Self-Concept Theory in Career Development and Counseling

Article excerpt

Among the many important theoretical contributions of Donald Super was his emphasis on career development as a process of self-concept implementation. Super originally suggested the important role of the self-concept in career development in a 1949 speech made in Fort Collins, Colorado, and later published in 1951. As Super stated in his 1953 American Psychologist article:

The process of vocational development is essentially that of developing and implementing a self-concept: it is a compromise process in which the self-concept is a product of the interaction of inherited aptitudes, neural and endocrine make-up, opportunity to play various roles, and evaluations of the extent to which the results of role playing meet with the approval of superiors and fellows. (p. 189)

Several years later, in an attempt to make self-concept theory operational, Super (1963) defined the vocational self-concept as "The constellation of self-attributes considered by the individual to be vocationally relevant" (p. 20). Stating that the major dimensions of the self-concept are traditional personality traits, Super focused his discussion on the delineation of 13 metadimensions, such as self-esteem, clarity, certainty, stability, and realism. Most recently, Super (1990) suggested that self-concept theory might be better called "personal construct theory" (after the term used by Kelly, 1955) to show the individual's dual focus on self and situation. He also particularly emphasized the metadimensions, including self-esteem and self-efficacy, because they may influence how well the process of self-concept implementation can occur.

Much of the research on self-concept theory, as cited by Super (1963) and reviewed, for example, by Osipow (1983), has focused on self-concept implementation in occupational preferences and choices, as operationally defined by examining perceived and ideal selves and their relationship to occupational role concepts. In early research, the degree of similarity (congruence) of self-and occupational role concepts was shown to be positively related to such criterion variables as intent to pursue the "congruent" field (Englander, 1960), job satisfaction (Brophy, 1959), realism of vocational choice (Tageson, 1960), and interest versus disinterest in occupations (Blocher

Schultz, 1961). Some later research (Burgoyne, 1979; Kidd, 1984; Wheeler & Carnes, 1968) also operationally defined and examined the relations among actual-self, ideal-self, and occupational concepts. Osipow (1983) concluded his review of this body of research by suggesting that it supports "the notion that self-concept plays an important role in occupational preference" (p. 177).

Although, as Osipow (1983) suggested, research supports Super's emphasis on the self-concept in vocational behavior, there has been less research and counseling use than one might expect of such

potentially rich construct as this, especially in its more general role in lifelong career development. In considering why this might be, I suggest that the broad and nonspecific definitions of what is, and is not, included in the self-concept have hampered both the heuristic and practical usefulness of Super's formulations. As discussed by Gottfredson (1985), Osipow (1990), and Pryor (1985), among others, the self-concept has not been well-conceptualized or well-measured in vocational psychology.


The most serious problems with Super's conceptualization of self-concept arise because of its definitional breadth and nondefinitional specificity. The definition and measurement of self-concept have been both unwieldy and idiosyncratic, that is, subject to the interpretation of individual researchers.

Super (1990) himself suggested the breadth of his concept when he noted that Allport defined personality in terms of some 4,000 traits, and gave 50 meanings to the term personality. Super noted as well that people have not one self-concept but constellations of self-concepts (1990, p. …


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