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October 1981 · Vol. 10 No. 4 · pp. 22–25 

Vocational Counseling: Help from the Social Sciences

John D. Friesen

The factors underlying career choice have in the last half century become of growing interest to educators, counselors, ministers and social scientists. Some people maintain that the individual does not exercise career choice, but that the social and economic environment determines the vocational choices that are made. Others argue that the individual does exert a choice and that a person may make a wise and fulfilling career choice or an unsatisfying choice. In this paper, I will identify some of the important concepts underlying career choice and draw implications for counseling.

In attempting to understand vocational choice, it is useful to examine the viewpoints of economists, sociologists, psychologists and others. In the following sections, these perspectives will be briefly outlined.


Sociologists stress the forces in our society as the major determinants of vocational choice. Some sociologists consider the birthright of the individual as a most significant factor in career choice since it establishes the family, race, nationality, social class, residential district, and to a large extent the educational and cultural opportunities for the person. Sociologists argue that the range of occupations that an individual will consider in choosing a career is determined largely by the status expectations of the social class to which he belongs. Similarly, parents strongly influence their children in the choice of a career. In some cases, children inherit their father’s occupations (i.e., farmer’s sons). In others, the children choose an occupation within the range acceptable to parental values, expectations and social class. In addition, educational opportunities clearly influence vocational choice. For example, students who drop out of high school restrict their occupational choices to manual work or in many cases to insecure white collar jobs, or the semi-skilled and unskilled service or clerical occupations. {23}


The psychologist, in comparison to the sociologist, is interested in the inner world of the individual and the role personality plays in vocational choice. The psychologist believes that the career a person chooses is an expression of the personality of life style of the individual. Thus personality theory is particularly important in vocational counseling. Several theories of personality such as psychoanalytic, trait, self and developmental theories will be briefly discussed in the subsequent section.

Trait Theory

Trait theory attempts to understand the person in relationship to his personal characteristics or traits which are considered to be behaviour manifestations of the individual. A person can be described as articulate, bright, dull, loving, sensitive, open, closed, extroverted, introverted, neurotic or psychotic. The assumption of trait theory is that people differ in their personal characteristics and jobs differ in their requirements. Counseling is then an attempt to match traits with jobs. The counselor administers tests to clients and on the basis of the results of these tests and other information such as interview data, references and past performance, a matching process is undertaken. This method is also used in the educational admission process, and in the high school, university and employment service where matching the individual qualities with educational opportunities and jobs is taken for granted and practiced indiscriminately.

Structural Theory

Structural theorists are personality theorists who view human personality as a structured whole with distinctive attributes. These attributes are organized in a unique manner and are characteristic of the individual. Several structural theories will be reviewed and the implications for vocational counseling will be identified.

  1. Psychoanalytic Theory. Psychoanalytic theorists view vocational choice as an expression of the personality of the individual. Such concepts as identification, the development of defense mechanisms, sublimation and unconscious drives can be used to explain vocational choice.
  2. Self-Concept Theory. Self theorists assume that vocational choice is an attempt by the person to implement his self-concept. The self is defined as a differentiated part of the total phenomenal field or it is the awareness one has of one’s being. It is argued by self theorists {24} that in the job as well as in life generally, the person attempts to express his sense of who he is. He attempts to live out in his job his values, hopes, dreams and aspirations. The degree to which he can express who he is, is related to the degree of job satisfaction a person obtains from his job. If the job is congruent with his conception of who he is as a person, the individual will have a high job satisfaction. On the other hand, if the job involves activities which are inconsistent with his sense of self, the person will have low job satisfaction.
  3. Need Theory. Need theorists propose that personal needs, whether at the conscious or unconscious level, are the major determinants of vocation choice. The need hierarchy theory of Maslow is of particular interest to vocational counselors.

Developmental Theory

Developmental theorists believe that vocational choice is not only an expression of the total personality, but also that it occurs over a developmental sequence. Vocational choice is not a single event but should be viewed longitudinally. Accordingly, some theorists such as Super, propose 4 life stages, namely growth, exploration, establishment and decline. The exploration phase which characteristically occurs during high school and college, is a period where the person explores various vocational alternatives and finally decides on a life’s work.


1. From the sociologists I have learned that the vocational choices people make are related to their social class and the social origins of an individual limit the range of occupational opportunities available to the person. Students who come from lower class homes often find it difficult to continue their education while those from upper class homes obtain much encouragement from their families and peers to continue their studies.

2. From the economists I have learned that the opportunities of the labour market strongly influence the vocational choices people make. If the opportunities for making a living are limited, the person will seek out a career which has a potential to meet his physical needs even though the career is, in many ways, unsuitable for him. To assist in broadening the range of career opportunities, vocational information is often very useful.

3. From the psychologists I have learned a variety of skills and knowledges. From the trait theorists I have gained skills in administering various tests such as aptitude, achievement, personality and interest. {25} Trait theorists have convinced me that interest is a relatively stable quality that persists over the years and is related to what a person values or the life style that a person develops.

4. From the structural personality theorists I have learned that the work people do is often an expression of who they are. If I wish to understand a person, I must understand him in his total context, including his work. Personality theory has given me an appreciation for the complexity of man. It has taught me the importance of motivational theory in vocational choice. What is it that motivates a person to become a doctor, lawyer, minister, or teacher? Personality theory attempts to explain the underlying dynamics for vocational choice.

5. From the developmental psychologists I have learned that people are in various stages of vocational development and that they may change careers several times during their life span. In my work with university students, I have come to realize that many students change their vocational plans while at university because of their inability to cope with the academic competition or because of lack of interest in their academic pursuits. It is important to help students make responsible choices during these crisis points in their lives. Increasingly, middle age provides an opportunity for people to enter new careers. For example, teachers may become businessmen or women who have been homemakers until their children enter school, take on another career and find fulfillment in it. Developmental psychology helps one understand this process of growth and change.

6. From Christianity I have learned that the Christian calling is to service regardless of the career a person may enter. Christianity has taught me that our lives are caught up in the purposes of God. As Christians, we are conscious of God’s acting in the world and look forward toward the fulfillment of that work and toward the establishment of that day when God’s kingdom will be realized. In the meantime, my work involves assisting others in working through their life issues so that God’s will may be accomplished in the world.

John Friesen is a professor of Counseling Psychology at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver.

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