Who’s Misleading Whom? Defining Titles in Occupations ‘On the Make’

Can occupational titles mislead the public? Should the use of titles be regulated to protect against such a possibility? Traditionally, occupational regulation is conceptualized as a restriction on the practice of an occupation through licensure, often called market shelters (Freidson 1970a; 1970b; Timmermans, 2008). Another less-discussed form of regulation includes titling laws, where the practice of an occupation is unrestricted but the use of the respective occupational title is (Freidson, 1986). Such titles often carry the moniker of ‗registered‘ or ‗certified,‘ but some titling laws protect even the fundamental descriptive word or phrase associated with an occupation.

The justifications for restricting occupational titles commonly mirror those used for restricting practice—protecting the public interest (i.e., health, safety, and welfare)—and the requirements associated with the use of a title are often identical to those mandated for the practice of an occupation. For practice restrictions, the (distilled) argument is straightforward (albeit contested): Licensure ensures minimum competency among those practicing an occupation or profession in order to protect public health, safety, and welfare.

The same argument for broad titling laws is not as straightforward and requires additional qualifiers. The assertion is titling laws protect the public from being misled by practitioners (legally able to practice a respective occupation) who use an occupational title but lack certain qualifications that purportedly denote minimum competency. As discussed below, such assertions are built on the premise that occupational titles are, in significant part, inherently defined by the qualifications codified in the titling laws, such as education, experience, and examination. Yet, critics of titling laws (often from within an industry in question) dismiss such assertions as unfounded contrivances designed to prop up laws whose actual intent is to create market shelters for the benefit of those already practicing, a dynamic long recognized by sociologists and economists (Abbott, 1988; Cox & Foster, 1990; Elliott, 1972; Freidson, 1986; 2001; Garoupa, 2004; Johnson, 1972; Kleiner, 2000; 2006; Larson, 1977; 1984).

Thus, the implications of these issues are not merely academic but quite real in the lives of those practicing and seeking to practice an occupation and consumers who avail themselves of the respective services. Moreover, these arguments were at the center of recent U.S. federal court cases involving titling laws, the result of which will affect not only the occupation in question but also other occupations with titling laws and those for which titling laws are or might be under future consideration.

The research reported here tests an aforementioned core claim about occupational titles. Specifically, this study examines whether occupational titles are inherently defined by the qualifications often codified in titling laws and perceived as such by the public, that is, potential consumers. The context for the study is the interior design industry, a particularly revealing occupation given current attempts by factions within the industry at creating market shelters and the presence of broad titling laws for this occupation in multiple U.S. states (Carpenter, 2008). Results reported below indicate that among members of the public, occupations appear to be defined by the nature of the work more than qualifications. And for an occupation under the auspices of a titling law (i.e., interior design), the qualifications appear even less relevant than other non-regulated occupations.

Suggested citation:  Carpenter, D. M. (2011). Who’s misleading whom? Defining titles in occupations “on the make.” National Social Science Journal, 35(2), 29-42.

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