Action Theory

Action theory is based on a school of thought in philosophy, social and cognitive psychology, neurology, and organizational behavior as well as in counseling and career development. This school of thought addresses the intentional, goal-directed nature of human behavior. It has historical roots in the works of George Herbert Mead, Talcott Parsons, and Lev Vygotsky, among others. Action theory has been referred to as a language for how people engage themselves in their daily lives by focusing specifically on processes across time. It takes a teleological perspective of human behavior, thus seeking explanations primarily in the goals of behavior rather than in their causes. Furthermore, action theory is not a theory in the traditional sense, whose purpose is to generate specific hypotheses that can be tested and subsequently accepted or rejected as part of the canon of science. Rather, it is more like a metatheory that provides a guiding framework for understanding human behavior.

Action theory has been applied to counseling and career development and has been found to be heuristic for several reasons. Counseling is essentially a practice that has goal-directed behavior at its center. Career development also involves goals, intentions, plans, and emotional and cognitive processes over time, all of which are addressed in action theory.

In providing a comprehensive framework, action theory recognizes that action can be seen from three perspectives: social meaning; internal processes, that is, the cognitions and emotions that guide and steer action; and the specific behavioral elements that actually comprise the external behavior, including language. For example, one can readily see that writing an e-mail message or having dinner has social meaning. These actions are readily understood by both participants and observers. They are socially meaningful in that society has constructed various norms, rules, and institutions that serve to construct their meaningfulness. People use cognitive and emotional processes to steer their behavior in these actions and rely on language, skills, habits, and resources to actually implement the action. Action theory also reflects the notion that goals are hierarchically ordered across time—that is, some goals are more important than others and may persist for longer periods of time.

Application of Action Theory to Counseling and Vocational Psychology

Action theory has been applied to counseling and vocational psychology by providing new understandings of career development, creating new research capabilities, and developing new and enhancing existing interventions.

An Alternative Epistemology

The most important epistemological shift that action theory provides is that our understanding of career behavior is not primarily represented by a series of causal statements. Rather it is based on an epistemology that knowledge and meaning are induced and constructed through action, particularly as researchers and practitioners focus on processes and base knowledge generation on language that reflects everyday experience. Specifically, in this epistemology, new knowledge is generated by interpreting for meaning, analyzing for function, and observing for behavior.

Focus on the Social

Action theory represents part of the substantial shift in counseling and career development, given the emphasis on cultural and contextual perspectives, that focuses on the social rather than on the individual. Specifically, a radical departure from the understanding of vocation as an individual process was operationalized in the contextual action theory of career by directing attention to the joint actions and projects of those centrally involved in each other’s lives. For example, in several studies in the past few years, action theory researchers have illustrated how the relationship between parents and adolescents figures centrally in the joint career processes, and indeed career projects are subsumed by relationship and communication goals.

Conceptualizing Action-Project-Career

One of the contributions of action theory is the conceptualization of the connection among action, project, and career. Here action refers to short-term, goal-directed behavior, and project to a series of actions with a common goal over a midterm time period. When projects coalesce or are constructed as having a common or overarching goal over the long term, they can be considered as career. Projects and careers can be both prospective and retrospective. This conceptualization places action as central to career, and it does not isolate career as strictly an occupational construct. Thus, this conceptualization does not represent the application of psychology to career, but is a psychology in which career has a central place.

The Action-Project Method

In recent research in vocational psychology, action theory researchers have developed a qualitative research method, identified as the action-project method, that has broad applications for use in research in counseling, vocational psychology, and other areas that involve human action. This method has unique units of analysis and data gathering procedures that, when used together in the study of human social processes, can generate findings that speak to the systems of action (i.e., actions, projects, and career), to the ways actions are organized (i.e., as goals, functional steps, and behavioral elements), and to the commonalities and discrepancies between them.

Although researchers have used this method as a qualitative method, it is not exclusively limited to qualitative data. There are aspects of data gathering that are subject to systematic observation and thus are amenable to quantitative analyses. Other aspects of the data are interpretative and depend on subjective reports and interpretation within a meaning community. Data from all perspectives on action, that is, manifest behavior, internal processes, and social meaning, are critical as each contributes to understanding action. This method is enhanced by the use of a video recall procedure, called the self-confrontation interview, in which participants have the opportunity to see a videotape of and recall internal process during a recent action.


In action theory, context is represented in and through actions, projects, and career. Actions are embedded in their contexts. They are the person’s agentic engagement with the circumstances of his or her own life and more specifically the joint actors’ agentic engagement with the circumstances of their lives together.

Developing New and Enhancing Established Interventions

Connecting Theory and Practice

A long-standing issue in vocational psychology is that, while there have been theories of career development, there have not been explicit theories of career counseling. Simply put, theory and practice have developed separately. Contextual action theory is equally an approach to career counseling practice as it is to knowledge generation about the career process. It allows the counselor and client to address goals in counseling without being too rational, to address cognitive-emotional processing without subscribing simply to an information processing approach, and to address habitual behavior and automatic processes without relying too much on physiological or unconscious processes.

Joint Action and Self-Confrontation in Counseling

Anecdotal evidence suggests that participating in joint action and self-confrontation in counseling can make a difference in the lives of clients. These procedures seem to help clients make joint goals explicit and recognize that they are shared. Clients also appear to appreciate the opportunity to see themselves in action during the video recall and in a sense construct that narrative of that action through recalling their internal processes.

Working with Projects

The concept of joint project adds significantly to practice in the field of vocational psychology. Because project is more time limited, it is more accessible and perhaps more under the control of the client than the construct of career is. In addition, project has the advantage of capturing the agency of the person. It is linked to career, and it is the level that best reflects the joint action between the counselor and the client.


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