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Theory for guidance practice

Contribution from Jenny Bimrose, Institute for Employment Research, University of Warwick.

** Please note these are in the process of being updated. **

An old adage proclaims 'Theory without practice is meaningless, but practice without theory is blind'. This section provides a critical introduction to traditional and new theories in careers guidance together with criteria with which to assess them. Re-familiarise yourself with 'traditional' career guidance theory, and see how much theory has evolved in recent years.

As the practice of careers guidance has become more established, policy requirements in the UK have increased its range of clients and tasks. Varied and complex demands on services have produced questions about how best to deal with their associated challenges, with answers increasingly being sought in career theory. New theories signal a rejection of scientific, positivist approaches to career, replacing them with paradigms embracing more holistic, fluid models of human behaviour. The process of working out (and working through) the implications of new approaches for practice is underway, with a key challenge likely to be reconciling new approaches and thinking to policy directives embedded in traditional theory.

Bodies of knowledge informing career practice have expanded over the past two decades and with this development, critiques of traditional theories are becoming a well-established feature of the literature.

Why bother with theory?

Without theoretical frameworks to guide our practice, there is a danger that there will be too much reliance on common sense. Here a practitioner, trainer and researcher consider why theory is important.

What is theory for practice and when is a theory a theory?

Contribution from Jenny Bimrose

Krumboltz and Nichols (1990) argue that theories developed to inform guidance practice are generally based on research evidence which can be scrutinized and judged independently by others. They go on to propose that theory for careers practice should help:

  • understand a complex phenomenon
  • make predictions about future outcomes
  • decide on courses of action

They also identify characteristics that can be used to identify a career theory, which include the following:

  • Represents reality - theory represents various aspects of reality in an understandable way
  • Omits non-essentials - theory simplifies reality by ignoring a large number of variables (like a map)
  • Emphasis - to make features clear, theories often stress the importance of certain variables (e.g. by giving them special names, stressing their importance in words, figures or formulas)
  • Abstracts - a theory may include unobservable constructs and ideas believed to be important which are abstractions.
  • Practically useful - a good theory enables people to derive answers to innumerable questions (e.g. how are preferences for occupations developed? What interventions are needed to help clients make sound career decisions, etc.).


That is, a career theory should address some or all of these features. Where it does not, it cannot be identified as a 'theory' according to this definition, although it may still inform practice.

Krumboltz, J.D. & Nichols, C. W. (1990) ‘Integrating the social learning theory of career decision making’, in Walsh, W.B. & Osipow, S.H. (Eds) Career Counseling: contemporary topics in vocational psychology, New Jersey, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, pp.159-192.

Click for others' perspectives on theory.

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How do we choose between theories?

Varied theories have developed to inform practice. New theoretical frameworks are evolving and being added to the established wisdom all the time. How can practitioners and others makes sense of this? This contribution was put together by Jenny Bimrose for training purposes. However, it is informed by her experience both as a practitioner and researcher.

Brown (1990) identifies the following criteria for this purpose:

  • Relevance: A good theory should have relevance to life events. In the case of career theory, these events could relate to, for example, the decision making process. Importance is difficult to ascertain and therefore must be determined contextually:
  • Influence:A good theory will influence the thinking of others working in related areas. So, ask yourself:
    • How often is theory cited?
    • Does it stimulate research in the field?
    • Is it adopted in practice?
    • Does the theory stand the test of time? (For new career theories, it will only be possible to judge them against these criteria in the future.)Timeframe: A good theory will be able to explain past and future findings, as well as what is already known at the time of its publication. In judging the quality of career theories, the focus should be on how well they have been able to account for the empirical findings that have appeared since their publication.
  • Comprehensiveness: Theories of career development should predict and explain diversity in all its forms (gender, ethnicity, age, disability, socio-economic status, etc.). (There is still a lack of research and theory about the career development groups that are demographically different from white, middle-class adolescents and young adults).
  • Causality: The interrelationships between and among propositions of a theory should be clear. For example, claiming that a match between personal attributes and occupational characteristics is essential to job satisfaction is not enough. A theory must also explain why satisfaction is the result of the match.
  • Accessibility: To be judged positively, a theory must be an elegant, simple statement. This is difficult and few theorists have achieved this simplicity. However, a good theory will define terms succinctly and ideas will be explained in a straightforward manner.
  • Heuristic: A theory explains a set of complex phenomena that need verification. Good research depends on the ability to ask good questions and the tradition in social science research is to generate these questions from existing theory.
  • Understanding, prediction and control: It is important for scientists to understand the phenomena they deal with, predict when certain events will occur, and (if predictions can be achieved) eventually to control phenomena.
  • Guide to practice: Good theories will take one step beyond an explanation of occupational choice and/or career development to detail the implications of theory for practice.

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Traditional theories and critiques

Contribution from Jenny Bimrose, Institute for Employment Research, University of Warwick. It is based on theories that practitioners identified as influential on their interviewing as part of research undertakin in the early 1990's by Kidd et al.

  • Matching theories (Trait/factor) Based on differential psychology, these approaches assume that guidance is essentially about a process of rational decision making in which clients are assessed by the 'expert pracitioner' and then matched to the 'best fit' opportunity. It follows that the provision of information about the client and the world of work will result in behaviour change (e.g. improved decision making skills).
  • Developmental theory The process of helping a person to develop and accept an integrated and adequate picture of themselves and of their role in the world of work. A central concept is that people develop through stages over their lifetime.
  • Theory of occupational allocation (Opportunity structure) Apart from a privileged minority of the population individuals are (more or less) constrained in their choice of occupations by social variables that are outside their control e.g. gender, ethnicity and social class.
  • Learning theory of careers choice & counselling People acquire their preferences through a variety of learning experiences, beliefs about themselves and the nature of their world emerge through direct and indirect education experiences. They take action on the basis of their beliefs using learned skills.
  • Psychodynamic theories These theories guided by attempts to understand, make meaning of, and utilise individual motives, purposes and drives to support career development.
  • Community interaction theory According to this theory, the most significant factors in occupational choice are the interpersonal transactions conducted in local settings.

Click here for more information on traditional theories, recent developments and critiques.

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New trends in theory development for guidance practice

There is an emerging consensus regarding the inadequacies of theories that inform careers practice. Savickas (1995) relates current problems with theory to the more fundamental issue of different philosophical origins. He identifies inherent tensions which arise from the academic traditions of different theories: ‘sharp lines have been drawn on which philosophy of science to choose’ (Savickas, 1995, p.15). Arguing for theoretical convergence, he concludes that:

"vocational psychology could benefit simultaneously from refinements forged within the distinct career theories, from advances produced by convergence among career macrotheories and from break-throughs induced by divergence in work-role microtheory." (p.29)

As a result of comparing theories, Osipow and Fitzgerald (1996) conclude that they differ not only because of the different philosophical orientations of authors, but also because they are trying to achieve different objectives (p.323). They distinguish those that focus on explanations of the choice process, those that focus on career development over time, and those that focus more on providing practical techniques. A common weakness is their tendency to claim universality for their concepts (p.323).

Two distinct trends in theory development, which sometimes overlap, can be identified.

  1. The first trend is towards developing theories that attempt to meet the needs of specific client groups, such as minority ethnic groups or girls and women. Traditional theories tend to assume choice and autonomy for the individual, whereas some critics question this as a reasonable assumption for some client groups. For example, Osipow and Littlejohn (1995) discuss serious weaknesses in applying theory to minority ethnic groups. A major problem is the manner in which all theories use concepts which ‘assume cultures that are relatively affluent and have good opportunities for education, upward mobility and family support and encouragement’ (p.255), because many members of minority ethnic groups do not have access to these privileges. Attempts are being made to develop approaches that address the particular issues related to these client groups. Leong (1995), for example, presents theory and research on particular ethnic groups such as Asian Americans, Hispanics and African Americans, and discusses progress towards developing a multicultural theory of career development. In addition to minority ethnic groups, another client group for which the relevance of traditional theories is being questions is girls and women. Emerging theories for this client group are discussed below.
  2. The second trend in career theory development is towards those characterised by a post-modern approach (Collin and Watts, 1996, Savickas, 1993). Savickas (1993) discusses the general move away from ‘logical positivism, objectivist science, and industrialism’ towards ‘a multiple perspective discourse’ (p.205), summarising key differences between the modern and post-modern era (p.209). Career counselling has produced six notable innovations to mark its entry to the post-modern era. These are, first, a rejection of the notion that careers practitioners are experts: ‘instead of portraying themselves as masters of truth, counsellors are creating a space where those involved can speak and act for themselves’ (p.211). Second, the replacement of the concept of ‘fit’ with ‘enablement’, and affirmation of diversity. Third, recognition of the importance of context and culture, together with the broadening of focus beyond pre-occupation with work-role. Together, these signal a move toward life-design counselling and grand narratives (p.212). Fourth, a questioning of the legitimacy of separating career from the personal, with a move toward the greater integration of these two domains. Fifth, the realisation that career theory has provided objective guidance techniques which practitioners have increasingly had to combine with subjective techniques derived from counselling theory for their practice. Embryonic career theories are thus being developed which focus more on meaning, invention and construction, and move towards ‘co-construction or social construction of meaning’ (p.213). Finally, a shift away from objectifying clients by measurement to a preference for autobiography and meaning-making.

Savickas (1993) suggests that changes in career counselling re-define the practitioner as co-authors and editors of career narratives. Instead of diagnosing, assessing and matching, they authorise careers by narrating coherent stories; invest career with meaning by identifying themes and tensions in the story line; and help clients learn the skills necessary for the next episode in the story (p.213).

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New theories for guidance practice

Selected new approaches are summarised here:

  • Multicultural counselling
  • Constructivist approaches & narrative counselling
  • Life-is-Career
  • Pragmatic rationalism & careership
  • Systems theory
  • 'Boundaryless career'
  • Social cognitive approaches
  • Careers Scotland's approach to guidance model

Click here for more information on new theories for guidance practice or information on career theories for women and minority ethnic groups.

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Other theories relevant to practice

In addition to the theories specifically about career behaviour and development to guide practice, practitioners need an understanding of complementary theories. Two examples include:

  • Adolescence - Adolescence can be described as a period of transition between 'childhood' and 'adulthood' and a critical time of career decision-making. This section considers some relevant issues for guidance practice with clients in this age group.
  • Transitions - The term transition refers to a life event, which causes role changes or crisis. Primarily transition is about change and this section considers some issues relevant to guidance practice with clients who are dealing with transitions.

Click here for more information on these other theories relevant to practice.

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Making sense of career theories...a practitioner's perspective

The difference between ‘career theory’ and ‘guidance theory’
There are many theories that influence career guidance. In simple terms these can be viewed as falling into two categories. The first, Career Theory, is concerned with how people make occupational choices. The second, Guidance Theory, concerns how to assist that decision making through a structured approach. In practice these theories are inter-related. The particular view of how career choices are made and implemented is consistently reflected in the theories of how best to assist individuals in respect of their careers. The notion of ‘career’ is itself considered in different ways. Early theories appear to view career primarily as employment (Parsons, 1909). More recent approaches typically take a more holistic view, based on the subjective experiences and values of the individual, and recognising that no client comes from a contextual vacuum (Ali &Graham, 1996:106). This shift is reflected, for example, in new terminology such as emplotment. This conveys the centrality of individual experience within a personal narrative of career over a lifespan (Cochran, 1997). In each instance the theories are often a product of their time, and as such open to critique. As expressed by Gothard et al. (2001:37):

‘There are many theories relevant to careers guidance; they have developed over time in response to changing contexts and can be seen as having varying relevance to today’s clients. What is certain is that no single theory is adequate to explain fully the complex processes of occupational choice and career development that take place in our rapidly changing world. The search continues.’

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