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What is a profession?

The academic view

There is an entire body of academic literature on professions, which naturally represents many different ways of thinking about what makes a group a profession. Typical academic models tend to focus on a set of objective traits that a group must demonstrate to be considered a profession.

For example, Greenwood1 claimed that a profession must have the following elements:

  • A systematic body of theory or knowledge
  • Authority and credibility
  • Community sanction, or regulation and control of its members
  • Code of ethics
  • Professional culture, or a culture of values, norms and symbols.

Others, such as Freidson2, prefer singular assumptions. They argue that the key feature for distinguishing professions from other occupations is their independence and “position of legitimate control over work”.

Others still, such as Miller et al3, suggest that professions require an integrity system that emphasises protecting members of the public as clients.

Meanwhile, Professions Australia defines a profession as:

 “A disciplined group of individuals who adhere to high ethical standards and  uphold themselves to, and are accepted by, the public as possessing special  knowledge and skills in a widely recognised, organised body of learning  derived from education and training at a high level, and who are prepared to  exercise this knowledge and these skills in the interests of others.4

Our models of professions

Our approach to the recognition of professions under Professional Standards Legislation is anchored in the concept that a good profession has demonstrated a capacity for self-regulation and consumer protection. This obviously requires that a profession has resources, standards and an organisational capacity to channel self-regulatory activities.

As a consequence, we emphasise that for a profession to exist, there needs to be a professional body that can:

  • Develop, educate and ultimately enforce the group’s professional standards
  • Allow individuals to come together in a sense of community commitment
  • Bind individual practitioners to each other through these commitments.

Our complete reference model [the 40 elements of professionalism] identifies the key standards, processes and practices a group should strive to have in place before it can be defined as a profession. These 40 elements fall into four broad categories:

  • Organisational and internal governance
  • External governance and public accountability
  • Legislation, advocacy and responsiveness
  • Responsibilities and functions.

Download the 40 elements of professionalisation (PDF). (Adapted from Benton et. al., ‘Defining nursing regulation and regulatory body performance: a policy Delphi study’, International Nursing Review 60, 308.)

Of course, not all occupational groups can meet these requirements and it is often a matter of a long journey to full self-regulatory capacity.

In addition to working with fully developed professions we are also interested in encouraging the professionalisation journey for all associations that seek a trusted role with consumers and are motivated to improve the professional recognition of their members. With that in mind we also reference a simpler model of professions [5 Elements (5 Es) model] that reflects certification practices familiar to a number of professions.

This model is designed to promote easier public and policy debate, and act as a starting point for discussions with emerging professional groups.

Table 1. The 5 Es of professionalisation.


The specific technical and professional requirements to practice in a discrete professional area. Reflected in entry-level formal qualifications or certification, and ongoing education or continuing professional development expectations.


The prescribed professional and ethical standards clients can expect their professional to exhibit. This extends into specific expectations of practice and conduct, and a commitment to a higher duty.

These standards are typically negotiated through the professional community that governs a professions’ conduct, and is expected to improve consumer protection – not just reiterate statutory expectations.


The personal capabilities and expectations of experience required to practice as a professional in a discrete professional area.


The mechanism by which all of the elements above are assessed and assured to the community.
This covers more than qualification or certification requirements and traditional examinations. It also extends into expectations of regular assurance, such as compliance and professional audit expectations.


For a profession to exist there must be a capable entity to oversee and administer professional entry, professional standards and compliance expectations on behalf of the public. This is often an association made up of individuals who are regulated participants in that profession.


1 Greenwood, E. ‘Attributes of a Profession’, Social Work 2, 1957, pp.44-55.

2 Freidson, E. The Profession of Medicine. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co. 1970, p82.

3 Miller, S. et al. Professionalisation, Ethics and Integrity Systems: The Promotion of Professional Ethical Standards, and the Protection of Clients and Consumers. A report for the Professional Standards Councils by the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics (an Australian Research Council-funded special research centre), December 2006.

4 Professions Australia. The Professions, Public Interest and Competition Policy, 2000.