Socially just practice: Making sense and moving forward
Date: 03 Dec 2018
Category: Article reviews
This article will consider some key challenges for career development arising from changed and changing social contexts. What do we mean when we talk about social justice from a career development perspective? What can realistically be achieved? What might be some of the implications for practice? And do these shifts and changes impact on the professional identity of career development practitioners?
The changing nature of social justice for career practice
Social justice values have underpinned the profession of career development since it was established at the turn of the last century out of concern for economic and political reforms that would help disadvantaged people, including young people and immigrants, find jobs in industrialised societies. In contemporary societies, the shape of many career development services has been transformed recently by neo-liberal agendas that are framing the provision of education, social, and labour market policies. Consequently policy agendas have included the closure of social services such as those related to career development, tighter restrictions on access to such services, a belief that an individual has responsibility for their own lives, the privatisation of services, and ‘user pays’ service models. The traditional model of career development support as a one-to-one practice may not always be appropriate, or viable, in such circumstances. In some cultural contexts, for example, career decision making is a familial or community activity, rather than the individualistic transaction assumed typical in many western countries. In recognition, there have been significant developments in practice, driven by theory based on robust research and resulting in a sophisticated array of culturally sensitive interventions. Yet despite a robust evidence base relating to the effectiveness of practice being built (Hughes, in press; Whiston et al., 2017), career development services have recently come under increasing pressure, particularly because of the financial crises of 2007/8 that brought in their wake climates of austerity in countries across the world, together with a ‘more for less’ philosophy.
Challenges for practice
Career practice interacts with, and is influenced by, both the volatile labour markets in which it takes place and the policies that often influence (sometimes determine) the parameters of practice. Within this landscape, it becomes evident that dimensions of social inequality intersect in complex ways, for example, socio-economic status, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, age, disability, etc. (Bimrose et al., 2015, p.1). It is no longer appropriate to try to respond to a single dimension of inequality. For example, political responses to tackling ‘youth unemployment’ have tended to focus on one single dimension of disadvantage (age), without factoring in the related dimensions of inequality, such as ethnicity, socio-economic status, etc.
Indeed, we need to remind ourselves that career counselling practice reflects a political position:
Counseling is a sociopolitical act. However, many counselors are unaware of the fact that the profession has at its core a set of cultural values and norms by which clients are judged. In order to make the counseling psychology field more responsive to the needs of multicultural populations, the profession must be willing to engage in self-examination (Katz, 1985, p. 615).
Whilst demand for career development services is increasing, “employment policies have become subordinate to economic policies, which are currently regulated by global markets” (Roberts, 2015, p. 252). All of these challenges require taking stock of our professional practice.
Most career practitioners regard themselves as professionals. So what does this mean, in practice? A profession is:
A disciplined group of individuals who adhere to ethical standards and who hold themselves out as, and are accepted by the public as, possessing special knowledge & skills in a widely recognised body of learning derived from research, education & training at a high level & who are prepared to apply this knowledge & exercise these skills in the interests of others. (Professions, Australia).
With the claim to being a profession there are responsibilities, for example, strict adherence to an ethical code of conduct. In fact, a key defining characteristic of a profession is an ethical code, with inherent values. For the career profession, autonomy has been the ethical value that has unquestioningly been given primacy in practice. Respect for the autonomy of the client, in a client-centred approach, has typically been the centre-piece of practice. Yet adopting a more explicit social justice perspective may require practitioners to work the ethical principle of autonomy against another ethical value, namely justice. For example, working with culturally different clients may require a more relational approach to practice, involving members of the client’s family, even community, in the career decision-making process (Bimrose, 2006). This can result in an ethical dilemma arising for the career professional, which needs to be resolved by making a reasonable choice between two courses of action. Either will have consequences and must be ethically defensible, and each compromises one of the ethical principles. (Birdsall & Hubert, 2000).
In addition to ethics, expertise underlying and guiding practice is crucial for the competent professional. Career theory, underpinned by robust research, is necessary to guide practice and comprises this expertise. Relevant and contemporary theories provide a framework for effective practice and should not be overlooked. For socially just practice, it is necessary to foreground context and it is argued that interdisciplinary theories that embrace economic factors & sociological influences are required (Blustein, 2017).
In parallel with theory, strategies consistent with social justice could be foregrounded in effective socially just practice. Advocacy is one example. Three types of approaches to advocacy have been identified, with implications for practice different for each (Bimrose & McNair, 2011). Each is useful in the pursuit of social justice. Use of labour market information (LMI) can be regarded as another strategy. An example of the specialist knowledge that underpins career practice (Roberts, 2013), LMI is pivotal to successful client outcomes (Bimrose, in press). Finally, the effective use of information and communications technology (ICT) represents a strategy for opening access and reaching all clients (Bimrose et al., 2015b).
Professional identity transformation
Like many professions, career development is in a state of flux. Changing contexts require different approaches and to accommodate these changes professionals may need to change their professional identifies: “Identities at work are the meanings attached to an individual by the self and others, and are displayed in attitudes, behaviours and stories we tell about ourselves and others” (Ibarra, & Barbulescu, 201,0 p.137). These identities are constructed, not innate or given, dynamic, not fixed. They are flexible, so can be changed and are influenced by self and others. So individuals do have some control over their professional identity transformation, by engaging in learning. This can be achieved successfully using ICT, with individual practitioners interacting as part of international communities of practice (Bimrose et al., 2018).
In conclusion, socially just practice acknowledges disadvantage, discrimination and harassment that is experienced and suffered by clients seeking career development support. It uses relevant practice frameworks and strategies, demonstrating a reflective approach. Above all, it depends on our professionalism and professional practice, which is likely to require our commitment to shifting and/or changing our professional identity.
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