Multi-theoretical rather than meta-theoretical
I am highly wary of people who take only one theoretical perspective.
No matter how rich and multi-dimensional your theory is, no matter how many other theories it incorporates and subsumes, it’s still only a theory. It will never account for all of the variety, complexity and general messiness of real live people in real live environments.
The real problem with only taking one theoretical perspective is that you become subject to the Law of the Instrument (or Maslow’s hammer).
Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding. (Abraham Kaplan)
It is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail. (Abraham Maslow)
If you only have one theoretical perspective, you only have one set of concepts by which you interpret a client’s situation. Because of confirmation bias, you will tend to look for things that fit in with those concepts and you may fail to notice things which don’t fit.
It is tempting to force the facts to fit the concepts and limit what you notice to things that you can describe easily in your frame of reference.
That’s why I shy away from big theories which seek to do everything and try to collect lots of simpler theories that look at career decisions from very different angles. Phil McCash from Warwick University has described this as ‘theoretical triangulation‘.
So, if you’re just venturing out into the world of career theory, which theories should you start with? Here are my suggestions, with no sound scientific basis, just my personal preferences.
At its heart career decision making will always be about making some kind of connection between an individual and an environment, so matching theories are important.
The dominant matching theory is Holland’s RIASEC model, but my favourite is the Theory of Work Adjustment because, unlike many other matching theories, it explicitly describes matching as a dynamic ongoing process.
Because career is a life-long project, it helps to have some ideas about how people’s priorities develop over time. Therefore, some kind of developmental theory could come in handy. Again, I’m going to sidestep the sector leader, Donald Super, in favour of some less obvious contenders.
I’m particularly fond of Erikson’s developmental goals, maybe just because they sound a bit more poetic than many of the other life stages.
However, if you want something very simple but actually quite useful, take a look at Mainiero and Sullivan’s Kaleidoscope Careers idea.
So far we have been dwelling on the more objective side of theory. Let’s take things a little more subjective and personal.
Social Cognitive theory looks at how people build up an understanding of themselves and the world around them through interaction with their environment and how beliefs about oneself and the world influence one’s behaviours and interests.
In career terms two very similar theories have been based on social cognitive thinking: Social Learning Theory of Careers and Social Cognitive Career Theory. Take your pick.
Exploring even further into the way individuals interpret and derive their own meaning from the world around them we are entering the realms of constructivism.
The ideal candidate for this section would be a narrative theory. However, I’ve yet to come across a narrative based theory succinct and simple enough to be included in a starter kit. If you know of one, please tell me.
Instead, we will enter the even more intimidating-sounding world of existentialism. At least here, perhaps because it’s been around for longer, there are some more clearly articulated concepts that we can play with.
Career thinking is not developed in isolation, so we should have a theory which looks in some detail at the influence of other people on career decision making. Social cognitive approaches do this, but they do lots of other things too.
A very simple and clearly focused theory in this area is Bill Law’s Community Interaction theory. Let’s add that to our kit.
Finally, I think we should have something which makes us focus on the unpredictable nature of life. Much as I would like to include Bright & Pryor’s Chaos Theory, I think it’s a bit too advanced for a starter kit. So I’m going to stick with the old favourite Planned Happenstance.
Just for starters
Remember, these are merely my suggestions for starting points. Please don’t think that the theories I’ve mentioned here are the only ones you will ever need, but they should make it easier for you to find a way into the bigger and more complex theories.
If you have any alternative suggestions about what should go into a theory starter kit, please let me know.