Working at leisure

From slashdot today comes some discussion of The Pro-Am Revolution, a lengthy report on “people pursuing amateur activities to professional standards.” The report focuses on pro-am activity in the U.K., but the slippery boundary between professionals and amateurs is found in the U.S., as well. Such “serious leisure” is an issue that sociologist Robert Stebbins has made a cottage industry. Gary Alan Fine has also written some interesting material on the subject (studying role-playing games way back in the day, for example, and following amateur mycologists into the woods), and I have thought about professional and non-professional differences in terms of paramedical practices. Literature on communities of practice and technical work (such as that by Stephen Barley) provide further good reading on how to make sense of claims to prestige and professionalism in different kinds of work.

Back to business: The report’s core claim is that pro-am pastimes are increasingly driving innovation, generating social capital, and producing economic benefits, and the report makes a number of policy recommendations for encouraging Pro-Am activity. Aside from the numbers (which suggest that pro-am activities are important to a large number of people), the authors have several good cases for these sorts of claims: The development of windsurfing and climbing equipment are classic cases of amateurs picking up design and manufacturing techniques to improve their gear, for example.

The report falls short on a couple of important conceptual fronts, however. The first is in an under-socialized conception power of professions to preserve their own domains of practice. The authors do point out that the story of much work in the 20th century is the story of powerful occupations armed with licensure and state sanctions, but in advocating for the rising prominence of pro-ams, they can’t really explain why those professions would yield any of their turf. Sure, there are some good examples of declining professional dominance, especially in medicine: Pressure to keep health care costs down has pushed physicians to accept allied practitioners as colleagues, but two important things happen in that process: The professionals defend their titles vigorously (allowing podiatrists to perform foot surgery, for example, but not allowing them to call themselves “surgeons”) and the allied practitioners work hard to establish themselves as professionals (this is the story of nurses, chiropractors, and paramedics, all of whom have sought the prestige of professionalism). Further, this process of challenging professional power is best understood as a conjunction of an occupational push for professionalism combined with powers that counterveil the existing professional dominance (like HMO needs to keep costs down, for example). In the case of The Pro-Am Revolution, pro-ams are thought of as largely non-occupational. The bottom-up re-organization envisioned by Leadbeater and Miller seems to be greatly complicated by the realities of professional dominance.

(And this is without even mentioning the legal monopolies given to the professions by the states in the form of licensing and oversight of certification regimes—one of my key interests in thinking about things like wilderness medicine.)

Second, the definition of pro-am is problematic. Leadbeater and Miller interview a non-professional tennis player who makes his living as a tennis coach, an extraordinary rock climber who makes his living as a climbing photographer, and a full-time programmer who dedicates most of his time off to open source software development (the last of whom comments in the slashdot thread). Because their pro-am activity is so tightly linked to their occupation, it’s not clear that these people really are pro-ams in a meaningful way. Pro-ams also frequently become non-ams, if they really were amateurs to start with: Blacksmith Yvon Chouinard forged (sorry) two of the outdoor industry’s most well-known companies—Chouinard Equipment eventually led to both Black Diamond and Patagonia. One could argue that of course some amateurs will develop their passions into full-time businesses and will be replaced by subsequent pro-ams; but one of the key ideas about pro-ams seems to be that they don’t normally go pro.

So, professionals, amateurs, and the development of new kinds of practices remains a really fascinating topic, one that The Pro-Am Revolution gives some neat focus to, but that still has room for development.

Now my blue heeler needs dinner. She’s sort of a pro-am kibble eater, actually.