Critical perspectives on agency and social justice in transitions and career development

This article was first posted on the Career Guidance for Social Justice website on the 7th October. In it Rie ThomsenKristina Mariager-Anderson and I provide an introduction to a special issue of the British Journal of Guidance and Counselling that we edited which focused on critical perspectives in career guidance research with a focus on social justice.

We have been honoured to edit the latest issue of the British Journal of Guidance and Counselling. In this issue we present 13 articles and an editorial exploring the value of critical theory to careers research. The issue is bursting with new ideas and approaches that have value for research, policy and practice.

Where did the special issue come from?

Delegates at the NoRNET conference in Copenhagen in 2019, where the idea for this special issue was first developed

As we and the other delegates left the Copenhagen NoRNET conference in 2019, we had little idea that the next three years would include a pandemic, an intensification of the climate crisis, war in Europe, a cost-of-living crisis and massive disruption of global supply chains, with attendant political shifts. The conference had stimulated discussion and provided a focal point for the call for papers for this issue. Many of the papers in this issue were first presented at the Copenhagen conference, but more have emerged in the aftermath of the conferment.

If the journey to this special issue began in earnest in Copenhagen in October 2019, the subsequent three years have seen the paths of our lives, careers and academic networks take extremely circuitous routes. This means that the development of this special issue owes a huge debt to Zoom and Teams as we have collaborated with each other and the authors at a distance. The three of us were lucky to be able to meet up in Copenhagen to write the editorial and finalise the issue, but by then the original conference seemed like a long while ago.

Kristina, Rie and Tristram taking a short break with their friend and colleague Rosie Alexander during the writing of the editorial for the special issue.

Why now?

Much of the contemporary interest in social justice in career guidance and in critical theory, was prompted by the financial crisis of 2008. A period of wage stagnation, populism and austerity created a profoundly different environment for career development and career guidance. These changes have accelerated during the pandemic and its aftermath. The turn to social justice and critical theory within the field can be understood in some ways as a reaction to this new environment, albeit one which, as already noted, has roots in thinking within this field which go back decades.

This special issue is not an attempt to address what these massive shifts mean to the opportunity structure and to the policy and practice of career guidance. But we hope that the analyses rooted in critical theories and outlined in this special issue provide future scholars with new tools to undertake this task. The development of critical theory and its application to the questions of how we can career in the contemporary world and what forms career guidance might take will hopefully clarify the interaction between the individual and the wider context in ways that support individuals, careers practitioners, policymakers and researchers to think and act differently.

What do we mean by critical theory?

The term ‘critical theory’ is a contested one, which is variously used to describe German theoretical and philosophical traditions leading to, and proceeding from, the Frankfurt school, as well as a much wider set of theories drawing on Marxism, structuralism and poststructuralism, feminism and postcolonialism and a range of other theoretical traditions. In this special issue we argue that the core features of what we regard as critical theory are that it:

  • Creates a radical imaginary: Critical theory poses a vision of an alternative or better society.
  • Attends to power: Critical theory recognises that social relations are not conducted on a level playing field.
  • Unmasks ideology: Critical theory is committed to analysing phenomena and systems and clarifying how they work and in whose interest.
  • Understands individuals to be in a dialectical relationship with context: Critical theory holds that the individual and context are inseparable and that approaches to analysis which ignore this dialectical relationship are likely to miss important elements of processes that are social and psychological at the same time.
  • Views human beings as having a bounded but transformative agency: Critical theory recognises that human beings build their social world and that any social, political or economic formation can be contested and rebuilt.

What will you find inside?

In this special issue, we bring together a range of articles which explore how critical theory can develop the language and concepts used by career development and career guidance.

The first three articles in the special issue draw on critical psychology. In the first article, Skovhus and Thomsen introduce critical psychology and show how it can inform the practice of career guidance. In the second article, McCrory discusses examines agency, recognising both its possibilities and its limitations. In the final article in this category, Casanova, Costa, Lawthom and Coimbra analyse the discussion of psychologists to explore how they discuss how socio-political issues in relation to their practice, for instance, in terms of constructing the employable individual, and also in terms of recognising the limitations of individual psychological approaches and explanations.

The second category of articles focuses on the interaction between the individual and structures. This focus is central in relational sociology, which uses the notion that what constitutes social life is transactions, interactions, social ties and conversations, and that society “is relation”, rather than a space “containing” relations. In the first article in this section, Bilon and Thomsen also explore the concept of agency and examine its use in career guidance theory.

In the second article, Toiviannen proposes the idea of co-agency to express the embedded, co-constructed and political nature of agency. In the third paper in this section, Rice, Leary and Klatt focus on how structural, contextual and institutional conditions influence the construction of individual agency in career development policy.

The next two papers in this theme focus on antiracism, with Souto and Sotkasiira discussing the importance of intersectionality and anti-racism in career guidance and Dorter and Damani looking at the employment experiences of migrants as they move into work and face racism.

The final category of papers in this special issue draw on radical poststructuralist theories and post-Marxist traditions. These theories are interested in the role of language in constructing social reality and shaping the possibilities for political change and struggle. Bengtson begins this section through an exploration of power inequalities in the guidance process. In the next article Vahidi, Arnold and Barnard unmask power and ideology in press representations of the concept of career.

The third article in this section sees Reid and Kelestyn use Bacchi’s “What’s the Problem Represented to Be?” approach to explore and unmask the use of the concept of employability within higher education. Cunningham and Christie also focus on the themes of employability and employment in their article. Finally, Hooley’s article, he undertakes a radical re-reading of Ali and Graham’s counselling approach to career guidance.


Across the 13 articles, in this issue, we explore critical theory as a way of expanding the possibilities open to career theory, research and practice. By bringing together this special issue we have hopefully pointed to a new direction in the development of career theory. Such a new direction does not necessarily need to abandon the main theoretical influences of the past (notably the vocational psychology tradition), but it does need to fuse and enrich them with wider epistemic approaches that are more capable of addressing the challenges of the twenty-first century.

Read the special issue

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