Counseling Theories within a Postmodernist Epistemology: New Roles for Theories in Counseling Practice

Article excerpt

Theoretical understanding is an essential part of effective counseling practice. Theories help counselors organize clinical data, make complex processes coherent, and provide conceptual guidance for interventions. The overwhelming barrage of information with which practicing counselors are regularly confronted would be a bewildering array of random, disparate happenings without the aid of organizing conceptual tools to make sense of it all.

Traditionally, counseling theories have been considered accurate reflections of the phenomena they purport to describe (Hansen, 2002; Speed, 1991). For example, pioneering cognitive theorists proposed that cognitive theory was a true mapping of the key elements of the psychic terrain (Mahoney, 1991). Likewise, psychoanalysis, humanism, and other core counseling orientations were originally offered as accurate depictions of human psychological processes (Corsini & Wedding, 2000). All traditional counseling theories, then, were conceived in a modernist epistemic context (Hansen, 2002); that is, there was an assumed correspondence between the theoretical map and the actual psychological territory.

Particularly within the last decade, however, postmodernist assumptions have begun to influence the counseling profession (Hansen, 2004; Sexton, 1997). Unlike modernism, which assumes a knowable reality, postmodernism assumes that observers create realities (Hansen, 2004; Hayes & Oppenheim, 1997; Leary, 1994; Rosen, 1996; Ryan, 1999). In other words, so-called "reality" is a human construction, not something that can be objectively discovered. Instead of the modernist notion that the theory map reflects the territory, postmodernist assumptions imply that "it is the map that precedes the territory" (Baudrillard, 1995, p. 80). That is, theories determine what individuals see, not the other way around.

A postmodernist epistemology, therefore, has profound implications for the role of theory in counseling practice. However, a consideration of the ways counseling theories are used and considered within a postmodernist epistemic context has received little attention in the counseling literature. The purpose of this article, then, is to thoroughly elaborate the implications of a postmodernist epistemology for the role of theory in counseling practice. I accomplish this by (a) contrasting modern and postmodern epistemologies, (b) discussing implications of postmodernist epistemology for counseling theories, and (c) drawing conclusions about the new role of theories for the counseling profession.

* Contrasting Epistemologies

Modernism and postmodernism are complex, multifaceted movements in the history of philosophy. Regarding the role of counseling theories, however, the epistemological, or philosophy of knowledge, aspect of these movements is arguably the most relevant feature (Hansen, 2004).

In terms of epistemology, modernism posits that true knowledge of phenomena can be discovered through objective observation (Anderson, 1990; Erwin, 1999; Gergen, 1992; Hansen, 2004). Historically, this modernist epistemology is rooted in the Enlightenment assumption that observers could be entirely separated from whatever is being observed (Hansen, 2002, 2004). Objective, scientific observation, thus, was considered the means to learn the truth about phenomena. During the 20th century, however, critiques of this epistemic position began to coalesce into a postmodern epistemology as it was increasingly recognized that humans actively construct what they observe and are not just passive receivers of information (Anderson, 1990). Postmodern epistemology, thus, maintains that reality is never objectively discovered but is always, at least to some extent, created by perceivers (Hansen, 2004; Hayes & Oppenheim, 1997; Leary, 1994; Rosen, 1996; Ryan, 1999). Although postmodern epistemology began to achieve critical mass and influence a variety of fields in the mid-20th century (e. …