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The Changing Role of Professionals in Politics and Public Life
By Steven Brint
Princeton University Press, 1994, 278 pages

Based on an extensive review of historical data, census figures, opinion surveys, and his own systematic analysis of intellectual journals, Steven Brint finds little evidence to support the rhetoric of a "new class" of educated professionals or "knowledge workers" in American society. If anything, he says, the professions, "as a source of collective moral force in public life," is on the decline. While it may have been possible earlier this century to speak of professionals as a coherent bloc in American society, with distinctive social and political values and ideologies, today the nation's middle-class professionals are splintered into at least five major spheres: 1) the business services sphere (consisting of financial analysts and corporate lawyers, for example); 2) the applied sciences sphere (made up of engineers and geoscientists, among others); 3) the culture and communications sphere (which includes academics, journalists, and media professionals); 4) the civic regulation sphere (embodying, for instance, judges, government administrators, and interest group experts); and 5) the human services sphere (made up of teachers, social workers, nurses, and the like). Brint finds that political attitudes and values vary considerably within these spheres and are often based more on demographic realities than on professional status. Contrary to the prevailing conservative view of professionals as proponents of a new liberalism that is eroding traditional values, however, Brint stresses that middle-class professionals, while slightly more liberal than business managers and executives, tend to be, on the whole, much more conservative than the average American. They are especially conservative on issues such as crime control and military policy.

Brint describes these changes against the background of a larger shift in American society away from what he calls "social trustee professionalism" toward a new "expert professionalism." In the early part of the twentieth century, professional status was defined as much by a sense of ethical and public responsibility as by specialized knowledge. Today, however, professionals increasingly define themselves strictly in terms of their command of technical matters and by their marketable knowledge and skills. "It is a mark of the degree to which conditions have changed that today even people in the original fee-for-service professions rarely point to the social importance of their work as justification for social distinction," he writes. "Instead, they justify differences between themselves and other people by discussing the kinds of skills involved in their work. They almost uniformly describe their work as involving broad and complex forms of knowledge, whose application requires sensitivity and judgment, but they only rarely remark on the `social importance' of their work."

This development has dire consequences for the quality of American public life, in Brint's view. While the professional as "social trustee" may have been prone to arrogance, he or she also represented nonmarket ideals and values that gave moral balance to a business civilization. By contrast, he suggests, both in economic and social matters, America's new "expert professionals" have largely replaced public-spiritedness with private mindedness.