Professions and identity

How does this discussion relate to the professions?

Part of the human condition is wanting to belong and feel attached to a broader whole, whether this be the tribe, group, family, community, city or profession. Professions create an identity by setting out to distinguish themselves from others to create that belonging. This can only occur by differentiation, through a set of technical skills, rules, codes and accepted behaviours. Thus tribalism asserts itself: 'I am a planner so I am not an architect or a social worker.' Some might argue that distinctions and differences between professions are a function of precision and efficiency, but in reality we have created professional jealousies. Once in a profession, it is safer to keep to the rules of a profession rather than blur the boundaries. Boundary-blurring threatens identity and gets all kinds of defensive system mechanisms going. Some say this is a Faustian pact, where we limit some freedom of creativity in return for being part of a 'brotherhood' of mutual respect and support. So even if we think some of 'ours' are none too good, we still support them.

This process is witnessed in the relationship of traditional doctors vis-à-vis complementary medicine. The initial response to the latter's popularity was along the lines of 'I'm a trained doctor so I know the effect of complementary medicine is likely to be a placebo effect; the double blind trials don't seem to work.' This was a way of getting rid of the threat. To this the alternative practitioner responded, 'This is not the appropriate method to check my work in any case.' And, given the sustained interest in alternative medicine, the conventional doctors are now having to say, 'I better find out more about this.'

Most professions want to identify something, put it in a box, give it a name, strip out the uncertainty and measure it. Life is not like that - there is a need to live with uncertainty and complexity, and the fact that many things are never completely true.

This changes the professional landscape, and the traditional professional view does not fit into the new world. This is the world of city-making, place-making, sustainable communities and urban-ism - all terms seeking to describe a broader way of doing things other than mere road-building, house-building or land-use planning. A world in which highway engineers have a specialism in keeping things moving is different from one in which there is a job called 'making places'. In fact, when given the opportunity to work together and be part of a place- or city-making process, specialists tend to find this stimulating and more rewarding. Making cities is more exciting than making a road. In this shift, no one is criticizing the technical capacities of the professions, but rather the lack of cooperation between them and with others currently not seen as part of the city-making circuit. What matters is that professionals are excellent at what they do and willing to participate in a related exercise. Current professional arrangements can appear dysfunctional in making this happen. Others are sharper in their criticism: 'The professional bodies are wretched, so much of what they do is seen through the narrow prism of their perspective.' 'They are deeply unchallenging, there is little that suggests that they are taking the new agenda on board.' 'Few have a bigger-picture frame within their profession.' 'I have stopped reading the housing and other specialist press; it is precious and self-referential.' 'Regeneration and Renewal is a good digest. It is not representing a professional body and thus not self-interested.' 'We need professions beyond self-interest.' 'The professions are not about solving problems of the professions, which is why so many outsiders are the innovators.'25

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