Professionals and businessmen

Reading: Charles Goodwin, “Professional Vision.”


Goodwin is discussing the police expert testimony at the Rodney King trial. He’s talking about the police sergeant who provided a police perspective on the video evidence of the beating:

In so far as the perceptual structures that organize interpretation of the tape are lodged within a profession and not an isolated individual, there is a tremendous asymmetry about who can speak as an expert about the events on the tape, and thus structure interpretation of it … While administering a beating like this is recognized within the courtroom as the craft work of a profession, no equivalent social group exists for the suspect. Victims do not constitute a profession. (Goodwin 1994: 625)

In other words, we like to think that there are two sides to a story, but when one side of the story is “professional” and the other is not, then the two sides are not standing on equal footing. The professional side (necessarily!) frames its point of view in terms of objective judgments, coding and highlighting the aspects of the issue that are professionally salient. The non-professional side has no such weapon in its arsenal; the best it can hope for is You didn’t see it, you weren’t there, or perhaps Think of how you would have felt in my shoes. You’re arguing personal subjectivity against professional objectivity.

That idea was ringing in my mind’s ear when I read this:

… when rich businessmen speak—to their employees, to reporters, to politicians, to people in the community—they aren’t heard in the same way that politicians or talk radio hosts or lobbyists are heard. They’re heard, at least in part, as practical everyday people who happen to have relevant knowledge about the important question of what will and won’t increase business activity. That’s why politicians like to talk about the discussions they’ve had with small business owners back in Fargo/Philly/Framingham/Whateverville. Politicians have a lot of authority when talking to their base, but little authority when talking to the crucial swing constituency of people who are unable to develop a coherent partisan/ideological perspective on politics. “Apolitical” businessmen, by contrast, speak somewhat authoritatively to an apolitical audience.

The trouble is that rich businessmen inevitably wind up reaching the view that lower taxes on rich businessmen and less regulation of their business is the key to prosperity.

Yglesias’s point is that, when right-wing business owners say things that are implicitly but not overtly political, it’s framed as being apolitical, which makes it difficult for progressives to respond. It seems to me that Goodwin’s perspective provides another piece of the puzzle. It’s not that people don’t think business owners are self-serving — it’s a capitalist economy; everybody knows that’s what good business owners are — but they can bring their professional perspective to bear on the issues, which makes it difficult for their opponents to respond. If you can highlight aspects of a proposed bill and code them as helpful or harmful to business, then their audience (as Yglesias points out) will fill in the gaps with their belief “that it’s in the nature of the market economy that prosperity hinges in essential ways on the activities of private businessmen and private businesses.”

My point in bringing this up is not to say “Oh, poor liberals, the world is against us,” or even “We just need to find a better way of talking about it, and people will side with us.” No, my take-away is that once you start looking into the ways that institutions and professions related to the rest of society, you see there’s no getting away from it. Professional vision is everywhere.

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Posted in Institutional discourse

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