Photo by Pedro Haas, Flickr CC

Washington, D.C. is a bit more chaotic than usual, as high-level officials enter and leave the White House at an unprecedented pace. While elected officials and political appointees are certainly part of the modern working world, their positions are different from other spheres of work. Unlike most other elite jobs, they generally do not require a specific set of credentials or training. Instead, elected officials and political appointees are often professionals from other fields of work who enter government for a relatively short period of time. Sociologists utilize the concept of professionalization — or the idea that individuals within a particular occupational area can claim expert knowledge — to explain why certain occupations are considered more legitimate or held in higher esteem than others. 

Professionalization occurs when certain jobs or occupational groups become “professions” — groups that can claim jurisdiction over the knowledge within their area. Lawyers and doctors are classic examples. Both of these groups require extensive training, have formal barriers to entry, and can claim to perform work that those outside of the profession cannot. Andrew Abbott called the organization of expert labor “the system of professions,” claiming that occupational groups establish themselves by creating, enforcing, and fighting over jurisdictional boundaries.
Professionalization also exists outside of credentialed fields like law and medicine. Even broad social movements, like those for civil rights, create opportunities for professionalized work when they hire paid leaders. Often these leaders push to formalize organizations — the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL), the National Organization for Women (NOW), and the NAACP-Legal Defense Fund — that rely on paid workers that have training and expertise in the area, as well as outside donations instead of solely relying on volunteers. Social movement theorists recognize that increasing professionalization can increase the stability of movements and open up opportunities to work with other groups, but professional organizations themselves do not create movements.
Political scientists often examine professionalization as it relates to term limits for elected officials. Proponents of term limits argue that elected officials should not become so entrenched in their jobs that they become oblivious to the problems of their constituents, while opponents of term limits argue that professional knowledge is valuable, the amount of money for professional or paid staff has declined precipitously, and it takes time to learn the norms of the Byzantine world of Capitol Hill and become an effective legislator. For these individuals, the benefits of professionalization outweigh the costs of increased distance between officials and their constituents.