It’s not my intention to give full information or an extensive discussion on every theory. This website is intended to be a starting point and the main difference with other websites is the visual representation of the theory, which I hope will help get to grips with the theory. There are also links it the bottom to get your further research started.

Careership Theory

Phil Hodkinson and Andrew C. Sparkes 1997

Weird way for remembering Careership theory:

Think of the ‘ship’ in careership and imagine a ship sailing the sea and you not being able to see beyond the horizon (horizon for action). Then imagine your ‘habit is’ to sail within view of land. You don’t dare sail beyond what you can see/you don’t know where you can sail to because the horizon limits your view.


Hodkinson and Sparke’s Careership theory is a response to, and builds upon, the failing of ‘the Folk Theory of career planning’, subscribed to by government and public servants, and sadly, some career professionals. They elaborated on this by stating that: “This folk theory is fluid and changeable, but often includes many of the following assumptions:

  • Career decisions entail matching a person with a career opening
  • Career decisions are, or should be, cognitive and rational
  • Career decision-making is a process culminating in an event (the decision)
  • Career decisions are made by the person following the career
  • Good career decisions reduce educational drop out and increase employment
  • Career decisions are made at the start of a linear career, or linear career stage
  • Career progression is normally straightforward if a good decision has been made. “

(Hodkinson, 2008, p. 2)

Careership theory responds to this by taking a position in between:

  • The dominance of socially-structured decision making, as stated in sociological publications
  • Policy making based on the idea that career decisions are made by the individual out of their own free will and in a rational way

Sparkes and Hodkinson base their theory on Bourdieu’s Habitus and Social Capital, stating that career decisions are made subjectively by individuals within social networks of influence and (lack of) privilege, while also influenced by objective social networks and cultural influences.

On the basis of research they did with school leavers Hodkinson criticises ‘traditional’ career theories that are based on person-centred career choice and theories that are based on social structural influences, arguing they were both partly right but at the same time mutually contradictory. (Hodkinson, 2008, pp. 3,4)


Hodkinson and Sparkes propose a model of 3 overlapping fields of influence (Hodkinson, 2008, p. 4)

Careership theory for career guidance by Hodkinson and Sparkes.


More information

Hodkinson and Sparkes posit that career decisions take place in the interactions between the individual and the fields they inhabit. Career decision making and progression are bound by a person’s horizons for action, the limits of what they can ‘see’ (Hodkinson, 2008, p. 5). The limitations of what someone can see are imposed by the person and their position but also by the field or fields within they exist and move. This is a dynamic and complex process consisting of interacting forces of inequality. These forces act upon one another in an ongoing network of continuous change and changes. Any individual is and integral part of this network or field, is continuously influenced by their field and will continuously influence the field in turn. Hodkinson and Sparkes found that often, the career decision maker was not the individual, but the field within which they move. They site an example of a young person following in the footsteps of a member of the family (Hodkinson, 2008, p. 5). The career decision maker is not the young person but the field of the family that surrounds them.

At the same time they argue that a person’s dispositions (physical, practical, emotional, cognitive as well as discursive) are strongly influenced by the world they inhabit but that in turn, the person has also a strong influence on the career decisions and progression they make (Hodkinson, 2008, p. 6).

Horizons for action can change, and do change, as a person or their situation changes. Careership Theory of career guidance by Hodkinson and Sparkes; Horizon of action representation.

Where does this theory fit in?

If you read the description of the theory above then you will have noticed several links. Careership theory has a very strong link with sociology and more specifically Bourdieu. While they don’t steer away from the individual’s ability for personal choice, Hodkinson and Sparke also claim a strong link with structuralism in my view, in that they argue that free choice is mediated by the structures we live in. However, they try and sit in the middle arguing that the person-centred approach and structural approach have some truth in them but that they are mutually exclusive. They argue in favour of a dynamic interaction between the two.

At the same time, Careership theory has links with those theories that take into account the unexpected in stating that career planning and development is not linear. This is further reflected in the ever changing nature of the Horizons of Action.


Careership theory in practice

In general, Careership theory hasn’t found a lot of traction in practice but I think there is a lot of explanatory power here which can be used in our practice.

Hodkinson and Sparkes argue that career decisions are made in a way that involves practical rationality. Career decision making is described by them as a series of routines and turning points or times of significant career change. Examples could be the end of a course, which is predictable, but also unpredictable events such as redundancy. Routines could be described as everyday experiences that lead on to and colour the decisions made at turning points. These happen in a context of interactions with others in the field we find ourselves. See representation above. This appears to belong in another section but it’s important to explain this further in order to determine how this can work in practice.

Their key concept, the Horizons of Action, may give us a hint as to how we can work with clients using this theory. Horizons of Action may make career decision making realistic. Bit like structural theories, we can challenge the client’s perceptions and break down the structure that influences their decision making. In Careership theory, this means making them aware of the ever changing Horizon of Action and how to interact with it, so they can act to counteract its implied limitations.

Even though we can possibly do little about the restrictions of the resources the client has at their disposal, we can hope to make them aware of how those structural limitations interact with them and their plans through careful questioning, re-framing and reflecting back.

Equally, our task could be one of challenging and building confidence. Another way of describing a Horizon of Action, which is not entirely correct, is comfort zone. The client moves within what is familiar to them. This implies assessing the size and extent of the client’s Horizon and comfort zone to make them aware of where the boundaries are so they can safely take a step outside to stretch its size further and further as they go through the process.

It’s important to keep the client on board by taking account of their sensitivities by using good listening skills so we don’t challenge the client to take action they are not comfortable with so they switch off from us and the support we have to offer. It requires building a more careful interaction and working relationship, a synergy, between practitioner and client to unlock the client’s power to make their own decisions.

The fundamental aim may be to challenge and call out inequalities and disadvantages in the world (of work).


Strengths and weaknesses

I think this can be a very powerful theory but how easy was it for you to ‘get your head around’ this theory and to envisage how to use it in practice?

  • Are there clients you couldn’t use Careership theory effectively with?
  • What do you think about the concept of ‘turning points’ and how could they be relevant in practice? What are they cutting out?
  • In turn, what do you think about Horizons of Change. How does this apply to your life?
  • What are the limitations of these concepts and of the theory?


Useful links

Also Useful:


Further reading:

  • Hodkinson and Sparkes (1997) ‘Careership: A Sociological Theory of Career Decision Making’