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Discourse analysis in career counseling and development.
Career development (Analysis)
Vocational guidance (Evaluation)
Discourse analysis
Stead, Graham B.
Bakker, Terri M.
Pub Date:
Name: Career Development Quarterly Publisher: National Career Development Association Audience: Trade Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Business; Human resources and labor relations Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2010 National Career Development Association ISSN: 0889-4019
Date: Sept, 2010 Source Volume: 59 Source Issue: 1
Product Code: 9918560 Career Planning; 8331000 Job Counseling Centers NAICS Code: 62431 Vocational Rehabilitation Services SIC Code: 8331 Job training and related services
Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States

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According to Savickas and Baker (2005), career psychology is in need of reinvigoration to respond to the challenges of rapid transformation in a postmodern world. They argued that career psychology needs to revisit the contextual and social concerns that characterized the field in the early 20th century. One approach seldom used in career counseling or research is discourse analysis, which may be capable of innovatively addressing global psychology issues such as career development (Stead & Young, 2007), examining the social and contextual concerns alluded to by Savickas and Baker, and offering new insights to career counseling practice. Discourse analysis may enable career psychologists to expose the system of values and power relations implied in professional and client discourses. It may allow career psychologists to challenge the essentialism (i.e., the view that people have a core nature waiting to be discovered) and individualism central to U.S. psychology. Discourse analysis may relieve the individual of carrying the responsibility for social ills and injustices, which discourse analysis reveals as embedded in social and power relations.

Discourse analysis is similar to social constructionism in that it is radically antiessentialist and focuses on how personal identities and social interactions are constituted through language, hence its potential use to counselors. It facilitates the application of psychological knowledge and tools across cultures and recognizes the embeddedness of human interaction in context. Discourse analysis differs from most formulations of social constructionism (see Young & Collin, 2004) and from career development theories, such as career construction theory (Savickas, 2002), the developmental-contextual approach (Vondracek, Lerner, & Schulenberg, 1986), and contexualist career theory (Young, Valach, & Collin, 2002), in that it is particularly useful in assisting counselors in understanding power, politics, and ideology in human interactions. Discourse analysis thereby makes explicit whose interests are being served by counseling practices. It deconstructs how discourses may be taken for granted in one context but have oppressive effects in other contexts. These features of discourse analysis may facilitate a process of critical self-reflection in career development so as to enhance ethical, fair, and inclusive practices in the field. In a similar vein, discourse analysis may also enrich the application of career development in, for example, social justice perspectives (e.g., Blustein, Perry, Kenna, & DeWine, 2007), feminist perspectives (e.g., Hopfl & Atkinson, 2000), and multicultural competency frameworks (e.g., Worthington, Soth-McNett, & Moreno, 2007).

Discourse analysis is a broad and varied field encompassing a variety of understandings of social realities, methods, and applications, such as Laclau and Mouffe's (1985) discourse theory, Fairclough's (1995) critical discourse theory, Potter and Wetherell's (1987) interpretative approach, and Foucault's (1972, 1977) poststructuralist approach. The purpose of this article is to reflect briefly on the recent origins of discourse analysis through structuralism and poststructuralism and show how important aspects of discourse analysis may possibly be applied to enhance understanding of career counseling and research. We also delineate some of the limitations and strengths of discourse analysis within the context of career counseling and development.

The purpose of this article, however, is not to situate discourse analysis as a competing framework against existing theoretical and meta-theoretical approaches in the field, because this would contradict the very principles of discourse analysis. The purpose is rather to open new areas of exploration in career counseling and development and to provide pointers to directions that may enrich and complement existing perspectives.

Structuralism and Poststructuralism

Discourse analysis has its recent origins in structuralism and the work of Saussure (1974), a linguist who emphasized that language constitutes the world as people know it and thus also creates social identities and social relationships. Discourse thus informs one's perception of one's social world. Saussure's structuralism views signs and symbols (e.g., words and images) as being interconnected but fixed so that a word always has the same meaning (Phillips & Jorgensen, 2002). Poststructuralism includes the writings of Derrida (1981) and Foucault (1972, 1977) and partially accepts but also advances structuralism. Poststructuralists also emphasize the interconnectedness of signs but see a constantly changing and temporary structure depending on time and context. Poststructuralists view words as having many meanings that can vary culturally, temporally, and contextually. Thus, the meaning of words moves to the social realm. Texts are open to multiple interpretations as are the interactions between counselor and client. Such meanings may also be negotiated between client and counselor. Poststructuralists would assume (as do social constructionists) that language constructs the phenomena it describes, as if they were real (e.g., selves, personality, interests, aptitudes). Nevertheless, poststructuralists would move beyond social constructionism in further emphasizing that language is governed by orders of discourse, such as structures of power, knowledge, and ideology. For example, career maturity is constructed as an object in specific technical jargon spoken by career experts. The individual thus is spoken for or by particular discourses, which makes particular kinds of selves appear (Wilbraham, 2004). Similarly, a word such as career may have a very different meaning in professional discourse that is situated in a dominant culture from the meaning a person from a nondominant culture may attach to this same word.

Both structuralists and poststructuralists take an antihumanist position in that humanism reflects a unique and coherent self In so doing, structuralists and poststructuralists shift the psychological center of a person from an individual with coherent core personality traits to a social realm comprising multiple discourses. In career development, there is a shift from the autonomous individual worker to the process whereby workers constitute themselves and their work from available discourses (Walkerdine, 2002), for example, how employees create multiple subjectivities from managerial and other discourses available to them (Walsh & Bahnisch, 2002).

As an example of temporary linguistic structures in career counseling, there have been changing but also contested meanings associated with terms such as vocation; occupation; career, and, more recently, work (Richardson, 1993). So although aspects of language may be agreed upon, other aspects are not, and, thus, language can be viewed as a site of contestation where power relations play out and conflict occurs (Burr, 2003). Words are not seen as reflecting reality but are part of multiple discourses that can provide different perspectives on phenomena, including human problems, that are viewed as being rooted in language. Some of these perspectives carry more weight at certain times and in certain cultural contexts than others; thus, power (Foucault, 1980) becomes a central concern in relation to language.

In the discussion that follows, we explore a number of concepts that are central to discourse analysis to demonstrate their usefulness in career counseling and research, namely, discourse, deconstruction, power/knowledge, psy-complex, ideology, and identity.

Salient Concepts in Discourse Analysis

The term discourse varies in meanings. From a Foucauldian perspective, it can refer to institutionalized ways of communicating, which construct certain objects or subjects (Burr, 2003). From this perspective, the language of career counseling does not reflect reality but is interpretative, is constructed to conform to mainstream psychological terminology, and supports its philosophical and positivistic underpinnings. For example, discourse analysts would be interested in how an oft-used term such as personality evolved and why it is so prominent in psychological discourse. The term personality, as referring to an individual's character, first appeared in 1795 (Barnhart Steinmetz, 1988). Discourse analysts would query why it was necessary to evoke this meaning of personality and to ascribe personality traits to people. A sociopolitical and historical analysis would be sought to uncover the necessity for its use and particularly whose interests this term served and serves.

Discourse may also be viewed as social interaction in context. Drewery and Winslade (1997) argued that discourse is useful in counseling because discourses are social practices in that they organize ways of behaving and provide the frameworks individuals use to make sense of the world. Similarly, Weingarten's (1995) therapeutic work applies the perspective of social historian Joan Scott of discourse as a "historically, socially, and institutionally specific structure of statements, terms, categories, and beliefs" (p. 10) that are imbedded in institutions, social relationships, and texts. Such a meaning of discourse holds that people's thoughts and emotions, their sense of themselves, and their ways of understanding are constituted through discourse and, by implication, through culture and language. Some discourses are dominant and others become marginalized through social processes. People are all subject to a multitude of discourses, and some discourses may be so familiar that individuals are unaware of them (Weingarten, 1995). For example, when clients describe their career exploration, there can be a familial discourse in which family members urge an individual to follow a desired occupation, a counseling discourse reflecting the individual's emotions and motivations to pursue a certain occupation, and a peer discourse in which friends suggest appropriate occupational choices. All these more local discourses are again situated in larger social, cultural, and historical discourses. These constrain what may be known or described and carry particular cultural agendas, for example, the promotion of the dominant view of the self as autonomous agent in capitalist societies. Discourses offer certain "linguistic repertoires" (Moir, 1993, p. 32) for understanding occupational choices and construing identity.

Cultural discourses play into discourses of work. A family in the United States may use career counseling language to discuss occupational choice because this language has largely entered the popular discourses there. They may then speak of an appropriate or "right" occupation as one that fits with an individual's inherent traits and aptitudes and that leads to self-actualization. Such a "psychologically sophisticated." cultural discourse coheres well with the dominant cultural discourse of traditional career counseling approaches (Stead, 2004). Nevertheless, a traditional African family may not view an occupation as an instrument in self-actualization but draw from other cultural discourses, such as viewing occupational choices as those of a community sending an emissary to the world of work. In this case, the choice of occupation is not centered in the individual or even the family, but in the community, which may believe that it needs more teachers or doctors. Such a view does nor cohere well with traditional psychological theories, which privilege the individual, autonomous subject, as is manifest in both personality-matching (Holland, 1997) and developmental approaches, such as that of Super (1980), to occupational choice. Discourse analysis offers a tool for becoming aware of and conceptualizing and working with these competing discourses in counseling in a respectful way, so as to assist clients to position themselves in preferred ways vis-a-vis competing discourses in their lives.


The concept of deconstruction is closely aligned to that of discourse. People construct realities by building descriptions and accounts of events through language, interaction, and negotiation. On the other hand, deconstruction (Derrida, 1981) is concerned with taking apart clients' constructed discourses and showing how they are put together to provide clients with perspectives of the world. When a text is read or listened to from a discourse analysis point of view, internal contradictions and omissions are displayed. Discourse analysis reveals which ideas are privileged or dominant and what the ensuing costs are. Following Derrida, Parker (2002) asserted that "a critical discursive reading is always, in some sense, a deconstruction of dominant forms of knowledge, and the reader constructs a different account as they deconstruct a text" (p. 129). According to Drewery and McKenzie (1999), therapeutic deconstruction includes the process of understanding and uncovering discontinuities in the client's discourse(s), which are considered to contribute to the client's problem. For example, a client may state how important it is to make one's own decisions regarding careers, but always rely on parental advice. No client's personal story is so self-consistent as to defy being challenged on its own terms (Drewery & McKenzie, 1999). The counselor is particularly interested in the assumptions, often unstated, and the contradictions in the client's story. After the client's story has been deconstructed, the counselor and client reconstruct the story as an alternative version. Deconstruction becomes especially important in career counseling, where clients may need to find alternatives to dominant narratives in their lives to promote change. The counselor explicitly confronts the way power relations shape and constitute personal narratives and the way that institutions, such as career counseling, play a role in this (Besley, 2002b). A variety of therapy practices are used to deconstruct, expose, and subvert dominant problematic discourses, opening space for change (White, 1993).

Similar deconstructive work can enable social change through discourse analytic research, as illustrated in the work of Willig (1999). She offered a nonrelativist constructionist approach in which social structures and their discourses do not only determine behavior but also offer the potential for change and action. Willig proposed a critical-realist approach to discourse analysis that involves a nonrelativist social constructionist stance and accords well with Parker's (2005) four key ideas mentioned further on. She argued that this approach moves beyond a social constructionist position in that it not only deconstructs existing discourses but also opens the possibility of putting more liberating alternatives in place. This kind of collective research practice, which uses similar processes to narrative counseling and explicitly deals with the power dimension of discourse, would entail the following (see Willig, 1999):

Documentation of subjective experience. Clients are given an opportunity to voice their experience.

Discourse analysis of the documented experiences. Clients engage in critical reflection on the texts they have produced, such as their career development. The counselor facilitates this process. Limitations and constraints in action and experience are identified.

Identification of alternatives. Alternatives are identified or different experiences are listened to.

Exploration of the relationship between discourses and institutions. Clients establish which institutions are reinforced by the discourses they use and which may be challenged by them. The counselor may ask who benefits from certain cultural discourses. For example, the belief that women should stay at home to raise children would benefit men and contribute to patriarchy.

Emergence of historical discourses. For example, the emergence of a discourse of commerce within career counseling services may position students and clients as customers who expect a product and value for money rather than, for example, holistic care or an interpersonal process of counseling.

Analysis of the material basis of the discourse. A link is established between what can be said and thought and the structures that can accommodate such a discourse. For example, a print culture encourages introspection, individualism, and social atomism, whereas an oral culture may encourage sharing, communalism, and social cohesion. A career counselor's written report may carry weight in a print culture but an extended conversation may carry more weight for a client who feels at home in an oral culture.

Bringing about change. Ideally and finally, the counselor should have something to say about how psychological, social, and/or political practice can be improved.

Such an approach to career counseling is not about the clients but for them as they become coresearchers. The insights gained, however, can be used outside of the group that produced them. It is similar to action research in that it aims to empower participants and challenge injustice in social and academic, including career counseling, practices. There is also a similarity to narrative counseling practices, which position the counselor or researcher in a transparent, decentered position (White, 1997). Nevertheless, there are as many methods of discourse analysis as there are discourse analysts. Parker (2002) warned that discourse analysis should not be reduced to a number of fixed and specified steps, because each discourse analysis will differ according to the counselor or researcher and the respective problems and contexts. Discourse analysis may be more a way of approaching problems than a single identifiable method.

Discourse analysis can be used to deconstruct the prevailing academic discourses of career counseling, and provide different and innovative ways of understanding, through identifying discursive constructions and determining the positions made available by discourses. Through discourse analysis, texts can be subverted by being revealed as promoting certain discourses and containing internal contradictions (Michael, 1990). Revealing these effects of texts offers choice in terms of where professionals and clients want to position (Drewery & Winslade, 1997) themselves in terms of those texts and discourses. For example, professionals and clients may choose to distance themselves from dominant discourses of work as formal, male, and professional, so as to include the often invisible informal work of women in texts and conversations pertaining to work (Richardson, 1993).

Power/Knowledge and Discourse

Foucault (1980) viewed power in a way that was different from the commonsense notion that more knowledge increases power. According to Foucault (1980), power and knowledge are inseparable (they have been likened to the two sides of one coin), so much so that he spoke of power/knowledge. Foucault (1980) saw knowledge as having the potential for actions to occur. For Foucault (1980), power is not something a person has, but the effect discourses have on people. Power is constructive in that discourses invite individuals to construe themselves and the world in certain ways. Power is therefore subtle and is present in the form of disciplinary power, much of which is hidden to most people; otherwise, they would probably resist it. Discourses are tied to institutional practices and therefore are allocated the stamp of truth, not by powerful people but by the prevailing discourses in society. One such prevalent discourse concerns the family in which the father provides and the mother cares for the children. Competing discourses try and replace such discourses where, for example, advocates for women argue for institutional-provided day care when these women are working, more powerful positions at work, more time to be with their families while also working, and so on (Schultheiss, 2004). One's culture provides the foundations for certain discourses to be accepted or tolerated, whereas other discourses may be unacceptable and therefore marginalized in a particular culture. So discourse analysis can be used to unravel how such discourses came into being and how to deconstruct them. People who find themselves at the margins of dominant cultural, gender, economic, or political discourses often develop painful life situations or problems. Seeking help for these problems may paradoxically confront these people with the same dominant discourses within the helping discourse. Career counseling, being situated within dominant discourses and contributing to those discourses, lends itself to inadvertently promoting the dominant discourses (Rose, 1985).

Dominant discourses include and favor some people and exclude others. In the world of work, some of these "others" have recently become very-visible through their protest: Women, people of color, and people with disabilities have protested the exclusion of some of their experiences in the dominant discourses of the workplace (e.g., Carter & Cook, 1992; Elliott & Leung, 2005; Hopfl & Atkinson, 2000). Their protest has highlighted the real effects of discourses on the actual lives of people, in this case, on finding employment, level of appointment, and salaries. The psychological effects of dominant psychological discourses have often been overlooked because they are more subtle. Nevertheless, they become magnified when applied in colonial societies and non-U.S. and non-European cultures (Bakker, 1999).

It is easy to forget that the work and person of the counselor is also situated within various discourses. Career counselors and researchers should be concerned not only with locating the participants of their studies (or the clients in their consulting rooms) in terms of fields of power/knowledge (discourses) but also with locating themselves in discourses. Counselors also function within the limitations of certain discourses but are often dangerously unaware of this. For example, counselors may be blind to how their gender (namely, their construal of gender and career) interfaces with the gender of the client (his or her construal around gender and career). Both client and counselor may be constrained by dominant cultural beliefs around gender because both are situated within the same or different constraining discourses. Thus, discourse analysis also offers counselors the opportunity to take a reflexive critical stance toward their own knowledge production and thereby effectively removes the traditional distance between counselor and client (or researcher and participant).


Foucault (1972, 1977) stressed that individuals construe themselves in terms of dominant discourses as they affect directly on personal identity. This process has been referred to as the psy-complex, which is an intricate network of terms in which psychological discourse regulates and categorizes people (Rose, 1985). Career counseling has created a network of theories and practices that covers the ways in which people in modern U.S. cultures are categorized, observed, and regulated by career counseling and the ways in which they live out psychological models in their own talk and experience. It instructs people on how to view themselves and others by using career counseling concepts, some of which are now part of popular culture, such as developmental stages, work adjustment, and self-efficacy, Foucault (1980) believed that when people accept such words, which they change into self-evident truths, they may participate in their own subjugation (Parker, 2002), as is apparent from, the term work, adjustment. One may query whose interests work adjustment serves. Such categorizations are not reality, but perspectival, and comprise multiple possible discourses. Foucault (1972) argued that if counselors can understand the origins of certain discourses in a subject field and, one might add, discourses a client presents in career counseling, then counselors may begin to make them explicit, expose their effects on counselors' practices, and be in a better position to choose ones that fit with counselors' preferred values. For example, Moir (1993) applied discourse analysis to interviews with students regarding their choice of occupations and described how the students used common psychological discursive practices in their descriptions of occupational choice.

There is always the possibility of studying the ways that counseling practice regulates behavior. By studying how discourses reproduce power relations, one can develop counterdiscourses (Foucault, 1977). Some "truths" or self-descriptions can thus be subjugating or liberating. The issue is to expose the effects of those self-evident truths so that clients can choose which constructions fit better with their lives and values. Part of career counseling becomes the deconstruction of dominant discourses so that clients have more autonomy in relation to the effects of those discourses on their lives (White, 1993). In turn, this increased autonomy can inform and enrich their construal of their own identities.

Narrative counselors such as Michael White (1997), who has consistently applied Foucault's analyses to therapeutic work, use a distinction that was first introduced by Geertz (1983), namely, thin descriptions that limit alternatives versus thick descriptions that open up alternatives. Modernist psychological terms such as career maturity, career personality types, and self-concept (or, worse, pathological labels) reinforce thin self-descriptions and are thus subjugating. They are subjugating because one lives in cultures where there are expert, evaluative, and normalizing judgments that urge individuals to conform to cultural and community expectations. Insofar as people believe in these expectations as necessary to their well-being and thereby accede to these truths, they also limit their options. For example, following Holland's (1997) personality types, a client may be told by a career psychologist (an expert in contemporary culture), that he or she scores high on the Realistic personality type and that he or she should primarily consider Realistic type occupations. White conceived of counseling as a process in which one would develop thicker descriptions. For example, a client could be invited to explore self-descriptions beyond Realistic type, and thereby open or refine possible career choices. The idea of developing thicker descriptions could also extend to theorizing and research. Deconstructing dominant career theories may expose the power relations implied in those theories. Research could be aimed at developing thicker descriptions, for example, around the complex ways that workers construe their identities as workers.


Another term frequently referred to in discourse analysis is ideology, which can mean various things. One meaning is that it is knowledge used in the service of power (Burr, 2003), and another is that it is an articulated worldview that can be contested and is associated with social groups. Ideology is arbitrary in that its internal contradictions can be uncovered or revealed (Kincheloe & McLaren, 2005). At the microlevel, ideologically charged communication is witnessed in who starts and ends conversation, who interrupts whom, and who starts new topics, as occurs in therapy among other domains. The role of parenting, or any interested party, in career exploration and career choice and how it varies within cultures would be an interesting topic to explore in this regard. Video productions and magazine articles of types of work can also be ideologically saturated and reflective of status differentials between occupations. The interactional relationships between boss and employee or between job seeker and interview committee also lend themselves to analysis in the ideological domain.


Identity is of interest to discourse analysis and is viewed as culturally derived and a construction of language. It is not seen as being integrated, but as contradictory and decentered. Identity also shifts and adapts to various relationships in time and context (Sampson, 1993). This view is in marked contrast to identity being widely viewed as the clarity and stability of a person's goals (e.g., Holland, Gottfredson, & Power, 1980) or the consolidation of a self-identity (Erikson, 1963). Discourse analysis moves away from the essentialist, structuralist conceptions of self and identity especially characteristic of the humanist tradition, but also the psychoanalytic, behaviorist, and cognitive traditions (Sampson, 1993). It is argued that career identity is multiple, not unitary, and constantly being fashioned by various discourses, such as race, gender, age, the work people do, and the work statuses they have. Critical discourse analysis (Parker, 2002) and narrative therapy (Besley, 2002b) both follow Foucault in trying to move away from a deficit and improvement discourse so prevalent in career counseling. These discourses encourage people to think that they have to change, grow, develop, and improve, or grow into an essential self or "real" unitary identity. Such discourses reinforce the power of experts and institutions that aim to help them achieve this. Concepts such as the consolidation of an individual identity do not confront the sociocultural political powers (discourses) in which the problem is embedded in the first place. Discourses are enacted in social interactions, and career counselors would be particularly interested in how this happens, as also portrayed in the narrative or storied approach (Brott, 2001).

Identities are interwoven with power relations and existing ideologies as one considers the discourses on formal work and informal work. Also, one may consider how those involved in formal work marginalize those who wish to benefit from balancing work and family. Identities can be societally compatible (e.g., a man studying engineering) or incompatible, but identities are socially constructed through discourse and are continually changing. Marshall and Wetherell (1989) showed how the gender identities of potential lawyers in Great Britain can be interpreted, namely, as static and fixed individualistic repertoires and, second, as identities that are negotiated and transformed through discourse. They stated that a positivistic viewpoint is to establish the group identity and coherent belief structure of potential female lawyers. Alternatively, the discourse analytic approach they used showed the contradictory statements of the participants; their fragmented stereotypes of lawyers; and the considerable variation in strategies to negotiate professional, gender, and family identities. The counselor would thus not foster a process of getting the client to develop one stable and right identity, but to develop identities that are coconstructed with other people and that may vary in time and space. For a more comprehensive discussion of self and identity in career counseling and development from a Foucauldian perspective, see Stead and Bakker (2010).

Key Aspects of Discourse Analysis

Discourse analysis does not follow established or agreed-upon methods (Macleod, 2002). Here, one is reminded of Feyerabend (1975), who argued that scientists are methodological opportunists and that science is an anarchistic enterprise. The interested reader may wish to consult various discourse analytic approaches, such as the narrative approach to counseling and its relationship to discourse analysis (White, 1993, 1997), Potter and Wetherell's (1987) interpretative approach, and Willig's (1999) critical-realist approach to discourse.

Parker (2005) identified four key ideas that differentiate discourse analysis from other qualitative research traditions: multivoicedness, semiotics, resistance, and social bond. The first key aspect of discourse analysis is the multivoicedness of language that, for example, includes the contradictoriness of what is said of the categories individuals assign to others. For example, how do career identity and occupational self-concept differ (Super, Savickas, & Super, 1996), and how do they position the self in relation to others? In therapy, it is important to pay close attention to the contradictions that may be present in the client--counselor interactions and, in this way, obtain more clarity on the meanings of the speaker (e.g., the client who believes in hard work but who wants a job that allows for much free time). Second, semiotics is the way people put language together in counseling, and how individuals are put together in a certain shape by the language already organized into discourse. In counseling, the therapist may show the client how views are shaped by language. For example, how am I put together in terms of "personality constructs"? How is this different from viewing myself in terms of chapters in my career life story? Another example is when clients may refer to themselves as career-undecided people as opposed to exhibiting career-undecided behaviors. The third key aspect is resistance. Language not only describes but also does things. Language keeps power relations in place or challenges them. For example, talking as a survivor rather than as a victim of sexual harassment at work would show more resistance to the social practices embedded in male-dominated workplaces. Terms such as white-collar and blue-collar workers, career and job, are examples of terminology that maintains power relations. Discourse analysts are especially careful to note how oppression is legitimized and how therapeutic interactions and, indeed, the power relations in the client-counselor relationship can be part of maintaining the status quo. Finally, discourse arranges language into types of social bond, and each bond includes certain people and excludes others. Here, counseling discourse can be shown to work ideologically in that it may enhance some people and belittle others. For example, using psychological classifications define who or what is included (e.g., career maturity) and excluded (e.g., career immaturity), and a career counselor should be attentive to this. It also implies that the person doing the describing knows better than the person being described. More obviously, inclusion and exclusion happens when people talk of "Western" and "non-Western" or, worse, "Western" and "other" cultures.

Some Concerns Regarding Discourse Analysis

There are pitfalls inherent in discourse analyses. One of these is the issue of how to maintain personal agency in the face of relativism implied by multiple discourses coexisting. Burr (1999) also argued for retaining a sense of choice and agency, in particular to challenge and resist positions within discourse. The therapeutic work of narrative therapists and empowering approaches to discourse analytic research offer possible ways of maintaining this sense very deliberately.

Another more hidden pitfall inherent in discourse analysis is the tendency for discourse analysts to focus on language in a very narrow sense and banish material and bodily experiences from accounts of the person. Recent work by Sawicki (1991) emphasized that bodily experiences are read through discourses. Sawicki used Foucauldian concepts to include the body as part of discourse. Nevertheless, there are also arguments to the effect that the body itself creates meaning and knowledge outside of language and discourse (Burr, 1999); discourse analysis would have to guard against marginalizing bodily and artistic expressions of experience.


Discourse analysis is an interpretative, critical process in which historical, contextual, and cultural aspects of socially shared constructions are studied. It examines how discourses are historically, socially, and culturally defined and not merely as internally constructed cognitive events. This process of examination opens doors to social change and to a more inclusive career counseling discipline. It invites career psychologists to become vigilant and to practice a "pessimistic activism that expects to find domination and control in the most innocent places, especially in the innocent places" (Richer, 1992, p. 110). Some important aspects of discourse analysis applicable to career counseling and research were explored in this article, namely, discourse, deconstruction, power/knowledge, psy-complex, ideology, and identity. These are useful in urging career counselors and researchers to reexamine the taken for granted so as to expose the limitations of oppressive practices hidden in current understandings of the psychology of work.

Discourse analysis enables counselors to challenge taken-for-granted practices in career counseling and to revisit how they are constituted as professionals. It can inform therapies, such as narrative therapy, by addressing issues such as identity and cultural contexts and how power legitimizes, shapes, and constitutes the clients' narratives (Besley, 2002a). It enables counselors to examine how clients" narratives are constructed and how they may be deconstructed to suggest possible alternatives in the stories of clients' career development. Discourse analysis seeks to uncover dissimilarities and contradictions in the clients' narratives and so enable the client to reconstruct other stories that may be more helpful than those the client initially brought to therapy in so doing, it has the potential to effectively address Savickas and Baker's (2005) call for reinvigorating career counseling and development.


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Graham B. Stead, Department of Curriculum & Foundations, Cleveland State University; Terri M. Bakker, Department of Psychology, University of Pretoria, Mamelodi Campus, Pretoria, South Africa. The authors thank David Blustein for his helpful comments on an earlier version of this article. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Graham B. Stead, Department of Curriculum & Foundations, Cleveland State University, Education Building 212, 2485 Euclid Avenue, Cleveland, OH 44115 (e-mail:
Discourse analysis can be used to understand and interpret culturally
  and socially produced meanings regarding work and to outline how
  specific rules and conventions can configure meaning production of
  work in context. The implications of some core concepts in discourse
  analysis pertinent to career counseling are explored, including
  discourse, deconstruction, power/knowledge, psy-complex, ideology,
  and identity. Such an exploration has the potential to initiate a
  process of critical self-reflection in career counseling and
  development so as to enhance ethical, fair, and inclusive practices
  in the field.
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