The Rise of the Professional Communicator

Kevin G. Barnhurst


Professionalism became an ideal for organizing work in the nineteenth-century United States and reached communication occupations by century's end. Its rise continued an early modern tradition that embodied knowledge in specialists engaged at universities and in practical projects. A sociology of professions emerged by the twentieth century to describe their characteristics, a useful template for professionalism in communication and applied to newswork as a case prominent for its claim to serve democracy. Arguments over whether journalists have professional traits may discount their importance as workers involved in power-as-knowledge, with consequences for workers in the twenty-first century as US professionalism spreads abroad.

The rise of the professional communicator is part of an ongoing story about the elevation of craftwork to a higher plane as knowledge work. The story can trace a main branch of its lineage to medieval Europe and the ideas that set in motion what became the modern world. The term profession has roots in the Middle Ages, when divinity, medicine, and law emerged as primary occupations for gentlemen of the era to pursue. The three learned professions owe their deep foundations, as “true” professions and the measure of other occupations, to their early start in Western history. But the organization of professions in the sense understood today is a product of the nineteenth century. Sociologists ...

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