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Additional definitions of career

Following our initial work on Erving Goffman's definition of career in the Introductory Framework. A range of definitions gathered from 100 years of career studies is reproduced below. You are invited to read through these and consider the similarities and differences with a view to arriving at, or re-visiting, your own definition. Please feel free to discuss these either in the forum or in tutorial.


The present survey is trying to establish, on the one hand, what effect…industry has on the individual personality, the career and extra-occupational style of living of the workers;….and on the other hand, to what extent industry…is governed by given qualities arising out of the ethnic, social and cultural background, the tradition, and the circumstances of the workers…the one cannot be answered without the other.
Weber (1908/1970: 104)

Careers in our society are thought of very much in terms of jobs, for these are the characteristics and crucial connections of the individual with the institutional structure. Jobs are not the only accepted evidence that one can ‘put himself over’; they also furnish the means whereby other things that are significant in life may be procured. But the career is by no means exhausted in a series of business and professional achievements. There are other points at which one’s life touches the social order, other lines of social accomplishment – influence, responsibility and recognition…..A woman may have a career in holding together a family or in raising it to a new position. Some people of quite modest occupational achievement have careers in patriotic, religious, and civic organizations. They may, indeed, budget their efforts toward some cherished office of this kind rather than toward advancement in their occupations. It is possible to have a career in an avocation as well as in a vocation.
Hughes (1937/1958: 64)

…a study of careers – of the moving perspective in which persons orientate themselves with reference to the social order, and of the typical sequences and concatenations of office – may be expected to reveal the nature and ‘working constitution’ of a society. Institutions are but the forms in which the collective behaviour and collective action of people go on. In the course of a career the person finds his place within these forms, carries on his active life with reference to other people, and interprets the meaning of the one life he has to live.
Hughes (1937/1958: 67)

Just as the concept of ‘profession’ loses its precision when we speak of the ‘professionalization’ of auto-workers in Detroit, so the concept of ‘career’ loses utility when we speak of the ‘career of a ditch-digger’. In dealing with the organisation of work, it is better to take a more restricted view of career.
Attributed to Wilensky 1960 (cited in Barley 1989: 45)

A career is a succession of related jobs arranged in a hierarchy of prestige, through which persons move in an ordered (more-or-less predictable) sequence.
Wilensky (1961: 523)

Traditionally the term ‘career’ has been reserved for those who expect to enjoy the rises laid out within a respectable profession. The term is coming to be used, however, in a broadened sense to refer to any person’s course through life….Such a career is not something that can be brilliant or disappointing; it can no more be a success than a failure……One value of the concept of career is its two-sidedness. One side is linked to internal matters held dearly and closely, such as images of self and felt identity; the other side concerns official position, jural relations, and style of life, and is part of a publicly accessible institutional complex. The concept of career, then, allows one to move back and forth between the personal and the public, between the self and its significant society.
Goffman (1961/1968: 119)

A useful conception in developing sequential models of various kinds of deviant behaviour is that of career. Originally developed in studies of occupations, the concept refers to the sequence of movements from one position to another in an occupational system made by any individual who works in that system. Furthermore, it includes the notion of ‘career contingency,’ those factors on which mobility from one position to another depends. Career contingencies include both objective facts of social structure and changes in the perspectives, motivations, and desires of the individual. Ordinarily, in the study of occupations, we use the concept to distinguish between those who have a ‘successful’ career (in whatever terms success is defined within the occupation) and those who do not. It can also be used to distinguish several varieties of career outcomes, ignoring the question of ‘success’.
Becker (1963/1966: 24)

The course of events which constitute a life; the sequence of occupations and other life roles which combine to express one’s commitment to work in his or her total pattern of development, the series of renumerated and nonrenumerated positions occupied by a person from adolescence through retirement of which occupation is only one.
Attributed to Super 1976 (cited in Young & Borgen 1990: xi)

A career is defined as the combination and sequence of roles played by a person during the course of a lifetime. These roles include those of child, pupil, or student, leisurite, citizen, worker, spouse, homemaker, parent, and pensioner, positions with associated expectations that are occupied at some point by most people, and other less common roles such as those of criminal, reformer and lover.
Super (1980: 282)

Our adopted definition of career is the evolving sequence of a person’s work experiences over time. A central theme in this definition is that of work and all that work can mean for the ways in which we see and experience other people, organizations, and society. However, equally central to this definition is the theme of time, along which the career provides a ‘moving perspective’ (Hughes, 1958, p. 67) on the unfolding interaction between a person and society.
Arthur, Hall & Lawrence (1989: 8)

A career is the course of a person’s life, particularly in some pursuit or integrated set of pursuits as in a lifework. It is what would be included if one were to write the story of his or her life….Research on career development is not of the same order as research on intellectual or physical development. The topic of career is not so much concerned with parts as to how parts are related and brought to a point in living.
Cochran (1990a: 71)

Meaning making has been proposed not as a type of 1960s ‘navel gazing’ but rather as the means through which our history, culture, society, institutions, relationships, and language make themselves present to us. It is not only the sine qua non of individual lives and careers, it is the means by which we connect with others in familial and personal relationships and, more broadly, in our society and culture. It is at the heart of career.
Collin & Young (1992: 12)

Metaphor, as a paradigm for practice-based research, suggests that ‘career’ is manifested in a variety of ‘textual’ forms. These texts include not only the written word (e.g. through questionnaires, self-characterisation, etc.), but also the visual (drawings, photographs, video, etc.), and the kinaesthetic (all types of physical action). Thus the door is open for practitioner-researchers to engage with ‘career’ through a variety of hermeneutic methods…Furthermore, it is in the hermeneutic interpretation of ‘career’ texts that the practice of research and guidance can be seen to coalesce.
Mignot (2000: 528)

Career, n, 5. a. A person’s course or progress through life (or a distinct portion of life),… 5. b. A course of professional life or employment, which affords opportunity for advancement in the world.
Oxford English Dictionary (2002)

Career studies..[is]..a perspective on social enquiry. Its central concept is the effect on people of the passage of time…..[It is] An exploration of what one sees when one looks at people, networks, organizations, institutions, or societies through a lens that focuses on the passage of time.
Gunz & Peiperl (2007: 4)

In its broadest sense, Career Studies addresses the fundamental questions of how we live and what it is to be human. It is a transdisciplinary field of socio-cultural enquiry that focuses on life purposes and meanings and the more prosaic matters of achieving those ends.
McCash (2008: 6)