Cover image for Democratic Professionalism: Citizen Participation and the Reconstruction of Professional Ethics, Identity, and Practice By Albert W. Dzur

Democratic Professionalism

Citizen Participation and the Reconstruction of Professional Ethics, Identity, and Practice

Albert W. Dzur


$34.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-03333-4

Available as an e-book

288 pages
6" × 9"

Democratic Professionalism

Citizen Participation and the Reconstruction of Professional Ethics, Identity, and Practice

Albert W. Dzur

“Albert Dzur has written an important defense of professionalism and its crucial relationship to democracy. This is an especially well-timed book, seeing as professional credibility has sunk to new lows in our contemporary political culture and has been under attack from both the left and right.”


  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
Bringing expert knowledge to bear in an open and deliberative way to help solve pressing social problems is a major concern today, when technocratic and bureaucratic decision making often occurs with little or no input from the general public. Albert Dzur proposes an approach he calls “democratic professionalism” to build bridges between specialists in domains like law, medicine, and journalism and the lay public in such a way as to enable and enhance broader public engagement with and deliberation about major social issues. Sparking a critical and constructive dialogue among social theories of the professions, professional ethics, and political theories of deliberative democracy, Dzur reveals interests, motivations, strengths, and vulnerabilities in conventional professional roles that provide guideposts for this new approach. He then applies it in examining three practical arenas in which experiments in collaboration and power-sharing between professionals and citizens have been undertaken: public journalism, restorative justice, and the bioethics movement. Finally, he draws lessons from these cases to refine this innovative theory and identify the kinds of challenges practitioners face in being both democratic and professional.
“Albert Dzur has written an important defense of professionalism and its crucial relationship to democracy. This is an especially well-timed book, seeing as professional credibility has sunk to new lows in our contemporary political culture and has been under attack from both the left and right.”
“This book is an important, innovative contribution to a topic that needs much more attention in political theory, namely, serious consideration of the role of the professions in a democratic society. The fact that the central role of professional expertise has been neglected by political theorists, including the decision practices to which expertise gives rise, is as astonishing as it is problematic. As this work makes clear, a democratic theory that fails to adequately examine the relationship between citizen participation and expert knowledge in a technological information society can only fall short of the mark. Professor Dzur’s effort to redress this shortcoming is a genuine service to the field.”
“A wise, critical exercise in applied theory, this work deserves a wide audience.”
“There is no topic more central to the debate about democratic renewal than the role of professionals as civic actors in institutional settings. Dzur's Democratic Professionalism provides an indispensable analysis of the theoretical foundations for thinking about this productively, as well as rich, contextualized case studies of professionals who have managed to generate innovative practice and transform identities in ways that at once enrich expertise and engage ordinary citizens. This book is a wonderful scholarly contribution and a terrific resource for teaching across the social sciences and in professional schools.”
“Albert Dzur’s Democratic Professionalism, which explores the democratic possibilities of professions, is a splendid work of political theory, but it is also considerably more. By incisively challenging and showing ways beyond the forces that have displaced the agency of ordinary people in modern societies, it points toward escape from the ‘iron cage’ of technical reason that has long been thought to be our ineluctable fate. Dzur’s larger point is a wake-up call for the rebuilding of our commonwealth by citizens who come to realize that our most important and shared work, across the lines of all our differences, is to co-create our common world, not to consume it.”
“At a time in which Elinor Ostrom has won the Nobel Prize for demonstrating the importance of the coproduction of public goods by citizens, we are fortunate to have a book that discusses the role professionals can play in aligning their routines with the work that citizens do in coproduction. Professor Dzur also raises the issue of what responsibility universities have to a democratic citizenry, since these institutions prepare most of our professionals. Perhaps the civic engagement that higher education promotes can begin internally as well as externally.”

Albert W. Dzur is Associate Professor of Political Science at Bowling Green State University, where he is also a Senior Research Fellow at the Social Philosophy and Policy Center.



Introduction: The Ethics and Politics of Professions

1. The Missing Agents of Contemporary Democratic Thought

2. Beyond Self-Interest: The Apolitical Picture of Professionals

3. Professionals versus Democracy: The Radical Critique of Technocrats, Disabling Experts, and Task M.onopolists

4. Task Sharing for Democracy: Themes from Political Theory

5. Public Journalism

6. Restorative Justice

7. Bioethics

8. Context and Consequences: The Duties of Democratic Professionals

Conclusion: The University’s Role in the Democratization of Professional Ethics


Introduction: The Ethics and Politics of Professions

Democratic Professionalism in Action

Three snapshots.

As Adele Haber lay in a hospital bed staring at the ceiling, down the hall a team of doctors and ethicists were discussing whether she should live or die. The team, at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, is part of a program . . . that aims to resolve medical conflicts at the end of life.

In the waiting room of the pulmonary care unit, where a small window air-conditioner struggled against the heat, members of the medical staff gathered that Tuesday afternoon to discuss Mrs. Haber’s case. The team included ethicists and staff members working with the patient. Ms. Dubler [the director of bioethics at Montefiore] led the meeting with a blend of warmth and briskness, drawing out each participant in search for consensus.

On a sunny Saturday . . . citizens streamed into an auditorium on the University of Pennsylvania campus, wending their way around television trucks and a maze of wires. Inside, seated on a stage, were the five candidates for the Democratic nomination for mayor of Philadelphia.

The questioners this night would not be the usual blow-dried television anchors and print journalists in scruffy shoes. They would be citizens, clutching index cards in their hands. On each card was written a question that represented the fruit of four months of public deliberation involving over six hundred citizens and reaching into every corner of a city that is famed as a mosaic of neighborhoods. Citizen Voices was one newspaper’s [the Philadelphia Inquirer] attempt to engage a cross section of a diverse city in a yearlong civic conversation.

Police caught Craig Langsdorf urinating behind a trash bin last July in downtown Minneapolis. He’d been out drinking with friends, was walking to his car and, well, he had to go.

For his offense, Langsdorf could have pleaded guilty, paid a fine and gone on his way with a petty crime on his record. Instead, he chose to face upset neighbors, take responsibility for his actions and clean urine off the loading dock of his downtown workplace.

Over two years, this sort of justice has been used . . . under a program of the Central City Neighborhoods Partnership, a coalition of neighborhood groups in Minneapolis.

All across the country, similar efforts by reform-minded professionals are bridging gaps between the lay public and key social institutions traditionally dominated by professionals—hospitals and clinics, newspapers and broadcast studios, courtrooms and corrections facilities.

Why have doctors, nurses, and hospital and clinic administrators carved out an institutional place for laypeople incompetent to treat but well equipped to discuss ethical problems related to patient care and institutional standards? Why have these bearers of considerable power over human lives chosen to share some of that power not just sporadically but daily as a feature of organizational life?

Why have journalists, editors, and newspaper owners conducted public forums designed to foster conversations about social security, welfare reform, economic policy, and other current topics? Why have they pressed one another to include the voices of laypeople prominently in their stories, voices unaffiliated with the world of state and national capitals, not officials, not business representatives, not political operatives, not academics well versed in the public policy concern of the week?

Why have judges, defense attorneys, prosecutors, and corrections administrators sought out citizen boards to hear some kinds of criminal offenses? Why have they decided to share some of their authority and include members of the lay public in discharging some of the responsibility of keeping the public safe and doing justice?

There is a fragmented but forceful reform movement in a number of socially and politically significant professions that deserves a good name. I call it “democratic professionalism” because bioethics, public journalism, and restorative justice reformers are drawing new attention to the democratic significance of professional domains such as hospitals and clinics, newspapers and television stations, courtrooms and corrections facilities and to the fact that these are public places in which members of the public can share authority over tasks that affect them. Far from a de-professionalization or anti-institution movement, these reformers still value the specific, specialized knowledge of the seasoned journalist and editor, well-studied and practiced physician, and well-trained and experienced judge and attorney. As they try to be more democratic and help laypeople gain useful civic skills, they also seek to transform ossified conceptions of professionalism, but they are in no way antiprofessional.

The questions stated above are political, ethical, and practical questions about the status of contemporary professionalism. Accordingly, this book tells the theoretically rich story of democratic professionalism from three related perspectives. From the perspective of political science and political theory, the democratic professionals in journalism, criminal justice, medicine, and elsewhere are fascinating bridge agents—people who can mediate between complex institutions and members of the lay public who lack hands-on knowledge of these institutions and the political issues related to them. Though professions, professionals, and ideals of professionalism are not presently studied by political scientists and political theorists, for reasons I will suggest shortly, they ought to be included prominently in the burgeoning research on civic engagement and public deliberation.

From the perspective of those generally interested in the ethics of professions, democratic professionals suggest a new way of approaching traditional questions about the specific social responsibilities of journalists, lawyers, doctors and others—one that draws attention to the civic and democratic nature of these responsibilities. Reform-minded journalists, for example, write about the civic responsibilities of journalists to ensure greater accountability of elected officials to citizens. But they also claim a democratic responsibility to include citizens in dialogue about what, exactly, the social responsibilities of journalists are. This is an exciting shift in focus for professional ethics, I believe, that emphasizes the public justification of normative issues that are currently private and extremely academic.

From the perspective of professionals themselves, the new model of professionalism suggested by reformers is both challenging and rewarding. At a time when even traditional professions are losing ground in public opinion, democratic professionalism shows how to regain trust, respect, and perhaps even authority. By sharing in some of the experiences of the journalist, physician, judge, or prosecutor, lay citizens come to recognize the complexity of these roles and better discern what good reporting, doctoring, or judging looks like. Yet sharing tasks and authority pose difficult trade-offs for democratic professionals who now hold themselves to both professional and democratic standards of conduct. How reform-minded people in three professions have resolved and struggled with some of these role conflicts is the third story of this book.

Professionals and Modern Democracy

The role of those with specialized knowledge in modern democracy has been an unresolved issue since public intellectuals began to confront it in the Progressive Era. Most recognized the necessity for specialists in applied sciences such as engineering and applied social sciences such as economics to be engaged in policy implementation, if not policy making, in the wake of the massive economic and social changes of industrialization and urbanism. Intellectuals such as John Dewey, Herbert Croly, and Walter Lippmann had come to question the modern relevance of old-fashioned ideals of face-to-face democracy—in Dewey’s words, the “local town-meeting practices and ideas” that still had a hold on the hearts of Progressives. Some proposed a new ideal of professionalism grounded in natural and social science methods and the special training needed to solve complex social and economic problems but also dedicated to public well-being and responsive to public opinion. As Woodrow Wilson wrote in his early contribution to this discussion, “The ideal for us is a civil service cultured and self-sufficient enough to act with sense and vigor, and yet so intimately connected with the popular thought, by means of elections and constant public counsel, as to find arbitrariness or class spirit quite out of the question.” Herbert Croly and Walter Lippmann proposed that such a professionalized cadre of policy specialists and civil servants, if removed somewhat from the democratic political process and allowed to take their cues from their professional training, experience, and fellow colleagues, would be uniquely capable of solving social problems and making difficult policy choices in the best interests of the public even if the public did not immediately recognize this. For Croly and Lippmann, as with Wilson before them, popular elections would ensure that these professionals and those who appointed them could be held accountable for their policy failures.

Other Progressive Era intellectuals such as John Dewey, though sympathetic to the new ideal of public-spirited professionalism, worried considerably about the gulf separating these specialists and the rank-and-file citizens purportedly served by them. If the outcomes of American democracy were determined by experts behind closed doors, then to what extent could the political processes open to laypeople, such as elections, really give voice to the collective interests of the public? The horn of the dilemma facing Dewey, however, was the obvious problem, as he was quick to point out, that the American mass public was too “scattered, mobile, and manifold” to follow policy deliberations or even to determine what its public interests were in order to voice them to policy makers. Even policy deliberation on issues that directly affect citizens, such as public transportation, admitted Dewey, could hardly be done in public by the public given “the very size, heterogeneity, and mobility of urban populations” and “the technical character of the engineering problems” involved.

Dewey’s contribution to this debate was to conceptualize the democratic professional, the applied social scientist, the engineer, the teacher, and the reporter who worked with rather than for the public, who facilitated public understanding and practical abilities rather than led the public. I will argue in Chapter 4 that Dewey’s thoughts on professionalism help us understand the significance of current reform movements and assess their strengths and weaknesses, but that they are far from contemporary theories of professionalism and democracy.

The gap between professionalized politics in American democracy and a mass public that is only minimally participatory and only barely knowledgeable about public affairs and political institutions is perhaps even greater now than it was in the Progressive Era. As in that period, scholars and intellectuals are pressing for new conceptions of democracy that can bridge this gap. Unlike the Progressive Era, however, professions, professionals, and ideals of professionalism barely appear in contemporary discourse as key actors. In part, this is due to the negative connotations of professionalism in relation to democracy—elitism, technocracy, inequality, superior knowledge, hierarchy, meritocracy. More important as a reason for neglect, however, is a disciplinary ignorance of professions in political science. They have been taken simply as something sociologists study when they study occupations or something that philosophers study when they study the applied ethics of professions such as law and medicine. One prominent exception, discussed in Chapter 3, is the topic of technocracy—the counterdemocratic situation of professionals as high-level advisers to elites and elites in their own right that has interested some political scientists, especially those who study comparative politics.

The Neglect of the Significance of Professions to American Democracy

The professions have been neglected in political theory with negative consequences for the field in general and for the development of democratic theory in particular. To see this, we do not have to fully agree with Talcott Parsons that the professional complex is the “crucial structural development in twentieth-century society,” something he believed had displaced the state and the “capitalistic organization of the economy.” We need only recognize, as many Progressive Era intellectuals did, the political implications of professional knowledge and practice.

The function, status, and authority of professional work have not been even minor topics in political theory. There is no doubt that political theorists have dealt with issues that overlap professional domains. Michel Foucault’s treatments of disciplinary power and Jürgen Habermas’s concern for instrumental rationality in the system world are two strong examples. However, political theorists have not analyzed the specificity—what Emile Durkheim would call the “moral particularism”—of professional activity in public life. They neglect to see professions as political agents separate from other powerful economic and political organizations, particularized in their functional and associational differences from each other (e.g., the political agency of law is different from medicine in part because of the different functional roles and the different organizational histories of the two professions), and as mediating between self, other, and group in ways that have both harmful and beneficial consequences for democracy. Nor have political theorists taken up traditional questions of power, representation, and equality within the work setting of specific professions. Surveying the leading journal Political Theory, for example, one finds no explicit treatment of professions as political agents or professional environments as political contexts.

This is partly due to the successful claims of sociology and economics to the empirical dimensions of occupations and the lack of counterclaims by other disciplines. Political science claims political events, agents, and institutions as its proper jurisdiction and has not traditionally included professions and professionals under the category of political. The practices of traditional professions such as law and medicine are seen as “political” by political scientists only when they interact with the state or with social movements. For example, when professions form powerful interest groups, as medicine has with the American Medical Association, the discrete state-oriented action of the interest groups draws the attention of political scientists studying health care politics. The relationship between professionals and laypeople within domains such as hospitals, courts, prisons, news organizations, and business firms is considered a sociological or economic issue. Given the dearth of empirical work on professions by political scientists, that the subfield of political theory has had limited contact with the topic is not surprising.

Just as the empirical dimensions of professional practice have been covered by other disciplines, so have the normative dimensions been largely considered the domain of philosophy. Even though professional practices are marked by relations of power and authority and raise questions of proper representation and accountability—all central concepts for political theorists—professional ethics has come to be seen as primarily the jurisdiction of philosophers rather than political theorists. In large part, this is because the attention of political theorists has followed the empirical concerns of political science and has been directed toward normative questions of state and social movement action. The great works of normative political theory of the 1970s, John Rawls’s Theory of Justice and Ronald Dworkin’s Taking Rights Seriously—famous for sparking widespread interest in the field of political theory—dealt with issues of justice, rights, and legitimate authority predominantly centered in the state. These works drew attention to constitutions, judicial judgment, and the justice of what Rawls called “the basic structure of society.” The focal question in the massive outpouring of scholarly writing following in the wake of these foundational texts is how the liberal-democratic state is to treat people with equal concern.

Political theory has overlooked the ground-level politics happening all around us, often outside the executive briefings, judicial decisions, legislative debates, and electoral combats of formal politics. It has neglected the politics of newswriting, of source and story selection; the politics of quality of life assessments, of criteria for organ rationing; the politics of victim impact statements, of community service orders. These are all “micro” issues if your perspective is focused on the state and its actions, yet they have “macro” implications that have only barely been understood.

Consider two largely pessimistic surveys of the political theory field written ten years apart and published by the primary professional organization of political scientists, the American Political Science Association. These widely read accounts forcefully argued that political theory had become alienated from political reality. To combat this problem, William Galston urged that “theorists should try harder to take real political controversies as their point of departure and to attend to the terms in which these debates are conducted.” He continues, “Theorists too often assume that pointing to flaws, real or alleged, in the theoretical justification of a particular political system suffices as a critique of practices within that system. There should be less top-down theorizing [and] more of an effort to [judge] abstract principles in the light of concrete political realities.”

It should be no slight goad to political theorists that since the 1960s philosophers have been doing just what Galston had in mind. Most notably in the medical field, but also in law, business, and engineering, ethicists have confronted real-world dilemmas within the realm of professional work using a language not too far removed from the terms and contexts of professionals. In this way, ethicists have been able to both actively engage in problem solving within professional domains, such as hospitals, clinics, and business firms, as well as foster rich academic research programs. This sort of applied and engaged work, according to Stephen Toulmin, has “saved the life of ethics,” “has given back to ethics a seriousness and human relevance which it had seemed . . . to have lost for good.” It is not too much to hope that political theory might also gain from a similar ground-level focus on relevant social problems and the agents who grapple with them.

It is one thing to agree, in general, that political theorists can be more concrete and more attuned to actual politics, but why follow the specific path of applied ethicists into the domains of journalists, doctors, and lawyers—the newsrooms, editorial conferences, clinical sessions, hospital ethics committee work, courtroom discourse? The answer is that one can, of course, do more applied political theory without ever thinking about professions. Yet some topics within political theory require this focus on these seemingly micro domains. More generally, too, professional practices raise issues of power and authority relevant to democratic citizenship that have been left largely untreated by philosophers of the professions.

As we will see in Chapter 1, contemporary political theory has taken what some call a “deliberative turn.” Many scholars believe that features of contemporary politics, such as declining citizen participation, are signs of deep alienation from collective decision making. As citizens have become bystanders to collective decisions, they have become distanced from one another and have lost opportunities for advancing public goods. The distance between citizens reduces awareness of others’ lives and lessens engagement in the social practices that would allow citizens to learn how others different from them in class, region, race, and gender are affected by collective decisions. The solution for many scholars is public deliberation in which collective decisions are more closely tied to public forums marked by equality, active participation, and reasonableness.

Missing from contemporary scholarship on public deliberation is attention to questions of agency and context: who, what, when, and how in the terms of traditional political science. So far, students of public deliberation have largely ignored a crucial dimension of the intermediary realm between individual and state in which professions that possess the power to distract, encourage, limit, and inform democratic deliberation exist. Moreover, some of the most aggressive current efforts at fostering public deliberation are located in just this intermediary realm.

A closer relation between political theory and professions would also contribute to the body of work on professional ethics. Indeed, it would allow professional ethics to catch up with the developments such as those illustrated by our initial snapshots of increased lay participation in professional decisions and activities. Reform-minded professionals show a growing awareness of how the institutions and practices they so strongly influence—the hospitals and clinics, the newspapers and news stations, the court rooms and correctional facilities—can either exclude or engage lay members of the public and can either play a disempowering or empowering function in American democracy.

Rightly understood, professionalism has a civic dimension. The theory of democratic professionalism presented in this book holds that a number of key professions have civic roles to play in contemporary democracy and that such civic roles both strengthen the legitimacy of professional authority and render that authority more transparent and more vulnerable to public influence. Once it is understood that professionals can help mobilize and inform citizen participation inside and outside spheres of professional authority, many of the negative, counter-democratic connotations of professionalism fall away. Indeed, rightly understood, democratic professionals are some of the best candidates today for bolstering the deliberative democracy urged by contemporary commentators. This is not to ask professionals to substitute political for occupational duties but rather to become aware of, as well as enlarge and enrich, the already existing connections between professional and democratic practice.

Plan of the Book

Chapter 1 introduces the core concept of public deliberation and the idea of “middle democracy,” the ground-level network of lay participation outside the formal politics of American democracy that has gone understudied. The next three chapters build the foundation for a theory of democratic professionalism by showing why professions are key players in middle democracy and are viable candidates for facilitating public deliberation. Chapter 2 examines the special social responsibility that professions such as law, medicine, and academics have traditionally held themselves accountable for promoting. This responsibility is articulated in the once dominant and still influential “social trustee” model of professionalism. Then, Chapter 3 draws out the political characteristics of this social responsibility by taking up salient criticisms of social trustee conceptions of professional and expert authority. These criticisms form a second, “radical critique” model for understanding professionalism and its connection to democracy. In Chapter 4, I build on both social trustee and radical critique models to construct what I consider a superior account of the relationship between professionals and democracy, the model of democratic professionalism that will be useful in considering real-world cases of reform efforts urging professionals to foster public deliberation and civic involvement, each in their own ways. The cases of public journalism, restorative justice, and the bioethics movement considered in Chapters 5, 6, and 7, respectively, give a face to the theory of democratic professionalism and flesh out its motivations and orienting values. These cases also raise issues that are likely to be continuously contentious for democratic professionalism in theory and practice. Chapter 8 builds key insights drawn from the cases into the theory while addressing a number of major practical and normative questions relevant for scholars and practitioners alike. In the Conclusion, I suggest how current well-meaning efforts to revise ethics pedagogy in professional schools and training seminars can be modified to foster greater awareness of the democratic consequences of professional practices.