Celebrating amateurism

Celebrating amateurism: a modest proposal?

Richard Edwards

In recent years, an emphasis in public service delivery has been placed on reforming professionalism through, for instance, reaccreditation processes, more effective inter-professional practice, greater user engagement and co-production of services, and more effective integration of para-professional and technical support. Concurrently there has been increased emphasis on professional standards, accountability, and external measures. Increasing and enhancing professionalism, continuing professional development and learning, and enhanced accreditation and reaccreditation processes have been to the fore in many areas. The impact and significance of these changes have been much debated, with focus on issues of de- and re-professionalisation, and demarcations of expertise and work. These issues are often framed with under-examined normative notions of the dispositions, expertise and practices of professionalism and the reshapings to which they are subject. Much of the debate expresses the entrenched interests of the different groups and organisations involved. Professionals and professionalism remain the central focus while service users and non-professionals still tend to be positioned as ‘other’: their roles tending to be taken into account, but as additional rather than essential to service provision.

However, if those others are considered amateurs, what can amateurism contribute to our understanding? It is in the celebration of certain dynamics of amateurism that I make this modest proposal. Amateurism is often viewed pejoratively as the other of professionalism. The term amateur attracts connotations of low expertise and regulation, lesser performance, and sometimes no pay.

I propose that a different appreciation of amateurism opens alternative ways of framing the expertise and practices of provision which do not rely solely on the central figure of the professional and normative assumptions of professionalism. Historically, amateurism represents an important set of dispositions of doing something ‘for the love of it’, altruistic commitment and deep interest or personal investment in the activity undertaken, and a ‘passion to learn’ that can generate important knowledge contributions outside formal standards and accreditation. Interesting examples of such amateurism can be found in various forms of citizen participation in professional work (e.g. astronomy, journalism, software development).

These positive dynamics of amateurism may be enacted also among those who train as professionals in the public services, although they often become diluted over time. For some, the use of standards and accountabilities is a response to this dilution, while for others it is a cause of that dilution. When CPD is a requirement of employment and professional reaccreditation rather than arising from a passion to learn, there is a sense in which amateurism may have something to teach us.

The proposal is not to be read as yet another attack on professionalism, but as a way of opening up our notions of professional work that can be enhanced by aspects of amateurism, where the latter can be used generatively to explore new possibilities for reconfiguring practices. So rather than simply the other of professionalism, let us perhaps explore, theorise and celebrate the possibilities for amateurism as a positive contribution to public service provision.

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