Renewing the professions by attending to structural influences on reflexivity: A critical realist perspective

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It has been claimed that a divide now exists between the professions and the public, with professionals too often serving their own interests rather than the good of society. This conceptual paper argues that the origin of this divide is found, at least in part, in the way that professionals exercise agency in organizational settings. It contends that existing treatments of agency in professional life have failed to fully appreciate the way in which structural constraints, reflexivity, and agency are interlinked. The paper offers a synthesis between institutional theory and the realist social theory of Margaret Archer to explore how a constrained reflexivity mediates the influence of social structure on the agency of professionals, affecting the interests that are served. The analysis specifically considers how reflexivity is influenced by professional knowledge and social relations, alongside the constraints afforded by institutional logics. The article concludes that attempts to renew the professions through institutional work should take account of these inter-linkages. A range of strategies are identified for such institutional work that includes: the development of professional knowledge and its integration into professional or organizational life and attention to the characteristics of the social relations that are present. Insight also emerges for careers management on the part of professionals operating in contexts with limited scope for institutional work, as well as for professional education. The article calls for a strengthening of the cultural, social, and personal basis of both the professions and institutional theory.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)139-154
Number of pages16
JournalJournal of Professions and Organization
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 10 Apr 2018


  • reflexivity
  • professions
  • critical realism
  • institutional work
  • institutional logics
  • multiple institutional logics


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