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The implications of deprofessionalisation

Case studies and possible avenues for future research
Lise Demailly et Patrice de la Broise
Cet article est une traduction de :
Les enjeux de la déprofessionnalisation [fr]


The paper investigates changes in the regulation of professions, taking as its starting point three empirical cases, namely those of French Post Office workers, university academics and psychiatrists working in the public health system. These are three groups with very different modes of professionalisation: (1) skilled manual or clerical, (2) academic and (3) liberal (in the sense of 'liberal profession', although in fact the members of this group are salaried employees). These three occupational groups are similar in that they all work in public services. It is shown that all three are facing a severe and sudden destabilisation of their modes of professionalisation and of their professionalities. In some occupational segments that can be conceptualised in generational terms, this weakening can even be regarded as unalloyed deprofessionalisation, characterised by a sharp diminution of autonomy at work and a powerlessness collectively to conceive of any positive reconstitution of a lost professionality. The reduction in self-regulation and in joint regulation and the increase in regulation through external supervision pose the problem of a general transformation of social regulation and a weakening of the position of occupational groups. This phenomenon could be thought of as the deprofessionalisation of French society.

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Notes de la rédaction

The French version is before this text in the same issue

Texte intégral

1For those who study such matters, certain workplace grievances raise the spectre of a weakening of the professions, or even of 'deprofessionalisation'. Thus the authors of the present study have met French Post Office workers, university academics and doctors who have experienced real difficulties or lost their bearings, despite the fact that they are working in occupations that are generally chosen, even regarded as vocations, and that are widely envied for the income they provide, the lifestyles they make possible or, in the case of Post Office workers in France, for their high level of job security and good working conditions.

2The term 'deprofessionalisation' is a difficult one for sociologists to use, since it has multiple meanings. It is necessary, therefore, to explain the precise sense (or senses) in which, it seems to us, it can usefully be deployed, despite its disadvantages (its functionalist connotations). We will use the term in the following two senses:

31) as the obverse of 'professionalisation' in the theoretical framework already outlined in Demailly (2003), in which it is assumed that there is a plurality of professionalisation processes, in other words that the social construction of individual and collective autonomy at work takes a multiplicity of forms. Thus it does not denote the mere transformation of a professionality or the destabilisation of an occupational group. As an inversion of a specific mode of professionalisation, it originates in a loss of autonomy in the practice of a profession and subordination to external supervision. Even when the imposition of external control is presented as a transfer of responsibilities to the actor in question or as an extension of his or her activities (task enrichment or diversification), what justifies the use of this term is that actor’s loss of authority in his or her relation to work and to others.

4The deprofessionalisation of university academics, Post Office workers and psychiatrists is taking place within the historical trajectory followed by and in the space occupied by each group's particular mode of professionalisation. The spatio-temporal framework that forms the context of this process of deprofessionalisation can be considered at various sociological levels (macro, meso or micro) depending on whether one is referring to public policies, organisational changes or daily work routines.

5The deprofessionalisation that affects groups or parts of groups is seldom unalloyed and is usually combined with processes leading to the emergence of new professionalities. Nevertheless, the value of focusing on the first stage in the transformation process (in the Hegelian sense of the term), that is the destruction phase, is that it makes it possible to identify particular occupational groups for whom deprofessionalisation is indeed unalloyed, i.e. not accompanied by the clear emergence of a new professional archetype, and to highlight generational phenomena (of which management is, incidentally, completely aware).

62) Empirical observations concerning this first form of deprofessionalisation and the processes whereby professionalities are reconstituted (including, in particular, the transfer of responsibilities to individuals) raise a second question, that of the macro-social origin of such phenomena. The weakening of occupational groups, or even their disappearance, may undoubtedly be due to various causes, such as technical change or changes in custom and practice. In our case studies, however, we are drawn more to the hypothesis of a possible decline in the place of occupational groups in the regulation of our societies. 'Deprofessionalisation' will, therefore, be used here in a second sense, to denote the deprofessionalisation of society, a process that is changing the mode of bureaucratic-professional regulation that is characteristic of European societies, and particularly of French society. This mode of producing and regulating public policies did, after all, grant an important role to professional groups (represented by their associations and trade unions). The state, on the one hand, and the market, on the other, seem to be sharply reducing the role of occupational groups in the regulation of public policies and to be depriving that role of its legitimacy.

I- The deprofessionalisation of jobs as a stage in the reconstitution of professionalities

7We will take as our starting point our own conceptualisation of professionalisation. It acknowledges the qualitative diversity of the processes that structure occupational groups and the ways in which they have historically constructed a certain degree not only of autonomy but also of power and security and given rise to specialisation and the non-substitutability of the competences thus produced, as well as a certain subjective and objective collective existence.

8‘Trades’, corporations, the grands corps of the French civil service and the established professions are documented and relatively familiar examples of these occupational groups. However, this list is by no means exhaustive: to it can be added artists and the academic professions, a skilled manual model and a bureaucratic-Taylorist model, among others. Other models of professionalisation than that of the North-American professions or the liberal professions in France seem just as attractive to some social groups and just as 'effective', in that they actually succeed in defending the group's status, in producing tactics that promote the group's status, in protecting its members from external aggression or pressures and in creating for the group a certain degree of individual and collective autonomy at work.

9In this sense, therefore, deprofessionalisation will be understood, firstly, as a diminution of various types of professional autonomy. Three empirical cases seem to us to illustrate this process. Besides their topicality, university academics, French Post Office workers and doctors offer the advantage of having three different modes of professionalisation: academic, skilled manual/clerical and liberal (as in 'liberal profession').

10What does 'diminution of autonomy at work' mean? As will be demonstrated by means of the examples below, it means two things:

11- in general terms, an increase in external regulation and a relative decline in autonomous and jointly managed modes of regulation;

12- more specifically, in everyday life at work, hierarchical superiors and supervisory bodies having power over professionals, obliging them to do things that they do not know how to do, do not wish to do and have not chosen to do. The tasks that constitute the heart of their professions now account for a smaller proportion of their timetables or they may be hampered or thwarted in their efforts to perform them, or even prevented from doing so altogether. This gives rise to losses of meaning, leaving room for feelings of social uselessness or tasks badly done to develop. Individuals' capacities for resistance are themselves often destroyed.

13As has already been noted, the process of deprofessionalisation is part of a broader process leading to the reconstitution of professionalities. In the three cases studied here, our hypothesis is that the development of managerial rationality, known internationally as the 'new public management', promotes, or even produces, a radical reconstitution of professionalities.

14This reconstitution may involve various forms of task enrichment. In all the cases, it includes forms of 'responsibility transfer' and hence transitions to new forms of autonomy, in which individuals have to invent the means of producing the results expected of them. This new form of prescribed, supervised and controlled autonomy is part of a normative framework in which the obligation to provide resources has weakened relative to the obligation to produce results. This devolvement of responsibility is also an element in the juridification of relationships with users, particularly in those professions involving a degree of risk (thus this aspect will be more noticeable in the case of medicine).

15So why are we singling out deprofessionalisation which, as we are only too keen to acknowledge, is empirically closely linked to very real increases in competences and to the assumption of greater responsibilities? The argument that there has been a shift away from occupation-based professionalism towards organisational professionalism (Evetts 2008, Svenson 2008) seems to us to apply, in the French case at least, to a previous and now bygone era. Ten years ago, after all, academics and psychiatrists working in the public health system had to adapt to redefinitions of their professions in order to incorporate organisational competences, managerial concerns and expertise in partnership building. It is this very recently constructed professionalism that has been destabilised: not only are the professionalities being subjected to strong pressure to change - as in the case of the transition from the first form of professionalism to the second – but the nature of the organisations on which the professionals in question had just acquired competences is also being ‘destroyed’: jobs are being privatised, universities are becoming openly entrepreneurial and ‘sector psychiatry’1 is being eroded by other forms of territorialisation.

16So what are the academic implications of using the term 'deprofessionalisation' in the cases cited? Its value is that:

17- it draws attention to the cases of 'unalloyed' deprofessionalisation and the ensuing suffering or loss of points of reference;

18- it highlights the use that managerial rationality makes of generational processes, in other words the benefits accruing to management from the ousting from the labour market of layers of professionals socialised in earlier periods, which is one of the causes of the difficulties that 55 to 65 year olds experience in finding employment in France;

19- it opens up the question that will be dealt with at the end of this paper, namely that of a more general deprofessionalisation of society, in the sense of a decline in the role that occupational groups play in the various modes of societal regulation.

II-Case studies

The academics 

20Set alongside the realities that can be observed in Germany, the UK or even the USA (Musselin, 2003; David R. & Mouchot C., 2006), (still?), the French university system remains unique and constitutes an exception – albeit an extremely weak and delicate one – to the managerialist mode of regulating the academic profession.

21Academics as a group exemplify radical organisational change; Janus-like, they constitute in many respects the obligatory reference point in a system in which education and research are, on the face of it, the two generic missions that define a university. Today, these missions are being rethought in terms which, following the example of professionalisation, are not only constructing a new lexical and semantic field or category in French universities but are also transforming the institution of the university in such a way that the very professionality of all the actors involved is affected. Now the statutes and regulations governing academics’ employment were not without influence on their professionality. They acknowledged that academic staff had a dual competence (or remit) as both teachers and researchers; this acknowledgement resulted, in principle, in a balance in both time and space between these two activities, it being recognised that teaching is not necessarily to be confused with education, that research happens in places other than the university and that teaching and research were in principle subject to a collegial form of management.

22To put it briefly, academics today are divided subjects, caught between the various social worlds that now coexist within the same profession. A series of posts mark out what it is advisable to call the academic ‘career’ and in so doing differentiate the various members of a university from each other. Some conceive of their profession in a way that leads them to divide their activities roughly in two, between variable amounts of teaching and variable amounts of research. Others – or the same individuals – feel themselves caught up in concentric circles of actors and responsibilities in which teaching and research have become objects to be administered. This is the case with the multiplicity of managerial responsibilities (and indeed losses of responsibility) and other delegated tasks, many of which are devolved solely to academics elected or nominated by their peers. Any dereliction of these managerial and academic responsibilities exposes them to the risk if not of administrative penalties then at least material or symbolic ones.

23The question of what constitutes the academic profession is such a sensitive and recurrent issue that during several parliamentary terms in France it gave rise to a number of ministerial reports in which the multiplicity of tasks to be carried out by academics were the object of draft bills that sought to classify, if not to hierarchise, the nature and extent of their commitment to the various aspects of their profession. In particular, the redefinitions of tasks set out in the Espéret and Belloc Reports of 2001 and 2003 respectively which recommended, on the one hand, a new social division of labour between academics and, on the other, an extension of their duties to include ‘the leadership activities and collective responsibilities (excluding administrative duties) that are required in order to fulfil higher education’s public service remit’ (Belloc Report: 10). These proposals, which were taken up in the so-called ‘Pécresse’2 draft decree, were intended above all to normalise and incorporate into the hard core of the profession a number of activities which, even though they were unevenly distributed within the profession, were certainly not excluded from the existing arrangements, while at the same time not being a core element of the academic profession.

24Does this constitute a lack of understanding or denial? The normative reduction (almost to the point of implosion) of the profession to a medley of tasks that can no longer be clearly discerned as core or peripheral serves as a paradoxical injunction to academics to commit themselves on all fronts, in a manner that recalls the subjective involvement in the organisation that is demanded of middle management in service firms (Aballéa, Demailly 2005).

25This is even more evident in the implementation of reporting practices which, in the form of activity reports and repeated technocratic assessments of research and teaching, oblige academics not only ‘to account’ for their activities but also ‘to be accountable’. As a result, ‘the changes currently under way seem to indicate that academic activities are increasingly being regarded as bound by the ordinary concepts of wage work’ (Becquet, Musselin : 2004). This is illustrated by the normed and normative reporting exercise which, as part of the four-yearly accreditation survey of university teaching and research, compel academics to comply with the norms governing the writing up of reports as well teaching and research plans. Now it is not simply a question of reporting on what one does, as the managerialist myth of the quality approach would have one believe. Rather, it is more often a case of stating what one would have done, what one would have been able to do and what one will have done. It has to be understood that, amidst this loss of autonomy and responsibility that characterises current developments in the universities, these accounts are no longer conjugated simply in the past, present or future. Even the contingencies of the pluperfect and the uncertainties of the future perfect serve as a basis for the composition of reports and plans, in which the ever more complex and (de)motivating process of justification represents a waste of time and energy for professionals diverted (in Pascal’s sense of the term) by this technocratic and ‘a-professional’ subservience and forced to produce reports in a style that is fundamentally alien to academic traditions.

26Now the effects of this normalisation go beyond intellectual ‘disenchantment’. The proliferation of forms of delegation transforms (deforms?) academics into ‘experts in university organisation’. This leads F. Dubet to conclude that: ‘try as they might to remain a French bureaucracy, French universities have in fact become entrepreneurial organisations’ (F. Dubet, in Felouzis, 2003 : 337).

27The interviews we have conducted and the numerous meetings of the university’s consultative and executive bodies we have attended show that the actors are truly ‘thunderstruck’ in the face of managerial injunctions. They also reflect a state of disarray: among the younger ones who, if they are able to choose, do not have necessarily have a preference for an academic career, the degradation of which is evident to them, as well as among the older ones, who are torn between a desire to take early retirement and the economic necessities of pension contributions that have to be made. The intermediate generation, for its part, takes a more sanguine view of the reconstitution of the academic professionality and the emergence of a new space in which their autonomy can develop.

The Post Office workers

28With a workforce of about 300,000, the French Post Office has recently been through a major organisational change that involved a restructuring of its various fields of activity into several generic businesses3. This restructuring is the concrete manifestation of an economic and commercial plan that aims, on the one hand, to reposition the Group in response to the neo-liberal European policy of opening up services to competition and, on the other, to improve service quality through a process of reengineering adapted to each of the Group’s four spheres of activity: the postal service, the parcels service, financial services and the branch network.

29Now this new division into separate ‘businesses’ is a reflection less of a social reality than of an abstract model constructed on the basis of a new technocratic map. In the case of the postal service, for example, the ‘business’ encompasses two complementary but separate occupational worlds: ‘production’ (automated postal sorting offices) and distribution. Thus the division of labour is real, but is not based on the same mode of division as the stipulated artificial one that separates the generic businesses (in reality fields of activity) from each other within the Post Office’s new organisational structure.

30In brief, it appears that specialisation, as an externally imposed structure (or prescribed culture), tends to atomise activity and to rationalise it, whereas Post Office workers urge that their work be recognised as indissociable from a public service in which everyone has a stake.

31Of course some specialities have disappeared in the wake of technological developments and logistical innovations. This was the case with the ‘travelling sorters’ (the ‘aristocracy’ of the Post Office) who used to sort the mail in the railway sorting vans. They were absorbed into the large sorting offices distributed over the country. However, other specialities are now undergoing deformation rather than reformation. Two examples, postmen and counter clerks, illustrate the ‘deprofessionalisation’ that is experienced both as a loss of autonomy and an excessive work load.

32While the postman, the postal service’s emblematic occupation, remains the symbol of a local or neighbourhood service, it is nonetheless the case that the postal round is now regarded as a simple sequence during which a load of mail has to be disposed of (Demazière, 2005). ‘To be a postman is to have a round of one’s own’; however, at a rate of ’10 seconds per letter box per building or block of flats’, that round – which is so characteristic of professional recognition – becomes a race against the clock (Basdevant, 2002). It becomes a ‘measurable period of time during which the mail is regarded as a cost that can be partially offset by the sale of postal products. And yet, it will be acknowledged that the transformation of the occupation of postman is not based solely on reskilling, notably by adding sales activities to his bundle of tasks. On the contrary, we are speaking here of a substantial loss of the relationship – based as much on localness as on service provision – between the postman and the mail recipient. The result is that the expansion of the ‘service portfolio’ means this new sales representative has to ‘generate some sales’ in the time previously given over to delivering the mail. This is a change that is closer to deskilling and the fragmentation characteristic of a Taylorised activity than to a reskilling along commercial lines. Under these circumstances, and given the impossibility of increasing the time taken to complete the round, it may well be that eventually the postman will no longer ring at all. Local rootedness is being weakened, the relational fabric of the work context is being damaged, the commercial elements of the job are being prioritised and work rates are being increased: the metaphor of the airline pilot, used in films provided for training purposes to signify the postman’s ‘responsibility’, is indeed enlightening…

33Counter clerks, for their part, are ‘producers of services, but in the majority of cases they initiate or conclude a service that the Post Office will undertake to provide through its internal processes’ (Zarifian, 2005 : 82). This wording reflects the ambiguities of a job in which the ‘industrial’ pressure exerted (assessment based on command of the sales method and the number of products sold while they are on duty behind the counter, product by product) is viewed in a particularly poor light by the clerks, who have to effect a compromise between ‘responding to a request actually formulated by a customer’ and ‘completing a commercial transaction’. There are very precise protocols that divide up counter staff by speciality and level of competence: lead counter clerk, business client manager and financial services customer manager. Above all, on the pretext of extending clerks’ sphere of activities, their contribution to their branches’ commercial development is being increased at the same time as the activity chain in financial services is changing. The Post Office states this quite clearly on its recruitment site, where the counter clerk’s role is described thus: ‘(he/she) informs customers about the services offered by the Post Office, carries out the financial and postal operations requested by customers at the counter and takes part in the promotion and sale of Post Office Group products and services’.

34The explicit reference to the Post Office’s ‘businesses’ in order to justify its segmentation into different service activities also functions as a rhetorical lever in the process of transferring responsibility (Martuccelli, 2004). What is happening, in effect, is that a form of competition is being put in place between professionals who all have to fulfil their performance obligation, in the knowledge, moreover, that there are now just as many people employed on standard employment contracts as have ‘jobs for life’ by virtue of their status as civil servants. Thus this compartmentalisation, including that between the various employment statuses, is experienced as a form of inter-occupational competition.

The doctors

35The empirical work on doctors focuses more specifically on heads of 'psychiatric sectors'4. The doctors in charge of the psychiatric sectors are heads of department responsible for an inpatient department and various outpatient units. There are approximately 120 of them in the region investigated. They are salaried employees, but some of them also work part-time in their private practices. The doctor in charge of such a department is reckoned to have some 70,000 people in his district. He leads a team of up to 100 people (fellow psychiatrists, general practitioners, nurses, teachers, social workers and other health professionals). Candidates for such posts are put forward by their peers and, until recently, were appointed by the minister of health. The posts are highly coveted and individuals tend to occupy them for long periods and tend to finish their careers in them.

36The deprofessionalisation observed affects them both as heads of department and as practising psychiatrists.

37And yet, many of them played a campaigning and innovative role in changing the old asylums, reducing the number of hospital beds and setting up alternative outpatient services and putting in place partnerships. In short, they helped put into practice public policy on mental health. Thus to a large extent, the shift away from the archaic figure of the asylum doctor towards the newly reconstituted professionality was an autonomous process.

38However, as heads of department, they have - like all other hospital doctors - seen an increase in the power of hospital chief executives and nursing managers. Hospital chief executives, unlike university vice-chancellors, are not elected and they are not doctors but administrators and managers. Some heads of department have succeeded in making allies of them in the process of organisational restructuring. Similarly, they have also forged alliances, in favour of the change, with senior civil servants and politicians.

39However, these alliances and autonomous desires for change are now nearing their limits, with the question of health-care costs becoming ever more pressing and managerialist principles being imposed. Besides the conservatives, with their nostalgia for the past and the old symbolic power of the head physician, who was both 'boss' and 'father' to his department, it is also those who campaigned for change who are themselves being destabilised.

40The points of grievance essentially concern:

41- the proliferation of administrative tasks, form filling and compulsory meetings, which reduces the amount of time available for seeing patients, which constitutes the heart of the profession's activities;

42- the obligation to provide treatments that the doctors are loath to provide.

43The first point can be illustrated by the example of self-evaluation, evaluation and accreditation. Time and time again, documents produced by practising psychiatrists emphasise the notion of externally imposed control: 'deprived of that ability to play a full role in their professional lives', 'real-life experience of loss of control', 'current ascendancy of economic factors', 'spirit of initiative kept in check', 'the conditions required for unrestricted use of that tool, the attending physician's psyche, no longer exist' (Sassolas, 2003)5. This externally imposed control is regarded as inimical to a professional identity in which autonomy6 plays a central role as a professional tool.

44One example is rapid diagnosis, which has been imposed by the successive versions of the management software packages required to effect the transition to ‘pricing per procedure’ in hospital budgets.

45Rapid diagnosis is not part of psychiatrists’ customary practice. They take the view that 1) the nature of mental disorders is revealed as the patient/psychiatrist relationship develops and as patients react to any drug treatment that may be prescribed; 2) some disorders are fluid and progressive, particularly in the case of personalities that are still developing (children and adolescents); 3) diagnosis in psychiatry is not an exact science and it is very easy to make a mistake; 4) is therefore not ethical to make a diagnosis too quickly and 5) rapid diagnosis is incompatible with quality of treatment.

46Now the introduction of hospital management and budgeting tools means that the 'diagnosis' database in the management software program has to be filled in extremely quickly. Since the introduction of the experimental software tool, the nurses in charge of filling in the forms 'badger' the doctors in order to 'drag' the diagnoses out of them.

47Furthermore, the nosographies, the classifications of diseases, do not tally.

'I base my diagnoses and treatments on French psychiatry and my written reports on DSM IV. Afterwards, it all has to be formatted for payment by procedure. But it's all disconnected, things running parallel to each other’.

48A hospital administrator said to us that the problem would resolve itself and that, in 10 years, payment by procedure would be implemented in psychiatry. The generation that is currently around 55 years of age, which includes a large number of heads of department, will be retiring and 'their successors will not have the same scruples about making their diagnoses, they will be used to it'. The new public management explicitly takes account of such generational effects. It also propagates the idea that, although the doctors currently in post are still loath to evaluate their teams, the following generation will also be subject to individual evaluation.

49In view of the small number of qualified young psychiatrists, of the current pathways into the speciality (which can no longer be accessed through the general medicine route but has to be entered directly after the time spent as a houseman) and of the directions in which academic psychiatry has gone (very biologically based and linked to the pharmaceutical industry), a cultural gap has opened up between the post-war generation, which was either conservative or militantly in favour of 'deinstitutionalisation' and community mental health services, and their young colleagues7.

50Thus the conjunction of a demographic deficit and a cultural gap (the first reinforcing the second) between senior and junior doctors means that, managerially speaking, this 'unalloyed' deprofessionalisation does not come at too high a price. In a way, the dominant managerialist actors can dispense with a generation of senior doctors that has become burdensome. In interviews, they claim this to be a winning tactic.

51In fact, several heads of departments among the senior doctors told us they were doing the minimum and just 'waiting for retirement'. They regret this situation, since they generally have a strongly vocational attitude towards their profession. However, the vocational world they once lived in is collapsing. Others, a little further away from retirement, remain militant, in the hope that they can reverse the changes to some extent, while admitting periodically 'that they're fed up'. Those younger doctors that cannot accept the reconstitution of their professionality are going into private practice, thereby further exacerbating the demographic crisis (about 100 hospital psychiatry posts are unfilled in the Nord-Pas de Calais alone, out of a total of 450), or are setting up private clinics. These clinics are able to preserve their autonomy when the shareholders are doctors, but external control rears its head again when they fall into the hands of financial capitalists. In one private clinic, a surgeon was recently taken off the rotas by the board of directors because he was not carrying out enough procedures, i.e. because he was not sufficiently profitable.

52Thus medical practice, whether as a salaried employee or private practitioner, is directly and severely affected by managerialism.

Overview of the three occupations under investigation: points in common and differences


Hospital doctors

Post office workers


                                     Actual forms taken by deprofessionalisation

Distribution of working time

'Increasingly less time to do clinical work', less and less time to devote to patients. Chronic lack of resources.

'A race against the clock', 10 seconds per letterbox and per building.

A lot of meetings, and assessment. Lack of time for teaching and research. Shortening of teaching units

Schizophrenic reporting systems

Anarchic proliferation of classification systems linked to the management software packages. Externally imposed management categories take precedence over medical knowledge.

Strictly defined reference systems, itineraries and reporting arrangements

Assessment in all its forms. Universities 'setting about the task of professionalisation'.

Destabilisation of employment status

Subordination to power of hospital chief executive. Nursing hierarchy rendered autonomous. Change in appointment system resulting in loss of independence from local bodies and 'mafias'.

As many workers now employed on standard employment contracts as have civil service 'jobs for life'. The Post Office worker no longer exists. He has become a sales adviser, financial adviser, account manager or warehouseman…

Instrumentalisation of research. Beginnings of contractualisation of teaching and research.

Responsibility without power

Criminally responsible, without any influence over the organisation of medical care.

Primacy of management by objectives.

Loss of autonomy: regulations on inspection and monitoring and excessive workloads.

University 'governance'. Shift in balance between obligation to provide resources and obligation to produce results.

Reduction in the role of collegial joint management

Chairman of the hospital medical committee is there only 'to manage shortages and take the brickbats'.

Dialogue between the social partners (company agreements) has replaced bargaining between the social partners, but the agenda is becoming increasingly less transparent to post office workers.

Reconstitution of decision-making bodies. Restricted consultation. University vice-chancellors given greater authority. Management takes precedence over the political agenda.

Destabilisation of existing groups

Destruction of capacity for collective action

' we didn't get anywhere. We thought we'd be able to extricate ourselves. They've made us compete with each other. Those who thought they could get something out of it, some equipment for their department, were just swimming with the tide. It's the whole group that has suffered.'

Artificial occupational segments have been created in defiance of the traditional occupational groups. Trade union representation and bargaining between the social partners still carry some weight. However, the changes to the statutes and regulations governing employment have reduced the scope for collective action.

Little resistance from academics. Intense competition between universities, between teaching units within universities and between individuals. Non-trade union groups seeking to put forward alternative models have difficulty in getting established.

53There are certainly differences between the three occupations. Older French doctors had been more destabilised than academics, who have at least retained the right to elect their vice-chancellors8, while doctors have experienced an even greater loss of leadership to the benefit of administrative and financial staff. Post Office workers have above all experienced losses of meaning and reference points, while some of the tasks have changed; however, the reconstitution of professionalities is undoubtedly easier for those interested in the new commercial activities. Grievances seem to be linked to their inability to see any room to manoeuvre in order to situate themselves within the new management system. In all three cases, but particularly for the psychiatrists, among whom there is a high level of generational segmentation (more so than among academics and post office workers), the younger ones will undoubtedly identify and appropriate new forms of autonomy, while their older colleagues will experience 'unalloyed' deprofessionalisation.

54However, our observation of the deprofessionalisation process, in its various phases and spaces, suggests to us that the societal foundations on which this reappropriation will take place are also changing. The deprofessionalisation occurring in certain occupations is a reflection of a macro-sociological phenomenon.

III- Towards the deprofessionalisation of national societies?

55The three case studies could of course be supplemented by other studies. One of the conclusions of the research carried out by the European Reguleducnetwork into changes in the modes of regulation in education systems is that there has been a general increase in the monitoring and control of secondary school teachers in all the European countries taking part in the research - England, France, francophone Belgium, Portugal and Hungary (Maroy, Demailly 2005). Magistrates in France also seem to be subject to authoritarian interventions by the executive. The 2008 Attali Report criticised closed labour markets (for taxi drivers, hairdressers etc.) And railway workers are being eroded as an occupational group.9

56If we are to be able to analyse the sociological position of occupational groups in our society, the general impact they have on societies and the impact societies have on them, it would seem that the paradigms used to conceptualise social regulations will have to be radically revised.

57We are putting forward for debate a few hypotheses and some possible avenues for future research that bring into play the way in which changes in the linkages between occupations, organisations, modes of regulation, types of legitimacy and the direction of public policies can be conceptualised.

58After all, the professional model (professionalism), which came into being in the 19th century as a particular mode of producing knowledge and technical systems by groups that enjoyed a certain degree of autonomy, cannot be defined solely in terms of the existence of specialist knowledge, a licence and a mandate. In other words, to be serious about conceptualising such a mandate requires us to take into account the impact that professional groups have on public policies, through their power to define problems, to shape the collective imagination (in a way, this is as true of Post Office workers and railway workers as it is of doctors), as well as their powers of invention and institutional, social, political and ethical creativity.

59In a model described by some as 'bureaucratic-corporatist' (Grémion 1976) or Fordist, the state and civil society accepted that professional groups, as intermediate bodies, played an important role in the functioning of a joint mode of regulation and, to that end, relied on institutions capable of defining the public good in its various forms and embodying the general interest.

60It would seem that this model is being destabilised by the transformation of monopolistic institutions into competing organisations, by the requirement that organisational identities should take priority over professional identities (and the enforced instability of organisational identities) and by the metamorphosis of once subjugated citizens into customers.

61In post or neo-bureaucratic legitimacy regimes, the multiple and fragmented modes of regulation (Maroy, Demailly, 2004) give an increased role in the production of public action to the market (financial capitalism), to the constitutional state and to its multiple agencies, which oversee the legal construction of the market, the development of accountability and the consideration of consumer opinion which is, in turns, given the initiative, appealed to and/or instrumentalised.

62One final important actor is an emerging elite of cosmopolitan experts who are undoubtedly linked by a cultural and political solidarity and who, in a way, constitute a professional group, but one that is transnational.

63Relative to the market, the constitutional state and international experts, the professional model is losing its legitimacy; it is regarded as too closed (and hence anti-democratic and, ultimately, old-fashioned), despite its attempts to adapt. And as for national occupational groups, they are entering into a period of restricted autonomy, largely in the name of accountability. Aside from the actors in the rationalisation process, the long-established loci of institutional initiative and creativity have shifted; those that we have observed, whether in the sphere of education or of mental health, are now almost exclusively inter-occupational and based on partnerships and on alliances with users. That, however, is another question.

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1 The term 'sector' is used here in the sense given to it in the circular of 15 March 1960 that established sector psychiatry as a form of organisation for inpatient and outpatient health services in a district of approximately 70,000 inhabitants.
2 - Decree no. 84-131 of 6 June 1984, amended by the draft decree of October 2008, which lays down the statutory provisions applicable to academic staff in higher education.
3 - Our observations are based on research carried out in 2005 into the restructuring of the French Post Office workers’ training system (de la Broise, Roquet, 2007).
4 The study, based on interviews and the observation of meetings and conferences, is part of a European research project entitled Knowledges and politics. The study was carried out with Hélène Chéronnet, ENPJJ. CLERSE. The empirical investigation also focused on these doctors’ partners and their various supervisors (hospital chief executives and officials in the regional hospital services agency and decentralised departments of the Ministry of Health)
5 Workshops at Villeurbanne in March 2002 organised by the 'Mental Health and Communities' Association (Association ‘Santé Mentale et Communautés’) on the subject of 'Malaise in psychiatry'. See also Etats généraux de la psychiatrie 2006 (2006 Psychiatry Forum).
6 Sometimes even grandiloquently. Cf. the White Paper on psychiatry (2003), Chapter 5 ‘…. guardian of the freedom of the mind and at the same time the moral conscience of a society drunk, like Icarus, on its boundless medical successes’.
7 Member of a selection panel:

 'I was staggered by the candidates' focus on theory and their absence of clinical experience. They have to write papers on schizophrenia in rats... In the competitive exam, they are given cases to discuss. Several of them suggested ECT as a first-line treatment'.

8 and thereby to retain their power over him, particularly if he is not an academic (statements from colleagues in a university operating under special dispensation): 'we have the power to send him to the ANPE (national employment agency, i.e. to dismiss him) at 55, so he doesn't bother us).
9 No doubt other groups are less affected by these developments, for example those who have long been used to operating in markets, but they played only a small role in social regulation.
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Lise Demailly et Patrice de la Broise, « The implications of deprofessionalisation »Socio-logos [En ligne], 4 | 2009, mis en ligne le 07 mai 2009, consulté le 23 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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