Cultural or universal

dharma wheel by Michael Hartford (mhartford)

Universal concepts

In The East and West of Careers Guidance, my colleague Saiyada talked about the Jiva project promoting career development counselling in India.

A recent paper by G. Arulmani (2011) expands on some of the cultural concepts that underlie this approach to careers work. I have my reservations about the research presented in the paper which claims to demonstrate that grounding career education in a culturally relevant framework is more effective than applying more universalist approaches.

This may well be true, but it’s really hard to tell from the details give of the differences between the two approaches used in the research whether the greater effectiveness is down to the cultural relevance or just down to providing a more coherent conceptual framework for the career development activities.

Aside from these concerns about the research methods, I do find the concepts derived from Asian spiritual traditions very thought provoking, especially when comparing them to equivalent concepts from Western career development theory.

Apologies in advance for my over-simplification of these concepts.


Meaning ‘deed’ or ‘action’, karma represents a clear understanding of cause and effect. An appreciation of karma requires an acknowledgement of the potential consequences of your actions and a willingness to take responsibility for those consequences, whether they are predictable or not.

In the language of traditional Western career thinking, karma is about the interaction between agency and structure. It is about an individual’s ability to make independent choices which are influenced by their background and environment, and it is also about an environment which is affected by individual choices. In this respect it has a lot in common with system theory.


This describes the ‘continuous flow’ of life driven by karma. The progress of life is seen, not as linear, but as cyclical. Life is constantly changing and unpredictable but with repeating patterns that build on earlier developments.

This idea has a lot in common with ideas in the Chaos Theory of Careers: non-linearity, recursiveness, fractals (patterns within patterns) and emergence of order.


This represents the various stages in life and their corresponding responsibilities. In the early stages those responsibilities relate to one’s parents and to learning. Next, one fulfils one’s responsibilities to one’s family and to wider society through working industriously and generating wealth. Later, the focus of responsibility shifts towards gaining and sharing wisdom before a dedication to spiritual enlightenment.

This has obvious links to developmental theories of career. The early stages are very similar to equivalent Western developmental stages and the third stage (Vanaprastha) has a lot of parallels with Erikson’s Generativity–Stagnation stage.

The final stage (Sannyasa) has some things in common with Super’s ‘Disengagement’ or Erikson’s ‘Ego integrity–Despair’ as it focuses on withdrawal from worldly concerns. However, rather than being linear and backward looking, this view of development is cyclical, beginning with physical and social growth and ending with spiritual growth.

Samsara represents the appropriate way to achieve the four aims of life Dharma (righteousness or duty), Artha (wealth or worldly achievement), Kama (pleasure or satisfaction), and Moksha (liberation or detachment).


With a literal meaning of ‘upholding’, dharma represents a code of ‘right living’ and is the one life aim that is relevant throughout all the ashrama. It stems from the idea that everything in the universe is interconnected and interdependent. To live correctly one must acknowledge this interdependence and consider your duty to strive for harmony on all levels.

This is in contrast to the individualistic emphasis of much of Western career theory, in which personal fulfilment and personal achievement is the over-riding consideration. Dharma contains an element of self-fulfilment, but here it is presented in terms of fulfilling your duty to yourself, your inheritance and the gifts that life has given you. Another way of looking at this aspect is as living in a way which promotes internal harmony. This could be interpreted as relating to work-life balance, but a more interesting way to think about it is in terms of promoting balance between different aspects of your personality, which is reminiscent of the Dialogical Self.

However, dharma goes beyond personal fulfilment; it is also about fulfilling your duty of achieving harmony with others: your family, your community, wider society and humanity as a whole.

Wider still, dharma is about living in harmony with your environment — thinking about the sustainability of your choices and their impact on the world around you.

These various levels of duty and harmony form an interesting parallel with the micro-, meso-, exo- and macro- levels of the Social Ecology Model.

Similar but different

Personally, I have found it particularly interesting to use these concepts to look at my existing understanding of career theory through different eyes. What about you?


Arulmani, G. (2011). Striking the right note: the cultural preparedness approach to developing resonant career guidance programmes. International Journal for Educational and Vocational Guidance, 11(2), 79-93. DOI: 10.1007/s10775-011-9199-y

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  1. #1 by Andrew Manson on 8 July 2011 - 10:58

    I think these are really useful concepts, not because I like eastern philosphies, but mostly because anything that helps change our frame of reference, albeit momentarily, moves us forward. Given what’s playing out in careers in the UK, renewal through perception change is not just CPD, it is an essential part of careers remaining relevant. I would go further and say it offers the only way to save careers; petitioning ministers is unlikely to be that effective while innovation through widening the model to accommodate other ways of thinking just might. What do you think?

    • #2 by David Winter on 9 July 2011 - 09:45

      Hi Andrew

      I agree that taking new perspectives enriches our practice. However, I don’t think even that will save careers in the pre-18 sector. We need someone who is willing to spend money on providing a quality service.

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