The politics of guidance

I’ve just been reading Tony Watts’ chapter on ‘Socio-political ideologies in guidance’ in Rethinking Career Education and Guidance. In this article Watts sets out a typology of guidance ideologies that I found extremely useful. Watts sets up two axes based on where the focus of the intervention is.

Focus on society Focus on the individual
Change Radical (social change) Progressive (individual change)
Status quo Conservative (social control) Liberal (non-directive)

So approaches to guidance can be divided up by whether you are focused on the social context or the individual and on whether you want to change the thing that you are focused on. So in detail this leaves you with the following categories.

  • Liberal: Guidance that is focused on the individual and pursues a non-directive approach. Individuals are supported to make decisions, but their decision making is not challenged.
  • Conservative: Guidance that serves the current needs of society e.g. matching the labour force to capitals needs. The process of guidance is about steering people into places that they can be socially and economically useful.
  • Progressive: Guidance that encourages and supports individuals to exceed the role that they and those around them might have imagined. This might involve challenging their sense of what they are good at or fit for.
  • Radical: Guidance that encourages individuals to challenge the social and economic conditions that are constraining their choice. This might move people beyond thinking about what they can do and get them thinking about why they and those like them can’t do other things.

I think that I’ll save my thoughts on where I sit and what I think guidance’s role should be for another post. I found this a very useful conceptualisation of the possible roles. Does it work for everyone else?

Where would you put yourself?


  1. I would say it’s a safe bet that most careers guidance practitioners are firmly established in the ‘Focus on the individual’ column. When we work with employers we may stray into the Conservative block.More and more I feel the desire to do something in the Radical block, but wonder how to make those with the power to change things actually listen.

  2. I suppose the thing is that if you are wanting to do radical things it is unlikely that those in power will agree with what you want to do. They’ve ended up in power because the current system works for them. It seems far more likely to me that the development of radical practice will emerge from the bottom up than that it will be delivered as part of a policy initiative.

  3. I always thought that I was more in the progressive group with falling back on the libral and sometimes – dare I say it – conservative ( this is a useful way of reality check and to challenge unrealistic expectations, isn’t it)Would be interested to know if and how practice has changed in the past 2-3 years with the difficult climate and if individuals would benefit by maybe upskilling etc.

  4. […] Much of iCeGS work explores the intersection between policy and practice in career guidance. We draw very heavily on the work on Tony Watts (who remains as a Visiting Professor to iCeGS to this day). Tony is amazingly prolific, but his inaugural lecture at iCeGS offers a good starting point for understanding career guidance and public policy. Tony was also involved in the OECD review of career guidance and in the production of a policymakers handbook based on this review. Both of these documents remain important touchstones for the field with much subsequent research looking back to them. Tony was also one of the editors of Rethinking Careers Education and Guidance which is now rather out of date, but was one of the best summaries of the field that had been produced when it was first published. It still contains a number of absolutely key papers including Tony’s own chapter on the politics of guidance. […]

  5. I’ve just been reading this too for my thesis on the clashes between social justice and guidance counselling. Ronald Sultana and Peter Plant have written some excellent articles on this topic. Thanks Tristram for getting a conversation going on this.

    • The suggestion that Liberal philosophy is manifest in career guidance as, “individuals are supported to make decisions, but their decision making is not challenged”, is contestable. There are many and varied forms of liberalism and all acknowledge that humans do not live in bubbles. One cannot be an individual without challenge. Being and becoming an individual necessarily means one will confront existential challenges–a veritable vortex of homogeniety. An individual must constantly differentiate from structural, material, and discursive challenges as part of a never ending pursuit of being an individual. This dynamic necessarily means that the individual is embedded in social, cultural, economic, you name it, discourses via which identity is constructed, tested, and experienced. The individual cannot exist without these discourses that define the boundaries of being. Thus, to allude to decision making going unchallenged in a liberal world is a misreading of the variations of liberal philosphy. A political milieu without challenge is not liberal. Identity unchallenged is more like the homogeneity of fascism than liberalism.

      Perhaps the brevity of the post is the problem. Perhaps the many and varied uses and misuses of the word “liberal” is the problem. Perhaps the problem is the not so subtle emphasis on the “radical” as the heroic saviour and moral fibre of guidance. Perhaps, the “radical” described here is actually more liberal that it appears.

  6. On Pete’s point about ‘liberalism’. Tony is very clear that this is ‘liberal’ as description of a guidance ideology rather than as a political tradition. But I think that the point that ‘liberal’ is a rather elastic term that covers a lot of positions is probably an issue here.

    • Indeed, elasticity is an issue. The word “liberal” means all sorts of things. Unfortunately, in the USA the word liberal became a political pejorative term, as much as it has been conflated with “conservativism” in Australia.

      Politics and guidance cannot be set aside from one another, for guidance is an inherently a socio-economic political act. Therefore, it is important that guidance (career) practitioners understand their ideological perspectives as a matter of reflective practice. Moreover, beyond the reflexive guidance practitioner, it is important that the guidance (career) profession understand the ideological perspectives that influence its theoretical, research, and technical practices.

      I suggest it is not possible to engage in practices that are not somehow influenced by ideological contexts, particularly cultural, social, and economic influences. Geography is the most evidence context. For example, the Chinese, British, American, and Australian contexts are quite different. Despite similarities in theories and technical practices used in these regions, these similarities may subside against contextual factors that influence how the theories and practices are “put into practice” at a local level. Political context may not be so evident but the discourse (knowledge/power) of guidance at any given place and point in time reveals its aspirations to influence society. It is incumbent on individual professionals and the profession as a whole to not only know the ideological discourses that influence practices but also to manage how our discourses differ from one another in the public domain.

      To my mind, therefore, it is impossible to (and inappropriate to attempt to) separate separate guidance from its ideologies (which are inherently political as in knowledge/power) and the ideologies of politics. We should wear our different ideological and political colours on our sleeves.

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