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Varieties of Ignorance


This paper considers three types and levels of ignorance about the professions: expert, amateur, and professional. The empirical data comprise my own book about the professions, the Wikipedia article on that subject, and the 105 papers that cited my book in 2008. In these three I separate ignorance of facts, of literatures, and of skills, characterizing each type of ignorance by its mix of the three. Amateur ignorance is mostly of skills, and professional ignorance mostly ignorance of collateral literatures. Expert ignorance reflects the use of theory as a mnemonic device and so is particularly insidious.

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  1. I should note that Perks ( 1993 ), the main source for the Wikipedia article, does in fact mention Millerson (as it does Larson and myself), and in fact includes an analysis of Millerson’s own doubts about traits. But it too does not draw the conclusion that “profession” is itself a dubious category and therefore falls back fairly easily into the traits approach. It is, in fact, a very thoughtful book about the social relations of accounting, but—hardly surprising in a textbook—it takes the profession itself for granted.

  2. To insure replicability, I have used ISI’s definition of “2008,” (that is, they are selected as 2008 by the cited reference search page) which seems to mean that the articles were input to the database in 2008. About 15% of them carry 2007 dates in the sources themselves. For the record, none of these papers is by myself.

  3. Two or three of the articles were not available to me electronically. For those, I retrieved physical copies.

  4. That nearly a quarter of the citations specified some page or page range seems surprisingly high to me. The decline of page citation since the middle twentieth century (when about 2/3 of references had specifications) has been precipitous. See Abbott ( forthcoming ).

  5. These empirical findings show clearly what many of us have said without empirical data: that analysis of scholarly exchange via the uncritical use of citation data is very unwise. The network analysts—and ISI itself—claim much for citation analysis, usually pursued by applying data mining and clustering algorithms to uncleaned data. But as the present data show, when an expert looks at citations carefully, they can be seen to have no construct validity whatsoever. We would rightly fail an undergraduate paper using all 105 of these citations in a substantive discussion of the professions literature. Nor is the face validity much better. For example, because of optical character recognition errors, only 80% of the references to The System of Professions in the ISI databases actually have the book’s title correct, although probably 99% of originals have it correct. I located my 105 articles by using “Sy*” as the title. No doubt there are things like “Sistem Professionals” and “Sstem Professions” out there in the ISI data, too, along with the many nonsense titles that at least got the first two letters right and so appear in my list.

  6. On the positive side, I should note that a full 26 of the 105 papers are clearly conceiving of the world in an interprofessional, competitive way, following the book’s main argument. Whether they get this from the book or not, it represents a major shift in patterns of writing about the professions since thirty years ago.


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Correspondence to Andrew Abbott.

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Abbott, A. Varieties of Ignorance. Am Soc 41, 174–189 (2010).

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  • Ignorance
  • Knowledge
  • Citation
  • Professions