ERIC Identifier: ED404579
Publication Date: 1995-00-00
Author: Young, Richard A.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Counseling and Student Services Greensboro NC., Canadian Guidance and
Counselling Foundation Ottawa (Ontario).
An Action Approach to Career Counseling. ERIC Digest.
Although counselors have implicitly understood and used a number of its
tenets for some time (Polkinghorne, 1990; Valach, 1990), an action-theoretical
approach is a relatively recent development in career counseling. It is based on
the premise that the subject of career counseling is the goal-directed and
intentional action of the client. Action theory sees clients as agents who steer
and direct their activities. As applied to career counseling, it represents an
integration of constructionist, contextual, and narrative approaches that have
recently received attention in counseling, psychology, and the social sciences.
Counselors frequently base their practice on how clients construct and
resolve problems in their daily lives. Career and counseling theories and
research have not always been able to remain close to this understanding of
practice. In an effort to remedy this situation, action theory offers a
conceptual framework and language for understanding career development and
career counseling that is close to human experience.
THE ACTION-THEORY APPROACH
Much of career counseling has
either been based on the measurement of client interests and personality or
aimed at the remediation of socialization effects. Action theory's perspective
is based on a constructionist epistemology which highlights the importance of
the way we organize our knowledge in our daily lives. Essentially,
constructionists suggest that people use a variety of concepts and frameworks to
organize and explain their own and other people's behavior. Moreover, the
meaning of people's experience is reflected in their construct system.
Action and career are two important and interrelated constructs in the lives
of many people. People frequently think of themselves and other people as
purposive, proactive, and self-organizing. For the most part, their behavior is
goal-directed and intentional. Action refers to short-term behavior of this
kind, but other constructs are needed for sequences of interrelated actions over
the long term.
Career is one construct that many people use to understand goal-directed and
intentional action over the long term. For example, completing an examination
has meaning in the short-term; it provides a sense of closure, or perhaps
accomplishment. When joined with other actions, it can also have long-term
meaning, such as qualification for further study or job entry.
Action theory provides a conceptual framework and language useful to our
understanding of career and career counseling. Some of the relevant propositions
Action can be seen from three perspectives:
--the manifest behavior of the actors
--the conscious cognitions (thoughts and feelings) that accompany, steer, and
direct the manifest behavior as it occurs
--the social meaning in which the action is embedded.
All three perspectives are critical to understanding action and career. Some
theories approach career from one of the perspectives and emphasize behavior,
cognition, or social meaning almost exclusively. The action-theoretical approach
integrates all perspectives.
The construction of career occurs, at least in part, through social discourse
between counselor and client. However, the action pertinent to career occurs
both outside of and within counseling.
Most counselors recognize that career profoundly involves the emotions of their
clients. For example, long-term plans and goals are intimately related to
happiness. Moreover, career is concerned with practical action, that is,
balancing between what must be done in the short term and what can be done in
one's life. As clients take action regarding these expectations and
possibilities, emotions are likely involved.
There is also joint action, which is a third kind of activity which lies between
individual activity and external events (Shotter, 1980). This is in contrast to
theories that place the locus of career within the person. Career is not solely
a matter of individual action, but heretofore counseling has not had a language
to describe persons acting together in the social and dynamic nature of career.
Nevertheless, this is what counselors and clients do. As they engage in
counseling, they actually construct action and career. By virtue of this and
other joint actions, the client comes to construct the career she or he will
The term career itself may not be critical to clients. What is critical is to
identify the constructs that clients use to represent long-term, goal-directed,
intentional action. For example, "project" may be a construct that represents a
sequence of goal-directed action which may be useful to clients.
IMPLICATIONS FOR PRACTICE
One primary value of an
action-theoretical approach to career counseling is its ability to link theory
and practice. Counselors want a conceptual framework that is close to human
experience. Among the specific practice implications are the following:
Interpretation is emphasized. Clients are seen as engaged in the process of
making sense of their action--they are interpreters. Intentionality and
goal-directedness are two constructs they use to interpret their actions.
Actions are also interpreted in light of long-term constructs, such as career.
In addition, career involves the interpretation and reinterpretation of past and
future (possible) actions in terms of present action. For example, a young woman
interprets her decision to quit school as goal-directed: "I needed to get away
from a boring and frustrating place." She may also have some understanding of
the long-term implications of her action, such as, "Lots of people quit high
school, I'll go to evening classes when I need to." Later in life she may
reinterpret these actions in light of subsequent events.
Counselors recognize that interpretation occurs in social settings, that is,
between clients, their peers, families, employers, or teachers. Thus, career
counseling also addresses interpersonal relationships and their meaning for the
A self-confrontation method can be used to access the conscious cognitions that
accompany career-related actions (Young, Valach, Dillabough, Dover, &
Matthes (1994). This method helps clients see themselves in action, aids them as
they process their cognitions, and enables them to receive feedback. It
integrates cognition, emotion, and action in a conceptual and practical manner.
It also uses everyday constructs related to the meaning and experience of
To date, work has largely focused on
describing the features of action theory and how it can be applied to career
theory and counseling (Polkinghorne, 1990; Valach, 1990; Young & Valach, in
press), and research (Young et al., 1994). Young et al.'s method for studying
the career conversations of parents and adolescents involved the action of the
conversation, the conscious cognitions as the participants steer and direct the
conversation, and the social meaning attributed to the conversation by the
The above research extends previous studies on
parental influence by identifying the individual and joint actions that parents
and adolescents take in career decisions and how these actions contribute to the
construction of career. The application of this approach to a wide range of
career counseling practice has only begun (Young & Valach, 1994).
Polkinghorne, D. (1990). "Action theory
approaches to career research." In R. A. Young & W A. Borgen (Eds.),
Methodological approaches to the study of career (pp.87-106). New York: Praeger.
Shotter, 1. (1980). "Action, joint action, and intentionality." In M. Brenner
(Ed.), The structure of action (pp.28-65). Oxford: Blackwell.
Valach, L. (1990). "A theory of goal-directed action in career research." In
R. A. Young & W A. Borgen (Eds.), Methodological approaches to the study of
career (pp.107-126). New York: Praeger.
Young, R. A. & Valach, L. (1994). "Evaluation of career development
programs from an action perspective." Canadian Journal of Counseling, 28,
Young, R. A. & Valach, L. (in press). "Interpretation and action in
career counseling." In M. L. Savickas & W B. Walsh (Eds.), Integrating
career theory and practice. Palo Alto, CA: CPP Books.
Young, R. A., Valach, L., Dillabough, I., Dover, C., & Matthes, G.
(1994). "Career research from an action perspective: The self-confrontation
procedure." Career Development Quarterly, 43, 185-196.