Guest post: Inter-disciplinarity and Cultural Perspectives in Career Guidance : Some reflections from the Jiva Conference 2010

This post was written by Anita Ratnam of Samvada. I met Anita at the JIVA conference and was really interested in some of her take on the political context of the development of career guidance. I wrote a post that discussed this and she sent me the following, which was her take on the conference. Sorry that it has taken me so long to put this important piece up on the blog. 

My reflections on the Conference were triggered by a comment at the end of a scientific paper session at the Jiva Conference 2010. The comment that a member of the audience made was “ there’s something going on at this conference,…. the Indians are saying something different… “    Till then the conference was for me an  explosion   of  faces and voices from all over the world with  several strands of  thought and approaches to  career guidance ( CG)  that did not seem to always fit together with any coherence .Yet, that spontaneous  remark  brought a lot of my scattered impressions together and I  decided to explore  whether  the Indians had indeed said anything different.

Like all the other delegates, I too could not  attend  all  presentations  as  they were conducted   in  parallel sessions. To understand the conference in its entirety   I therefore went back t o the lovely “book of abstracts” to examine  if Indians had really anything   specific or   significant to say. Till then, I was  a trifle disappointed with the quality of presentations  from Indian delegates and  was  concerned about the lack of rigour, structure and ability  to analyse deeply data that  was being presented.  Anyway, I  kept these thoughts aside for a while and attempted to look at the terrain  that  had been covered in presentations from India.

Culling out from the book of abstracts, what I have found among Indian presenters is  a focus on   social structure and   culture.  What I found  was that in most of the Indian presentations, the role of family      ( Bijal Bhatt , Maxim Periera) role of  community , (Anuradha Bakshi et al) of custom &   traditions  (manjuri Bull & Wantina Kharknor, Chakradhar Buddha, Singje marak, Sairabell Kurbah) of philosophy     ( Shilpa Pandit)  and values ( Devika V.R. and Girishwar Mishra) )  of  social location in terms of  gender    ( Radha Parikh)  of class  (Gideon and Kamini Rege)  of caste & occupation (Anita Ratnam),  of disability   ( Sonali nag et al) and of   the rural urban divide ( karthin kalayanraman) were highlighted . The individual,  was presented as  being  constructed  through these structural and cultural identities and  the presenters seemed to  be  underlining the fact that CG  in India  needs to  evolve  within  this framework.

In addition the , the keynote  session by Anita Ratnam et al. raised  further political questions about  CG by  focusing on work& meaning in the context of alienation,  knowledge as site of domination, the  dialectic  between art, craft and design, the dilemmas  thrown up by the  interface  between  tradition & modernity  and the uneasy alliances between the  industrial revolution, feudalism and  capitalism. The need for CG to address politics of knowledge,  the social inclusion and economic mobility  of excluded and marginalized communities, the ecological sustainability of production systems and the tyranny of globalization were underscored.

A cursory glance at  abstracts of  presentations from other “developing “countries also revealed a somewhat similar trend. For instance, presenters form Latin American countries like Venezuela and Argentina  attempted to highlight social capital and civic consciousness (Grisel Vallejo & Olga Oliveros), Latin American culture and History ( Lillian Castellanos), conscience , values , social environment and  collective consciousness in Career Guidance ( Marina Martinez), architectural models Vs organic models  for harmony( Omaira Lessire). On the other hand,   speakers from South Africa   ( Renette Du Toit, Patricia Felderman), drew our attention to issues of race and class. There was little here about  black cultures and more about   the structural  economic, social and educational exclusions that  black youth are facing in post Apartheid South Africa.

It is interesting to  note that speakers form Canada –a coun
try of immigrants- highlighted  the immigrant experience ( Roberta Neault and  Nancy Arthur)  , once again reminding us that there  countries  and regions struggling with  unique issues  related to  migrations.  At the other end of the spectrum, the problems faced  by  UAE locals/ nationals, in a workplace  that is 90% comprised of migrants and expatriates, were  also  described (Debra McDermott & Roberta Neault).

Even more interesting to me  were diaspora voices and the ways in which they combined  perspectives form their native lands as well  from the countries where they are now working.  Drawing on personal and social constructionist approaches (  Arti Kumar) and   beautifully highlighting the  need and relevance of indigenous  models  of career development and vocational psychology (Frederick Leong)  these “hybrid”   thinkers seem to have integrated  two worlds  ( and worldviews?)  with rigour and care.

Lest the reader assume I am  appreciating   only third world voices, let me quickly clarify that the knowledge of career psychology theory,   meticulousness and statistical proficiency in measuring impacts and outcomes of CG models, and  mastery over technological  tools like use of internet for career guidance  that emerged   in presentations   from    countries like  Portugal, Finland, UK were extremely impressive. Yet, the focus on the individual ‘s  personality ( rather than identities) seemed to  dominate  the use of  purely psychometric tools  to assess and analyse career aspirations.

Several speakers have touched on the need for culturally sensitive  CG.  However, there have also been references  to social structure and we  cannot simplistically conclude  that   CG has to evolve differently in different regions taking cognizance only  of cultural specificities.  Are these region s only different in cultural terms or  do  they also have different economic and social histories,  current economic policies and political strategies and  “Paths to progress”, ? Did the presentations from   India not  highlight  the social, economic and political environment of the individual and  the political economy of the labour market?

As a corollary to that question – were the Indans’  presentations focused on culture and structure  -because  the presenters were from India? Or was it more to do it the  professional backgrounds /academic disciplines of the presenters? I began exploring this  and found some interesting facts as to why structural identities had  been identified.  Chakaradhar Budha is a social activist working with youth from indigenous communities, keenly aware of  adivasi culture  as well as of the  multiple  structures of oppression and marginalization  that adivasi  youth face.  Kartik Kayanraman is a doctor by profession but  has closely  observed  changes among youths aspirations in the rural community he serves nuanced by class and  cultural dimensions. Radha Parikh has been both  teacher of Special Education  with Information  Technology, has  handled a Domestic Violence Hotline in Austin and is currently  Convenor of the gender cell at the Institute she works in. Manjuri Bull & Wantina Kharknor are  teachers of History and Commerce who together made a remarkable presentation on the  definition of livelihoods itself . Shilpa Pandit,  has been exploring  Indian culture and philosophy to unravel  the   multiple narratives and identities that compete within individuals, as they struggle to  define self and work  in searching for reconciliation. So, could  one then  conclude  that  their  difference in approach to individuals , is an outcome of their academic/professional disciplines and   rather than their being “from India”?

I  then  looked  at the presentations that focused on such issues even from “developed” countries and was  not surprised to  find that   academic disciplines  were  significant influencers in the approach to CG.  Jolanata Kavale who is studying  philosophical approaches to  Human Development and Education, with an interest in social justice , presented a paper on  balancing personal and social needs,  problematizing  aims, results and definitions of  vocational counselling. The paper on “Educational Transitions: Social class and gender in family dialogues…” is presented by a  multidisciplinary team of Marjatta ( Educational Psychology), Leena Koski ( Sociology) and Hannu Raity ( Psychology). Similarly, Sanna Makheim  who raised very fundamental questions on  politics & objectives of CG is working  in the discipline of  Sociology of Education  to examine  political and socio cultural dimensions of EG.

In other words, irrespective of region, the academic backgrounds of  presenters was a significant factor in their choice of theme and approach to the “individual”. This was further validated by  the few presentations that went beyond specific  regions. Notable here is the paper by Helmut Zelloth on CG in European Union and neighboring Countries where he attempts to compare the demand for CG services in low and middle income countries.  Not surprisingly- his academic  background is in  Philosophy, Psychology, Pedagogy and Geography!

Surely,  this  suggests that  while cultural specificities are important in CG, equally important is the need  for an interdisciplinary  and structural approach  in evolving and delivering CG services. Merely  reducing  this   to culture  would be a dangerous trap  as both cultural and structural identities  interplay with personality traits in each individual  and any over simplification  here could  be problematic. It also  frees us from the notion of  the “developing” countries as  repositories of culture or tradition and the opacity  or obfuscation that could arise from such a position. More importantly, it would be dangerous to assume that a country like  India has one “culture”  while in reality  the country  has a plurality of cultures  that are in constant interface with each other.

So is there nothing that   binds  CG professionals  across regions/countries? Are  there  universal common themes that ran across presentations form different regions, ie from “developed” and “developing” countries? Yes, the fact that personality traits of individuals needs to be recognized    came across  from  all regions and disciplines. Secondly , concerns about  training required, standards  and competency levels  of the Career Guidance professionals also  emerged across regions(  Bernadette Gigilotti & Naomi Corlett, Kerry Bernes, Michel Turcotte ., Anil kumar, Swathi Menon et al, Gideon et al  and  Julio Gonzalez).  There seems to be a  universal acceptance   that the challenges before the CG professionals  are complex and immense, with some  cross-cutting   issues and  some specific  to  culture/ and location in structure.

To put it more simply, maybe what the Jiva Conference underlined is not   merely that ”Indians are saying something  different”, but that  working as CG  professionals  requires  understanding the  clients social location,  multiple identities as well as  personality.  As identities are discursive and embedded in  structure and political economy, in  cultural  processes  and in philosophical  paradigms,  and as personality traits are complicated by  these, an inter disciplinary approach  to CG is the need of the hour.


What I learnt about India from IAEVG/JIVA 2010

We live in a globalised world – right? We hop on and off planes around the world like we pop to the shop for the paper? We are all part of the global village?


Well maybe you, but generally not me. Although I work at the International Centre for Guidance Studies I actually don’t spend my life jet-setting round the world as the name might suggest. What is more I although I am in web-based contact (global village style) with scholars from around the world these relationships are confined to certain bits of the world ( Canada and the US, Europe and to a lesser extent Australia and New Zealand). So heading off to the IAEVG conference in Bangalore was a big deal for me and it didn’t disappoint.


I’ve got enough material from the conference for about a million blog posts, but I’ve got to start somewhere so I thought I’d try and write something about what I learnt about India while I was there.


In some senses international conferences are the ultimate global villages. People fly in from all over the world, head to a conventional centre and talk about their pet obsession for a few days before flying back again. Generally (he says on the basis more of hearsay than experience) the context isn’t that important. We’re in a global village after all, we’ve got to be somewhere and here is as good as anywhere. However this was not the case at the JIVA conference. The context loomed large and informed the thinking that was developed through the conference in a major way.


Essentially this happened for some fairly obvious reasons. The conference organisers made the decision to concentrate most of the keynote speeches on the Indian context and they also managed to mobilise the fledgling career guidance profession from across India to attend in large numbers. All in all this meant that although I spent most of my time in hotels and conferences centres I also felt like I’d visited India rather than just the global village convention centre. There was loads of time to talk to Indian practitioners about the context of their work and the nature of their practice which was hugely interesting.


India provides some very interesting lessons for people interested in the field of career guidance. What is particularly interesting is the way that the context is informing the way that the idea of career guidance is developing. In some ways the country is in a similar situation to the US at the time when Frank Parsons kicked the whole thing off in 1909. India is urbanising, industrialising and inventing new and different jobs at an amazing speed. This means that they are experiencing waves of migration from rural to urban and a strong need to help people navigate an incredibly dynamic labour market.


What makes the current generation of thought leaders in the Indian guidance movement different from Frank Parsons is the sophistication of their critique of modernity and capitalism. Whereas Parsons saw modernity and capitalism as pretty much immutable processes the conversation at the JIVA conference was focused on the contingency of these processes and critically about the role of guidance professionals within them. Is career guidance simply about smoothing the process of urbanisation and economic reordering? Or does career guidance actually provide a space through with the inevitability of these processes can be challenged and counter-cultural values can be explored?


These ideas were dealt with in a variety of ways throughout the conference, but it  was probably Anita Ratnam who set this out most clearly in her discussion about the value of craft. Her argument revolved around a challenge to the idea of industrial modernity as a political ideal and unstoppable narrative. Anita and her colleagues argued that India had an enormous and potentially highly profitable craft sector characterised by high skill, self-employed workers producing excellent products which they could take pride in. These workers, their communities and the whole craft tradition was under threat by mainstream culture which devalued their skills, ignored their lifestyle and sought only to engage them in the mainstream capitalist economy.


So, what does a careers professional do when a young person from a village comes to ask advice about heading off to the city to work in a factory or some element of the service industry? Should the professional just facilitate their decision, exploring their personality traits and matching them with appropriate roles in the capitalist economy. Should they provide labour market information which explains the seemingly limitless opportunities for commodity accumulation that await the bright and energetic individual in the city? Alternatively should they talk about the challenges of the alienated industrial workforce and encourage the young person to think about what might be lost in moving away from crafts and rural life in both personal and political terms.


The size of India, both in geography and population, was an issue that came out time and time again. A country that takes days to travel across is not one it is easy to generalise policy prescriptions about. However one speaker pointed out that the different Indias often live side by side. India is rural, urban, tribal, rich, poor, educated, industrial, craft-based, Hindu, Muslim and so on. We talked about the need to reconceive career guidance in an Indian cultural context and yet it is clearly a nonsense to talk about a single cultural context. For the urban middle class something which draws on, but adapts, Western models of career guidance is probably pretty useful. However for the rest of the country the challenge to develop a theory and practice paradigm for career guidance is far greater.


One of the most interesting themes that came across in the conference was the idea that the individual orientation of career guidance might not be the most appropriate mode to work in for the Indian context. There was lots of discussion around alternative orientations that any model will need to engage with (family, community, religion etc) however perhaps most interestingly was the idea that Tony Watts summarised as “can career development be linked to community development”. In other words we are back again to the idea that we might need to challenge prevailing economic and cultural realities and be part of a process of transforming them. This is an idea that seems very important in India, but also something that has huge potential in the UK context that I’m more familiar with. Is it morally possible to continue to train people in employability skills when there are no jobs? Or when the jobs that they go to are hyper-exploitative? In this case do we not also need to find a way to link career guidance and community development.


Career has the potential to be the consideration of how individuals live in the world. The old feminist slogan “the personal is the political” can be dusted off and applied to the activity of career guidance, as long as we are also able to add “the political is the personal to it”. However people relate to the worlds of learning and work, where they conceive of themselves in the economy and what they believe to be adequate levels of reward and control seem to me to be crucial ideas that career guidance needs to engage with.

I got a very strong sense that the Indian career guidance world was taking these issues seriously and considering ways forward carefully. This may mean that career guidance takes on very different professional values and practice paradigms from those that it has taken in the West. However, I feel that we would be foolish to simply label these as a response to local and cultural conditions. There are lessons and critiques which countries with more established guidance traditions would do well to consider.


I think th
at we’ll all be watching the Indian career guidance movement with considerable interest. 


Presentation to JIVA

Here is a draft of my presentation to the JIVA conference. I’m presenting on Sunday so I may still tinker with it. All thoughts and comments appreciated. I’ve realised that lots of the way that I think about the political and social potential of the internet is very Western and that the whole thing is completely reframed by looking at the same issues from India. Obviously I don’t know what the best way for Indian guidance professionals to use the web is, however I’ve tried to at least contextualise what I’m saying in the Indian context a bit. Hopefully it will make some sense.


First impression of India


I’m just on my to the JIVA conference and have now been in India for about 24 hours. India is great but isn’t really what I was expecting. I guess I assumed that it would feel more ‘other’ than it actually does. I should point out here that my experience has been pretty limited so far (a couple of hotels, flicking through the TV, reading the paper, wandering around the shops and talking to a couple of taxi drivers).

So I’m not exactly an expert in Indian culture, but what I’ve seen of Bangalore is has a lot more similarities with southern European cities that I’ve been to than it does differences. I guess there are only so many ways to throw people, buildings, shops and money together.

The biggest thing that I’ve noticed so far is the rules of engagement on Indian roads seem to be very different. I spent about an hour walking around turning left before I got up the guts to cross over the road. There seem to be hundreds of variations of vehicles on the road and everyone honks their horn constantly. Overall the experience as a pedestrian is akin to playing Frogger on the ZX Spectrum.

Apart from the roads I’ve noticed that the country seems to have a really strong customer service ethic and that everyone speaks English. This may be because people wrongly assume that I must have money – but I’m not sure that is it.

Anyway I’m about to go into the first day of the conference so I’ll leave my tourist ramblings for now. I’ll try and post something about the conference tonight.