One theory to rule them all?

It is generally accepted that there is no ‘one’ right theory that suits every client, so how can a practitioner make some sort of sense out of the multitude of approaches that exist within the modern academic careers world (apart from following our blog of course)?  Enter Patton and McMahon (1999) Systems Theory Framework of Career Development (STF).

The theory is based around the biologist von Bertalanffy’s (1940) work on general systems theory which explained how all living organisms basically work like machines, all parts of the machine working together and affecting the final product in a linear and direct way.  Applying this to career work, each person (or individual system) has their own set of characteristics (i.e. gender, race, age, beliefs, values etc.) some of which are set, and others are influenced by the context the individual finds themselves in.

A Systems Theory Framework for Careers Development

This context forms the second system, the social system.  This system is made up of components that can directly influence the individual system like peer group, family and the media.  The final system is the Environmental-Societal system, made up of values like geographical location, employment market and socioeconomic status.  This outer system is often outside of the individuals control so has less direct influence on the individual system but is often fundamental within the in the creation of the clients life view.

Each of these three systems has elements that affect the individual at different stages of their life.  When elements are active with STF they are said to be exerting recursiveness on the system.  STF also allows for chance events to occur, shown pictorially by a lightning bolt slicing through the system.

So how does STF combine many careers theories?  And how does a practitioner apply it?  This is where I struggle with this theory.  Patton and McMahon talk about how it places equal emphasis on both the process of careers decision making, which theories like Super’s Life Span, Life Space approach have covered in the past, and the content of that career discussion, as explored by theorists like Holland and Parson (trait factor).  It also encompasses the postmodern theories like Social Cognitive careers theory and is adaptable enough to consider aspects like sexual orientation, race and sex.  However in practice, STF is a massive beast to try and remember and implement.  I have used it as a reflection tool after seeing clients which worked well.  I also think the pictorial element of the theory, representing historically what career pathways look like could be interesting to use to certain clients, although I haven’t had a chance to try this yet.

  • What do you think of the idea of ‘metatheories’ to integrate and combine current career theories?
  • How would you implement them practically?


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  1. #1 by John king on 21 March 2011 - 21:54

    What makes this a metatheory?

    • #2 by Katie Dallison on 22 March 2011 - 09:57

      My understanding of a metatheory is that it’s a theory about theories, which STF is – it’s trying to encompass, or link many other theories to provide an overarching approach to careers work. Maybe this was lost a bit in my simplistic explanation – if so, sorry. Did you have a different idea about what constitutes a metatheory? Anyone else have a view here?

  2. #3 by Vinny on 25 March 2011 - 09:53

    My definition of a Metatheory is “A theory which is too complicated to actually use in a session.”

    All career theories try to explain hugely complex interactions. Metatheories involve a lot more complexity than other theories and therefore cannot be useful within a session , unless you have the diagram in front of you and go through it bit by bit with the client. ( which might be an interesting thing to try… has anyone done this with a client?)

    I agree with Katie that they could be more useful for the careers adviser for reflection after the session. The very fact that it is so complicated and all encompassing means that whatever was discussed in the session is likely to be addressed within the theory.

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