The Quest for Authority and Honour in the American Professions, 1750-1900

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With the decline in the size of our industrial work force and the rise of the service occupations, the professions today are prominent models for a singular kind of social position. The professions and professionalism seem to offer an escape from vexing supervision at work as well as from some of the depersonalization and uncertainty of markets and bureaucracies. In taking account of our hunger for professional status and privileges, Samuel Haber presents the first synthetic history of major professions in America. His account emphasizes the substance of each profession's work experience, told from the vantage point of the doctors, lawyers, ministers, and their emulators whose work gave them a high sense of purpose and a durable sense of community. Contrary to those who regard the professions as exemplary and up-to-date specimens of social modernization or economic monopoly, Haber argues that they bring both preindustrial and predemocratic ideals and standards into our modern world. He proposes that the values embedded in the professions--authority and honor, fused with duty and responsibility--have their origins in the class position and occupational prescriptions of eighteenth-century English gentlemen. Such an argument has implications for the understanding of American society; it underscores the cumulative and variegated nature of our culture and suggests the drawbacks of trying to describe society as a system. It also accords with Haber's endeavor to write a history that rescues for description and analysis mixed motives, composite conditions, and persons and parties acting upon contradictory explanatory schemes. Haber traces the cultural evolution of the professions through three stages--establishment (1750-1830), disestablishment (1830-1880), and reestablishment (1880-1900). He shows that when the gentlemanly class declined in the United States, the professions maintained status even in somewhat hostile settings. The professions thus came to be seen as a middle way between the pursuits of laborers and those of capitalists. Massive in scale and ambition, this book will have a formidable impact among scholars newly attuned to the history of American middle-class culture.