A Professional Society

This blog is concerned with those activities which reinforce human sociability and social relationships, and how they relate to professionalism, money and our social and natural environment. Let's look at the first of those terms now.

We all have our own interpretations of what it means to be "professional". Etymologically the word implies a public declaration that you are skilled at something, so the word is at root a social creation, a term which defines the quality of relationships between individuals, and between an individual and society. In the Victorian era - that great bastion of objective standards - the word came to take on a second meaning, that of being the antithesis of amateur. Amateur itself of course derives its meaning from a love of something - so we might mischievously conclude that, for those poor Victorians, professionalism was the opposite of love.

To me the word "professional" implies one thing in particular: that an activity is being done to a standard that is worth paying money for. A professional is someone who works to agreed standards and in doing so qualifies his/her services as worthy of remuneration. Doing something "professionally" implies quality, but (and this is the nub of the matter) this quality is defined only in relation to money. The term is useless for describing skills that are not worth paying money for. You cannot, for example, be a professional friend.

It is important to have standards, of course. Professionalism, like money, plays a key role in establishing trust between strangers, which has been the key engine for the growth of our civilisation since the industrial revolution. I trust that my doctor works to the standards I expect because he is professional, just as my shopkeeper trusts that I am worthy of buying his goods because we share a currency system. But surely we are losing something if our only quality standard for judging others is defined in relation to money? Are there not other things which are valuable in our interactions?

Doing things for love is the lifeblood of our community: we build cathedrals, help our neighbours, put on amateur dramatics and play with our children - not because we're good at it, but because we enjoy it, because it's needed, because it brings us closer to the people around us. If we see all this excellent social activity as somehow sub-standard because it isn't worth paying for, we risk creating a society that values work over social life, and the creation of financial value over the creation of social value.

I therefore propose that sociablism might act as a useful term to help define the quality of an activity in another way: a sociable act is one that enriches the lives and strengthens the social relationships of those involved. In a financial context, sociable activities may earn us money as individuals, but they also create value for our wider community and enrich our lives and relationships at the same time. We are all social animals at heart, and the things we do should reflect this innate sociability if our society is to meet our basic human needs. So when I evaluate the work that I and my associates do, I now judge myself against two standards: did I meet the standards expected of me by others, and did I attend to the human relationships involved at the same time? Did everybody involved profit, materially or socially, from this exchange? And did we bring all the people affected materially or socially by the transaction into the process?

I believe if we can begin to bring this additional consideration into our professional lives, the twin engines of money and commerce will start working to enrich our communities and cement our social ties, and help us tackle the increasing social exclusion, social isolation and social poverty of all. I also think that standards that promote the value of amateur activities will empower all of us to act for ourselves, rather than relying on a priesthood of professionals to provide what we need. There is often more value in an activity than the quality of its direct outputs. But more on this later...