Dr. Google and the Canadian Real Estate Association: More Tales of Professions

The rise of the internet has not been particularly kind to professionals. Here’s why: you can find out almost anything online.

One thing that makes a professional a professional is that s/he has access to knowledge that is hard to get. That’s what makes a client seek out a professional service: Professionals know stuff you don’t, and you pay them to put that knowledge to work for you. Lawyers and doctors are, of course, classic examples. But what happens when you can find out things for yourself? Do you need to consult a professional after all? Well, sometimes yes, but maybe sometimes no.

You’ve probably heard references to “Dr. Google,” or as I like to call the phenomenon, Googlechondria. That’s where people engage in do-it-yourself diagnosis online. Resources range everywhere from well-reputed and researched public information sites to hacks ‘n quacks selling colon cleansing kits and miracle weight loss supplements [1].

Regardless of the sketchy quality of much of what’s online, and the persistent presence of some people who will believe anything, what we’ll generally call “health information” available on the internet has changed relationships between patients and their doctors. For better or for worse, many patients no longer automatically defer to what their doctors advise. The case may be made that the qualities that distinguish the doctor as a professional are being challenged because the medical professions no longer have exclusive access to diagnostic tools and information.

Of course, it’s not that simple. As this editorial fleshes out, a little information in the wrong hands can be a dangerous thing. Sometimes you’re smartest when you know what you’re not smart about. And I doubt Dr. Google will impact health professionals negatively compared to the fodder it provides for the Darwin Awards.

Instead, what I’m getting at here is the crucial role that information and knowledge play in our recognition of a profession. Importantly, occupational groups that want to benefit from professional status may claim this status on the basis of having exclusive knowledge – that is, again, knowledge that not just anyone has [2]. The questions raised when such knowledge becomes more widely available are these: “Well, should knowledge be controlled anyway? If so, by who? And, when is it in the public’s interest?”

A good case can be made that it is in the public interest to ensure that those who claim to have medical knowledge/skills (that is doctors and other health professionals) do, in fact, know their stuff. This in turn makes it more legitimate to claim that what health professionals know isn’t just for anyone to know. As noted above, a little knowledge can be a dangerous/stupid thing. I’m quite happy that not just anyone can hang a shingle and call himself a doctor, thank you very much.

But here’s another case where the role of knowledge in professionalization is, arguably, a little more suspect…

De-Professionalizing Real Estate

If professionalization describes the process where an occupation tries and/or succeeds in being recognized as a profession, de-professionalization describes the opposite process: an occupation loses its claim on providing an exclusive, important service.  A case may be made that real estate agents are precisely in the midst of this. Here’s why:

The MLS (multiple listing service) as most people know, is a database of properties for sale, and it has long provided real estate agents with a basis for claiming professional status. The argument has been made by real estate service providers that they should be paid well for their services because they have access to exclusive knowledge. And they do know some legal and technical stuff that takes some effort to learn. But a significant part of what makes up a real estate agents’ knowledge is not knowledge per se, but exclusive access to information available via the MLS. The Canadian Real Estate Association (CREA) itself claims, “only a REALTOR®, a member of The Canadian Real Estate Association, has access to the Multiple Listing Service®, Canada’s most powerful real estate marketing system.” [3]

Here’s what’s been happening though: The MLS has been managed online for a number of years now, creating potential for non-exclusive access to the information it contains. So you’ve got other upstarts who see this potential and would like to use the MLS in different ways, providing alternatives to consumers who may want to do more of their own thing when buying and/or selling their home. And the new providers say “Hey, why can’t we access MLS and offer these services to our clients?” The result has been a legal battle between the CREA and the Federal Competition Bureau [4]. The gist of it is that new providers have been challenging the right of the CREA to act as a gatekeeper of the information that the MLS contains.

So from the perspective of the Canadian Real Estate Association, this is seriously bad news. A key source of the legitimacy of the real estate professional – exclusive access to knowledge in the form of the MLS listings – has been compromised. The consequence is that real estate agents lose the status they had as exclusive providers of what the CREA has consistently marketed as a professional service.

See how that works? The CREA does perform some of the functions of a professional association, regulating and certifying the conduct and knowledge base of its members, and this has indeed provided some degree of consumer protection. But exclusive access to the MLS has been a very significant part of what has made being a real estate agent a do-able way to make a living. So the livelihoods of members are suddenly on the line.

And that’s the point I’ve hoped to make here, really: seeing, overall, that there are meaningful links between

  • control over knowledge and information,
  • the interests of the public,
  • perceptions of what counts as “professional,” and
  • the bottom line: the financial rewards of the occupation.

Dr. Google and the unbundling of real estate services are just two examples of how our understandings of “professions” have been shifting in response to the ubiquity of the internet. These shifts will continue to play out in important ways as the Wild West of online information remains unregulated and untamed.

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Notes and References

[1] All of these sites will claim they base their stuff on science, and you will see words like “professional” and “scientific” and “evidence” routinely bandied about in alternative medicine sites. Here’s Respectful Insolence, the often entertaining blog of a doctor who loves to expose quackery.

[2] Controlling knowledge is one strategy for occupational closure. The theory suggests that limiting the number of knowledgeable people in an occupation, demand for the services it provides will remain high, and wages and rewards for the people working in that occupation will thus also remain high. If you’re dying to know more about occupational closure, see Weeden, K. (2002). Why Do Some Occupations Pay More than Others? Social Closure and Earnings Inequality in the United States.  American Journal of Sociology, 108(1), 55-101. doi: 10.1086/344121. In Academic Speak, Weeden cites four mechanisms through which occupations work toward closure: “restricting the supply of labor in an occupation, enhancing overall demand for a product or service, solidifying an occupation’s claim to be the sole provider of that service, or signaling to customers that the occupation provides a service of a particular quality” (p. 57).

Keep in mind that theories of occupational and professional closure are only some among many ideas about why some kinds of work have higher status and pay better than other kinds of work. These theories don’t explain everything, but they do, I think, offer some interesting and important ways to “make sense” of work.

[3] If you’re curious and have all sorts of free time, take a closer look at the Canadian Real Estate Association’s write-up on why people should use Realtors. In addition to the closing statement of the document noted above, if you read carefully, you’ll see how ideas like trust, valuable/exclusive knowledge and licenses are used to make the Realtor’s role more legitimate, and to persuade you that you should call upon their services. These are professionalization strategies. (See Evetts, J. (2003). The construction of professionalism in new and existing occupational contexts. International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy, 23(4/5), 22-36.

[4] Steve Ladurantaye (2010, January 29). The battle to unlock the housing market. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved May 7, 2011.  Most recently: CBC News (2011, May 27). Competition Bureau sues real estate board. Retrieved June 1, 2011.

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