Social Constructionism in Vocational Psychology and Career Development Peter McIlveen and Donna E. Schultheiss (Eds.) C A R E E R D E V E L O P M E N T S E R I E S

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Social Constructionism in Vocational Psychology and Career Developm

entPeter M

cIlveen and Donna E. Schultheiss (Eds.)

Social Constructionism in Vocational Psychology and Career DevelopmentPeter McIlveen and Donna E. Schultheiss (Eds.)

S e n s e P u b l i s h e r s C A D E 4

Social Constructionism in Vocational Psychology and Career Development

Peter McIlveenUniversity of Southern Queensland, Australia


Donna E. Schultheiss (Eds.)Cleveland State University, USA

“The contemporary world-of-work makes demands upon the field of career development and vocational psychology to ensure that theories and practices retain their relevance amidst the complexity of work and learning in people’s lives. Social Constructionism is the emerging paradigm that can reformulate theories and practices of career development that have come before. Social Constructionism opens new perspectives and raises questions about phenomena that have captured the imagination of scholars and practitioners for a century. In this fourth book in the Sense Career Development Series, a host of international authors open the window of Social Constructionism to reveal the challenges that lay ahead in the next generation of research and practice. This little book is ideal for the graduate scholar, researcher, and seriously curious practitioner who seek to understand Social Constructionism, the questions it raises, and how those questions may be answered. Readers will be challenged to think hard, review their assumptions, and see the world of work and learning anew. The rewards are worth the effort.”

Spine7.29 mm

ISBN 978-94-6209-078-1


Social Constructionism in Vocational Psychology and Career Development

CAREER DEVELOPMENT SERIESConnecting Theory and PracticeVolume 4

Series EditorWendy Patton, Queensland University of Technology, Australia

Editorial BoardAudrey Collin, DeMontfort University, Leicester, UKKobus Maree, University of Pretoria, South AfricaPeter McIlveen, University of Southern Queensland, AustraliaVladimir Skorikov, University of Hawaii, USARaoul van Esbroeck, Vrije Universiteit, Brussels, Belgium

ScopeRecent developments in the literature on career have begun to reflect a greater global reach and acknowledgement of an international/global understanding of career. These developments have demanded a more inclusive understanding of career as it is experienced by individuals around the world. Related issues within the career literature include the relationships within the career theory literature, or theory integration and convergence, and between theory and practice. The influence of constructivism is another influence which is receiving sustained attention within the field.

The series will be cutting edge in focusing on each of these areas, and will be truly global in its authorship and application. The primary focus of the series is the theory-practice nexus.

Social Constructionism in Vocational Psychology and Career Development

Edited byPeter McIlveenUniversity of Southern Queensland, Australia


Donna E. SchultheissCleveland State University, USA

A C.I.P. record for this book is available from the Library of Congress.

ISBN: 978-94-6209-078-1 (paperback)ISBN: 978-94-6209-079-8 (hardback)ISBN: 978-94-6209-080-4 (e-book)

Published by: Sense Publishers,P.O. Box 21858,3001 AW Rotterdam,The Netherlandshttps://www.sensepublishers.com/

Printed on acid-free paper

All Rights Reserved © 2012 Sense Publishers

No part of this work may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, microfilming, recording or otherwise, without written permission from the Publisher, with the exception of any material supplied specifically for the purpose of being entered and executed on a computer system, for exclu sive use by the purchaser of the work.



Preface vii

Foreword ixWendy Patton

Author Biographies xi

Chapter 1: An Introduction to Social Constructionism in Vocational Psychology and Career Development 1Donna E. Schultheiss and Eric Wallace

Chapter 2: Social Constructionist Theories in Vocational Psychology 9Richard A. Young and Natalee E. Popadiuk

Chapter 3: Self in Work as a Social/Cultural Construction 29Graham B. Stead and Terri M. Bakker

Chapter 4: An Interdisciplinary View of Social Constructionist Vocational Psychology 45Hanoch Flum and Rachel Gali Cinamon

Chapter 5: Extending the Metaphor of Narrative to Dialogical Narrator 59Peter McIlveen

Chapter 6: Career Development Through Participation: Insights from Vygotsky 77Barbara Bassot

Chapter 7: A Critique of Career Discourse Practices 87Mary Sue Richardson

Chapter 8: Being, Knowing, and Doing: A Model for Reflexivity in Social Constructionist Practices 105Karen Noble and Peter McIlveen

Subject Index 115

Author Index 119



This is the fourth book published in the Sense Publishers Career Development Series which began in 2006.

The current work addresses the scholarship of social constructionism and its place in disciplinary and professional endeavours of vocational psychology and career development. There is little doubt that social constructionism has generated new perspectives, theories, research methods, and practices, but there is so much more work to be done to ensure that social constructionism continues as a productive force. Indeed, the chapters in this book will do considerable work to advance social constructionism in the field.

As editors, we aimed to present an optimistic view of social constructionism that could generate new ideas for research and practice. What the authors have achieved is a clear and informative invitation to new scholars and an update for current scholars in the field.

We offer thanks to our colleagues who wrote the chapters, Stacey who set the format of the chapters, and the series editor, Professor Wendy Patton.

Peter McIlveen and Donna E. Schultheiss, Editors



This book is not designed to be all encompassing, rather to provide a number of perspectives and challenges as the field of vocational psychology and career development addresses a social constructionist approach. Our field has begun to explore the theoretical and practical relevance of social constructionism only recently relative to other disciplines. This book is the first collection of writings from a group of eminent scholars who have undertaken to address a range of paradigmatic and theoretical foundations of social constructionism in vocational psychology.

As Series Editor, this book was designed to bring together these different perspectives and applications in a short very focused monograph to inform and challenge our field. Each author specifically was invited to bring to the work their own perspectives, including drawing on theoretical frameworks not normally applied to vocational psychology such as those of Vygotsky and Foucault. Each author has incorporated a critique of career discourse.

The book therefore demonstrates a field operating within new frameworks of thinking – moving forward from the traditional positivist formulations of career development and practice to new perspectives informed by constructionism. As such the content of the book emulates its underpinning – these authors have been meaning making in relation to each other and the contexts within which their thinking develops.

These dialogues embrace the significance of the broad relationship context from which meaning is made. The aim of the book is therefore to stimulate new dialogues where theorists, researchers and practitioners in vocational psychology and career development reassess their work and explore the possibilities for including social constructionism in their work.

Professor Wendy Patton Faculty of Education Queensland University of Technology

Series Editor, Career Development Series



Terri M. Bakker is a counselling psychologist and Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology, University of Pretoria, South Africa. She is curious about the implications of social constructionist, post-structuralist and narrative ways of thinking for counselling, research and community work, and particularly the application of Foucauldian ideas in the promotion of social justice in African contexts. She brings a critical psychology perspective to vocational psychology and career development.

Barbara Bassot is a Senior Lecturer within the Centre for Career and Personal Development at Canterbury Christ Church University, UK. She is Programme Director for the MA in Career Guidance (incorporating the Qualification Careers Guidance). She also teaches on a range of programmes at CCPD, including the Foundation degree in Supporting Young People and the Certificate in Career Guidance and Development. Barbara’s research interests are in social constructivist approaches to career learning and development (in particular the work of Vygotsky) and reflective practice

Rachel Gali Cinamon is an Associate Professor at the School of Education, Tel Aviv University, Israel. She is the Head of the Educational Counselling program. Her research interests include: the mutual influences between work and family through the life span; career development of women, minorities and at risk populations; career interventions and exploration in emerging adulthood.

Hanoch Flum is at the Department of Education, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel. His research interests focus on identity and career development, mainly in adolescence and emerging adulthood. An emphasis of his current work is on relational and cultural contexts of development, especially in light of social change and cultural transition. In addition, the role of exploration in identity and career development, along with the construction of knowledge and the application of exploratory orientation in education are central to his current work.

Graham B. Stead is Director of Doctoral Studies in the College of Education and Human Services and a Professor in the Department of Curriculum and Foundations at Cleveland State University, Cleveland, Ohio. He teaches educational research, statistics, and advanced career development. He has published over 60 articles and book chapters, co-edited and co-authored 4 books and presented over 80 papers in the USA and internationally. In addition, he is on the editorial boards of the Journal of Career Development, The Career Development Quarterly, and the Journal



of Psychology in Africa. He is also a Counselling Psychologist and a Research Psychologist.

Peter McIlveen is a psychologist and Associate Dean (Academic) with the Faculty of Education at the University of Southern Queensland, Australia. He teaches educational psychology topics, including career development studies and adult learning. Peter’s research interests include career development learning, professional identity, and the processes and outcomes of career counselling. He has held national representative positions with the Career Industry Council of Australia and the National Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services. He is editor of the Australian Journal of Career Development.

Karen Noble is an Associate Professor and Associate Dean (Teaching and Learning) with the Faculty of Education at the University of Southern Queensland, Australia. Her specialist area is curriculum and pedagogy with an early childhood education focus, and capacity building. She currently serves as an editorial intern on Asia Pacific Journal of Teacher Education; is on the editorial board of the Australian Journal of Early Childhood and the International Journal of Pedagogies and Learning. Prior to joining academia, Karen led and taught in a range a range of early education contexts in rural and remote Queensland and Western Australian, and in the United Kingdom.

Natalee E. Popadiuk is at the University of Victoria, Canada. Her area of research focuses on the application of feminist, relational theories to better understand the lived experience of interpersonal connections and disconnections, and how these impact a person’s psychological health. In addition, she is interested in how diversity issues, such as gender, ethnicity, and social class are embedded and interwoven into these interpersonal experiences.

Mary Sue Richardson is a Professor in the Department of Applied Psychology at New York University where she teaches in the M.A. Counselling and Ph.D. Counselling Psychology Programs. She is also trained as a psychoanalyst and has an independent private practice in New York City. Dr. Richardson’s academic work is shaped both by her university and by her clinical experience. Her major academic commitment has been to the field of vocational psychology in which she has published numerous articles. Recent work focuses on repositioning vocational psychology to encompass work and relationships in the co-construction of lives.

Donna E. Schultheiss is Professor and Co-Director of Training of Counselling Psychology at Cleveland State University, Cleveland, OH, USA. Dr. Schultheiss was recently awarded the John Holland Award for Outstanding Achievement in Career and Personality Research by Division 17 of the American Psychological Association, and the award for the Most Outstanding Research Contribution in Career Development Quarterly. She is a Fellow of Division 17 of APA, serves



as Past Chair of the Society for Vocational Psychology (Section of Division 17 of APA), and is on the editorial boards of Journal of Counseling Psychology and Journal of Vocational Behavior. Her research interests include the interface of work and relationships, international issues in vocational psychology, women’s work, and childhood career development.

Richard A. Young is Professor of Counselling Psychology at the University of British Columbia. He is a Fellow of both the Canadian Psychological Association and the American Psychological Association and a Registered Psychologist in British Columbia, Canada. His current research interests include the application of action theory and the qualitative action-project method to a variety of research topics, including the transition to adulthood, families, career development, counselling, health, and suicide. His recent co-authored book is Transition to adulthood: Actions, projects, and counseling (Springer-Science, 2011). He is the past-president of Division 16 (Counselling Psychology) of the International Association of Applied Psychology.

Eric Wallace is an advanced doctoral student in counselling psychology at Cleveland State University He earned a master’s degree in counselling and social psychology at Ball State University. His research interests include the psychological consequences of underemployment, vocational decision-making in underprivileged populations, and the school-to-work transition.

P. McIlveen, D. E. Schultheiss (Eds.), Social Constructionism in Vocational Psychology and Career Development, 1–8.© 2012 Sense Publishers. All rights reserved.




Our aim of this book was to examine the major foundations of a social constructionist approach to vocational psychology and career development. Although social constructionism has a relatively long history with roots in philosophy (e.g., Derrida, 1982; 1998; Foucault, 1970) and sociology (Berger & Luckmann, 1966; Mead, 1934), it first garnered the full attention of psychologists in the early 1980s (e.g., Gergen, 1982; 1985; Harre, 1981), and vocational psychologists significantly later (Collin & Young, 2000; Guichard, 2005; Savickas, 1994; 2000; 2002). With rapid and expanding changes in the landscape of work in the 21st century, advances in technology, internationalisation, and the globalisation of economies, there has emerged an acknowledgement of an international and global understanding of career that demands a more inclusive understanding of career as it is experienced by individuals around the world. This, together with a recognition of vocational psychology’s modernist roots, has led some to question if vocational psychology was keeping pace with the challenges of a postmodern world (e.g., Savickas & Baker, 2005). Apart from a 2004 special issue of the Journal of Vocational Psychology devoted to constructionist approaches, this book is the first extensive collection of writings to specifically address the paradigmatic and theoretical foundations of social constructionism in vocational psychology.


Social constructionism emerged within the cultural and intellectual movement of postmodernism which rejected the idea that there can be an ultimate truth and that the world as we see it is the result of hidden structures, such as underlying psychic structures that account for psychological phenomenon (Burr, 1995). This was in contrast to the Western modernist tradition that highlighted the notion of the



self-contained individual with measureable traits. The construct of career provided rhetoric to support the discourse of individualism, and the psychometric techniques of vocational guidance assumed and constructed the concept of the individual in terms of the norms of a population (Collin, 2000). The development of alternative epistemologies at the end of the twentieth century focused on language (Derrida, 1973) and the social construction of meaning (Gergen, 1985), and prompted challenges to the established understanding of, and approach to, career (Collin & Young, 1986; 2000). Collin and Young (2000) called into question the construct of career, and discontinuities that have arisen because of the fragmentation of work life. They referred to the constructed, rather than essential nature of individual identity, and the construction of meaning and the exercise of power in and through career. Collin and Young (2000) called for the reframing of career as a construct, an unfolding narrative that gives coherence to an individual’s life, yet recognizes its ambiguity and multiple dualities.

Emerging postmodern influences in vocational psychology later began to emphasize subjectivity, perspectivity, multiple truths, interpretivism, and context (e.g., Watson & McMahon, 2004). Multiplicity in meaning inevitably alters the focus of attention from a search for an objective true self with measureable interests, skills, abilities, and values, to one that is socially constructed within relationships (Blustein, Schultheiss, Flum, 2004). Although it has been said that there is no single description or feature by which to define social constructionism, scholars (i.e., Burr, 1995; Gergen, 1985) have concluded that any approach that has at its foundation one or more of the following key assumptions can be loosely grouped together as social constructionism.

Critical Stance towards Taken-for-Granted Knowledge

Social constructionism holds a critical stance towards taken-for-granted ways of understanding the world and ourselves, challenging the view that knowledge is based on objective and unbiased observations of the world. Instead, social constructionism assumes there is a potentially unlimited number of descriptions and explanations of the world and the people in it (Gergen, 1999). It thereby requires that one suspends belief in common assumptions and categories, thus challenging the objective basis of knowledge (Gergen, 1985). This challenging of categories is based on the presumption that there cannot be any determined nature or essence to the world or the people in it. Social constructionists eschew this essentialist view that sees each person as having some definable and discoverable nature (Burr, 1995). Thus, taken-for-granted categories and understandings become obscured or disappear, and language is used to construct alternative understandings and perspectives. Hence, social constructionism stands in sharp contrast to positivism and the empiricism of traditional science.



Historical and Cultural Specificity of Knowledge

Knowledge, or common ways of understanding the world, is historically and culturally relative and seen as a product of history and culture (Burr, 1995). Thus, social constructionism encourages us to consider the historical and social origins of taken-for-granted assumptions, and the concurrent social, moral, political, and economic institutions that sustain them (Gergen, 1985). Consistent with this, Burr argued that psychology can no longer be aimed at discovering the “true” nature of people. Instead, she asserted that attention should be directed towards the emergence of current forms of psychological and social life.

Knowledge is Sustained by Social Processes

Our current ways of understanding the world are not derived from the external world, but instead are constructed by people through language and their daily interactions. Thus, there are no objective truths, only shared versions of knowledge that are constructed through everyday social interaction (Burr, 1995). Knowledge or understandings that prevail across time are dependent upon the social processes of communication, negotiation, conflict, and rhetoric (Gergen, 1985). Language is used, therefore, as a tool for generating meaning within relationships to either sustain traditions of knowledge or to generate new meanings. Social constructionism encourages the emergence of new ways of interpreting the world that both challenge existing traditions of understanding and offer new possibilities (Gergen).

Knowledge and Social Action

Negotiated or socially constructed understandings of the world are accompanied by various actions. Therefore, social constructions can sustain some patterns of social action while excluding others (Burr, 1995). Social constructionism brings into full view the implications or critical significance of knowledge. Transformation into social action can emerge from alternative interpretations of the world, and result in generative discourses that challenge existing traditions of knowledge and suggest new possibilities for action (Burr).


Language is the basic tool of constructionism. It is through language that discourses are constructed to produce or represent a particular version of events or people (Burr, 1995). Therefore, discourse refers to a set of meanings, metaphors, images, or stories that provide a way of interpreting the world and giving it meaning (Burr). Knowledge is the particular common-sense culturally-bound view of the world, or dominant prevailing discourse that supports the status quo and maintains positions



of powerful groups. Discourses are closely connected to how societies are organized and run, and are typically in the interest of relatively powerful groups. Hence, dominant discourses have been said to uphold power inequality (Burr).

Foucault (1980) sees power as an effect of discourse, not a possession of the individual. Consistent with this view, knowledge is understood as power over others, the power to define others. Foucault argued that change is possible through opening up marginalized and repressed discourses and making them available as alternatives. He saw this as a way for individuals to free themselves from usual ways of understanding or ways of knowing. To challenge existing discourses, means challenging their associated social practices, structures, and power relations (Burr, 1995).

Discursive positioning recognizes that discourses shape our subjectivities, and that people are positioned within prevailing discourses. These positions, or representations of ourselves and others, cannot be avoided. People either accept them or try to resist them (Burr, 1995). Positioning is understood to be a dynamic process in which the individual has some room to manoeuvre and choose among discourses and discursive practices. Thus, people are simultaneously shaped by discourse, and are manipulators of it (Burr). Positions within discourse are seen as providing us with the content of our subjectivity. Once we accept a position in discourse, we come to experience the world and ourselves from that perspective. Thus, positioning affords a means of conceptualising how people are subject to discourse, and how this subjectivity is negotiated in interpersonal life (Burr). The first step to change is to recognize the discourses that are shaping our subjectivity.


As social constructionism takes hold in the postmodern world of vocational psychology, new methods of inquiry and emerging paradigms become essential ingredients for the field (Schultheiss, 2007). Collin (2007) proposed infusing ideas from other disciplines via social constructionism. She pointed to social constructionism as highlighting the open-ended, fluid, and tentative processes of meaning-making, thereby confounding the relationship between objectivity and subjectivity. Vocational psychologists who adopt a social constructionist perspective cannot continue to investigate the psychological and social world using old assumptions and practices because their focus was on internal psychic structures and processes. Instead, new practices of inquiry must be built. The goal of research is then no longer uncovering truths, but instead identifying new ways of understanding and generating social change. From a social constructionist perspective, scientific knowledge becomes that which is generated through relationships and reflective inquiry (Blustein et al., 2004). The aim of inquiry, therefore, shifts from questions about the nature of people or society, towards an examination of how certain phenomena or forms of knowledge are generated by people through social interaction (Burr, 1995). Thus, knowledge becomes something that people create together, and



not simply a possession of the individual. The ultimate aim is to take a critical, progressive and political stance to truth claims that help to maintain oppressive power relations, and to give voice to marginalized discourses (Burr).


The chapters of this book examine social constructionist theories in vocational psychology, the self in work as a social construction, an interdisciplinary view of social constructionist vocational psychology, career as narrative, and career development through participation in communities of practice. In addition, a critique of career discourse practices is provided. Across these chapters, the authors provide insightful critiques on the infusion of social constructionist thought into vocational psychology and career development. Each from his or her perspective integrates an historically and socially informed perspective on meaning making in a field that has been criticized for “stalling out” mid-twentieth century. At once stuck in positivist formulations of career development and practice, vocational psychology forges ahead with forward-thinking constructionist perspectives in vocational psychology. Each of these chapters is introduced in turn.

Richard Young and Natalee Popadiuk discuss both constructivist and social constructionist perspectives by emphasising how these perspectives engender a social explanation for the construction of career within historical, social, and political contexts. Each of these perspectives are concerned with career as a constructed reality, rather than a reality that exits external to the individual. By offering new ways of considering career phenomenon, the authors suggest that these approaches (i.e., narrative, relational, systems theory, cultural and contextual action theory) each imply significant implications for the understanding and practice of vocational psychology. Young and Popadiuk argue that social constructionism provides an alternative for knowledge-generation that moves our thinking well beyond individual approaches.

Graham Stead and Terri Bakker use a social constructionist lens to put one of psychology’s most cherished concepts to the test: the self. Drawing on the work of French philosopher Michel Foucault, Stead and Bakker make a forceful argument that the self is an idea that our culture and era have built for thinking about people, rather than a truth that transcends time and place. The authors apply a Foucauldian discourse analysis perspective to the social and cultural construction of the self in relation to work, with a particular emphasis on discourse, technologies of the self, power, and narrative. They argue that Foucault’s writings on the self open up new possibilities for theory and intervention by encouraging reflexive practices that allow for flexibility and change.

Hanoch Flum and Rachel Gali Cinamon assume an interdisciplinary perspective in their consideration of a social constructionist view of vocational psychology. The goal of their analysis is to use social constructionism to add new dimensions and to challenge us to pursue new meanings. The authors suggest that policymaking is



a product of social construction. They bring economic and sociological discourses to bear on psychological discourse through their discussion of human capital (the investment in people through education and training), social capital, (social reproduction and symbolic power, and the production and reproduction of inequality in class relations and social structure), and identity capital (individuals’ resources that lend themselves to self-definition and the definition of others).

Peter McIlveen discusses narrative as central to understanding and using social constructionist theories in vocational psychology. He points to a burgeoning interest in the analysis of narrative in psychology research outside of vocational psychology, to argue that vocational psychology should be paying considerably more attention to narrative approaches. The author then acknowledges the diversity of theoretical perspectives that underpin research into narrative, while at the same time emphasising the need for a socially constructed consensus on the form, function, and processes of the core construct of narrative as it pertains to career research. To address this apparent incongruity, he suggests as an alternative perspective by introducing an argument for the relevance of dialogical self theory to career and learning to achieve conceptual integration with theories of career development.

Barbara Bassot discusses how people learn by participation in communities of practice by applying the work of Vygotsky (1978). She uses Vygotsky’s concept of the zone of proximal development, or the gap between one’s current and potential developmental levels, to examine the career narratives of two women. Consistent with Lave and Wenger (1991), Bassot conceptualizes learning as a process that occurs by participating with others in activities that are culturally situated. As a result of these experiences, individuals make meaning and construct new knowledge through negotiation with others in collectives and communities. She also argues that communities of practice change as well through the experiences of those participating in them. Using women’s narratives, Bassot demonstrates how people can progress in their careers with support and opportunities to practice in meaningful activity.

Mary Sue Richardson provides a critical analysis of how powerful groups have shaped the language of career, both inside and outside of vocational psychology, and how this has circumscribed the means by which vocational psychology (and our society) views and defines work and individual workers. Richardson uses a social constructionist lens to view notions of discourse, practice, and power. Despite the challenges of critiquing career discourse practices which she outlines, Richardson presents a striking and revealing critical analysis of the history of career discourse practices. Within the context of radical and largely limiting changes in work due to globalisation, she emphasizes that if vocational psychology is to continue serving working people it needs more complex and expansive ways of viewing careers, not fewer. Following a critical analysis of contemporary career discourse practices, she discusses three newer discourse practices for vocational psychology.

Given the relative recency of social constructionism within the field of career development, there is a need for frameworks that support its articulation by scholars. Thus, in the concluding chapter, Karen Noble and Peter McIlveen present a model



of scholarly reflexivity that articulates the broad notion of being, knowing and doing, along with a four-step process of critical reflection. They then describe methods of engaging in reflexive practice. The model supports learning and innovation by scholars of social constructionism.

In summary, our hope is that this collection of writings invite and inspire vocational scholars and practitioners alike, to push the bounds of traditional taken-for-granted knowledge and practices in vocational psychology and career development. Each chapter assumes a unique perspective in illustrating how social constructionism has the capacity to enrich vocational psychology and career development. As we believe is underscored by each of these chapter authors, constructionist dialogues embrace the significance of relationship as the matrix from which meaning is derived (Gergen, 2001). Herein, lies the challenge and promise of social constructionist perspectives in the dynamic social, cultural, and historical context of what we call work.


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Perspectives in Education, 22, 169–170.


Donna E. SchultheissCleveland State University, United States of America

Eric WallaceCleveland State University, United States of America

P. McIlveen, D. E. Schultheiss (Eds.), Social Constructionism in Vocational Psychology and Career Development, 9–28.© 2012 Sense Publishers. All rights reserved.




Jenna, a 20-year-old Canadian young woman of Western European heritage, stopped attending high school in Grade 11 at 16 years of age, because she experienced school as “irrelevant” and “boring”. Shortly thereafter, her mother kicked her out of the house given that she was not in school and working only a few hours a week at a local convenience store. Although Jenna continued to work part-time at the store for the next four years at minimum wage, she sometimes had fleeting ideas of becoming an early childhood educator, since she always liked young children. However, she did not believe that she had the time, money, or enough motivation to complete high school and college, and so, she continued to work in an unfulfilling job with few opportunities to fulfil this dream.

In the context of this book, this brief fictitious vignette immediately raises the question about how constructivism and social constructionism can contribute to our understanding of Jenna’s career or the career assistance she seeks. After all, as is pointed out elsewhere in this book, constructivism and social constructionism are broad, meta-theoretical paradigms or epistemological perspectives. As such they seem more than a step removed from the daily lives of most people, and from much of professional practice as well. However, these broad perspectives inform what we believe and how we act in relation to career. Specifically, these perspectives are the basis for several emerging approaches in the career field which are now loosely identified as theories, paradigms or perspectives in vocational psychology and career counselling.

Career theorists, researchers, and practitioners often do not begin as epistemologists. Rather they use developments in epistemology, sometimes unwittingly, to address long standing problems in career theory and intervention. These problems include the dichotomy between the objective, external career and the subjective, internal career – the societal, familial, and perhaps personal expectation that Jenna is not doing what she should be doing educationally and occupationally at her stage of life versus the meaning that Jenna attaches to her behaviour. Another problem is that career theory and research seem somewhat removed from how Jenna is living her



life, in that, she is primarily concerned with supporting herself and cannot easily pursue educational opportunities even if they were available. At a broader level, she may also lack the necessary social and cultural capital – for example, knowledge, skills, education, advantages, connections, access – to negotiate such a significant transition successfully. The challenges have been accompanied recently by enormous changes brought on by phenomena such as globalisation, information technology, and economic migration. In recent years, attempts to address these problems have led researchers and theorists to consider approaches related to constructivism and social constructionism. Constructivist epistemology holds that knowledge is constructed by people, that is, it does not reflect an actual reality that exists independent of those who have constructed it as such. Social constructionist epistemology assumes that “knowledge, in some areas is the product of our social practices and institutions or of the interactions and negotiations between relevant social groups” (Gasper, 1999, p. 855). Guichard (2009) wisely referred to these perspectives as psychological constructivism and social constructionism. But it was neither constructivism nor social constructionism that opened the career theory door – a door that had been closed to perspectives other than those informed by positivism and post-positivism. The door was opened by pressure from practitioners, the challenges of work in the lives of many people in our society, and the needs for career interventions for a wider range of social, ethnic, and national groups. These influences found particular currency with the more general concept of “constructivism” which began to appear in the career literature in the late 1980’s (e.g., Savickas, 1989). Initially, and even currently (e.g., Savickas et al., 2009), this shift in career theory included both constructivism and social constructionism, such that Young and Collin, writing about them in 2004, recognized their common heritage and that both are playing a significant role in how we currently think about career and practice in the career field.

Notwithstanding the commonalities between constructivism and social constructionism, Young and Collin (2004) distinguished between them, identifying the basis for the construction of knowledge as the individual mind for constructivism and social processes for social constructionism. At one level it appears to be a matter of emphasis because for both the constructivists and the social constructionists individual and social processes are important. But some (e.g., Frie, 2003, Gergen, 1985) would argue that social constructionists remove constructs like mind and self-concept “from the head and place them within the realm of social discourse” (Gergen, p. 271). Radical social constructionism has adopted a view that individual human intentions and action are a mirage (e.g., Foucault, 1984). Similarly constructs such as agency, deemed to be almost central to career theory and practice, are not readily acknowledged in some forms of social constructionism (Frederickson, 2003). Thus, agency becomes the watershed construct in how constructivism and social constructionism are used in career theory and practice. For example, agency is central to Cochran’s (1997) narrative approach which is clearly a constructivist approach. Although reformulated from a social perspective and identified as action,



agency is also critical to contextual action theory (Young & Valach, 2004). Chen (2006) took a very positive stance toward human agency within a constructivist perspective. In recent years, more explicit criticisms of traditional career theories have emerged from authors such as Blustein (2006), Richardson (1993), and Stead (2007) who have highlighted the social context in which people engage in work and thus linking a social constructionist view of career with emancipatory and critical perspectives of society. In this chapter, we address both constructivist and social constructionist perspectives, giving emphasis to how these perspectives reflect a social explanation for the construction of career.

Constructivism and social constructionism have generated a range of perspectives of our understanding of career. Some theorists have labelled their work with generic constructivist (e.g., Savickas, 2005) or social constructionist (e.g., Blustein, Schultheiss & Flum, 2004) tags. Others have articulated more specific perspectives within these broader frameworks. While sharing many common features, these perspectives are also distinct from each other in some respects. Thus, noting their differences and similarities in one chapter is helpful in understanding the specifics of each approach as well as what they share in common. It is important to note that not all authors have identified their work as a theory; thus we have chosen to refer to these approaches according to how the authors themselves talk about them. The extent to which any approach is a definitive theory in the traditional sense of that word may be challenged, but all of them offer important new ways of considering career phenomena and have significant implications for practice. Our own view is that there is substantial commonality in these perspectives. For the most part, we discuss groups of authors, whose work we have identified as narrative, relational, systems theory, cultural, and contextual action theory. But even as we attempt to identify these approaches as constructivist/social constructionist and distinguish between them, new approaches and paradigms emerge that attract our attention, for example, life designing (Savickas et al., 2009) and self-constructing (Guichard, 2009).

At the suggestion of the editors of this work, we discuss each of these constructivist and social constructionist career perspectives or theories under six main headings: main principle, epistemology, axiology, rhetoric, research, and practice. The lack of equivalence between the approaches suggests that not all of them will have explicit and articulated positions on each of these topics. But to the extent that they have such positions, we undertake to represent them here. Three of these terms, epistemology, axiology, and rhetoric, are philosophical, which at first glance may seem distant from the work and concerns of career practitioners. However, because constructivism and social constructionism are meta-theoretical paradigms or worldviews, it is at the level of philosophy that differences and similarities of these theories can be apparent. These categories also allow us to point out the differences between more constructivist perspectives and more social constructionist perspectives.



Each of the categories for our discussion can be briefly described as follows. In the main principle category, we briefly articulate the significant claims or statements of the theory. Epistemology refers to how the theory approaches and understands knowledge, how we know, and how we determine what counts as evidence in career. Axiology addresses how the theory approaches issues of value – ethical values, what is worthwhile, and the kind of life that is worth living. The way a theory uses language, the words and constructs it uses in explaining to and persuading others of its value as well as of the purposes career constructs are used for is discussed as rhetoric. For example, a word that is very popular in several social constructionist views is subjectivity, which has replaced concepts like the mind, person, and self. The evidence in support of the theory as well as the research methods used is presented in the research category and how the theory is and can be used in practice is the last category in our discussion.

Although the language and emphasis can differ from one approach to another, they are all centrally concerned with career as a constructed reality rather than a reality that exists independent of the people who enact careers. To various degrees, they are based on an epistemology that understands that knowledge is constructed through interaction with the context in which the knowers live. If we understand axiology to refer to the values that underlie the theory, or even the values that drove the theorists to develop their approaches, we see both important commonalities and differences in these approaches. Clearly, Cohen and her colleagues (Cohen, Duberley & Mallon, 2004), Blustein (2006), Richardson (1993) and Stead (2007) expressed deep concern over how our understanding of career and practice of career interventions reflect and are embedded in Western, individualistic, ethnocentric, male, and middle class values. Others have extended the framework of values to an explicitly relational approach (e.g., Schultheiss, 2003). Their axiologies differ, with some of the more social constructionist views taking a more explicitly critical stance vis-à-vis modern understandings of career and the socio-political implications of these understandings. To some extent, these approaches share a common rhetoric. As one would expect, these approaches share a constructivist and interpretative stance vis-à-vis research, employing more qualitative methods that has been the case in career research heretofore. These approaches encompass a range of methods for practice, some proposing more traditional methods used in a new way and other proposing and trying out new practices (e.g., Amundson & Thrift, 2008).

Irrespective of whether these approaches self-identify as theories, paradigms, or approaches, they represent distinct efforts to overcome the reductionism of earlier positivist and post-positivist theorising. Some of these approaches propose themselves as integrative and holistic (e.g., Savickas, et al., 2009; Young, Valach & Collin, 2002). But these are not theories that lend themselves to empirical verification for the sake of supporting or not supporting aspects of the theory. Rather they are important ways to both organize our thinking about career and career interventions and, at the same time, critique that organisation.




Main Principles

Narrative perspectives on career development and career counselling emerged from a constructivist epistemology. Clearly authors like Bujold (2004), Cochran (1997), and Savickas (2001, 2005) are constructivist in orientation, in that they focus on how the individual makes meaning in his or her own life. For example, Bujold (2004) referred to narrative as a process in which one makes meaning of one’s experiences through self-construction and fluid self-awareness. Plot and structure are factors to be considered in this narrative perspective. Even more recent authors espousing a narrative perspective, for example, McIlveen and Patton, (2007a, 2007b) base their work largely on Savickas’s constructivist perspective and have incorporated, in the case of McIlveen and Patton (2007b), Hermans’ (1996, Hermans et al., 1993) view of the dialogical self. Because of its focus on language, narrative also lends itself a social constructionist epistemology since as Cohen, Dubberley and Mallon (2004) pointed out language lies at the heart of endowing processes with meaning.


Like other constructivist and social constructionist perspectives, knowledge is not based solely on an independent world that exists apart from the knower. Narrative emphasizes the social processes in creating knowledge. More specifically, and connecting it to the individual mind, Bruner (1990) suggested that narrative in a mode of thinking and organising our thoughts is more characteristic of the human species that rational, linear thought. If so, this epistemology closely reflects the experience of people in their everyday lives.


Phelan (1996) argued that narrative is rhetoric because it occurs when someone tells a particular story for a particular audience. Counselling takes up this theme when it recognizes the plasticity of narratives and thus proposes intervening in their construction. In particular, the narrative approaches to career theory and career counselling largely use the rhetoric of the individual. These include terms like mind, agency, individual, terms that challenge social constructionist assumption of anti-essentialism, that there is something inside of us that wills our actions (Shotter, 1989). For example, in Cochran’s (1997) text on narrative career counselling, the agent is identified and discussed as “one who makes things happen” (p. 3), and contrasted to a patient as a person to whom things happen. Clearly, Cochran’s view espouses an agentic mind. His view is clearly constructivist rather than social constructionist.




Research on the narrative approach to career is woefully lacking. A PsyARTICLES search for narrative and career in the abstract had only eight hits, of which only two reported empirical studies (Chusid & Cochran, 1989; Schultheiss, Palma, Predragovich & Glasscock, 2002). A broader search uncovers a range of related research (e.g., Cohen & Mallon, 2001; Gockel, 2004; Habermas & de Silveira, 2008; Mignot, 2004; Pasupathi & Hoyt, 2009; Young, Friesen & Borycki, 1994). Young and Collin (1992) assembled a book of career research studies that were largely narrative. It is difficult to explain the relative paucity of narrative methods in career research given that career lends itself so readily to narrative. Career is a narrative. At the same time, narrative represents a paradigmatic shift traditional career research, and, as a research method, has not coalesced around a single dominant approach.

Collin (2007) cogently distinguished between narrative and narratological research, suggesting that the former may be postmodern (social constructionist), while the latter is not. Career research that has used the narrative label, it seems to us, may be broadly constructivist, but not necessarily social constructionist. Vilhjálmsdóttir and Tulinius’s (2009) example of career counselling research from a structural narratology perspective is a clear example of narrative research that is not social constructionist.1


There are a number of counselling practices that reflect the narrative perspective, indeed, the close alignment between career and narrative suggests that constructing the “story of one’s future” is dependent on the stories of one’s past and present and is what career counselling is about. Cochran (1997) has elaborated a sophisticated approach to narrative career counselling in which the narrative construction of beginning middle, and end of the story figure centrally. In contrast, Savickas (2005) proposes a narrative practice in which life themes are central and in which he reinterprets more traditional intervention approaches, such as Holland’s, from a narrative perspective. The development of the meaning life/career story is implicit in many forms of career counselling beyond the one identified. Such a development is well represented in McMahon’s (2006, 2007) recent work.


Main Principle

Relational scholars in the area of career ground their scholarship in the lives of working people across contexts, cultures, and social realities in order to expand the notion of work and career (Blustein, Schultheiss & Flum, 2004; Schultheiss, 2003,



2007). The main principle in relational theories is that relationships are central to human functioning throughout our lives and, more specifically, that there are strong connections between interpersonal relationships and career (Blustein, 2001; Blustein, Schultheiss & Flum, 2004). Given the importance of relationships, relational career theorists examine how career is constructed through the interaction of interpersonal relationships, such as with and between parents, siblings, and significant others. Indeed, it is through the web of social relationships that we bump up against the range of possible career opportunities open to us and develop knowledge of ourselves in relation to others.


The theory of how knowledge is generated is seen as something that arises through relational connectedness and interactions with others. Career is embedded in socially mediated interactions with others, and these interactions involve tasks and responsibilities organized in a way that ensures the person’s survival within their current social context (Blustein, Schultheiss & Flum, 2004).


Relational ethics highlights the importance of people as interdependent and active agents who value and nurture the relational space-in-between as the site of ethical action (Bergum & Dossetor, 2005). These authors identify the themes of mutual respect of self and others, engagement that encompasses empathy, authentic connection, and presence, and the larger web of interconnected relationships between people and systems of care. Relational ethics is particularly important in these theories because it challenges the individualism that characterizes modern career theory. For example, Taylor (1989) takes the view that at the heart of psychological processes (like constructing career) we are social beings and that what is good for the individual is embedded in what is good for the community. Guichard and Dumara (2008) have made this ethical basis explicit in their theory of self-construction. The ethics of relationship are particularly salient when considering “the principles that provide life bearings and identifying what makes a life really worthwhile” (Savickas, et al., 2009, p. 241).


The rhetoric or language used in relational theories focuses on contextualising career concerns and examining how interpersonal relationships provide the framework for people’s working lives. In general, feminist relational therapists use accessible, familiar, and normalising language, which acts to de-pathologise problems in living and to reduce the power differential between the counsellor (the knower) and the client or (the one who needs to know) (Miller & Stiver, 1997;



West, 2005). The language highlights the nuances and contours of interpersonal relationships, including concepts such as authenticity, mutual respect, mutuality, embeddedness, the space-in-between, relational connections, disconnections, and reconnections. Language is used in a way that frames the context of people’s lives around relationships, opens up new options and possibilities for self in relation to others, normalizes interpersonal challenges, and promotes ways to repair ruptured relationships that moves away from pathologising people and their actions.


The body of literature examining relational perspectives and career development continues to grow. Researchers have examined the role of relationships in career decision-making during their transition from school to work (Phillips, Christopher-Sisk & Gravino, 2001), relational influences of siblings on college students’ career explorations (Schultheiss, Predragovich & Glasscock, 2002), and the role of parents, siblings, and significant others on the career development process (Schultheiss, Kress & Manzi, 2001). Research highlights how career decision making is fundamentally relationally oriented, given that people seek out support, advice, and ideas from significant people in their lives (Blustein, Schultheiss & Flum, 2004). The interdependence of career and interpersonal relationships through these and other studies clearly demonstrates the socially constructed nature of career development.


Schultheiss (2005) outlined three specific constructivist career assessment strategies that highlight relational collaborations and co-constructed explorations of a client’s vocational journey. Relational counsellors often rely on constructivist meaning-making approaches as a way to focusing on the co-construction of new meanings about life, work, and creating a life worth living (Blustein, Schultheiss, & Flum, 2004). Relational-Cultural Therapy, a social constructionist perspective, focuses on appreciating and exploring relatedness and interconnectedness in all domains of life, including work and career (Jordan, Kaplan, Miller, Stiver, & Surrey, 1991; Miller & Stiver, 1997; Schultheiss, 2006). Dimensions such as mutual empathy, empowerment, and authenticity lie at the core of these feminist interventions used to highlight, and work toward changing, cultures of relational disconnection in the client’s life. From a relationally-oriented perspective, a counsellor who works with Jenna would explore the ways in which relationships both expand and limit the available range of options for her, as well as examine ways in which her interpersonal style facilitates or hinders her career development and access to opportunities.




Main Principles

First expounded by McMahon and Patton in 1995, and later more fully articulated (Patton & McMahon, 1997, 1999), the Systems Theory Framework (STF) undertook to integrate traditional and emerging career theories. This constructivist perspective provides a broad, contextualized view of career that examines the overlapping systems of influence including individual, social, and environmental-societal (McIlveen & Patton, 2007a). These systems are seen in dynamic relationship to each other and are characterized by recursiveness, change over time, and chance. In later iterations of the STF (e.g., McIlveen & Patton, 2007a), story or narrative was identified as a key feature of this framework. In narrative, a person brings meaning to the systems of influence through the construction of a functional autobiographical account. Clients construct their own meaning of their lives and careers by creating stories based on these overlapping systems of influence (McIlveen & Patton, 2007a). These systems can be viewed as complex, circular, and interconnected sets of values, beliefs, and institutions within and between career development occurs (Arthur & McMahon, 2005). More specifically, this multifaceted perspective provides an overview of the context of a person’s life and career: intrapersonal functioning; interpersonal connections, for example, family, employer, and colleagues; the structures and systems of his or her life for example, high school, workplace, place of worship;, and the overriding societal influences, for example, laws, societal norms, and beliefs.


Proponents of STF believe that social reality and knowledge is co-constructed between individuals and the dynamic interaction of the multiple systems that influence them (Arthur & McMahon, 2005). In particular, these systems influence people’s career development in a complex and interactive manner.


In the recent edition of their text on career development and systems theory, Patton and McMahon (2006) relied on Brown’s (2002) value-based theory of career development as the most explicit discussion of values. Brown’s approach recognizes that values inform career decisions but does not address what is ultimately worthwhile, the basis on which ethical judgments can be made, or the basis on which we can critique career constructs and approaches as moral entities. At the same time, STF, like many career theories, addresses practice, and thus human action, which is inherently moral and value-based. These theories beg for more explicit discussion of values.




The language of systems theory encompasses concepts such as overlapping systems of influence, and micro, meso, and macro levels of analysis. STF retains traditional constructs such as agency, learning, and meaning that reflect an individual perspective and also use constructs that express dimensions of systems, for example, connectedness (McMahon & Patton, 2006). Proponents of this perspective view people within complex systems that co-construct the career trajectory. People are not viewed as isolated beings, but rather as socially-embedded agents that interact with the various systems of influence.


Systems Theory Framework (STF) is a specific metatheoretical perspective that supports an expanded holistic and multidisciplinary view of career that includes the intrapersonal, interpersonal, and contextual influences (Arthur & McMahon, 2005; McMahon & Watson, 2007; Patton & McMahon, 2006). Research has been conducted to strengthen the evidence regarding narrative approaches embedded in constructivist career counselling interventions, such as those found in the Systems Theory Framework (McIlveen, McGregor-Bayne, Alcock & Hjertum, 2003; McMahon, Patton & Watson, 2005a). The Career Systems Interview (McIlveen et al., 2003) has been further developed to ensure more rigor in conducting career assessment interviews. The Career Systems Interview is based upon the STF as a theoretical safeguard to ensure that the career counselling process is holistic, integrative, and contextualized.


Strong links between theory and practice provide a coherent theoretical frame for career counsellors. Counsellors working within a Systems Theory Framework believe that fostering change in one part of the system will bring about change in the other parts of the system (Arthur & McMahon, 2005). Client advocacy interventions are used to help change difficult systemic conditions by addressing influences that have a negative impact on marginalized and nondominant population groups in society, for example, people living in a low socioeconomic reality with little cultural capital and access to higher education. Similar to cultural and relational theories, there is an overlap of counselling interventions that attend to advocacy, social justice, and empowerment. In particular, My System of Career Influence (McMahon, Patton & Watson, 2005b) is an 11-page career assessment tool based on STF that career counsellors can use with clients in individual or group counselling




Main Principle

Contextual action theory was introduced as an explicit career explanation in 1996 (Young, Collin & Valach, 1996). It focuses on the goal-directed nature of human action. Three important principles of contextual action theory are first, it recognizes that many human behaviours are goal-directed and intentional, and such behaviours are referred to as actions. Secondly, many of these human actions are jointly constructed, that is they are engaged in with others, even if the others are not physically present, thus the theory refers to joint action. Thirdly, contextual action theory has an explicit temporal dimension, that is, actions themselves are relatively short-term. When several actions are constructed over a midterm length of time with a common goal, they are referred to as project, for example, coaching a child’s soccer team over a season or several seasons may comprise a project. When projects coalesce over a much longer period of time, then the term career is invoked, for example, a parenting career, a relationship career, or an occupational career. Vocational research and practice fall under the same conceptual umbrella. Thus, this theory goes far in healing the divides that have plagued the career field.


Contextual action theory is informed by social constructionism. It sees the social world as constructed through everyday actions. It differs from narrative, relational, and systems approaches by focusing more broadly on human actions as the basis for knowledge construction rather than these other approaches. It relies on goals, rather than causes, to explain human action. In some ways, one may think about contextual action theory as more of an epistemological perspective or metatheory than a career theory in the narrow sense of that word.


Contextual action is based on a relational ethic. It focuses on what contributes to facilitating relationships and emphasizes the importance of relationships over abstract principles in ethical judgment and decision making. Contextual action theory has the capacity to address the largest questions of life, which are at heart, moral questions. It addresses the question, “what kind of life am I to lead?” Specifically, in contextual action theory that question is answered through our actions, their goals, the steps we take to realize them, and the behaviours, resources, and skills we use to take these steps, as well as the unconscious processes that are embedded in them.




One of the appeals of contextual action theory is its use of everyday language. The language of goal-directed action and projects is close to how people live and make sense of their lives. Career is also included in that language proposed by contextual action theory. Whether this term meets the criterion of being close to how people live their lives is under some debate (e.g., Blustein, 2006; Richardson, 1993). Certainly the narrow, occupational sense of the term has been criticized for its elitist, middle-class, and gendered perspective by some of the theories discussed in this chapter. In it colloquial use, career, in Western English-language usage, has a strong occupational meaning. Contextual action theory adds substantially to that meaning and does so in a way that revolutionizes or radicalizes career psychology. It revolutionizes career psychology by providing the conceptual basis for understanding career as much more than occupation. The radical reform of career psychology is founded on the principle that at the base of career is goal-directed action.


Contextual action theory is based on empirical methods available to both counsellors, researchers, and program evaluators (Young & Valach, 2008; Young, Valach, & Domene, 2005). These empirical methods are naïve observation, the self-confrontation interview, and systemic observation. Naïve observation provides information on social meaning, the self-confrontation interview addresses subjective processes, and systematic observation explicates the manifest order of action, project and career while utilising the social and the subjective view as well. Indeed, the development of this theory has been accompanied by the parallel development of a unique research method, the action-project method, that has been used in a range of research studies. To date, the empirical evidence supporting contextual action theory has been descriptive, that is, it has focussed on describing relevant actions, joint actions, projects, and careers in vocational and related domains. Researchers have focused specifically on future-related projects between parents and adolescents, and have been able to identify a range of dimensions of those projects. For example, Young and colleagues have described the career-related projects between parents and younger adolescents (Young et al., 2001), in families that are challenges in one way or another (Young et al., 2006), in Chinese-Canadian families, (Young et al., 2003), between adolescent peers (Young et al., 1999), between parents and older adolescents regarding the transition to adulthood (Young et al., 2007) and have also addressed specific aspects of those projects, such as emotion (Young, Paseluikho & Valach, 1997).


The integration of theory and practice in contextual action theory makes this perspective particularly attractive for counsellors and other practitioners without



imposing yet another theory of counselling or psychotherapy. Essentially the practice implications of contextual action theory for counselling focus on three aspects, each of which is regarded from an action perspective. The following are not listed as sequential steps but as aspects of counselling that happen concurrently or virtually concurrently. First, the counsellor and client focus on the actions and projects in the client’s life. For example, identifying and helping to make Jenna’s current projects more visible in her life may assist her in prioritising them. It also provides some indication of the level of particular concerns, for example, with goals, steps, or behaviour. Indicating the how Jenna’s identity, relationship, and vocational projects are related yet different may enable her to see these as serving different project and career goals and thus clarify their contributions to her life. Secondly, the counsellor-client relationship is also considered as joint action and a joint project. For example, the counsellor witnesses Jenna’s construction of on-going actions and projects and thus engages in them with her. The counsellor and client are also constructing their own relationship which parallels processes that may be occurring outside of counselling. Finally, in contextual action theory, counselling is seen as an opportunity to develop and present a narrative. How a person presents their past, present and future life is relevant, for example, helping Jenna to search for a language reflective of emotional states and episodes may help her compensate for deficits in describing emotions and to construct narratives with adequate emotional passages.


Main Principles

For many years, career theory was considered too monocultural. In response, a number of authors undertook to expand the understanding by identifying more cultural variables that need to be accounted for in these theories (e.g., Hartung, 2002). While noteworthy and important, these efforts do not constitute a social constructionist cultural theory. In contrast, Stead (2004), a critical social constructionist, posits that cultural theory is a postmodern approach that emphasizes language, communication, and relationships that can be used not only to understand but to critique modern notions of career. In particular, he states that culture is a social system of shared symbols, meanings, perspectives, and social actions that are mutually negotiated by people in their relationship with others. Blustein (2006) further postulates that many traditional career theories and models are irrelevant to some groups because they are based on cultural assumptions, such as an emphasis on freedom of choice, affluence, the centrality of the work role, and notions of career success. From a cultural perspective, vocational counselling can be seen as socially constructed and culturally embedded in a system of privilege and oppression that affords opportunities for some, while limiting options for others.




Knowledge is socially constructed through language. This language discourse is contextually embedded within larger social systems. To paraphrase Shweder (1991), cultural theory suggests that what we know and how we know it cannot be extricated from the intentional constructed world in which it is a constructed and constructing part. Stead (2004) explained that knowledge is a cultural process of meaning-making in which multiple realities are constructed and negotiated through history.


In cultural theory, all phenomena are value laden, including the people for example, researchers and counsellors, and processes, for example, vocational theory and counselling. A critical cultural perspective focuses on power relations between and amongst people and social systems in society with a particular emphasis on emancipation of devalued and oppressed groups (Stead, 2004). These perspectives seem straightforward, but there are two strong competing forces that challenge them. One is the common perception that science, and thus career psychology, is value neutral and the other is the development of a so-called moral science (Pomeroy, 2005).


Rhetoric is central to the argument from the cultural perspective. Stead (2004) pointed out the dangers of oversimplified interpretations of constructs in both traditional and emerging career theories. Language and terminology in career counselling have been and are socially constructed to reflect particular vocational behaviours and “normal” trajectories of career development. Moreover, this language and terminology from a rhetorical perspective is persuasive and influential. Stead (2009) puts forward that such terminology subjugates clients to accept career discourses that are not of their own choosing by imposing a dominant sociopolitical and historical framework, although it is hard to imagine anyone making a choice in the absence of a dominant political framework. He argues that traditional career metaphors, including anchor, foundation, core, framework, essence, for example, are not meaningless words, but reflect underlying meanings, contexts, and entrenched beliefs. In reaction to the dominant vocational discourse, critical cultural theorists use terms such as deconstruct, externalize, subjective knowledges, emancipation, power relations, oppression, and taken-for-granted assumptions.


Research is considered value-laden and the researcher and his or her values and beliefs are implicated every step of the way. In contrast to the positivist or post-positivist discourse of maintaining an objective, neutral, and value-free stance,



cultural researchers seek to be meaningful and socially relevant in communities. Several research methods facilitative a critical/cultural perspective (see Morrow, 2005). These include participatory action research, in which researchers and participants actively and collaboratively seek to bring change to oppressive social systems and institutions (Fine & Torre, 2004).


Cultural theory does not endorse any one counselling theory, instead uses guiding principles to support counselling modalities that foreground the importance of language, meaning-making, relationship, and power relations. One important step in changing practice in light of cultural theory, suggested by Stead (2004) and Watson (2006), is the need to deconstruct existing career theory and their associated practices in order to reconstruct them in a way that is attuned to the lives and needs of the clients being helped. Young, Marshall and Valach (2007) proposed specific procedures that allow the development of culturally based theories informed by local actions and practices. Chen (2008) circumvented the issue of static and ethnocentric career theory by proposing a cross-cultural life career development framework to address the processes of career guidance with a specific population, in this case, new immigrants to Canada. Arthur (2006) suggested that counsellors examine power disparities. Counselling practices such as feminist therapy (Brown, 2007), relational-cultural therapy (Miller & Stiver, 1997), and a cultural formulation approach using a client’s intersecting identities (e.g., gender and social class) (Arthur & Popadiuk, 2010) all incorporate interventions that promote the empowerment of people and groups, as well as the emancipation from oppressive systems and contexts.

In working with Jenna, a counsellor who adopted a cultural theory lens may explore Jenna’s power, privilege, and oppression through the intersections of gender, ethnicity, and social class. Together, they could examine the ways in which Jenna holds and maintains her privileges, that is, social and cultural capital, as a White able-bodied young person of Western European ancestry living in a large Canadian city. At the same time, Jenna and her counsellor could see how this relative power and privilege is often undercut by her oppressed statuses of being a poor, working class woman without high school graduation living in a small basement suite in a drug-infested area of the city. By using a critical cultural theory lens, it is clear that discrimination, disempowerment, lack of social, financial, and cultural resources, and little access to people with power who might encourage and support her, Jenna has very little hope of completing her education, finding meaningful and rewarding work, or transcending her current social class.


In 1986, Collin and Young looked to the future of career theories to see the possibility of new theories embedded in a contextualist worldview that reflected



“ecological, biographical, and hermeneutical approaches” (p. 849). Much has been realized in the intervening almost quarter century. The approaches discussed in this chapter, while not named ecological, biographical, or hermeneutical, are their vision made manifest. The themes taken up in the approaches described in this chapter use constructs like narrative, contextual, and constructivist. What is added more explicitly is attention to action, relationship, and culture. But all these approaches signal a substantial shift away from solely post-positivist theories of career. The approaches discussed in this chapter reflect a view of persons, in concert with others and the larger social, political, and historical context, as the constructors of their worlds, including their vocational world. It is our view that these approaches offer substantial advantage to the understanding and practice of vocational psychology in its various forms. While many of these approaches are identified as broad, integrative approaches, their distinctiveness is important to recognize and validate, and offer unique paths that the field can profitably follow.

In examining these five theoretical approaches, it is clear that there is a groundswell of support toward practice initiatives that utilize constructivist and social constructionist epistemologies. It is also clear, however, that much work remains to be done regarding the nexus of theory and research, especially in clarifying and delineating how this body of knowledge hangs together. From this review, we can see that if we want theory to be adequately supported with evidence, then researchers need to develop projects that seek to better understand the what, why, and how of constructivist and social constructionist approaches. Knowledge-generation that moves our thinking well beyond individual approaches and begins to help us understand the overriding similarities, differences, and interconnections between and amongst these perspectives will necessarily propel us toward developing and implementing more cohesive career counselling theories, therapies, and interventions for and with our clients.

The future that these approaches figuratively envision is one where greater diversity enlivens the conversation about career, career development, and career counselling—conversations that are informed by diverse epistemological and practice paradigms. These approaches envision a future accords a more explicit place to language in career research, but not as narrowly subservient to discourse. Hopefully, these constructivist and constructionist approaches can lead us to inclusive approaches to practice that include our rich post-positivist corpus and are responsive to the lives of clients.


1 Structural narratology refers to efforts to identify the formal description of narratives, that is, how the narrative is structured. It is analogous to the parsing of a sentence as subject, verb, object, and so on (e.g., Eagleton, 1983).




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Richard A. YoungUniversity of British Columbia, Canada

Natalee E. PopadiukUniversity of Victoria, Canada