Complexity, Chaos, and Nonlinear Dynamics: A New Perspective on Career Development Theory

By Bloch, Deborah P. | Career Development Quarterly, March 2005 | Go to article overview

Complexity, Chaos, and Nonlinear Dynamics: A New Perspective on Career Development Theory


Bloch, Deborah P., Career Development Quarterly


The author presents a theory of career development drawing on nonlinear dynamics and chaos and complexity theories. Career is presented as a complex adaptive entity, a fractal of the human entity. Characteristics of complex adaptive entities, including (a) autopiesis, or self-regeneration; (b) open exchange; (c) participation in networks; (d) fractals; (e) phase transitions between order and chaos; (f) search for fitness peaks; (g) nonlinear dynamics; (h) sensitive dependence; (i) attractors that limit growth; (j) the role of strange attractors in emergence; and (k) spirituality, are described and then applied to careers. The article concludes with a brief case analysis and implications for practice and research.

The human experience of work varies from joy to desperation, from the excitement of the new to the boredom of "been there, done that." For example, one would not expect a successful American actor at the height of his powers to say, "I felt desolate, disinterested in my work. How did this happen to me?" Yet, at age 55, this is just what Richard Dreyfus said of himself (Weinraub, 2001). In contrast, at age 70, Roget-doctor, explorer, inventor, and writer-on his retirement began work on his plan for something unseen before. That something was to become the familiar Rqget's Thesaurus. Jung (1933) aptly described Dreyfus's dilemma in Modern Man in Search of a Soul. In it, he described what he called "the general neurosis of our time." "About a third of my cases," he wrote, "are suffering from no clinically definable neurosis, but from the senselessness and emptiness of their lives" (p. 61). He continued,

It is difficult to treat patients of this particular kind by rational methods, because they are in the main socially, well-adapted individuals of considerable ability, to whom normalization means nothing. . . . The ordinary expression for this situation is: "I am stuck." (Jung, 1933, p. 61)

Again in contrast, the poet Donald Hall (1993) described his feelings about work in "the best part of the best day," as one in which "absorbedness occupies me from footsole to skulltop" (p. 41).

Career counselors have taken as their mission to move people from being "stuck" to finding the work that leads them to "absorbedness" and, even more broadly, to work with people at every stage of life-youth to adulthood, middle age to elder status-so that all may achieve a sense of purpose and meaning in the work they do. To accomplish this mission, career professionals have developed theories and theory-based methodologies and tools.

The predominant career theories, what might be called "classic career development," have been based primarily on the reductionist paradigms of science prevalent in all fields throughout the 19th and most of the 20th centuries. Reductionist approaches rely on an underlying understanding that finding and isolating all the parts will lead to the total or sum of knowledge about a phenomenon or organism, yielding reliable predictions and replicable interventions. This is the basis of what has been called the scientific method. The focus is on identifying structures and processes. Reductionist science has yielded many of the great discoveries that enrich contemporary life, from antibiotics that increase life expectancy to communications that appear to decrease distances around the globe. The same is true in career development. The two theoreticians whose work exemplifies the best of structure and process approaches are, respectively, Holland and Super. The Career Development Quarterly annual review for 2001 "indicates that Super and Holland continue to have a substantial influence on both research and practice in the field of career development and counseling" (Whiston & Brecheisen, 2002, p. 126). In addition, the authors of the review noted continued interest in the work of Parsons and in social cognitive career theory, two additional process theories.

However, in the late 20th century, many supposedly immutable truths were thrown into question not by those who simply questioned the truths but by those who had gone beyond doubting the individual beliefs to doubting the very system of thought in which the beliefs were constructed. …

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