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New theories for guidance practice

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

Multicultural counselling

Research shows clients from ethnic minority groups are the least likely to make use of counselling services. One explanation for this is that it is an ethnocentric activity, based on the values of the white middle classes, an approach which can alienate those from other cultures. A multicultural approach to counselling challenges the assumption that one style of interviewing is transferable to all clients. This section examines a theory of multicultural counselling; definitions; and models of multiculturalism; highlighting the implications these have for guidance practitioners.

Theory of multicultural counselling and therapy (MCT)

Most career counselling and guidance practitioners would readily acknowledge that each client is unique, and that individual differences must be accepted and respected. However, practice - based on theories taught during initial training and subsequently developed into 'action theories' in the field - often reflects the assumption that a particular interviewing approach is transferable across a wide range of clients. Multicultural counselling challenges this view.

Sue et al (1996) propose a theory of multicultural counseling and therapy (MCT). This is considered necessary because of the inadequacies of current theories informing current counselling practice. These theories operate from both explicit and implicit assumptions that guide their practical application, and so an `assumption audit' is presented as the starting point for the authors developing MCT as an essential starting point for understanding this new theory.

It's suggested (p2) that we all conduct a `critical and independent audit' of assumptions which currently underlay our counselling practice, and compare it with the one presented below.

Underlying assumptions:

  • Current theories of counselling and psychotherapy inadequately describe, explain, predict and deal with current cultural diversity.
  • Culture is complex but not chaotic.
  • Diversification is occurring at such a rapid pace that mental-health professionals will increasingly come into contact with clients or client groups who differ from them racially, culturally and ethnically.
  • Mental-health professionals are not adequately prepared to engage in multicultural practice.
  • The traditional training models of professional schools contribute to encapsulation.
  • A major paradigm shift is in process.
  • Multiculturalism provides a fourth dimension to the three traditional helping orientations (psychodynamic, existential-humanistic and cognitive).
  • Asian, African and other non-Western progenitors of counselling and psychotherapy have been trivialized.
  • Individualism has dominated the mental-health field and is strongly reflected in counseling and psychotherapy.
  • A culture-centred meta-theory is viable.
  • All learning occurs and identities are formed in a cultural context.
  • Cultural identity is dynamic and changing.
  • Unintentional racism is as serious as intentional racism.
  • Multicultural training increased a counsellor's repertoire of skills and perspectives.
  • Informal as well as formal counselling is important in many cultural contexts.
  • Culture should be defined inclusively and broadly rather than narrowly.
  • Understanding the cultural and sociopolitical context of a client's behaviour is essential to accurate assessment, interpretation and treatment.
  • An adequate research methodology for incorporating culture must include both qualitative and quantitative elements.
  • Increased self-awareness is an essential starting point in developing multicultural competence.
  • The accumulation of relevant knowledge depends on a well-developed cultural awareness.
  • The appropriate application of skills in multicultural settings depends on both cultural awareness and relevant knowledge.
  • Their theory is then developed around this set of propositions.

What is multicultural counselling?

A broad definition of the term 'multiculturalism' embraces a wide range of social variables or differences. For example: gender; sexual preference; disability; social class; age; religion; and ethnicity. Pederson (1994) proposed a broad definition of multicultural counselling which includes:

'ethnographic variables such as ethnicity, nationality, religion and language; demographic variables such as age, gender and place of residence; status variables such as social, educational and economic; and affiliations including both formal affiliations to family or organizations and informal affiliations to ideas and a lifestyle' (p229).

In this broad definition, each person has many different cultures or identities with each identity becoming relevant at different times and places. He argues that multiculturalism emphasises both the way we are different from and similar to other people. It challenges those who have presumed that differences don't matter as well as those who have over emphasized differences (often perpetuating stereotypes).

Ivey et al. (1997, p134) describe multicultural counselling as a 'metatheoretical approach that recognises that all helping methods ultimately exist within a cultural context'. They go on to argue that multiculturalism:

  • starts with awareness of differences among and within clients
  • stresses the importance of family and cultural factors affecting the way clients view the world
  • challenges practitioners, theoreticians and researchers to rethink the meaning of counselling, and pay attention to family and cultural concerns

By these definitions, multiculturalism has relevance for every client presenting for careers counselling and guidance in the UK.
Origins and relevance of multicultural counselling

Bimrose (1996, p238) traces the origins of multicultural counselling to the American Civil Rights movement in the mid 1970s. Around this time, questions were asked about the groups of people who never requested counselling, or, if they came along for a first session, did not return. A clear pattern emerged. Clients from minority ethnic groups were the least likely to request and/or persevere with counselling.

The most widely accepted explanation is that counselling (and guidance) practice is an ethnocentric activity. Many authors (e.g. Ridley, 1995, Lago & Thompson 1996, Sue et al, 1996 and Sue & Sue, 1999) have argued that mainstream approaches are white, middle class activities that operate with many distinctive values and assumptions. For example, that clients will be future and action orientated. Such approaches are ethnocentric or ‘culturally encapsulated’ (Wrenn, 1985), holding at their centre a notion of normality derived from white culture, which is irrelevant to many clients and has the potential for alienating them.

This explanation of why ethnically different clients find mainstream counselling unhelpful has equal relevance to other client differences such as gender, sexual preference and disability. The central message is clear - caution needs to be exercised when applying mainstream approaches to diverse groups of clients.

Implications for practice

Because a multicultural approach to counselling is relatively new, the implications for practice are still being developed. There is some agreement, however, that whilst maintaining the integrity of the distinctive new approach, multicultural counselling should strive to select and build on the best of current counselling practice. Sue et al (1995, p.633) developed a `conceptual framework for cross-cultural competencies' which can help with this. It consists of a three by three matrix in which it is claimed most cross-cultural skills can either be organized or developed.

A selection of skills, techniques and strategies are presented, below, within the framework developed by Sue and Sue (1995), who identified the competencies required by the culturally skilled counsellor as being:

  • awareness of own assumptions, values and biases
  • understanding the world view of the culturally different client
  • developing appropriate intervention strategies and techniques

Increasing self-awareness

Many writers in the area of multicultural counselling advocate the need for all practitioners to start on a continual process of multicultural self-awareness. The first task is to think about yourself; the second to identify the values of the dominant culture in which you practise counselling or communication; the third is to examine alternative value orientations.

Bimrose (1998) discusses more fully exercises and schema which have been developed to assist with this type of self-examination. For example, Locke (1992, p.2) suggests that practitioners work through the following questions:

  1. What is my cultural heritage? What was the culture of my parents and my grandparents? With what cultural group(s) do I identify?
  2. What is the cultural relevance of my name?
  3. What values, beliefs, opinions and attitudes do I hold that are consistent with the dominant culture? Which are inconsistent? How did I learn these?
  4. How did I decide to become a practitioner? What cultural standards were involved in the process? What do I understand to be the relationship between culture and counselling?
  5. What unique abilities, aspirations, expectations, and limitations do I have that might influence my relations with culturally diverse individuals?

If you are able to compare your answers to some or all of these questions with others, then the effectiveness of the learning process is likely to be increased. All the questions have value, though the second question often has most impact, perhaps because it highlights the extent to which the cultural conventions surrounding the naming system of the dominant society are taken for granted by acculturated members of that society.

Developing knowledge and understanding

An exercise which can be used to gain knowledge and understanding of difference is a role play exercise adapted from a conference workshop run by Jackson (1995). The exercise requires a training group of three people, approximately two hours when these three people can work together on this exercise, a suitable room and some individual research time. Jackson identified two main purposes of the exercise:

  • First, to develop empathic understanding by enabling you to attempt to discover what it might feel like to be a person who comes from a different background.
  • Second, to enable you to begin to identify some practice guidelines that counsellors might follow to enhance their effectiveness with clients who are different from them-selves.

In preparation for the role-play, select someone from a culturally different group about which feel you are currently ignorant or have an inadequate understanding but would like to gain a more thorough understanding. It is important to define `culturally' in this context in the broadest possible sense (that is, to include social class, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, disability, etc.). As thoroughly as time permits, research the background of the people who come from that background. The research process should harness a range of resources, including someone from your chosen group.

Once the individual research has been completed, the training process involves working in your training group for approximately one and a half hours. During this time each member of the group will perform in turn tasks related to the three roles of client, counsellor and observer.

  1. Client: for approximately fifteen minutes, you have an opportunity to be a person from a group that is culturally different from your own. Come prepared to present a problem or concern to a counsellor or health professional who would like to help you. Identify some realistic concern that the person you have chosen actually has had or might reasonably be expected to have.
  2. Counsellor: you will be asked by a 'client' to help resolve some difficulty that will be presented to you. If you wish, you may ask your 'observer' for ideas and suggestions on how to proceed.
  3. Observer: you will be available to the counsellor to offer ideas and suggestions. After the role play, you will lead the feedback session which should identify the most helpful statements or actions performed by the counsellor.

Suggested guidelines:

  • Introductions: as client, introduce yourself to your two colleagues (the name of your person along with relevant cultural information). (2/3 minutes in total)
  • Role play: conduct a brief counselling session in which the client presents a concern and the counsellor attempts to be as helpful as possible. (approximately 15 minutes)
  • Feedback: review the session with the purpose of identifying the most helpful actions. All three members of the training group should contribute their observations. (approximately 10 minutes)

Finally, after you have each completed all three role plays, observations should be pooled so that the most useful practices can be identified.

Skills for multicultural competence

In addition to working towards a greater cultural self-awareness and developing your knowledge and understanding of client difference, practitioners need to think about the way in which their skills should to be adapted or changed to accommodate the particular needs of certain client groups.

Ivey et al. (1997) and Ivey (1994) suggest that culturally appropriate nonverbal behaviour is crucial to successful counselling outcomes. Ivey (1994, p75) advocates that all practising counsellors 'begin a lifetime of study of nonverbal communication patterns and their variations'. Various categories of nonverbal behaviour are identified and some cultural implications for each category (e.g. eye contact, posture, touching, vocal tracking) are discussed (Ivey, 1994, p29).

Non-verbal communication provides one example of skill that can be easily examined for bias and modified. An effective method of enhancing your competence in this area is practising with a friend or trusted colleague.

  • Select various combinations of non verbal communication (for example, eye contact, posture and hand gestures.
  • Try to demonstrate effective listening without using the non verbal behaviour that you would normally use in your counselling or communication. (For example, if you normally try to sustain eye contact, you could try communicating without eye contact , look away or down at the floor). How did you feel? Ask the other person how they felt.

Is it possible to adopt different styles of non verbal communication and still listen effectively?

Recent research and developments

Recently, multicultural guidance has continued to receive great attention, reflecting it importance for career guidance and counselling. Theoretical models that contribute to a multicultural counselling role have been suggested, such as the Systems Theory Framework which accounts for systems of influence on people’s career development, including individual, social and environmental/societal concerns (Arthur and McMahon, 2005). Most research has focused on multicultural competence, its importance (Arredondo, Tovar-Blank and Parham, 2008), identification (Alberta and Wood, 2009; Holcomb-McCoy, 2000; Kim et al., 2003), training (Flores and Heppner, 2002; Kim and Lyons, 2003), and evaluation (Cartwright, Daniels and Shuqiang, 2008; Hays, 2008). In relation to training, it has been discovered that white counsellor trainees feel ashamed when taking multicultural training, and if this is not properly addressed by trainers, it can limit their professional growth (Parker and Schwartz, 2002). As well, diverse training methods have been proposed such as mentoring programs (Salzman, 2000).
Some studies have studied the effect of client’s perception of counsellors’ cultural competence, suggesting that this is related to clients’ satisfaction (Constantine, 2002). Additionally, the level of ethnic similarity between the counsellor and the client has been observed to influence clients’ counselling expectations (Abreu, 2000). In relation to different ethnic groups, recent research has suggested issues to consider when providing counselling to Latinos (Gloria and Rodriguez, 2000; Santiago-Rivera, Arredondo and Gallardo-Cooper, 2001), Asians (Henderson and Chan, 2005; Lowe, 2005), African Americans (Lucas and Berkel, 2005) and White clients (Petersen, 2000). On the other hand, some authors claim for the need to go beyond traditional ethno-cultural groups (Moodley, 2007).


The current policy emphasis on social exclusion and equal opportunities in guidance and counselling highlights the need for professional practice that is responsive to and accommodates these important client issues in an effective manner. Multicultural counselling represents a relatively new approach, offering practical methods designed to enhance practice that can be integrated into current approaches.

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Constructivist approaches & narrative counselling

Contribution by Jenny Bimrose Institute for Employment Research, University of Warwick

"Constructivists believe that we actively participate in the construction of what we observe." (Chartrand et al., 1995, p.51).

Constructivist perspectives assume that we construct and perpetuate our social realities, which remain independent of ourselves (Chartrand et al., 1995, p.56). These approaches to career are therefore significantly different from the traditional approach to science that has dominated theory in this area (Chartrand et al., 1995; Cochran, 1997; Collin & Young, 1986; Peavy, 1992; Savickas, 1993; Savickas, 1997; Young et al., 1996). Savickas (1997) regards constructivism as a meta-theory that emphasises proactive features of human knowing. He acknowledges the recent trend for researchers to use it to understand careers, with the result that career counselling is being reshaped ‘from an objective enterprise to an interpretative science’ (p.150).

As an approach, constructivism is conceptualised both as a contextual explanation of career (Young et al., 1996) and as an interactional approach (Chartrand et al., 1995). It is regarded as one of nine contextual explanations of career by Young et al. (1996, p.481) because it emphasises the context in which careers unfold. Chartrand et al. (1995) suggest that constructivism, together with systemic approaches to career, are interactional approaches because both focus on the relationship between the person and their environment (Chartrand et al., 1995). Similarly, there are different opinions about which approaches, within the broad category of constructivism, represent promising developments for careers. For example, Chartrand et al. (1995) identify conversational analysis, discourse analysis and narratives. While Savickas (1997) suggests that personal construct psychology, biographical hermeneutics and narratives represent innovative applications of constructivism to career theory.

The constructivist approach has not yet had a major impact on careers theory and practice, though research in the area promises greater understanding of vocational behaviour (Chartrand et al., 1995).

Contribution by Hazel Reid Centre for Career and Personal Development, Canterbury Christ Church University

Interest in constructivist approaches within counselling and career counselling has gained momentum in recent years. Narrative counselling is positioned within a post-structuralist account of ‘reality’ that recognises the influence of culture, and the impact of the social and political context within which both the counsellor and ‘client' operate. The innovative work of Michael White and David Epston (1990) has drawn significantly on the political/philosophical work of Foucault (e.g., 1977) which traces a history of self identity and how the social psychological view of self is shaped by the power/knowledge discourses of the ‘modern’ world (see, Barker, 1998). Within counselling, understanding how these processes classify what is normal behaviour, and come to represent who the person becomes (as defined by their condition or ‘problem’), is a first step toward turning what is experienced as a ‘bad’ or problematic story into a ‘better’ story. By externalising the problem; in other words separating the problem from the person, externalising conversations can challenging a negative view of self that is culture bound. This is different from an approach which ties people to a ‘problem saturated’ identity. By examining the person’s relationship to the problem ‘the problem becomes more clearly defined’ and ‘a range of possibilities become available to revise this relationship’ (White, 2007:26). To read more, click on 'Narrative career counselling' below.

Click here for more on Narrative career counselling.

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Contribution by Jenny Bimrose Institute for Employment Research, University of Warwick

One other new approach which shares many similarities with constructivist approaches is Miller-Tiedeman’s (1999) ‘life-is-career’. Like other new approaches, it emanates from a comprehensive review and criticism of traditional, established career theory, derived from the Newtonian worldview. The central proposition is that ‘simply stated, Life, not job, is the big career’ (Miller-Tiedeman, 1999, p.xiv). The emphasis is on career as process, not outcome, with the image of the practitioner being like a midwife: ‘a professional who understands process can help midwife the unfolding of a client’s life mission’ (Miller-Tiedeman, 1999, p.xiv).

New theories are also criticised on the grounds that ‘what pass for emerging theories still linger in the shadow of trait, factor and logical positivism’ (p.41). Here, Miller-Tiedeman cites value-based, social cognition, cognitive information processing and contextual explanations of career choice and development. All such theories, it is argued, require the career professional to assess the situation, rather than the client (p.41), and suggest that clients often lack self or occupational knowledge as well as career decision skills, and that the client may not be an effective problem-solver. Instead, Miller-Tiedeman suggests that career theory should place personal knowledge as primary, value the individual as a ‘theory maker’ and empower the personal journey of the client in a framework larger than the job.

Other key concepts in this model include complementarity, uncertainty and connectedness; self-organising systems; left and right handed decisions and living for today. Complementarity, uncertainty and connectedness are taken from quantum physics. They are borrowed to emphasise the notion that focusing on one thing risks missing something else (Miller-Tiedeman, 1999, p.6), that if we look for something, we will find it, thus creating our own reality (p.10), and that things cannot be divided, because everything is connected (1999, p.10).
Two major aspects of self-organising systems which are emphasised are ‘self-renewal’ (systems continually renew and recycle their components while maintaining the integrity of the overall system) and ‘self-transcendence’ (living systems can grow beyond physical and mental boundaries), with growth remaining a choice (p.11). Finally, the concept of left and right handed decisions focuses on the value of wrong as well as correct decisions and events in life. Mistakes (left turns) provide information for the next decision and should be valued as highly as ‘right’ decisions (p.12) and the fourth concept, that of living for today, reminds us of the importance of making every day count. This should help prevent ‘living under tomorrow’s stress’ (p.12), which in turn increases the probability of ‘flow’ with the rhythm of life, and listening to the signals.

Eleven principles that support living ‘life-as-career’ are identified and the differences between this model and traditional careers are explored (Miller-Tiedeman, 1999, p.7). Its implications are discussed in some detail (pp.181-271), with the conclusion that by the year 2050 career practice as we know it today may be totally irrelevant. Children will ‘mature vocationally with the help of their parents and technology, and they won’t ask questions like today’s children do in regard to work’ (p.181). Professionals will ‘work with individuals and groups assisting them in understanding that life is a whole fabric, even though the design keeps changing’ (p.182).

Amongst new methods and techniques that should be embraced is the electronic CV and job search via the internet (p.189), financial planning (p.225) and reducing stress and maintaining health (p.311). In the UK context, these expanded roles for careers counselling have also been identified by Collin and Watts (1996, p.395).

Recent developments

A literature review in 2009 suggests that there is not much research which has followed up directly on Miller-Tiedeman’s (1999) work. However, some avenues can be identified that relate to some of the author’s ideas. For instance, in the 2009 Critical Management Studies Conference (CMS) a stream was ran on ‘Whole lives’. The stream, convened by Julia Richardson, Dalvir-Samra Fredericks and Susanne Tietze, argued that “people’s lives and experiences cannot be kept separate from their ‘work lives’ as there is a mutually constitutive relationship between them”. As well, Hacker and Doolen (2003) also build on the concept of ‘whole lives’ or ‘whole person’. They claim that the “language and focus of the balance approach is limiting and keeps individuals from creating integrated lives”.

Following other ideas by Miller-Tiedeman, there has been some research on careers and financial planning, especially in relation to retirement (see Berger and Denton, 2004). As well, stress has obtained important attention, particularly in the case of work-family conflict. For instance, Elloy and Smith (2003) revealed that dual-career couples experience higher levels of stress, work-family conflict and overload than single-career couples. Ito and Brotheridge (2001) found that career control mediates the effects of career stressors on emotional exhaustion.

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Pragmatic rationalism & careership

Contribution by Jenny Bimrose Institute for Employment Research, University of Warwick

Hodkinson et al. (1996) studied career decision-making of young people in the UK, together with their career development, through the first eighteen months on a government funded training scheme. The policy direction at the time of the data collection emphasised individualism and market forces. These values were embedded in a government initiative called ‘training credits’, designed to give young people choice and control whilst at the same time increasing market competition amongst training providers. The dominant model of career decision-making assumed to underpin the training credits initiative was technical rationality, involving the application of rational skills to objective information derived from the labour market. Essentially an individual activity, this process takes place within ‘discursive consciousness’ (Hodkinson et al., 1996, p.122) and is directed at long term goals (though ideas often change before the goal is reached and follows a planned linear sequence). Its ideal aim is to be totally rational. It is based on maximising personal benefits, often seen in financial terms, and is only improved by making it more rational and/or providing better information (p.122).

Data, collected during 1992-1993 from a group of ten young people, comprises 196 taped interviews (Hodkinson et al., 1996). Analysis and interpretation of the data resulted in ‘a new theoretical model of career decision making and career progression’, called ‘careership’ (p.3) which involves three interlocked dimensions: pragmatic rationalism, social interactions and progression over time. The first, pragmatic rationalism, refers to the way young people make actual choices about job placements. These decisions were found to be neither rational nor irrational. Rather, they were both constrained and enabled by the young people’s ‘horizons for action’, partly determined by external opportunities, and partly by their own subjective perceptions. It is argued that the two sides are linked because ‘what is available affects what we perceive to be possible and what we perceive to be possible and what we perceive as desirable can alter the available options’ (Hodkinson et al., 1996, p.3).

The second dimension is social interactions with others who have some influence on the process. This involves a complex system of negotiations, bargaining and sometimes struggle with different players in the field (for example, young people, employers, parents, careers officers and training providers), all of whom have resources of varying types and quality, producing unequal power relations. Social interactions and pragmatic decisions were found to be interwoven, so neither could be understood alone.

Progression over time is the third dimension. Career decisions are often transitory in nature, and determined by choices and/or by the social and cultural structures within which individuals are located. Career paths are subject to varied influences and can best be understood through the concept of ‘careership’. This comprises periods of routine linked by ‘turning points’. Three types of turning points are identified: those forced by unexpected external events (for example, redundancy); those built into the structure of British life (e.g. end of compulsory education at 16); and those initiated by the young people themselves (Hodkinson et al., 1996, p.142).

Career-decision making based on pragmatic rationalism is seen as part of the development of ‘habitus’ (Hodkinson et al., 1996, p.122). Information is both subjective and objective, deriving from habitus as well as being external to it. It is a socially and a culturally embedded activity, taking place within both practical and discursive consciousness. Whilst it may be directed at a long-term goal, there are other possibilities, described as ‘serendipitous’ (p.122). It does not follow a linear sequence, is always rational within boundaries, may be made for a wide range of reasons (for example, maximising benefits) and can be enhanced by various means such as giving information (p.122). This alternative model conceptualises: decision making processes as part of a wider choice of lifestyle and strongly influenced by the social context and culture of the individual; decision-making as part of the ongoing life course; and decision-making as part of the interaction with other stakeholders, which can be seen as part of the action of others, as well as the individual (Hodkinson et al., 1996, p.139).

Since Hodkinson et al. (1996) set out to examine an initiative (training credits) relevant to vocational education and training (VET) for young people, it is not surprising that the discussion of the implications of their findings relates to VET policy, rather than careers guidance practice (p.136). They do, however, highlight ‘aspects of cultural complexity of the transition to work that are ignored in the current technicist approach’ (p.137) which have clear implications for practice based on technical, rational models of career. The policy focus on the individual, they argue, detracts attention away from the need to change structures, like industrial employment, the youth labour market and British financial systems (p.137). They also suggest that technically rational models of management and choice appeal to policy makers, senior managers and senior careers professionals because they ‘offer the illusion of control and managerial solutions’ (p.138).

The efforts of professionals such as teachers and careers offices to assist and support young people with the degree of individual freedom they do possess is regarded as commendable (p.140). However, ‘if we are serious about doing something to ameliorate existing inequalities, individual help alone is not enough. We also have to address more intransigent problems at a cultural and structural level’ (p.141).

Recent developments

Ongoing research has supported the construct of pragmatic rationalism. Related to habitus, Bal, Maguire and Macrae (2000) studied “Choice, pathways and transitions post-16”, finding Hodkinson’s career decision model and Bourdieu’s concepts of habitus and cultural capital key analytic resources. In the case of socio-economically deprived 16-year olds considering a career in medicine, Robb and colleagues (2007) observed that the family habitus, “especially a family meta-narrative of immigration to secure a better future and of education as the vehicle to regaining a high social position” and the school, as the institutional habitus, were highly influential. As well, in relation to Hodkinson and colleagues’ (1996) dimension of interaction, they revealed that friends and peers, “many of whom the student had chosen strategically because of shared aspirations to academic success” influenced the development of the academic and medical ambition.

Much of the work following Hodkinson and colleague’s (1996) book has critically evaluated policy assumptions. Related to the concept of habitus, Colley (2003) discusses the role of engagement mentoring which she affirms “treats personal disposition-habitus-as a raw material to be wrought into 'employable' dispositions, with little or no acknowledgement of institutional or structural fields of power”. She claims that habitus is highly complex, with deep-rooted and collective aspects not easily transformed, suggesting that a greater understanding of habitus might result in more genuinely holistic approaches to mentoring.

Consistent with the idea of ‘horizons of action’, research has looked at the influence of external structures and individual perceptions. Regarding the first one, Gorard and colleagues (2001) found support for the compatibility between the concepts of structure and agency in explaining patterns of adult learning. Hodkinson and Bloomer (2001) call the attention on structural conditions which affect the decision to drop out from school, suggesting that an assumption based only on agency may render deep inequalities. Regarding perception, Fuller (2007) finds evidence from life history interviews revealing “a connection between participants' perceptions of expanding choice, opportunities for personal decision making and labour market change, and their take-up of HE in mid-life”, suggesting that change in perceptions motivates new career decisions.

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Systems theory

Contribution by Jenny Bimrose Institute for Employment Research, University of Warwick

Chartrand et al. (1995) suggest that the systemic perspective incorporates ‘the complex, multi-level nature of environments’ and is evident in the work of several influential theorists, including Super 1990 (Chartrand et al., 1995, p.50). They argue that the sheer complexity of a systems approach represents both a strength and a weakness. A strength since it is comprehensive in scope, taking account of individual and societal factors in career development. A weakness since consistent research designs to validate the theory have proved difficult to implement (p.51).
A Systems Theory Framework (STF) for careers, developed by Patton and McMahon (1999), comprises an overarching framework which attempts to synthesise existing theoretical literature in the area, and offers a perspective that embodies the philosophy reflected in the move from positivist to constructivist approaches. Two broad components are identified, content and process. Content refers to the variables applicable to the individual and the context, which emphasise the key influences on career development. These are the individual system and the contextual system. Process refers to the ‘recursive interaction processes’ (1999, p.155) within the individual and context, as well as between the individual and context. This relates to decision-making, change over time and chance.

The individual is placed at the centre of the career choice and development process (Patton & McMahon, 1999, p.155) and is represented diagrammatically by a circle containing a range of features influencing career development. They comprise personality, values, knowledge of the world of work, age, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, ability, health, physical attributes, interests, skills, beliefs, self-concept and aptitudes. Each individual is regarded as a system in his/her own right. However, as a system the individual exists as part of a much larger system, broken into two subsystems: social contextual systems and environmental/societal contextual systems (p.158). The social contextual system represents the principal social influences with which individuals interact or from which they receive input. Specifically, family, media, community groups, workplace, peers and education institutions. The environmental-societal systems are geographical location, political decisions, historical trends, globalisation, socio-economic trends and the labour market (p.161).

Each system and their sub-systems are open systems, with a change in the nature of influences being reflected in a change in the degree of their influence. In terms of practice, careers professionals become part of the interconnected system of influences, affecting the career development of their clients.

Patton & McMahon (1999, p.166) argue that the advantages of STF include recognising the important contributions of all career theories, the interconnections between theories and the contributions of other theory and disciplines to career theory. It also provides the potential for integrating psychological and sociological theories, offers new techniques for use in practice and broadens the current narrow focus of ‘career’ (for example, the concept of ‘non-traditional roles for women’ is replaced by emphasising the diversity of women’s lives and fostering the development of broad choices, including ‘homemaker’). All career options are validated and explained in terms of systems influence. ‘Career could be viewed as the pattern of influences that coexist in an individual’s life over time’ (p.170).

Within STF, the role of practitioner is defined as facilitator. Theories and assessment methods are no longer used to predict or direct, but rather they are fed into the system for processing by the individual. It is the clients who determine prominent themes and stories in their lives, and the practitioner helps them to process and make sense of these elements.
Overall, this is an interesting development in career theory, representing the first formal attempt to bring existing theories together into a coherent whole. It provides the means to integrate an understanding of many previously neglected variables in career theory into practice (for example, gender and ethnicity) and acknowledges the importance of utilising all the best ideas from past theory. However, to apply the STF to practice requires familiarity of (and probably practical experience with) many other theories, so that they can be combined into best practice in working with clients.

Recent articles emphasize the potential of Systems Theory to integrate theory and practice (McMahon, 2005). Systems theory explains the recursive processes within the individual and the context in ways other theories have not been able to explain (Zimmerman and Kontosh, 2007), as well as proposes an applied activity for career guidance, the My Systems of Career Influences (Watson and McMahon, 2006). Recent articles have also valued the theory for its support to multicultural counseling (Arthur and McMahon, 2005; Stebleton, 2007).

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'Boundaryless career'

Contribution by Jenny Bimrose Institute for Employment Research, University of Warwick

Like constructivist approaches, Arthur et al. (1999) reject traditional approaches to careers as outdated. They develop their alternative approach from research carried out in New Zealand with seventy five participants over a ten year period and argue that their research findings are representative of the career context of developed economies and new labour market conditions. The researchers set out to ‘hear the voices’ (p.ix) of working people across a range of social groups, occupations and employment contexts. They propose that ‘we are both the products and producers of the work environment in which we participate’ (p.7) and that career development can only be understood as the result of a ‘dynamic interplay between episodes of the career itself’ (p.6). ‘Flexibility’, they argue, ‘is a word that turns conventional career thinking on its head’ (p.9). The central image they present is one of a wandering troubadour, moving from company to company, gaining new experiences and skills and then moving on (p.37), compared with the image of the classical, scripted theatre typical of the industrial age and encapsulated in traditional career theory.

Boundaryless careers, supposedly typical of the new economy, are characterised by multiple employment situations, wide inter-company networks and multi-employer arenas of choice for the implementation of their careers. All workers accumulate learning and develop networks, using these acquisitions to enact their careers on the surrounding environment. ‘As individuals enact their careers, they enact the environment itself’ (Arthur et al., 1999, p.12).

From their research data, Arthur et al. (1999) found that participants reported a strong pattern of relative job stability within a larger context of persistent career mobility. Specifically, most participants performed one job for a considerable period of time, but then took their next job with a different employer. Typically, this represented a lateral move rather than orthodox career advancement. Most career moves took place across company boundaries, implicating high levels of movement across occupational, industrial and geographical boundaries as well (p.37). The cyclical model of careers, evident in feminist careers counselling, is cited as relevant to the way careers are played out (p.36) in these ways.

Five common elements in career stories are identified:

  1. First, improvisation: most participants improvised fresh choices in response to changing circumstances, rather than implementing pre-determined plans.
  2. Second, sense-making: participants were found to act, reflect upon and make sense of their actions with the benefit of hindsight.
  3. Third, adaptation: with new experiences, participants were able to see new patterns in, and make new sense of, their earlier career behaviour.
  4. Fourth, learning: participants learned from their experiences, maintained this learning and applied it to new situations.
  5. Fifth, agency and communion: career stories reflected ‘agency’ (the pursuit of independence and autonomy) or ‘communion’ (the nurturing of relationships and connectedness). Most career stories contained elements of both.

Arthur et al. (1999) conclude that the enactment of careers will persist, that employing organisations will have to adapt, that institutions will change and that the study of careers must change. This is because careers are now situated in a more complex and broader milieu than previously and that individuals will:

"learn to live without the security derived from any single employer company, to persistently develop their own career competencies, and to contribute to continuing innovation and flexibility both in their own lives and in the economic systems of which they are a part". (Arthur et al., 1999, p.177)

Michael Arthur expanded on this approach at the CeGS 5th Annual Lecture given at the University of Derby in December 2002: New Careers, New Relationships: Understanding and Supporting the Contemporary Worker.

Times have changed, and both jobs and their associated 'career ladders' appear more temporary, and more elusive, than before. Yet people still seek certain fundamentals - security, community, and self-fulfilment - from their working lives. How can we still help to provide these fundamentals in a time of greater uncertainty? One answer lies in finding continuity in what we used to see as discontinuous events. People may change jobs, but retain the relationships and support systems that they had before. This paper draws on examples from a recent book The New Careers by Professor Michael Arthur and colleagues and discusses the implications of these examples for future research and practice.

Michael Arthur represented ideas of new careers through the experiences of Bruce and Gina who exhibited occupational or employment mobility, and accumulated boundaryless rather than bounded career benefits. The new careers are also about relationships, both interpersonal and communal. Relationships underlie the career support that people develop, support that frequently endures while employment arrangements change. He concluded:

“Our exploration suggests that affirming the new careers, promoting knowledge accumulation, seeking out career communities, getting ahead of the problems and following the progress of people’s career journeys can all be helpful to the individuals we seek to serve. So can seeing for ourselves the same career possibilities we see for others. Let us have fun, work well, learn new things, and support each other as we go. Let us be part of the new career landscape as well.”

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Social cognitive approaches

Contribution by Nelica La Gro Centre for Training in Career Guidance, School of Psychology, University of East London

Cognitive approaches view people as active shapers of their lives, able to reflect, observe, think about their feelings and cognitions and to monitor the impact of their own actions on their environments. There is a strong emphasis on thinking processes as compared to behaviours, suggesting it is individual's belief systems that affect their behaviours while at the same time there is an acknowledgement of the powerful mediating impact of contextual factors. The contribution of cognitive approaches in providing relevant theoretical frameworks for understanding career development of socially diverse populations and changing contextual influences affecting career opportunities, is well documented and many studies have contributed an empirical base to support this approach (Hackett,1995; Lent & Maddux, 1997; Tang 1999).

Social Cognitive career theory (SCCT) was developed by Lent, Brown & Hackett (1994), building on Bandura’s (1986) social cognitive theory. SCCT suggests that career behaviour is a result of interaction between self-efficacy, outcome expectation and goals. Self efficacy is defined by Bandura as ‘people’s judgements of their capabilities to organise and execute courses of action required to attain designated types of performance ‘ (1986:391). Thus the focus is on the strength of the individual's belief that they can successfully accomplish something and this belief is more powerful than interests, values or abilities. For example Fassinger (2002) suggested that women’s tendency to underestimate ‘their competencies, talents & capabilities is perhaps the ‘most pervasive and intractable internal barrier’ to their career success’ (Walsh & Savickas, 2005:105).

The variable that interacts with self-efficacy expectations is outcome expectations. Bandura defines this as ‘a person’s estimate that a given behaviour will lead to certain outcomes’ (1997:193). For example, a young man may believe he is able to perform as well as a woman for the post of midwife, but does not expect that he would be selected for the job if he applied. Environmental factors are perceived as controlling or influencing the outcome rather than the level or quality of your own behaviour, although sometimes distinguishing outcome expectations from self-efficacy expectations can be difficult.

One other variable influencing whether behaviour will be initiated are goals (Bandura, 1977:193). Individuals set goals to organise behaviour and guide their actions. If a person feels confident and efficacious in a task, this may lead to more interest, rewards and confidence about desired goals. Goals are self-motivating and a source of personal satisfaction.

Walsh & Heppner (2006) suggest SCCT is particularly concerned with ‘ specific cognitive factors that mediate the learning experiences guiding career behaviour; the interrelationships of interest, abilities and values ; the paths by which contextual and individual factors influence career choice and behaviours and the processes by which individuals exercise personal agency (p112).

Studies investigating application of the main hypotheses of Social Cognitive Career Theory show how, for example, (1) self efficacy affects career choice of men and women differently (Betz & Hackett 1981, Betz & Fitzgerald, 1987); (2) perceptions of barriers, social and economic disadvantage can limit and even exclude individuals' consideration of careers (Albert & Luzzo,1999) and low self efficiacy is associated with avoidance of particular academic areas and related careers (Betz, 2004); (3) beliefs about personal agency and capabilities can affect the initiation and sustainment of action to achieve goals and (4) environmentally situated factors such as familial dysfunction can account for variations in self efficacy functions (Ryan et al,1996).

Authors such as Chartrand & Rose (1996), Harmon (1994), have argued the need for career theories to take account of the career histories of 'at risk' groups, and proposed that SCCT offers a more plausible account of the career and life histories, and imperatives for helping these groups. The approach resonates with the emphasis of UK government policy over the last decade on social inclusion, focusing attention on the needs of marginalised groups, and directs careers services resources to meet them

Application of SCCT to practice issues in general, and career counselling in particular, has emphasised how social and cultural difference can restrict opportunities for some clients to pursue the full range of interests, with the consequent effects on self efficacy beliefs and perceived barriers to entering certain careers (Bandura 1997). ‘Contextual factors influence all stages of vocational development in the SSCT model’ ( Walsh & Heppner, 2006: 250). These are generally outside the control of the individual and include ‘barriers such as real or perceived discrimination, social expectation, persistence of expected gender roles (Walsh & Heppner, 2006: 250). Such factors are often very salient for groups such as ethnic minorities, women or particular client groups such as refugees, people with HIV.

Chen (2006) teases out the development of Bandura’s (1986, 2001) social cognitive theory & discusses the notion of human agency which he describes as ‘a combination of human intention and action and results in making things happen’ (2006:131). The two constructs of what one thinks and how one acts is of critical importance in relation to career thinking and development. Social cognitive approaches which focus on clients’ decision-making can translate to practical ways in which practitioners attend to resources (inner and external) that can potentially assist clients to ‘take ownership of his or her own life-career choice ( Chen, 2006:134). These could include providing access to role models, positive work experiences, addressing possible barriers and the impact of anxiety or low self esteem by cognitive behaviour techniques such as positive self talk, re-framing, incremental success experiences or encouragement.

While SCCT focuses on the individual’s cognitive processes and the impact on career-related behaviours and beliefs, social constructionist theories take as their starting point an interest in how the individual uniquely construes events. This focus on how the individual shapes their reality has led to the use of techniques such as narrative to assist clients to explore and make sense of their experiences and perspectives. Both approaches in different ways have given importance to the social and cultural contexts of clients and the significance they have for understanding clients' career decisions and development beyond the locus of the individual.

SCCT can be applied both to understanding of clients' situations and to the development of the counsellor role (Larson, 1998). The responsibility of counsellors to develop 'explicit awareness' of how, consciously or unconsciously, their own belief systems and world view can intrude in the interview has been identified by Constantine and Erickson (1998). Intrusion of counsellor beliefs can reveal 'how biases and values can determine the questions asked of clients' and can undermine clients' self efficacy beliefs and sense of self agency (p.193). Betz( 2004) suggests that one of the first tasks to be addressed by a career counsellor is to investigate client self efficacy and to understand how the individual approaches career decision making and their self beliefs. Constantine & Erickson (1998) discuss multicultural counselling and their view of how 'counsellors attempt to understand clients from the clients' own world views, paying particular attention to the contexts in which clients operate' (p190) is germane to social cognitive approaches to counselling. Citing Rockwell (1987) they raise concerns about how more traditional approaches to career counselling may limit opportunities for clients to discuss the range of factors that affect the career options being considered.

Evidence that supports the relevance of SCCT is ‘strong and growing’ (Swanson & Gore, 2002: 247). In summary SCCT can serve as a valuable framework for understanding career development, as well as providing basis for powerful strategies that support clients to achieve their potential in a very changing external environment.

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Careers Scotland's approach to guidance

The Approach to Guidance Model is the framework adopted by Careers Scotland to inform its guidance practice. It has been designed to enable Career Advisers and their clients to identify and resolve actual career planning needs. There are three phases:

Phase 1

Due to the diagnostic nature of this model, there is considerable emphasis on achieving the necessary preconditions for guidance to take place. The Adviser has to establish:

  • Effective communication
  • Negotiate an agreed way of working together
  • Agree the purpose of the interview

Phase 2

Here, the Career Adviser explores how the client is career planning, establishing the quality of the client’s career planning and identifying issues that affect the client’s capacity to make and implement well-informed and realistic decisions. To arrive at these insights, the Adviser uses a diagnostic tool, the Career Planning Continuum.

Phase 3

In this phase, the Adviser and client identify the range of means available for addressing their needs, taking into account the preferred learning style and level of support required. Certain needs may be addressed within the interview, for example, the need for reassurance, challenging certain assumptions, providing a method for making decisions. Those needs that cannot be immediately met are recorded in an action plan along with the means of addressing these. Any referral or advocacy should be agreed and supported where necessary.

Approach to Guidance Model (adopted by Careers Scotland)

  • Task: Negotiate with client an agreed way of working together and agree the purpose of the career guidance interview
  • Process: Appraise the client’s career planning needs and agree action to meet these needs by checking levels of engagement and exploring their planning method
  • Outcomes: Assist client to make well informed realistic career decision
  • Interview techniques: Use of counselling skills to provide reassurance but also challenging skills to question certain assumptions
  • LMI: Essential to challenge stereotypes and assumptions; stimulate career exploration and develop career planning skills

Career Planning Continuum

The Career Planning Continuum (CPC), originally developed by Nottingham Trent University, sits within the diagnosis stage of the Approach to Guidance model. It is a diagnostic tool which acts to explore and help diagnose actual career planning needs.

career planning continuum

The Approach to Guidance Model is, therefore, based on the notion that this is the way people should career plan, not the way people do plan as described in the different occupational choice theories. Clients are helped to become aware of their actual career planning needs and are supported to resolve these needs. LMI can be used at all stages of the CPC but the three most significant stages within the model are:

  • Self Awareness
  • Opportunity Awareness
  • Taking stock/coping with change

Careers Scotland’s Career Planning Journey

The Career Planning Journey is a simplified version of the Career Planning Continuum which Careers Scotland has developed to explain the concept of career planning to clients. It shows in a simplified way how planning a career involves a number of stages – a total of six.

It was developed through working groups and focus groups with the whole range of client groups, including school pupils, post school, More Choices More Chances clients and employed and unemployed adults.

Careers Advisers use the Career Planning Journey with clients in one to one guidance interviews: it is used in all appropriate Careers Scotland literature and underscores learning in Careers Scotland products such as Activate, Career Box and Positive Steps.

Career planning journey

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