Title: Opening up the meanings of “the professional,” professional work and professionalism in communication studies


Kirstie McAllum, Université de Montréal, Canada

Frédérik Matte, University of Ottawa, Canada



Given the importance of knowledge workers in postindustrial organizing, the emergence of new professions, and the number of occupations claiming and resisting professionalization (Anteby, Chen & DiBenigno, 2016; Fleming, 2015), this preconference aims to stimulate dialogue about how communication scholarship can open up research on new forms of professionalism. 


Because claiming professional status increases the prestige of the occupational collectives to which individuals belong (Dutton et al., 2010), with some foresight, Wilensky (1964) predicted the “professionalization of nearly everyone.” Indeed, growing numbers of workers have clamored for recognition as “professionals” (accountants, Suddaby & Greenwood, 2005; aromatherapists, Fournier, 2002; financial planners and IT specialists, Noordegraaf, 2007; management consultants, McKenna, 2006; pilots, Ashcraft, 2007; and sustainability practitioners, Mitra & Buzzannell, 2018, among many others). Their success obscures the fact that similar claims made by other groups such as librarians (Garcia & Barbour, 2018) remain unheeded (Scott, 2008). 


Beyond this search for recognition of a professional status by many practitionners, a discursive shift from professionalism as a noun (“being a professional”) to an adjective (“being professional”) also masks important changes in how different types of workers and work are valued. Professionalism, then, focuses on how individuals carry out types of work with knowledge and skill rather than limiting the “professions” to particular types of work (Caza & Creary, 2016). In a similar vein, others have argued that professionalism entails carrying out one’s activities with a “professional spirit” (Hodgson, 2002, p. 805) or “conducting and constituting oneself in an appropriate manner” (Fournier, 1999, p. 287).


Building on Ashcraft and Cheney’s (2007) landmark text on “the professional,” we foreground and celebrate the multi-faceted nature of professionalism as an “essentially contested concept” (Gallie, 1956), characterized by internal complexity, conceptual diversity, and reciprocal recognition of the concept’s contested character among contending parties. Rather than championing any one definition or perspective, this preconference aims to map out and contextualize the multiple, contested meanings of professionalism, particularly in novel or “non-standard” contexts. 

Topics include but are not restricted to:

All interested participants are invited to attend this pre-conference. Submissions are not required for registration. Conceptual and empirical papers are welcome.

Submission guidelines

Abstract submissions to the pre-conference (500-1000 words, not including tables and references) are invited from across divisions of the communication field, and will be evaluated competitively by anonymous referees. All submissions must be sent to Kirstie McAllum at no later than 16:00 UTC, 31 January 2020


Anteby, M., Chan, C. K., and DiBenigno, J. (2016). Three lenses on occupations and professions in organizations: Becoming, doing, and relating. The Academy of Management Annals, 10(1), 183–244.

Ashcraft, K. L. (2007). Appreciating the “work” of discourse: Occupational identity and difference as organizing mechanisms in the case of commercial airline pilots. Discourse and Communication, 1, 9-36. 

Caza, B. B., & Creary, C. (2016). The construction of professional identity. In A. Wilkinson, D. Hislop, & C. Coupland (Eds.), Perspectives on contemporary professional work: Challenges and experiences (pp. 259-285). Cheltenham, UK: Elgar. 

Cheney, G., & Ashcraft, K. (2007). Considering “the professional” in communication studies: Implications for theory and research within and beyond the boundaries of organizational communication. Communication Theory, 17, 146-175. 

Fleming, P. (2015). The mythology of work: How capitalism persists despite itself. Chicago: University of Chicago Press Economics Books.

Fournier, V. (1999). The appeal to ‘professionalism’ as a disciplinary mechanism. The Sociological Review, 47, 280-307. 

Fournier, V. (2002). Amateurism, quackery and professional conduct: The constitution of ‘proper’ aromatherapy practice. In M. Dent & S. Whitehead (Eds.), Managing professional identities: Knowledge, performativity and the ‘new professional’ (pp. 116-137). London: Routledge.

Gallie, W. B. (1956). Essentially contested concepts. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 56, 167-198. 

Garcia, M. A., & Barbour, J. B. (2018). “Ask a professional— ask a librarian”: Librarianship and the chronic struggle for professional status. Management Communication Quarterly, 32, 565-592. 

Hodgson, D. (2002). Disciplining the professional: The case of project management. Journal of Management Studies, 39, 803-821.

McKenna, C. (2006). The world’s newest profession. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Mitra, R., & Buzzanell, P. M. (2018). Implementing sustainability in organizations: How practitioners discursively position work. Management Communication Quarterly, 32, 172-201. 

Noordegraaf, M. (2007). From “pure” to “hybrid” professionalism: Present-day professionalism in ambiguous public domains. Administration & Society, 39, 761-785. 

Real, K., & Putnam, L. L. (2005). Ironies in the discursive struggle of pilots defending the profession. Management Communication Quarterly, 19, 91-119.

Scott, R. W. (2008). Lords of the dance: Professionals as institutional agents. Organization Studies, 29, 219-238. 

Suddaby, R., & Greenwood, R. (2005). Rhetorical strategies of legitimacy. Administrative Science Quarterly, 50, 35-67. 

Wilensky, H. L. (1964). The professionalization of everyone? American Journal of Sociology, 70, 137-158.