, consultancy etc.

    Does this have anything to do with the ‘Big Society’? Well, what we really want in public services is competence, is actually taking the job seriously and doing it to the best of one’s ability. Probably not, but one of the promises of the Big Society is that it will increase localization of services, and localization makes it easier to recognize competence directly. Localization is what enables people to know that the scruffy builder with the rusty van actually does a great job but the very ‘professional’ company, with swish advertising and its name painted ‘professionally’ on the vans, cannot in fact be trusted.

    1. Janet E Davis Post author

      Thank you very much for your considered response to my post, and to explaining your use of the term ‘professionalism’ with the archery photo.
      I am also delighted that you don’t entirely agree with me.
      The GP pay situation does reflect, perhaps, how important we consider frontline medical knowledge and skills are. If we don’t have highly skilled and knowledgeable people wanting to be GPs, we risk dying unnecessarily.
      I have just remembered a good example of unprofessional behaviour by a junior doctor many years ago. He was clearly despised patients; kept everybody waiting whilst he chatted to technicians about forthcoming parties (when it became clear that his late arrival was caused by partying till the early hours and a hangover); and was then very rude and patronising to patients after not even bothering to read the notes from their previous visit.
      The personae and cultures of specific professions and trades is, perhaps, another discussion. I would be concerned about a builder with a rusty van because he might be more likely to fail to turn up because he does not maintain his van. On the other hand, I am wary of those with fleets of professionally branded vehicles. My local back street garage in its mid-20th century corrugated steel building and greasy office/waiting area is really wonderful, and I would not dream of taking my car to the glossy dealership garage for a service.
      Is the professional image essential? Does it help people to trust one to do the work? Should we return to a world where all academics and university students wear gowns? I was bemused to find that the staff at the King’s Manor tended to think that I was one of the post-grad students, based on how I dressed. A lot of people seem to have a lot of rules on what is appropriate or inappropriate for women especially to wear if they want to project a professional image.
      Can we or should we have a more relaxed and honest professional approach and style?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s