Southern Theory Perspective and Career Development

By Burns, Edgar | Australian Journal of Career Development, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Southern Theory Perspective and Career Development


Burns, Edgar, Australian Journal of Career Development


This paper offers a preliminary exploration of Connell's idea of southern theory and its potential application to career development. Four assumptions of metropolitan (northern) social theory are described: (a) the claim of universality, (b) reading from the centre, (c) gestures of exclusion, and (d) grand erasure. These assumptions are challenged by reframing Super's long-standing career stages model, showing parallels between the model and social theories Connell critiques.

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Career development's own trajectory of paying greater attention to alternative perspectives (e.g., Guichard & Lenz, 2005) includes how gender, culture and ethnicity shape occupational paths and opportunities (e.g., Menon, 2001). There continues to be, nevertheless, an Amero-centrism about the field, which some career development practitioners are content to read into their work; but others remain less accepting of uncritical adoption of assumptions and values informing work and career from the world's dominant economy into other national settings (Gullette, 1998).

It is difficult to even name the intermittent sense of not-quite-fitting when applying ideas or research from European or American settings to Australia and New Zealand. Such a sense flickers across one's consciousness and then merges into the necessity to prepare for clients, students, or organisational colleagues concerning activities at hand. Yet as counselling interactions frequently show, it is that fleeting insight, that half-developed idea, that shadow across a conversation that can prove to be the thread, when followed, which reveals a whole new tapestry from what has been seen previously. And this in turn can lead to new possibilities being opened up in practical and personal career planning or new theoretical insights, as the case may be.

Southern Theory by Australian sociologist Raewyn Connell (2007) proposes a repositioning southern perspective that helps name the patterns of shadow or fleeting disquiet that occur across social, human service and business fields. The present paper draws encouragement from two sources in trying to articulate some disciplinary possibilities for career development from Connell's broad social theory perspective. First, Walker (2004) looked at two theories in positive psychology (Seligman's learned helplessness; Bandura's self-efficacy) but found them wanting, notwithstanding the fluency with which these terms trip off practitioners' tongues. She commented:

   The cautionary note is that, as with the theory of self-esteem,
   theories that inform our practice need critical analysis and
   constant review. Something that intuitively feels like it is right
   needs to withstand the rigors of research and critique. If it fails
   to withstand the scrutiny, then we should revisit the choices we
   make concerning our professional practice and reform them in light
   of the understanding presently available. (2004, p. 42)

Second, Pryor and Bright (2003) canvassed how chaos theory might assist in conceptualising career. This is the sort of creative idea-generation that offers benefits to those working theoretically, as well as offering direct stimulation to those whose primary role is engagement with clients. They stated in introducing their discussion:

   From our observation of and participation in professional practice
   in the field of vocational psychology, it is glaringly obvious that
   very few practitioners believe what they are doing with most of
   their clients has anything other than the most tenuous links to
   traditional career development theories. (2003,p.12)

A southern perspective helps understanding of this problem, though does not immediately solve it. The disciplinary divorce Pryor and Bright saw between practice and theory is to some extent generated by causes this new approach brings to light.

Further, Walker's criticisms of the inadequacy of specific concepts parallel what Connell is identifying across other fields. …

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