Constructivist Career Counseling

The theory of constructivism has roots in philosophy, science, psychology, sociology, and anthropology. The core of the theory involves the idea that reality is relative rather than absolute and that people actively create reality by the way in which they experience and interpret events. As an example, take the idea of stealing another person’s money. While some may say that stealing is always wrong and is never justified, others may say that certain circumstances may make stealing understandable. The story of Robin Hood certainly appeals to that notion that what is right and what is wrong is a matter of perspective.

Like other theory-based practices, career counseling has evolved to account for this idea that reality is relative and is created through experience and interpretation of that experience. Although models of practice developing from this new perspective are varied, the theoretical underpinnings share common characteristics that separate them from more traditional mainstays in vocational psychology. Traditional vocational counseling theory developed in an age of modernist ideals and emphasized objectivity, neutrality, reductionism, quantification, and measurement. Models and interventions based on these theoretical underpinnings focused on the person, represented by a set of stable, measurable traits and the world of work, represented by definable characteristics of established occupations and stable career paths.

Paradigm Shift for Career Theory

Constructivist career theory represents a paradigm shift from these modernist principles toward postmodern ideology. Postmodernists believe that multiple realities exist simultaneously rather than the presumption of one measurable truth. Reality and truth are matters of individual perception and are constructed by individuals as a way of organizing complex information about themselves and the world. Human behavior, then, can be understood only in the context in which it occurs. People use personal constructs or theories they have created about life to organize and account for their experiences and associate meaning through decisions and actions. Individuals use these constructs to evaluate themselves and others, make judgments about the world, and predict the future. As active agents in their lives, people refine their constructs over time based on their life experiences and their reactions to and processing of those experiences.

Implications for Career Counseling

This core conceptual change has strong implications for the theory and practice of career counseling. Operating under the new assumption that individuals actively participate in the creation of their own reality, career is viewed as an individual construct. The meaning people attach to career is reflective of their social, psychological, historical, and cultural relationships and experiences. Traditional vocational psychology with its emphasis on stable personal traits and measurable characteristics of occupations becomes less relevant within the context of changing realities.

Specifically, constructivist career counseling requires a paradigm shift from examining behavioral traits to looking at action, meaning, and life themes. In addition, it requires a shift from assessment of causation to more reflective processing. It also encourages counselors and clients to see the self as progressively constructed or a work in progress rather than predetermined. Instead of quantifying traits, career counseling involves exploration of how clients construct meaning from present actions and past experiences. As a construct itself, career accounts for connectedness between actions, accommodates roles and relationships in a variety of settings, reflects purposeful efforts toward planning and goal setting, as well as reflecting internal states such as emotion, arousal, passion, and personality. An individual’s construct of career is an overarching framework for understanding and organizing complex patterns of intentional actions over the lifespan. The career development process therefore involves individuals intentionally engaged in acquiring meaning within the constructs of their lives. Life and career transitions, whether purposeful or in reaction to unexpected change, stimulate changes in personal constructs.

  1. Vance Peavy was among the first to outline, articulate, and advocate the shift to constructivist career counseling. In a time when clients’ lives and careers are increasingly ambiguous and uncertain, Peavy suggested that self-construction and life planning replace simple focus on career choice. He emphasized that clients should move away from the idea that there is one right answer, but rather that some answers are better than others. As individuals create realities through the interpretations they make and the actions they take, they must take responsibility for their own thinking and actions.

Peavy also focused a great deal of time and attention on the relational nature of career construction. People use language to make meaning out of their daily lives, especially in interactions with others and with aspects of the surrounding world. The counseling process is one of collaboration with the counselor bringing expertise on the career development process and the client bringing self-expertise. The goal then becomes pattern recognition and mindfulness toward the creation of new constructs, receptivity to new information, and awareness of multiple perspectives.

The Practice of Career Counseling

The process of constructing possible realities involves action. As individuals define themselves and their environments they are actively participating in the creation of new realities and personal stories. The use of language and dialogue (internal or with others) is critical to the creation of meaning and knowledge. In career counseling, individuals’ career constructs, stories, and personal mythology are explored and a new reality is created through dialogue between counselor and client. This process invites nonlinear conversations wherein new stories are written, existing stories are revised, and possible selves are explored. Unlike some traditional models that compared individuals to a set of norm-referenced traits, constructivist career counseling respects sociopolitical and cultural contexts in which clients live. This makes constructivist counseling especially useful with diverse client populations and a vast array of individual differences.

A number of models have emerged within this theoretical perspective including narrative career counseling, action theory, the self-construction model, and relational theory. Within these models, new vocational interventions designed to complement the counseling experience are being developed. Although diverse in nature, design, and intended outcome, these interventions generally encourage reflection on activity through storytelling, assessment of themes, journaling, concept mapping, assessment of strengths and accomplishments, and metaphor. With the focus on dialogue and relational empowerment, constructivist career counseling is also being used increasingly in group settings. In addition, more traditional interventions are being reviewed, revised, and reinterpreted for under-standing within a constructivist point of view.


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