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.

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Opportunity Structure Theory

Roberts 1968 – 1997

Weird way for remembering Ken Robert’s Opportunity Structure Theory:

Roberts argued that young people didn’t start out not having opportunities open to them. He argued that they had all opportunities but that they were taken away by the social structures they are moving within and linked to. They are robbed of their opportunities by opportunity structures they are part of. Remember ‘robbed’ – ‘robbers’ – Roberts (not that Ken Roberts was up to no good! I’m sure he wasn’t! but it does help remember…)


Ken Roberts developed his theory as a response to both Ginzberg’s and Super’s theories. Ken Roberts argues that choice is a misleading concept; it’s the social structures which are around us and which we are part of that define our expectations what opportunities are open to us (Roberts, 1968, p. 176). The choices we do make are within the confines of this social structure, affecting both education and career choice.

This looks very much like Careership Theory, but there is a slight difference. Habitus is as it were ‘movable’, our horizons can shift, whereas according to Roberts, the social environment we grow up in, and live within, is more fixed and determines us. It’s different to Social Learning Theory in that structures are presumed to be fixed or only change over a very long timeframe. There is no ‘learning’ involved from which we can develop outside of our structures. Roberts later revises his theory to be more linked to individual journeys we make, rather than on, what looks like, a class basis. Development throughout life also happens within this social structure.

This is what it looks like:

Opportunity Structure career Theory by Roberts; easy access to career destination versus more challenging access to career destination depending on background.

Roberts drew his conclusions on the basis of a study of a group of 196 young men, aged 14 to 23, in London founded in hypotheses drawn from Ginzberg’s and Super’s work (Roberts, 1968, p. 169). In his study he concluded that ambitions are determined by the occupations participants entered rather than occupations being determined by ambition (Roberts, 1968, p. 176).

He argued that career outcomes are determined by:

  • The type of school a young person goes to and the varying degrees of social proximity to the jobs they go into rather than the social proximity to their ambitions (eg.: status of the school)
  • The type of home a young person comes from and the familial occupational links their households has (e.g.: family contacts)
  • First jobs largely account for subsequent career development

He concludes that (Roberts, 1968, p. 181 – 182):

  • ‘free occupational choice’ is more an ideology than a reality
  • Young people only attach instrumental significance to occupational choice and are more focused on leisure while loss of a job quickly has an effect on psychological and social standing and status
  • Career progressions are limited by limited knowledge of occupations, limiting them to ‘what they know’. This is in part due to a structure that can only offer limited learning about different careers and occupations – ie.: there is no service in place to offer knowledge of occupations

In his sociology based approach he challenged the notion of ‘career choice’ posited by psychological approaches.

As a consequence, the role of career guidance is one of:

  • Adjusting the ambitions of the client to the opportunities available to them
  • Supporting the client with immediate problems rather than long term career planning – job loss affects clients
  • Careers services should offer an information service on different occupations and a job placement service
  • Career practitioners were in service of the labour market, rather than in service of the long term needs and planning of the client.

This of course generated severe criticism from the guidance community, arguing for programmes that promote social change and mobility. Roberts later revised, rather than abandoned, his theory in response to this. He first expanded his theory to include the influence to social proximity to occupations involving:

  • Physical distance to opportunities
  • Informal contacts to access job opportunities
  • Ethnicity and gender
  • Cycles in the economy

Further to that, in the 1990s he concluded that increasing instability of both the employment sector and social structures necessitates further adaptations to Opportunity Structure Theory (NGRF)Uncertain destination and risk representation of the Opportunity Structure Theory by Roberts.

Travelling individually includes increased risk and some people’s transport is still better than that of others. In this, Roberts recognises the need for lifelong learning (careers reflect instability in society) and for individualised career guidance.


Roberts in practice:

‘Classic Roberts’ will look slightly alien to quite a few of  us, though I feel his basic tenets have some validity, if not for anything else than for awareness and reflection. An awareness of the influence of structure on career choice, maybe without the references to 1960s society, introduces another aspect of the many factors that affect our lives and our choices. It draws open the possibility for us to explore, not just our own, but also the client’s social structures influences on the ideas and preferences they walk into the consultation with. In that sense, the awareness can be an assessment tool and a tool to explore and develop the client’s narrative. Tools that can be used in this respect are:

  • Open questioning, including questions about their social environment to explore what the influences of it are on their choices and ideas.
  • Challenging perceptions and looking with the client for access routes to different careers
  • Promoting ambition within clients. I don’t necessarily mean ‘ambition to reach the top’, which in my view very much depends on the client’s personality, but I mean ambition to look outside the box and to aim for something that ‘their tradition’ normally wouldn’t include.
  • Not going with the flow of what a client brings to the intervention. What they bring may represent their limited view of what is possible. This works both ways – there are as many alternatives to being a doctor as there are to many occupations not requiring higher education at a high level.
  • Promoting the concept of lifelong learning and opportunities later on in life
  • Promoting the client experiencing careers outside of their social comfort zone. E.g.: through work experience.


What do you make of Opportunity Structure Theory, both classic and updated?

  • Does it still have validity in the 21st century?
  • How do your life and career decisions fit in with his model? Can you recognise some of the influences of your social structure?
  • Does social structure exist in the 21st century? Or can we only talk about ‘social fragmentation’ and individualism?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of using social structure as a tool?
  • How has social structure changed in the past 50 or so years and is it sufficiently reflected in Robert’s theory (you may need to read in a bit more depth to be able to answer this adequately – see links below)
  • As usual, here too, have a look at Brown and see how Opportunity Structure Theory measures up.


Useful links:

This isn’t directly related to Ken Roberts but it explains Opportunity Structure Theory in a wider context:

More academic references: