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Connecting relational theory and the systems theory framework: individuals and their systems.

The Systems Theory Framework (STF) facilitates the inclusion of relevant aspects of multiple existing theories within an integrated framework, wherein relevance and meaning is decided upon by each individual. Patton and McMahon emphasise that the application of the Systems Theory Framework in integrating theory and practice is located within the crucible of the individual, acknowledging that the individual is an open system recursively interacting with and within multiple systems. The present paper furthers a discussion of the potential for the Systems Theory Framework in theory integration, in particular with respect to relational theories.


One of the key contributions of the Systems Theory Framework (Patton & McMahon, 999, 2006a) is a metatheoretical framework for integrating existing theories, both career theories and theoretical perspectives from other disciplines. The present article will review integrative career theory models which have been presented in recent years, and propose a theoretical connection between emerging relational theoretical approaches and the STF. The STF also affords the potential to strengthen congruence between theory and practice. With the individual as the central focus, constructing his or her own meaning of career, constructs of existing theories are relevant as they apply to each individual. The present article will therefore also describe career counselling processes and interventions which have been developed by the STF developers and by others (McIlveen, Ford, & Dun, 2005; McIlveen, MacGregor-Bayne, Alcock, & Hjertum, 2003; McMahon, Patton & Watson, 2004, 2005a, b; McMahon, Watson & Patton, 2005), and suggest that these interventions exemplify practical integration between constructivist and relational perspectives (Savickas, 2005a).

Theory Integration

Integration of career theories both within the vocational psychology literature and with related disciplines such as developmental psychology has been ongoing (see Patton & McMahon, 2006a for a detailed discussion). A renewed emphasis on convergence, however, emerged with a conference in 992 and subsequent publication (Savickas & Lent, 994). In addition to the Systems Theory Framework, a number of related integrative frameworks and discussions have emerged in recent years in which theorists have continued to provide explanatory propositions that seek to primarily illustrate opportunities for integration rather than for difference. These approaches and frameworks include:

* Lent, Brown and Hackett's (2002) social cognitive career theory, described by a number of authors as having the potential to provide an integrative description of career behaviour.

* Savickas (2001, 2002, 2005b) attempts to further Super's (1992) goal of integrating the segments of Super's theory into one comprehensive theory. Savickas (2001) attempted to integrate Super's lifespan lifespace theory with other major theories of career, development, personality and motivation. Savickas' career construction theory uses social constructionism as a metatheory to further this integrative approach to understanding career behaviour.

* The work of Chen (2003), an example of an attempt to integrate objectivist/positivist and constructivist career theory approaches through three possibilities: career as self-realisation, career as a reflection of growing experiences, and career as context conceptualisation.

* Blustein's (2001a) proposition to chart an integrative and inclusive psychology of working through emphasising that work represents one location within a lifespace, to broaden interconnections between work and other contexts.

SRF as an Integrative Framework

The Systems Theory Framework (Patton & McMahon, 999, 2006a) contributes to the development of theory of career in two key ways. According to the spirit of convergence and transtheoretical integration previously discussed, the STF is presented as a metatheoretical framework of career. In his perspective on the convergence of career theories, Brown (2002) noted the emergence of the STF as a possible integrative framework for career theory. Like the integrative approaches discussed earlier, the STF operates as a vehicle to operationalise constructivist and social constructionist theories of career (Young & Collin, 2004). The STF is constructivist because of its emphasis upon the individual and it depicts the multiple influences on individuals' career development that have been identified by theorists, researchers and practitioners. One of the key principles of constructivism is its emphasis on the proactive nature of human knowing, acknowledging that individuals actively participate in the construction of their own reality. Constructivism emphasises the viability of an individual's construction (a conceptualised personal reality) on the basis of its coherence with related systems of personally or socially held beliefs. At the micro-level, the influences identified in the STF may be accounted for by individuals themselves and their exploration provides individuals with an opportunity to narrate their own career development by identifying influences on their careers and the inter-relationships between them. Through this exploration, individuals can construct their careers and develop personalised theories of career development. The STF represents as social constructionist because of its location of the individual within myriad social and relational influences. Its focus on process influences, in particular recursiveness and the role of story, emphasises the centrality of the individual actively construing the meaning of his or her life within multiple content and process influences.

STF and Integration with other Disciplines

More recently, McIlveen and Patton (2007) proposed the integration of dialogical theory (Hermans, 1996, 2002a, 2002b, 2003, 2004, 2006; Hermans & Dimaggio, 2004) with both Savickas' (2005b) career construction theory and with the Systems Theory Framework (Patton & McMahon, 2006a). These authors proposed that the notion of dialogical self may contribute to understanding how individuals construct career-related stories of life themes. With its multiple voices and positions, dialogical self is central to the construction and co-construction of life themes. Whilst life themes theoretically provide for the why of career (Savickas, 2005b), the notion of dialogical self provides a theoretical solution to problem of how that meaning is constructed. As the STF moves the conceptualisation of career beyond bounds of the individual toward a broader contextual understanding, dialogical self stands as a theoretical construct that can explain how individuals can bring meaningful coherence to the apparent complex and disparate systems of career influences. Dialogical self is thus presented as a potential theoretical construct to augment the explanatory capacity of both the STF and career construction theory.

Similarly, Schultheiss (2003) proposed an integration of relational theory with career theory to provide a more holistic integrative conceptual framework, or metaperspective, that recognises the value of relational connection, and quite simply the realities of people's lives' (p. 304). Schultheiss' suggestion is in close alignment with that of Blustein (200 b) who proposed that a realistic view of the individual embedded within a family system is fundamental to understanding how people develop and implement their plans for work. Richardson (2001) extends the relational focus to the notion that work and relationships are both public and private contexts and that there needs to be a shift to thinking about persons as developing through their work and relationships' (p. 276).

In many ways, however, the perspective of relational context is subsumed within the System Theory Framework's systems of influence with context and relationships being conceptualised as systems. The process orientation of the STF emphasises that career development learning is best understood as a recursive process between individuals and relationships within a broad array of influences from their social and environmental systems, including the family and significant others. The major contribution of the relational integrative suggestion is in the focus on the place of connectedness and relationship in positive developmental progression. This article will review both relational theory and the STF and propose that the major integrative value in the relational approaches is through the theory-practice connection. Interventions and career counselling processes emanating from both perspectives will be reviewed to illustrate this connection.

The Systems Theory Framework Described

Space affords only a brief description here. Readers are referred to Patton and McMahon (2006a). The Systems Theory Framework (STF) represents the complex interplay of influences through which individuals construct their careers. The term influence was deliberately chosen as it does not assume positive or negative connotations but rather affords the individual the opportunity to ascribe their own meaning to each influence. The STF places emphasis on both content and process influences. In addition, it takes into account the unpredictability of career development through the inclusion of chance. As systems perspectives conceive of person and environment as interdependent entities that dynamically interact, the STF is reflective of the constructivist worldview with its emphasis on holism, personal meaning, subjectivity, and recursiveness between influences.

The content and process influences are represented in the STF as many complex and interconnected systems within and between which career development occurs. Content influences include: intrapersonal variables, such as personality and age; contextual variables, which comprise social influences such as family and peers; and environmental-societal influences such as geographic location or socioeconomic status. The intrapersonal influences such as gender, interests, age, abilities, personality and sexual orientation are depicted at the heart of the STF as part of the individual system. In terms of systems theory, the individual is a system in its own right, with the intrapersonal influences representing its subsystems.

Individuals do not live in isolation, however, but rather live as part of a much larger contextual system of relationships. Thus in the Systems Theory Framework the individual is both a system in its own right and a subsystem of a broader contextual system represented by the social system and the environmental-societal system. The social system refers to the other people and systems with which the individual interacts, for example, family, educational institutions, the workplace and peers. While each of these is a system in its own right that interacts with the individual system, it is also a subsystem of the social system.

The individual and the social system occur within the broader system of society or the environment, the environmental-societal system. Although the subsystems of the environmental-societal system may seem less directly related to the individual, the influence of elements such as geographic location, globalisation or socioeconomic circumstances may be profound.

A feature of the Systems Theory Framework is its capacity to represent the dynamic nature of career development within and between systems through its inclusion of the process influences of recursiveness, change over time and chance. Recursiveness describes the recurring interaction within and between systems. Recursiveness does not imply reciprocal interaction; rather the nature of the influence and the degree of influence change over time. For example, while family as a relational context is an influence on individuals throughout life, the nature of its influence is likely to differ during adolescence and during adulthood. Time is represented in the STF as a circular depiction that emphasises the nonlinear nature of an individual's career development and the integral role of past, present and future influences.

Relational Theories

Gergen (2006) summarised the historical connection to a relatively recent growth in psychological theorists' exploration of the relational self, the shift from the bounded to the unbounded conception of the person' (p. 20). He referred to developmental, cultural and narrative psychologists' work exploring the person in context, and his own work, which explores relational connections of concepts such as meaning, agency and emotion. An expansion of this discussion is beyond the purview of the present article. Relational theory within the career development field affirms the interconnectedness of career development and the quality of relationships in an individual's life. In developing a self-in-relation theory, Jordan (1997) emphasised the contextual, approximate, responsive and process factors in experience. In short, it emphasises relationship and connection' (p. 15). Implicit in this view is the assumption that healthy psychological development embraces self development in connection with mutually empathic relationships. The approaches subsumed within the relational theoretical perspectives do not reflect one singular theoretical model. Instead, they represent theoretical ideas from a range of perspectives (e.g., developmental theorists, narrative theorists, theory informing family therapy, feminist theorists) which themselves connect within the view that relationships are central to human functioning, and that relational life is intertwined throughout our lives (Blustein, 2001b). Feminist theorists, for example, have proposed the integration of a relational component of identity' into existing career theories, with Forrest and Mikolaitis (1986) defining this concept as a guiding principle, although not necessarily a consciously organised one, that influences heavily one's perceptions and actions toward self and others' (p. 79). They derived the notion of relational from the work of Chodorow (1978) and Gilligan (1977, 982), noting that women reflect their sense of identity primarily in terms of their connection to others' (Forrest & Mikolaitis, p. 80); men on the other hand describe their sense of self by differentiating themselves from others in terms of abilities and attributes' (p. 80). Gilligan (1982) asserted that a convergence between the connected self and the separate self was illustrative of development toward maturity. In a broader sense, the term relational' generally is associated with an assumption that human beings are oriented toward developing and sustaining meaningful interpersonal connections (e.g., Josselson, 1992).

Vocational psychology has consistently explored the relevance of relationships in career development, with family being the primary system of interest. Although parents seem to have the most prominent influence on children's career development, other family members--such as siblings and extended family--also have been shown to be an important influence (Schultheiss, Palma, Predragovich, & Glasscock, 2002). A growing body of research suggests that emotionally and instrumentally supportive teachers, counsellors and significant others also provide the type of supportive relational environment that facilitates effective career development (Schultheiss, Palma, & Manzi, 2005).

Practice as a site for Theoretical connection

A number of authors have emphasised the individual as the crucial site of theory-practice connection, and have proposed new models for facilitating career development interventions. Patton and McMahon (2006a, b) have emphasised that the application of the Systems Theory Framework in integrating theory and practice is located within the crucible of the individual; it is within the individual that the theories make sense and where construction of meaning around the multiple influences relevant to career development occurs. Similarly, Savickas (2002, 2005b) asserted that an individual's career story is the site of connection between the elements of vocational personality and adaptability. This next section will describe new approaches to assessment and intervention which illustrate these principles and emphasise the capacity for theoretical and practical integration between the STF and relational approaches.

While the challenge that originally drove the development of the STF was the integrative metatheoretical framework, its utility has become increasingly apparent through its application to a range of cultural groups (see Patton & McMahon, 1997), qualitative career assessment (McIlveen, Ford, & Dun, 2005; McIlveen, MacGregorBayne, Alcock, & Hjertum, 2003; McMahon, Patton & Watson, 2004, 2005a, b; McMahon, Watson & Patton, 2005), career counselling (McMahon, 2005; McMahon & Patton, 2006b; Patton & McMahon, 2006b), multicultural career counselling (Arthur & McMahon, 2005), and to career counsellor training (ACES/NCDA, 2000). In addition, its application across countries has been suggested (Patton, McMahon, & Watson, 2006; United Nations Educational, Scientific and

Cultural Organisation, 2002).

There are numerous connections between relational approaches to career counselling and the STF. The STF may be viewed as a map to guide career counsellors as they encourage clients to fill in the details and reality of the map through the telling of their career stories (McMahon & Patton, 2003). Indeed, such an approach is responsive to Savickas' (1993) call for career counselling to become less expert dominated, less focused on fit, and more focused on stories than scores. As individuals and their systems of influence cannot be separated from each other, the uniqueness and wholeness of each client is emphasised. Consequently, career counsellors gain insight into the unique situations of clients and the interconnectedness of systemic influences on their career-related needs. Such an approach is very similar to Schultheiss' (2005) view that new conceptualisations of work and relational life, together with innovative qualitative research methods, have set the stage for the emergence of qualitative relational assessment methods of career behaviour' (p. 383).

In applying the STF to career counselling, McMahon (2005) suggested that there are conceptual understandings and practical considerations to be taken into account. Conceptual understandings relate to the individual, systemic thinking, story and recursiveness. Practical considerations relate to connectedness, the counselling relationship, and the use of story and narrative. Individuals are viewed by Patton and McMahon (1999, 2006a) as the principal designers of their careers, which are influenced by a multiplicity of influences. As illustrated by the STF, and by relational theories, individuals do not exist in isolation and they and their careers are constructed in social and cultural contexts. The task in career counselling is not so much to understand the parts of the system in detail, but rather to co-construct story and meaning around the system as a whole through elaboration of the recursiveness between the elements of the system of influence, or in relational language, a holistic conceptual framework ... that reflects the interwoven nature of life roles and the realities of people's lives' (Schultheiss, 2005, p. 392).

These conceptual understandings demonstrate the importance in practice of facilitating connectedness. As suggested by McMahon (2005), connectedness is fundamental to the formation of a collaborative and fruitful counselling relationship. Schultheiss (2003) emphasised that the primary goals of relational intervention are to assist clients in becoming better equipped to face relational and career dilemmas, progress effectively within the career domain, effectively draw on relationships with others as resources in the career development process, and benefit from deepened and more meaningful connections with others' (p. 306). In co-constructing stories, career counsellors have a role in fostering connectedness between the elements of the client's system of influences and his or her relational contexts.

The STF and Relational Career Assessment Processes

Schultheiss (2005) noted the lack of a clear literature on qualitative relational career assessments and grouped a number of processes as relational career assessments' (p. 387), processes which have also been written as qualitative and constructivist career assessments processes (see McMahon & Patton, 2006c). These processes include interviews and written processes. Each process connects with the literature on narrative or story, and the processes are intertwined. Stories or narratives are unique to systems theory thinking (Patton & McMahon, 1999, 2006a) and key to constructivist approaches (McMahon & Patton, 2006a). The concept of story in systems theory was originally derived from Bateson (1979) who defined it as the individual's explanation of the relevance of a particular sequence of connectedness in his or her life. Through stories, individuals make meaning of their lives. Through story, the patterns and themes of an individual's life can be uncovered, and interconnections forged between previously unconnected events. Qualitative assessment processes are designed to encourage individuals to tell their own career stories (McMahon, Patton, & Watson, 2004). The relational dimension to these processes assists clients to focus on the relationships in their lives and their role in career decision-making. The four most popular methods of qualitative assessment are autobiographies, early recollections, structured interviews and card sorts. While these methods are not new to counsellors, many of them are new to career counsellors.

Processes which have been identified in the literature as relational, dialogical or derived from Systems Theory Framework all can be grouped under broad constructivist principles. Specific examples will be described briefly here to illustrate the close connection between theory and practice, and between approaches identified as relational and constructivist, and to further illustrate the role of the STF in connecting relational and constructivist processes.

A range of interview processes have been described in the literature. The research work of Young and colleagues (Young, Antal, et al., 1999; Young, Valach, et al., 1997) offers insights into interviews and conversations between adolescents and their peers and parents and the role of these relationships in action projects around career. Schultheiss (2003) described the Relationships and Career Interview, which uses a process of guided exploration to explore the influence of important relationships in clients' career development. Schultheiss (2005) included the Career Systems Interview (McIlveen, McGregor-Bayne, Alcock, & Hjertum, 2003) as a relational career assessment. The Career Systems Interview is directly derived from the content and process influences of the Systems Theory Framework. It encourages clients to view their career from the position of different influences as identified through the Systems Theory Framework, through the process of a free-flowing semi-structured interview. To increase a focus on particular influences, the client is encouraged to speak about similarities or contradictions within aspects of the career story. A key outcome of the Career Systems Interview is the individual exploring previously unexpressed or undeveloped stories.

Written processes: My System of Career Influences and My Career Chapter

The Systems Theory Framework suggests a qualitative assessment process that can guide individuals in reflecting on the influences and subsystems in their career development. The My System of Career Influences Reflection Activity (MSCI, McMahon, Patton & Watson, 2005a, b) is an application of the STF that provides clients with the opportunity to meaningfully create their own career stories through reflection. It is a written tool that facilitates the clients' drawing their own constellation of influences via a step-by-step process of visually representing aspects of their career stories. In this way, the uniqueness and wholeness of clients' career narratives are emphasised and career counsellors may gain insight into the interconnectedness of systemic influences in each individual client's career story. It is a standardised reflection process that is presented as a 2page booklet that invites people to consider their life roles, employment options and previous career decisions, thereby formulating life themes or narratives for their life/career. They are guided through a process in which they identify various factors influencing their life and then represent them in a system of influences diagram. There is a sequential building of the system of influences on one's career, which includes:

* thinking about who I am (the intrapersonal system of influences);

* thinking about the people around me (the social system of influences);

* thinking about society and environment (the environment and societal influences);

* thinking about my past, present and future; and

* a diagram reflecting on MSCI that offers a holistic representation of their situation.

My Career Chapter: A Dialogical Autobiography (MCC, McIlveen, 2006) encourages clients to draw and write about the influences within their systems of influences. The individual is asked to decentre' his or her career influences by rating the compatibility or incompatibility of individual (internal) influences with social and environmental (external) influences. This activity is followed by writing about each career influence in meaningful detail, entailing a statement of each influence's past, present and future, salience, and emotional valence. Upon completion of this part of the booklet, the client dialogues with him- or herself by presenting the story to him- or herself at a younger age, and by seeking his or her feedback. The MCC is an example of a practical integration of STF, relational approaches to career, and dialogical theory.

Concluding Comments

It is clear that there is much to be learned from further exploration of connections between theoretical perspectives from within vocational psychology and from other psychological disciplines. The present article has focused on what is similar between the STF and relational perspectives, in particular focusing on theoretical connections and similarities in approaches to career counselling and assessment.


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This section is designed as a brief professional review of the article. It provides relevant Study questions and answers for readers to test their knowledge of the article.

What is the benefit of theory integration?

Answer: The complexity of human behaviour, including career behaviour, probably precludes any one theory being able to explain all occurrences. Theory integration assists us to learn relevant concepts from other fields of psychology and indeed other disciplines in order to enhance our understanding and better prepare us to work with clients in practice.

Relational theory is strongly connected with family therapy, itself derived from systems theory. Why are these connections not more evident in the literature?

Answer: The convergence or integration of career theories is a relatively recent project (the conference was held in 1992). The work of integration has just begun. It is often conceptually complex and translation to practice even more so. while we can intuit connections, our challenge is to offer scholarly discussions and arguments.


Queensland University of Technology

WENDY PATTON is Executive Dean, Faculty of Education at Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Australia. She is Series Editor of the Career Development Series with Sense Publishers. She has published extensively in the area of career development, including articles, book chapters, conference papers, one co-authored book (currently in its second edition) and seven co-edited books.
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Author:Patton, Wendy
Publication:Australian Journal of Career Development
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Date:Mar 22, 2007
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A test for theoretical integration: systems theory framework and dialogical self.
The systems theory framework of career development: expanding its research influence.
Systemic influences on career development: assisting clients to tell their career stories.
Context and models for the analysis of individual and group needs.
A career and learning transitional model for those experiencing labour market disadvantage.

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