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Locating social justice in career education: what can a small-scale study from New Zealand tell us?


In New Zealand, career education is strategically located, actively bridging the gap between compulsory education and the social and economic world (Ministry of Education, 2003). Yet is it possible for career education to prepare students for the vagaries of an uncertain world in a socially just way (Irving & Raja, 1998) without providing a critical understanding of how social, political and economic discourses impact on constructions of career, inform career education, and shape our senses) of identity? This question should be at the heart of the debate concerning the purpose of career education and role of the career educator (Irving, 2005). However, our understanding of career education is clouded by its tendency to be driven pragmatically in response to government policy initiatives focused on economic requirements (Ruff, 2001), and further exacerbated by its lack of theoretical grounding (Harris, 1999).

In this article I explore the concept of career education, and relate it to a critical model of social justice. Three key findings that emerged from my small-scale qualitative study are then discussed. My conclusion draws the diverse strands of the literature and empirical data together. While acknowledging the limitations of the study, when considered alongside the literature, the findings provide career educators with opportunities to critically reflect on, and explore their own understanding of social justice and to examine how this informs their localised programs and practices.


Social justice is a slippery concept (Griffiths, 1998), open to multiple interpretations (Espinoza, 2007), and often loosely defined (Sandretto, 2004). To address this, I have chosen to work with a critical social justice model that goes beyond concerns with simple inequalities. Critical social justice encompasses an understanding of our senses) of individual and collective identity, reflecting the multiple ways in which we are positioned, position ourselves and perceive others. It is concerned with: what it means to be a New Zealand citizen; our sense of cultural belonging; our place within the world; how we frame our 'career(s)'; and how we construct our hues (Young, 1990). This model provides a holistic and inclusive understanding, linking together social, political and economic aspects (Gale & Densmore, 2003). Integrating cultural recognition with redistribution (Gewirtz, 1998; Young, 1990), and advocating a dialogical approach (Young, 1995), it allows for members of all socially and culturally constituted groups to engage in discussion about, and critique of, their own practices and the practices of others (Parekh, 2000; Parker-Jenkins, Hartas & Irving, 2005), particularly those of the dominant culture.

So what does this mean for the development and delivery of career education? Patton and McMahon (2006) note that the concept of career not only lacks an agreed definition, but is ambiguous and differentially understood, with one theorist arguing that the term should be abandoned altogether (Richardson, 1993). This problem is exacerbated when considered in relation to the broader concept of career education, as this curriculum area is not only under-researched but also contested (Harris, 1999) and subject to multiple meanings and interpretations (Barnes, 2004; Vaughan & Gardiner, 2007). It is often conjoined with career guidance, presented as an adjunct of career counselling, or simply subsumed into a career development model (see Ministry of Education, 2003). The paucity of existing literature and research in the career education field (as opposed to career counselling), and lack of attention paid to issues of (in)equality or social justice, is also of concern. As Guichard (2001) observes, '[career education] practices only rarely aim at enhancing equality of opportunity, of lessening social inequity or enhancing collective development actions ... [it focuses] on the individual [and] tends to ignore society or community' (p. 166, original emphasis).

In New Zealand, Careers Services Rapuara provide the following definitions of career and career education (2007, p.2, emphasis added):

Career: The sequence and variety of an individual's paid and unpaid work roles over a lifetime. More broadly it includes life roles, leisure activities, learning and work.

Career education: Planned learning experiences that help students to develop the understanding, skills and attitudes that will assist them to make informed choices and decisions about study and/or work options, and to participate effectively in work and society.

These definitions position career as a holistic life concept, with career education focused not only on learning/work management, but also preparation for social participation (Irving, 2009). However, in practice, career education privileges the learning and work aspects (see Careers Services Rapuara, 2007), reflecting a career development bias. Within this bias, the individual occupies the centre-ground, where self-awareness, employability skills, the acquisition of qualifications and the need to become a lifelong learner are vaunted as the answer to social and economic exclusion. This model feeds into a neoliberal discourse, where primacy is given to economic imperatives in response to the demands of a global economy (Apple, 2007; Hyslop-Margison & Ayaz Naseem, 2007), underpinned by notions of personal responsibility and free choice (Plant, 2005). Opportunity for critical reflection about the world of work, and examination of 'career' as an evolving sociopolitical construction is restricted, with discussion deflected away from social justice concerns (Hyslop-Margison & McKerracher, 2008). Social divisions in relation to the ascription of value to paid and non-paid activity (Peavey, 2001), cultural differences and expectations (Malik & Aguado, 2005) and structural inequalities (Roberts, 2005) remain hidden. Moreover, while 'official' career education policy documents make reference to 'equality' and 'diversity' (Ministry of Education, 2003), these lack coherent expansion and articulation, positioned as challenges for individuals and families (Education Review Office, 2006). There is little discussion about the interconnectedness of social class, race, ethnicity and gender in the distribution of opportunities, why discrimination occurs, nor how it can be exposed, questioned and challenged.

Career educators themselves are not immune from wider debates concerning the need for education to respond positively to the demands of a competitive global marketplace (Lauder & Brown, 2007), to promote 'appropriate' attitudes to lifelong learning and work (Coney, 2000) and to return to 'traditional' knowledge, values and discipline (Apple, 2000). As McIlveen and Patton (2006) observe, there has been little critical discussion of, or reflection on, career development practice from within the profession. This, they contend, has led many career practitioners to 'become unwitting or complicit instruments of a broader economic and political discourse' (p. 15). Questions about the extent to which career education connects with, and builds on, other more critical aspects of the social curriculum have also been identified (Hyslop-Margison & McKerracher, 2008; Irving, 2005).

Therefore, if career education is to be located within a critical social justice framework, it will require the development of a curriculum that is socially inclusive, culturally sensitive and politically dynamic (Irving & Marris, 2002). A shift in thinking will be required, moving away from a career development focus on preparation for work (Careers Services Rapuara, 2007), towards a philosophy that fosters critical insights into how social, political and economic discourses position and shape concepts of self, work, career, opportunity and justice. Providing students with learning experiences that contribute to an understanding of their future roles as creative, dynamic and democratic citizens and workers (Apple, 2000) also contributes to greater individual and collective empowerment (Irving & Parker-Jenkins, 1995), as they become aware of their right to accept, question, challenge or reject the values (in part or in full) that inform such concepts.


This study is positioned within a critical post-structural perspective that seeks to deconstruct and disrupt common sense explanations of the world (Lather, 1992). Emphasis is placed on ways in which the interplay between knowledge(s) and power is implicated in the production of meanings and the shaping of identities (Foucault, 1980); how the process and practice of schooling contributes to knowledge constructions) (Kincheloe, 2008); and how this impacts on career education (Hyslop-Margison & McKerracher, 2008). A qualitative approach was used, as this provides 'richer and more finely nuanced accounts of human action' (Gergen & Gergen, 2000, p. 578). Following post-structural feminist conventions (Jones, 1992), I have written myself into the text as, when we write reflexively, it is not about an 'other' but a representation of our 'selves', our own understandings, and how we ascribe meanings. Thus, the research is a product of my own discursive practices and cannot be assumed to be the 'right' or 'only' reading of the data (Peters, 2004).

Leigh (a pseudonym), my participant in this study, is responsible for career education in a secondary school with a significant population of Pasifika students, located in a provincial New Zealand city. She was a willing participant, commenting that career education was under-researched and under-valued. An information sheet was provided in advance of the interview clarifying the aims of the study, and making her aware that she was free to withdraw consent at any point. This ameliorated the 'formal' informed consent process where we discussed how her rights would be safeguarded (Davidson & Tolich, 2003) and her anonymity protected, agreed on the format for the interview, and negotiated the use of the data (Cameron, 2001).

Rather than a search for 'truth', the research interview could be more accurately regarded as a partial representation which is contextually specific (McMahon & Watson, 2007), reflecting the participant's positioning within multiple discourses (Powers, 1996) and ascription of meanings to the questions posed (Cameron, 2001). Leigh's taped interview lasted for one hour, and focused on how social justice was understood by the participant and located in her career education practice. Using a semi-structured interview allowed me to locate my questions within an overall framework, yet provided opportunity for breadth of discussion. I transcribed the interview in full as this enabled me to re-engage with the data and, before analysis, a copy was given to Leigh to check it was a fair representation.

Critical discourse analysis was used to identify the dominant themes and refine the findings that emerged from the empirical data. Here, text (and talk) is viewed as a situated whole. It helps identify the ideological dimensions contained within multiple discourses, and contributes to the uncovering of multiple agendas (Cameron, 2001). Relating the findings to the literature enables the researcher 'to provide detailed analysis of cultural voices and texts in local educational sites, while attempting to connect these theoretically and empirically with an understanding of power and ideology in broader social functions and configurations' (Luke, 1998, p. 53).

The small scale of the study limits the scope of the findings as they represent a localised event. However, this research seeks to stimulate debate about the future of career education, the role of career educators and the location of social justice.


From multiple readings of the transcript, three key findings emerged: sense-of-self social class and equality of opportunity; and parents, pacific culture and opportunity. These particularly reflect my research question, that is, how is the concept of social justice understood and located in career education? All of the extracts below are taken from my interview with Leigh.


Increasingly, career education has been subsumed into a career development model that places significant emphasis on self-awareness and individual responsibility (McMahon, Patton & Tatham, 2003). Couched within a humanist discourse, the individual is positioned as having a stable identity, being the conscious author of their own destiny, and free to make rational immediate and long-term choices. Moreover, individuals are encouraged to seek to achieve self-actualisation through careers, whereby they can realise and release their inner potential and attain self-fulfilment (Sinclair & Monk, 2005). Inequality thus falls into an apolitical void (Walshaw, 2007), cast as an outcome of individual fate and tragedy, presented as a challenge that we must strive to overcome through a levelling of the playing field (Riley, 1994). Beneath this seemingly apolitical representation of self, a neoliberal discourse pervades that holds individuals personally responsible for their economic wellbeing. Alongside this is a view that all citizens have a moral obligation to participate in the labour market (Higgins & Nairn, 2006), 'to invest themselves in a lifelong process of learning or re-skilling to get or retain any kind of job' (Tomlinson, 2001, p. 2). This reflects Foucault's notion of ways in which technologies of the self can act as forms of self-surveillance, enabling the state to extend its power to control in covert ways as official discourses become normalised (Hall, 2001).

Leigh talks at great length about her professional sense-of-self as a career educator, legitimating her position through 'a firm belief' in the official discourses of the Ministry of Education and Careers Services Rapuara. As Leigh re-tells her story, how she 'made it to an executive position' in the bank she joined after leaving school; coped with changes in her personal life; and went on to train as a teacher, her belief in a stable sense-of-self and the value of experience resonates. Working in a girls' school, her position as a mother with daughters also appears to have had an influence on her approach to career education. For Leigh's students, emphasis is placed on the notion of the self-managed career, underpinned by a sense of self-awareness.

This is qualified by 'a firm belief in what the Ministry and the Careers Service and everything else I see is saying that kids need to understand themselves', though she expresses some concern that not all students will be able to manage this successfully without help from others. In the following excerpt, Leigh utilises the term 'we', presenting a unified and collective view, signifying acceptance by other members of staff of her positioning of the students as conscious active agents, able to assess risk and 'bank' experiences:
 So that's part of what we're saying to the girls is that
 you need to be alert to things ... to be aware of what
 strengths you've got and what risks you could happily
 take ... [that] every day that you learn something
 new, and take note of it, you might not need it for a
 few years but you know you've got it.

With direct reference to social justice, the interconnectedness of careers with self-awareness is central for Leigh.

This extract also demonstrates a subtle shift from Leigh as an isolated actor, to one in which her views of self-empowerment, and actions in support of this, are positioned as an integral aspect of the character of her school. Leigh emphasises that if 'kids realise that there are influences upon them', they will be in a position to challenge and overcome these. A discursive shift occurs as she qualifies this view, suggesting that little can be done for some students to counteract the negative social influences they experience outside.

At times during our interview, Leigh presents a precarious and contradictory identity that is in a constant state of flux (see Weedon, 1997) in the reflexive way she acknowledges uncertainty about particular aspects of her self and her practice.

Social Class and Equality of Opportunity

While social class should not be seen in isolation to other aspects of life, such as gender and/or ethnicity, a family's material wealth (McLaren, 2007) and social contacts (Dale, 2000) can be seen to mediate choice of career pathways, educational opportunities and occupational entry. Where social class intersects and collides with other areas of potential disadvantage, such as ethnicity and/or gender, this adds a further complexity (Auerbach, 2007; Bradley, 1996; Jones, 2000).

Dominant educational discourses that reify the value of educational credentials (Dale, 2000) encourage students to do well at school and work hard to achieve academic qualifications (Higgins & Nairn, 2006), as this is presented as the pathway to material wellbeing and personal success. Educational knowledge and school values are built around 'regimes of truth' to which all should subscribe (Hall, 2001, citing Foucault, 1977). Yet the embedding of white patriarchal middle-class values within the policies and practices of schooling (Apple, 2001) acts to privilege particular social groups (McLaren, 2007), and can further marginalise those who are culturally different (Barker & Irving, 2005) or already disadvantaged (Gillborn & Youdell, 2000).

Leigh's particular interest in supporting under-performing, disadvantaged and disaffected students is a common strand in her narrative, cutting across her personal and professional life. For Leigh, within the context of career education, equality is positioned as an apolitical concept bound up with the need to overcome personal barriers: to take responsibility for your actions; take control of your life; and to pursue your passions. As Leigh reflects on her own life it is clear that she herself has engaged these strategies to achieve her goals.

The relocating of career education within contemporary career development discourses acts to position equality in terms of individual access to opportunity (see McMahon & Tatham, 2003). This sits comfortably with official discourses, where career education has a responsibility to assist students to develop strategies that will enable them to overcome potential barriers to opportunity (Ministry of Education, 2003). Social class is positioned as a problem residing within the student and as a product of their family background. The career development gaze rests on the need for students to become self-aware, self-motivated, self-promoting and competitive, acquiring narrowly defined competencies within an educational-economic context.

Notions of the self-managed career are constructed as a technical-rational process, underwritten by a humanist discourse (Hodkinson & Sparkes, 1997), driven by neo-liberal assumptions of economic competitiveness and free-market values (Marshall, 2000). Moreover, the privileging of occupation within career education has pushed it onto the curriculum margins, weakening links with other subject areas, particularly those that engage with social issues.

Leigh is aware of the influence of social class, as it had featured in her own life. She recounted that, 'I would have liked to have gone to university [after leaving school] but people in our family didn't'. Here Leigh recognises that she had been positioned within a discourse that gave primacy to employment over continued education. As her personal circumstances changed, the importance attached to education and qualifications reinforced Leigh's understanding of class values, repositioning education as 'something that can never be taken away from you; [it is] a key to open doors'. This perspective is also echoed in the importance she attaches to credentials, commenting that 'it's all about making sure that young people get the highest qualifications they can ... I really hammer "get the best education you can"'.

Looking closely at Leigh's transcript, it is possible to identify ways in which she contextualises knowledge, and locates it within appropriate settings. In her role as a social studies teacher, Leigh implicitly discusses issues of social class (along with culture and colonialism) in relation to the construction of poverty and its impact. She also relates how one group of students felt that Trade Aid should be supported and 'worked through the Board of Trustees, the school health committee, the school council, and now this school is a Trade Aid school'. Here, Leigh recounts ways in which collective action can contribute to socially just change. While she comments that, in careers, they talk about a range of issues related to the relative importance attached to money, income and job choice, and 'the value of contributing to society and things like that ... when we're talking about what careers mean', she pauses and reflects, 'I do think that that's a lot of what we do, those values are carried with it. And are they white middle class values? What you're making me do is think how much of this happens in my head and how much of it actually happens?' Leigh begins to question the extent to which class-related values, social concern and collective action is explicit within career education, as she reflexively considers her practice.

On the surface, Leigh's desire to empower her students 'to live the life that they want' appears to be underwritten by a depoliticised and class-free rhetoric. However, when discussing teenage pregnancy, Leigh draws on moral, feminist and economic discourses arguing, 'something that we've fought [against] over a number of years is the prospect of young people being caught in that whole poverty and benefit trap'. Here, Leigh occupies contradictory subject positions concerning what is an acceptable way of life, and assumptions that all teen pregnancies lead to disadvantage.

Delving deeper, Leigh is conscious of how social class acts to restrict and influence the scope for choice and individual agency (Higgins & Nairn, 2006). Drawing attention to the application of 'white middle-class measures, to measure how successful kids are', Leigh reflects on ways class values permeate constructions of educational success and access to support. This disconfirming challenge to her belief in education is qualified as she diverts attention away from the processes and practices of schooling.

Parents, Pacific Culture and Equality

Concepts of inequality can take many forms, and are embedded within school practices, policies and institutions (Apple, 2001). Auerbach (2007) makes an important point here, noting that:
 parents come to schools with unequal resources for
 pursuing educational goals and with complex raced/
 classed/gendered identities, cultural scripts, and
 family histories or dynamics that shape their relations
 with institutions. (p. 276)

Dominant models of career practice located in Western world views sit uncomfortably within some ethnic cultures (Barker & Irving, 2003; Malik & Aguado, 2005; Watson, 2006). While there is little specific literature that discusses the role of parents within career education, recent educational research suggests that some parents, such as those from ethnic minority groups, are deemed as 'hard to reach' (Auerbach, 2007; Crozier & Davies, 2007). Moreover, where guidelines have been produced for parents outlining how they might become more actively involved in their child's education, these have a tendency to be generic in nature, built around dominant white middle-class values (Auerbach, 2007; Crozier, 2001; Crozier & Davies, 2007).

Parents appear to be regarded as an extension of the disciplinary discourses of the school in relation to the behaviour of children and themselves (Vincent & Tomlinson, 1997), with schools wanting parents to take on their values and goals (Crozier, 1999). This is particularly significant in relation to the cultural expectations and norms of school and home. The potential challenges, contradictions and culture clashes are highlighted in the Careers Services Rapuara (2008) guidelines, Role of the Parent. Implicit assumptions are made about the working status of parents, their social networks, and their potential to be 'good' role models with reference to cultural values, gendered relations and social class.

In the context of this research, reference to liberal notions of equality (linked with Western notions of education, qualifications and opportunity) abound throughout the interview. Leigh sees the parents of her Pasifika students as gatekeepers to opportunity. They are positioned as a help through their demonstration of support for school-based programs that re-engage disaffected Pasifika girls, and a hindrance when the values they hold concerning their child's career conflict with those of the school. While Leigh presents a balanced view of cultural influence, this extract takes us beneath the surface:
 We've set up a mentoring program so that these
 [Pasifika] kids are working with students ... [from]
 the University of ... who have quite fancibly had to
 go through similar things, you know, how do I tell
 my parents I don't want to do law?

Here, Leigh's desire to empower her students to challenge perceived inequitable practices within culture and family appears to echo her own past when, on leaving school, she 'would have liked to have gone to university, but people in our family didn't'. Leigh does engage with the need to recognise the cultural specificity of Pasifika parents, by targeting career events at this particular group. However, rather than engage in a culturally sensitive dialogue with parents, the goal of the evenings appears to be to tell parents how they should support the aspirations of 'their' children, and/ or share with them 'their' children's successes. This concept of the 'shared child', with regards to who is acting in the child's best interests, appears to indicate a complex and confused understanding that reflect tensions between home and school.

Leigh consciously attempts to position herself as impartial regarding the cultural expectations that Pasifika parents might have for their children, yet this contradicts her belief that individual students should be free to follow the path that is right for them. Moreover, while Leigh emphasises the importance of 'working with issues that Pacific islands students confront in families and extended families who have input into what they do', a polite silence resounds (see Mazzei, 2007).


These findings suggest that Leigh's understanding of social justice has been informed by personal experiences, her education as an adult, a belief in gender equality, and a sense of herself as 'a middle-class white woman' and a mother. Generally, she positions herself and her school within a socially benevolent liberal discourse (Tomlinson, 2001), with a responsibility to distribute limited resources 'fairly' (Ravels, 1971), reiterating a desire to help individual students make the 'best' of their lives, by accessing the opportunities on offer. This humanist turn reflects the challenges Leigh has encountered and overcome at different stages of her life, and is embedded within her career education practices. Yet these are placed within a depoliticised discourse, with students simply encouraged to 'follow their dreams', accessing help wherever they can. Moreover, within her career education practice, the relationship between the social studies and career curricula are tenuous, restricting opportunity for critical discussion of ways in which social, economic and political discourses inform constructions of career and contribute to injustice. Echoes of neoliberalism are present within career education, where individual responsibility and the acquisition of skills and competencies that will help students to succeed (Nairn & Higgins, 2007) are emphasised, regardless of any cultural dissonance.

Yet Leigh does not completely subscribe to the notion of the heroic individual (Barnes, 2004) who has total control of their life, valiantly pursuing their career in the face of adversity. Contradictory standpoints are expressed as she reflexively questions whether she is 'doing the right thing' for all of her students, acknowledging that her own power and understanding is mediated by other social and cultural variables that are at play (Weedon, 1997). Moreover, she recognises that issues of class, race and gender can impact on career as she reflects on whether the values embedded within her school privilege particular groups.

For me, the findings highlight the ongoing confusion around what constitutes career, and how social justice is understood. Questions about the underlying philosophy and practice of career education remain. I agree that students may well benefit by gaining the skills, competencies and confidence required to manage their lives in an unstable and constantly changing labour market through career development activities. Yet should it serve as a replacement for career education? I contend that career development activity must be accompanied by, or regarded as an aspect of, a career education program that is located within a broader context that questions dominant economic rationalist models (Hyslop-Margison & McKerracher, 2008), and cultural discourses that privilege particular social groups (Kincheloe, 2008). This will allow for an educational approach that supports reconstructed versions of career which are creative, democratic, inclusive, holistic and socially just. As career educators, I believe there is a need for us to critically reflect on our practices and beliefs, and those of our institutions, thus uncovering the influence of social, political and economic discourses which position and shape concepts of self, work, career, opportunity and justice. If we fail to rise to this challenge, given our privileged position as curriculum gatekeepers, then what hope is there for the future?


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

Why has little attention been given to social justice issues in career education?

Answer: Career education has been subsumed into an individualistic career development model that is focused on preparing students to 'self-manage' their future careers in relation to learning and work. Economic and political imperatives overshadow social concerns.

What do the themes that emerged from the research tell us about Leigh's approach to career education from a social justice perspective?

Answer: While official policy documents inform her practice, this is mediated by her past and present experiences which influence how she sees and understands the world. Social justice is positioned as an individual responsibility to fight for equality. It is also apparent that social class impacts on opportunity in relation to the processes and practices of schooling; that culture is primarily viewed from a western perspective; and that families are seen to restrict and/ or shape opportunity for some students and this is beyond the reach of school.

What can a small-scale study tell us about the challenges for career education? Answer: That while official policies inform career education, how these are interpreted and put into practice is localised. Therefore the findings, when considered alongside the literature, provide us with a lens through which we can critically reflect on, and review, our own practice.

What are the challenges for career education if a critical social justice philosophy is to underpin practice?

Answer: There will be a need to develop career education policies, programs and practices which positively recognise and engage with collective and individual cultural and social difference(s). There is also a need to facilitate critical learning about the economic, social and political worlds, and how these inform constructions of work, opportunity, self, career and justice. Practitioners need to adopt a holistic understanding of career; consciously link with other curriculum areas; and to be distinct from, yet related to, career development practice.


I would like to acknowledge Dr Karen Nairn at the University of Otago School of Education for her helpful comments on an earlier version of this article. I also wish to thank the anonymous reviewers for their interesting and challenging suggestions.


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University of Otago College of Education

BARRIE A. IRVING is a PhD student at the University of Otago College of Education, New Zealand. His research is concerned with an exploration into how social justice is understood within the context of career education policies, programs and practices in New Zealand secondary schools. Barrie has over 20 years experience in the careers field, working as a practitioner, academic and researcher. Email:
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Author:Irving, Barrie A.
Publication:Australian Journal of Career Development
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:8NEWZ
Date:Jan 1, 2009
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