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.

Contextual Action Theory (CAT)

Lev Vygotsky, L. Valach & Young, R. A. 2002


Contextual Action Theory offers a conceptual framework is better known for being a useful theory for research. But bear with me, as it can be a powerful tool in guidance as well. I would strongly recommend watching the video below with Dr. Richard Young explaining his theory in a lot of detail, step by step. Ideally watch it before reading this page, and again after, so you can put what is on here and the video in context. I have written this page with strong reference to what Dr Young explains in the video, supported by what I explored in the links at the bottom.

Vygotski, Valach and Young argue that actions happen in context. Each behaviour we engage in implies and activity we undertake, which in turn implies a goal or goals. Several activities may help fulfil the goal of a project and several projects contribute to a fulfilling career, as the example below shows. Please bear in mind that on this page especially, illustrations are… illustrative in that reality is more complex that is represented on here. Please use them with that in mind.

Contextual Action Theory of careers (CAT) by Vygotsky, Valach and Young.

Actions involve certain elements at the level of the activity, project and career:

  • actions need to have meaning, they need to mean something to the person engaging in the action and/or others.
  • actions also need functional steps to be taken to complete them and to bring them to a good end.
  • actions imply either conscious and/or unconscious behaviours and resources we need to plan, conceptualise, ‘action’ and complete them.

Contextual Action Theory and domains and issues of the life enhancing career.Young R.A., Valach L. (2008)


The theory’s use in practice:

As mentioned before, this theory is often used in research, rather than career counselling. David Winter has developed an interesting way for using this theory in our day to day practice, which is worth exploring. He can see a function in helping the adviser and (when appropriate and useful) the client using this theory for reflection and analysis of the intervention and eventually, client and adviser needs.

As mentioned above, CAT works well in the context of research and that David Winter has been able to pull this into the context of career guidance and who makes a number of really useful suggestions, with which I agree, having looked at this theory in more detail. He rightly claims that it would be useful for:

  • Enriching reflective practice
  • Exploring and moving towards a less simplistic concept of career planning and motivation

David Winter suggests the techniques of:

  • Self -confrontation interviewing (which sounds worse than it is!!) – to explore how actions and projects are linked
  • Perceptional positioning to help understand different perspectives and
  • Planned behaviour to help clients see how different actions they have planned contribute to valuable projects and support them in implementing their ideas and agreed actions

(F. Winters on accessed on 11/04/2020)

Contextual Action Theory in practice for career guidance.

My own interpretation of how to use this theory support his proposition and using the graphic above I would like to expand on this in more detail. The parameter of time is implied within the individual actions, which each take time to achieve. To explain both the graphic above and the theory in more detail, in the context of career guidance and counselling:

As an example, Activities (and their goals) on the side of the adviser could be;

  • Part of one adviser project, such as ‘researching’ or ‘organising an interviewing space’
  • Part of different Adviser projects, for example:  ‘gathering more experience’
  • Part of an adviser project and client project, in the graphic above ‘using new techniques’, which can both work towards the goal of gaining additional skills for the adviser and the goal of finding a subject to study for a client who is stuck.

In turn, one or more of these activities can support fulfilling the goals of a larger project. In rare cases these could be singular and not related to other projects but they could also:

  • Overlap with one or more other projects on the adviser side or even on the client side such as the project to ‘help clients achieve their goals’ on the adviser side and ‘finding a subject to study’ on the client side above.
  • Projects could in turn contribute to a ‘career’, which could, depending on your own interpretation of ‘career’ extend to goals for other ‘careers’ in the client’s life. I would always understand ‘career’ as ‘career as life’, however. I don’t think seeing career in the narrow sense makes sense anymore in this day and age because of the plethora of different ways of working (from full time to zero hour contracts) which may/will/can impact on your non-working life also.

All this gives us a good idea of how to use this theory in practice. You could use what I described above to, for instance:

  • explore how the client’s activities are linked to projects and ultimately their career, and which actions and projects are implied or hidden from view, and which are openly recognised and/or discussed. This could bring the client to new insights about their ideas and longer term goals/projects and ultimately, their career.
  • It could also show the interactivity and the different influences on the client’s goals and activities and suggest a new way of working towards their ‘career’ goals. Or it may show aspects that are lacking in attention or planning.
  • In reflection, either during the consultation or after, it could offer the benefit of more awareness to the career professional. This could be an awareness of where their actions fit in, which goals they contribute to and even where some of their biases lie. For the adviser, post factum, it could offer a way to improve their practice and find new ways of working, or gaps in their offer to clients.

If we look at the 3 levels of activity  – project – career and then view these in respect of the levels of meaning, functional steps and conscious/unconscious behaviours, we have a strong framework by which to apply what I described above, We could use this either after the consultation or with practice, during the consultation to offer a strong ‘in the moment’ tool to check our practice against the client’s goals as well as ours.



This theory takes some work to get your head around in relation to practice. Did you find it useful to explore? If so, why or why not if you didn’t? Let’s see what questions you can ask yourself to help you make up your mind about the strengths and weaknesses of Contextual Action Theory.

  • I think this is a good and straightforward theory in principle to use for reflection and research, what do you think about this theory when it comes to using it in practice? What are its limitations and where does it offer strengths?
  • This is an action theory, concentrating on goals individuals may have and offering a structure to conceptualise thinking. Do people really always work with goals in mind? Or are there other motivators? How would you define the concept of ‘goal’ for yourself?
  • Contextual Action Theory offers an alternative to the more traditional theories, what are its strengths in this sense, and how does it differ from other theories? Is that a good thing?
  • How wide is the scope of this theory and does it have a negative effect on the amount of detail it covers?


Useful links:


  • Young R.A., Valach L. (2008) Action Theory: An Integrative Paradigm for Research and Evaluation in Career. In: Athanasou J.A., Van Esbroeck R. (eds) International Handbook of Career Guidance. Springer, Dordrecht