Social Justice and Career Development: Looking Back, Looking Forward

By McMahon, Mary; Arthur, Nancy et al. | Australian Journal of Career Development, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Social Justice and Career Development: Looking Back, Looking Forward


McMahon, Mary, Arthur, Nancy, Collins, Sandra, Australian Journal of Career Development


Social justice has underpinned career development work since its inception. Over time however, while awareness of social justice issues has been retained, the focus of intervention has largely remained individual. Further, career theory has been criticised for its lack of attention to cultural influences such as gender, ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic status, and sexual orientation, in people's career development. In this regard, progress has been made to the extent that multicultural and diversity competencies have been identified and elaborated. However, such competencies maintain a predominant focus on interventions with individuals and there have been calls for career development to identify social justice competencies which necessarily suggest different roles and levels of intervention for career development practitioners. As the implications of globalisation become more apparent and societal inequity is perpetuated, it is timely to revisit the social justice origins of career development and consider how career development may position itself in the 21st century. This paper examines social justice in career development theory and practice, and considers implications for career development practitioners.

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Not till society wakes up to its responsibilities and its privileges in this relation shall we be able to harvest more than a fraction of our human resources, or develop and utilize the genius and ability that are latent in each new generation. (Parsons, 1909, p. 165).

With this comment, Frank Parsons, widely regarded as the founder of career development work, summed up his commitment to all people achieving their potential and the social activism that may be required to achieve it. Vocational psychology traditionally played an important role in advocating for social justice, through the work of individuals like Frank Parsons (Fouad, Gerstein, & Toporek, 2006; Hargrove, Creagh, & Kelly, 2003). Since that time, throughout the history of career development, social activism has often lain dormant before reasserting itself (Gummere, 1988) as a responsibility of career development practitioners.

There are some historical parallels that may be made between the turbulence and dramatic social change of the time of Parsons and the present time. Once again social justice is reasserting itself as a guiding value and foundation which may take career development practice forward (Arthur, 2005a; in press; Toporek & Chope, 2006). To this end, in a special issue of the journal, The Counseling Psychologist, Blustein, McWhirter, and Perry's (2005) position paper prompted serious debate in the subsequent articles about social justice as a primary focus for vocational psychology. More recently Toporek, Gerstein, Fouad, Roysicar, and Israel (2006) published their Handbook for Social Justice in Counseling Psychology, which focuses attention on the importance of social justice to career and vocational counselling.

Definitions of social justice have varied, but socially just practice may be regarded as 'actions that contribute to the advancement of society and advocate for equal access to resources for the marginalized or less fortunate individuals in society' (O'Brien, 2001, p. 66). Whereas the meaning of social justice often refers to the access and distribution of resources, we wish to also place an emphasis on human development and the role of career development practitioners in helping individuals reach their full potential (Young, 1990). The career development of individuals does not occur in isolation. We need to be mindful of supporting individuals while fostering a better balance between the self-determinism of individuals and the needs of the community (Blustein, 2006). In a just society, opportunities, resources, and worth are distributed equitably and fairly, with no individuals or groups holding particular advantages or disadvantages in access or advancement (Fouad et al. …

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