Career Development Association of New Zealand


Te Mōhiotanga

Career guidance, equity and social justice

By: Professor Ronald G Sultana

Date: 07 Nov 2018

Category: Article reviews

Tags: social justice, symposium 2018, world tableau, equity

Career guidance, equity and social justice

This article is a summary of the interview between CDANZ National Development Manager Lauren Hughes and Professor Ronald G. Sultana, World Tableau guest at the CDANZ National Symposium 2018.


In European and international policy documents, some of which you have authored or co-authored, career guidance (CG) is often mentioned as an instrument, which can contribute not only to the development of human resources and lifelong learning, but also to broad social equity goals. In which way can it be said that career guidance promotes equity and social justice?

From its very inception at the turn of the 20th century, CG had equity and social justice concerns and goals. Parsons, together with others associated with the Progressive Movement in the United States, wanted to develop services that helped individuals and groups recognise their abilities and potential, and to contribute to society by fitting in well within the evolving division of labour in America. One of his major concerns was in fact to ensure that immigrants and low-income families were supported in their efforts to find and stay in employment. For Parsons, CG was therefore a tool to combat poverty, besides facilitating a more efficient deployment of abilities and talents.

While such ‘person-environment fit’ models are sometimes justifiably criticised for being too technocratic in the way they considered ‘potential’—which today we see rather more as a constructed and social notion rather than a given ‘internal’ and personal one—Parsons’ approach did have its merits. It certainly exemplified liberal notions of meritocracy, whereby individuals were to find fulfilment through work lives that corresponded to desires and abilities, rather than to their social origins. In this sense, the roots of CG are in social and political commitments to ‘equity’ and ‘social justice’, when these are interpreted from a liberal ideological lens. In other words, Parsons recognised that individuals, including recent migrants, needed organised and systematic support in order to overcome personal and social difficulties and to find their place in the labour market, so that they could become fulfilled and productive members of the community.


In your view, has that social commitment been maintained in the career guidance field, or has it become muted with time?

As my colleagues and I have argued in our two recently edited volumes*, that social commitment was given less importance as CG became a highly individualised endeavour, although there are signs of a resurgence in more socially critical approaches to the field. Some historical and critical accounts of CG in the post-war period note that CG was largely taken over by psychologists who almost exclusively focused on the individual and on intra-psychic processes at the expense of the social. If we look at the established mainstream theoretical models for CG, starting from trait-factor approaches such as those promoted by Holland, or developmental and lifespan approaches by Super and others, or psychodynamic theories such as those articulated by Roe, right up to the ‘life design’ and narrative perspectives promoted by Savickas and colleagues—practically all tend to have the liberal individual as their point of departure as well as their point of reference. Their main preoccupation is to understand the individual, and to help him or her expand options through greater awareness of self and of opportunities. This can be liberatory in itself, of course, but the main preoccupation is with ‘fitting in’ within the given structures. Rarely do we find sustained critiques of the economy, of how capitalism functions as an exploitative system, of how the profit motive sets into motion processes that lead to the de-skilling and disempowering of workers, in contradiction to much of the rhetoric around lifelong learning, for instance. With some notable exceptions—including, for instance, the more comprehensive psycho-social perspective adopted by Blau and his colleagues—there is little in these mainstream approaches that help us understand how social structures operate in a way that is severely detrimental to the interests of whole groups, identifiable by their class, gender, ethnicity, and other social markers.


Surely the major turbulances of the late 1970s, with the rise of mass unemployment and economic restructuring, must have had an impact on the way CG was regarded?

Yes, indeed. Major breakthroughs were made in the 1970s. Paul Willis, for instance, provided us with a penetrating portrait of within-school dynamics that led to working class kids getting working class jobs. That classic study, based on an ethnography in Birmingham schools in the UK, has helped introduce more sociologically-based approaches in the CG field, although the take-up has been remarkably slow in some quarters, where psychological perspectives seemed to have remain oblivious to the need to enrich their understanding with more multi-disciplinary inputs. Other sociologically and anthropologically-oriented studies have highlighted how gender and ethnic identities are shaped by societal prejudices and expectations. We have become more sensitive to the fact that members of such groups integrate these oppressive structures within their very being, constraining their very ‘capacities to aspire’, and ‘horizons of action’. The same goes for persons with disability, particularly since psychology’s tendency to exclude the social inevitably leads to a blame-the-victim approach. Rather than critiquing the system for causing difficulties to individuals and groups, many CG approaches are content to provide palliative care, identifying weaknesses and deficits and coming up with tools and strategies to help clients cope and fit in. While in the short term within an interactive context of a helping relationship this might make some sense, it not only leaves the cause of problems unaddressed, but it implies that macro social issues have to be borne and ‘solved’ by the individual.


What you seem to be arguing for is not a discarding of the insights generated by psychology, but to enrich and complement these by drawing on a wider set of disciplines, particularly critical social theory…

I actually consider myself very lucky to have had a formation both in psychology and sociology. Both are absolutely necessary in our profession. When sociological perspectives are mobilised within CG, there is more of a chance that the emancipatory element in our field is fulfilled. We are in fact currently seeing a resurgence of critical approaches to CG, and this is not surprising: it is difficult to hold on to traditional notions of CG—many of which were developed in more economically affluent times—within the present downturn. As in the late 1970s, when the first critiques of CG were articulated, today we see very high levels of youth unemployment, an increasing number of young people unable to translate their high qualifications into decent work and wages, and most citizens struggling with insecurity of all sorts. Poverty is rampant, including within-work poverty—signalling the fact that wages are so depressed in some sectors that many of those who work cannot make ends meet. Jobs for life have become scarce, and there has been a steep rise in temporary contracts and part-time work which, while convenient for some, represents a problem for most. Outsourcing on a global scale depresses income for labourers while maximising return on investment of the employing class, who scour the world for cheap labour. And all this is taking place in a context where workers’ and citizens’ rights are taking one blow after another, and the gap between the haves and the have nots has increased exponentially, as the French economist Piketty has conclusively shown.

It is therefore not surprising at all that we are now seeing efforts to combine the insights of sociology with those generated by psychology, leading to re-articulations of what CG might mean in contemporary times. Sociologists like Zygmunt Baumen and Richard Sennett have been particularly influential in helping us think through some of the changes in the world of work, and we need to carefully consider the implications of what they are saying for our field. Both, for instance, ask whether the very notion of ‘career’ makes any sense today, except for a small and privileged minority. Gideon Arulmani, our colleague from India, has even argued that for the many poor—what we now increasingly refer to as the ‘underclass’—it might be more meaningful to talk about ‘livelihood planning’ rather than ‘career guidance’.


What are the implications of such shifts for the career guidance practitioner?

All these economic, cultural and political changes have implications for the role of the CG practitioner. Increasingly, CG providers are challenged to be more than mere ‘technicians’ to the system, involved in assessing, placing, and—let us admit—even policing clients. The largely para-therapeutic role, where the assumption is that there is something ‘wrong’ or lacking with the ‘client’, is replaced—or at least complemented—by a stance that is willing to challenge the system on behalf of citizens, including the stateless who, given the international refugee crisis, are knocking at our doors. Here a different set of competences are required from the CG practitioner, whose task is that of ‘conscientisation’. This term, which has been theorised by the Brazilian educator Paolo Freire, entails helping individuals and groups understand how what appear to be personal deficits and in fact caused by social forces that are often propelled by the self-interest of a small but powerful minority. It is about helping clients ‘read the world’, and decoding its complexity. The task of CG practitioners goes beyond conscientisation to advocacy—i.e. mobilising organizational and political skills in order to ensure that suppressed and oppressed voices get heard, and that the agendas of the least powerful impact on policy, including the distribution of resources. have put together a series of contributions by authors from different countries, who explore aspects of such emancipatory guidance. In our work, Tristram Hooley, Rie Thomsen and myself have provided some pointers as to how CG practictioners can fight different forms of oppression in their everyday work. But we have also embarked on a major international project to capture the narratives of experience of practitioners who strive to combat social injustice and inequalities in their day-to-day efforts to serve citizens. Such stories from the ‘front-line’ will help us better understand what the situation is in the field when social justice is used as the compass that steers our action. They will also serve to inspire us all in finding ways of being and ways of acting that are enabling and empowering, especially for those who are rendered vulnerable by the economic and political decisions that are made.


What you are saying here seems to have important implications for the set of competences, as well as dispositions, that career guidance practitioners should be trained in, and should have…

It is my strong view that it is important for today’s CG community to be knowledgeable about alternative ways of organising the economy: ‘flexicurity’ arrangements, for instance, together with notions of a ‘basic income for all’, are important political proposals that have serious implications for the work of practitioners who are serious about their commitment to equity and social justice. And these are not wild utopic ideas: Luxleaks and Panamagate have revealed the extent to which the wealthiest few in the world have avoided their tax responsibilities. The Tax Justice Network has estimated that the global élite are sitting on $21 to $32 trillion untaxed assets. A basic income of $2,000 for every adult in the US would, in comparison, only cost $563 billion annually—and this is enough to ensure that people paid their mortgage (rather than lose their house) or not to miss out on food or medicine. The tragedy is that the governments we elect seem oblivious to such theft, and have concluded—erroneously and scandalously, it has now become clear—that there is not enough money in the public coffers to continue funding the welfare system, and that the only possible way forward is austerity.

A CG practitioner who is only interested in helping clients ‘cope’ with the situation that prevails at a given point in time risks falling into a trap. He or she might feel that they are being caring, enabling, and possibly even empowering—and at the individual level that may well be the case. But in contexts of mass unemployment, savage economic restructuring, cut-throat competition, precarity and widespread insecurity, a sole focus on the individual can easily lead to efforts to bring our clients at the head of the queue, forgetting the other hundred who, despite all their efforts, and ours, will not become employed: a hundred (applicants) into one (job vacancy) will simply not go! CG seems to have been developed to combat frictional unemployment, when what we have now is structural unemployment. To persist in practising career guidance as if we are still living in affluent times leads to one of the best-known outcomes of neo-libralism, i.e. the ‘responsibilisation’ of individuals, at the micro level, for problems that are caused by economic policies at the macro level. Whenever we encourage clients and citizens to learn how to apply for jobs, sit for interviews, and present themselves in ways that make them attractive to employers, we are essentially suggesting that they are responsible for their own unemployment. That is why, across Europe and beyond, the focus is on ‘employability’, a dangerous and macchiavellian term which suggests that individuals are unemployed because they lack ‘employability’, and not because the economy is structured in ways that exclude large numbers of citizens as a precondition for enhancing profits for a few. This is what Zygmunt Bauman refers to as the substitution of individual self-responsibility for social solidarity.

In such a situation, the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor who was executed for resisting Hitler, come to mind: “We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.” While I personally would not disparage those who would ‘bandage the wounds’ of victims of injustice, it would be important to do so while at the same time fighting the system that causes such injustices in the first place.


* T. Hooley, R.G. Sultana & R. Thomsen (eds)(2018) Career Guidance for Social Justice: Contesting Neoliberalism and Career Guidance for Emancipation: Reclaiming Justice for the Multitude (in press). Both volumes published by Routledge. See also special issue No. 36 of the NICEC Journal for Career Education and Counselling, dedicated to social justice (edited by T. Hooley & R.G. Sultana, 2016).


Professor Ronald G Sultana

Professor Ronald G Sultana

Ronald G. Sultana is professor of sociology and comparative education at the University of Malta, where he directs the Euro-Mediterranean Centre for Educational Research. He has been involved in several international studies of career guidance policies, and has published widely on the links between education, the economy, and social justice, with most of his recent work being on career guidance. Many of his publications can be accessed at Email: