The Legacy of Parsons: Career Counselors and Vocational Psychologists as Agents of Social Change

By O'Brien, Karen M. | Career Development Quarterly, September 2001 | Go to article overview

The Legacy of Parsons: Career Counselors and Vocational Psychologists as Agents of Social Change


O'Brien, Karen M., Career Development Quarterly


The commitment to social change demonstrated by the founder of vocational psychology, Frank Parsons, continues in several areas of vocational psychology today, including individual career counseling, guidance work in the schools, career interventions with special populations, and vocational research. This article highlights ways in which career counselors and vocational psychologists have focused and can continue to focus their practice and research to improve the condition of society and to provide interventions that enhance the ability of all individuals to love and to work in a meaningful way.

The founder of vocational psychology, Frank Parsons, was an advocate for youth, women, the poor, and the disadvantaged and "taught the principles of cooperation, love of justice, and hatred of oppression and discrimination" (Davis, 1969, p. 23). Although Parsons died at a young age, his legacy continues in the work of many career counselors and vocational psychologists. The focus of this article is to highlight several areas of vocational research and intervention that emulate the social justice work of Parsons and to propose several lessons for career counselors and vocational psychologists from the work and life of Frank Parsons.

Social Justice

Social justice or social change work can be defined as actions that contribute to the advancement of society and advocate for equal access to resources for marginalized or less fortunate individuals in society. Herr and Niles (1998) suggested that although few career counselors conceive of their work as contributing to social change, many are involved in work that brings hope to the discouraged and has implications not only for individuals but also for institutions and public policy. They noted the following:

In this sense, for most of the last 100 years, whether or not it has been explicit, counseling and, in particular, career counseling and career guidance have become sociopolitical instruments, identified by legislation at the federal level, to deal with emerging social concerns such as equity and excellence in educational and occupational opportunities, unemployment, human capital development, persons with disabilities, child abuse, AIDS, teenage pregnancy, substance abuse, career decision making relative to the preparation for entrance into emerging skilled occupations, and the identification and encouragement of students with high academic potential to enter higher education in science and mathematics. (p. 121)

This focus on social justice through career interventions originated with the founder of vocational psychology, Frank Parsons. Parsons was a complex and, in some ways, contradictory man whose legacy of social action continues in several areas of vocational psychology today, including individual career counseling, guidance work in the schools, career interventions with special populations, and vocational research.

Social Justice Work

Individual Career Counseling

Parsons (1909) was an ardent advocate for individualized approaches to career counseling. He founded the first vocational guidance center (i.e., the Vocational Bureau) and provided counseling using the overarching principles of Light, Information, Inspiration, and Cooperation (Parsons, 1909). Spokane and Glickman (1994) operationalized these principles as follows: Light was defined as the insight gained about oneself; Information included data collected about oneself and the world of work; Inspiration was equated with hope that encouraged confidence in career pursuits; and Cooperation involved the mobilization of resources to actualize one's career choice.

Although many would consider Parsons's greatest gift to career counseling the articulation of the primary tenets of the matching model of career development (i.e., understand yourself, learn about your environment, and use true reasoning to select an occupation from these data), Jones (1994) suggested that some of Parsons's principles of vocational interventions are congruent with more integrated approaches to career counseling being advanced today (Blustein & Spengler, 1995; Lucas, 1993; Zamostny, O'Brien, & Tomlinson, 2000). …

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