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Obituary: John L. Holland 1919-2008.


In a career world of changing ideas and short-lived concepts, the late John Lewis Holland provided a theory of vocational personalities that dominated career guidance almost as much as that of its founder, Frank Parsons. John Holland has been a giant in the field of career development since the early 1960s. He died in Baltimore on 27 November 2008, aged 89 years.

Most readers would have some link with Holland's work. In 1997, I travelled to the Vocational Interest Conference held at Lehigh University to hear the likes of Crites, Rounds, Prediger, Spokane, Gottfredson, Savickas, Zytowski, Harmon and many others, but above all John Holland. I recall clearly when one of the audience members rose and announced to a solid round of applause, 'John Holland, you're my hero!' Schmaltzy but true. Some two years later when on a short sabbatical visit to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I asked Professor Lenore Harmon (a former editor of the Journal of Vocational Behavior) which theory she recommended I should teach in my undergraduate classes. She responded unhesitatingly, 'Holland'. These two events epitomised the esteem in which Holland was held by both researchers and practitioners.

Holland's influence also reached the Antipodes. Australian researchers went to the United States to study with him, and while I understand he was not a great traveller, he did take time to visit Australia. He influenced careers research in this country, as is evident in the text Holland in Australia, edited by Dr Jan Lokan from the Australian Council for Educational Research and Professor Keith Taylor from the University of Melbourne. His theoretical framework prompted the Australian edition of his Self-Directed Search by Meredith Shears and Adrian Harvey-Beavis. It was used in the first working draft of the Australian Standard Classification of Occupations; it was incorporated in one of the national Longitudinal Surveys of Australian Youth; it finds application in the occupational descriptions and interests in Job Outlook; as well as the Career Quiz used by the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations. This is a substantial legacy for any careers researcher.

Holland is best known for a theory of six vocational types (Realistic, Investigative, Artistic, Social, Enterprising and Conventional). He used the six types to organise data about people as well as work environments. His theory was more than the six types, however, and he used it to show how people should make career choices. He suggested that 'people can function and develop best and find job satisfaction in work environments which are compatible with their personalities'. This idea is based on the observation that people search for compatible environments that inter alia will let them exercise their skills and abilities, express their attitudes and values, and take on agreeable problems and roles.

The origins of Holland's types have probably been forgotten, but can be traced to an article in the Journal of Applied Psychology in 1958 and a subsequent article in 1959 that set out his theory of vocational choices. The original article was linked to the development of the Vocational Preference Inventory or VPI as it was better known. It was originally a projective test of personality using occupational titles. The basic premise was that one's occupational preferences were in a sense a veiled expression of underlying character. There were many scales in the VPI including masculinity-femininity, extraversion, as well as the six vocational types but it was the latter that really caught on and became popular. They embodied the psychological zeitgeist of the times with a penchant for questionnaires, traits and classification. I may be wrong but the real breakthrough for Holland came when these six types were found to be organised meaningfully as a quasi-hexagonal shape in a two-dimensional space of Data vs. Ideas and Things vs. People. Later research has added a third dimension but that is another story. Holland backed up these inventories with a comprehensive text, Making vocational choices: A theory of vocational personalities and work environments. The remarkable thing about this text was the inclusion of the Self-Directed Search, the occupational classification and the extremely useful section entitled 'Research suggestions for Students'. If nothing else, Holland was a great marketer and pragmatist.

Holland skillfully promoted this hexagonal arrangement to develop a comprehensive theory with secondary constructs such as congruence, consistency, identity and differentiation. It is really quite instructive to look at the propositions in his theory as they are perceptive and comprehensive. In fact, I believe that his greatest contribution is not the typology at all but rather the broader theory with some 27 propositions. I am often saddened by the fact that many modern researchers forget that Holland asked them to insert the phrase ceteris paribus when considering these formulations.

Holland's theory became popular because it was easy to understand, useful and the instrumentation accompanying it was practical. The Self-Directed Search in its various formats led the way in a new approach to self-administered career guidance interventions. It was appropriate for its milieu and social context but has also found wide application throughout the world.

Some indication of the popularity of this theory is that in one of its catalogues, the publisher Psychological Assessment Resources had announced that over 21 million copies of the Self-Directed Search have been sold. More importantly, the Holland classification has been incorporated within major interest inventories such as the prestigious Strong Interest Inventory, the American College Testing Program's Uniact Inventory, the Career Assessment Inventory and the Career Decision Making Inventory as well as forming a basis for the O-NET classification of occupations.


At heart, Holland was a psychologist, an empiricist and down-to-earth vocational counsellor. His innovations addressed the need of his time and place. He was widely respected as a researcher as evidenced by the American Psychological Association Award for Distinguished Applications of Psychology. Holland retired from the John Hopkins University in 1980 but continued working and in 1997 produced a revised third edition of his book.

By any standard, he was an international force in career development research that also shaped thinking in Australia. More than 25 years ago, one of my colleagues showed me his business card from a seminar he conducted in Melbourne. If my recollection is correct it was inscribed with the words, 'Have hexagon will travel' (see also Stephen G. Weinrach (1980). Have Hexagon Will Travel: An Interview with John Holland, Personnel and Guidance Journal, 58(6), 406-14). John Holland was very much like the highly popular CBS television program Have Gun Will Travel that ran from 1957-1963; he was a product of that era and was also popular with audiences. Vale John Lewis Holland.


James Psychological Consultants
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Title Annotation:CAREERS FORUM
Author:Athanasou, James A.
Publication:Australian Journal of Career Development
Article Type:In memoriam
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Sep 22, 2009
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