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.

Theory of Self-creation, Circumscription and Compromise

Linda Gottfredson 1981


A bit of background first. Linda Gottfredson has a long and established research background in the field of intelligence. This will hopefully help put her developmental approach in context to some extent. Her theory is based in how individuals see themselves in the context of the society they life in and as an individual, their self-concept. Gottfredson’s theory tries to map the journey of cognitive and intellectual development a child makes in relation to their career ideas. In other words, she tries to understand and catch in a theory how children’s views on careers and their place within them (their career choice) changes intellectually and the way they learn to understand these. Every child has an understanding or a map of what the world of work, jobs and professions/positions look like. This map gets more sophisticated in 4 stages, according the theory of Circumscription and Compromise. To explain these two words:

  • Circumscription: the limits we put on ourselves based on our self-concept. Children will build their self-concept and eliminate possibilities in relation to this. For instance, a child may come to understand themselves as a ‘boy’. This is part of their self-concept. They will then cut out those careers from their list of possibilities that appear too ‘feminine’ in the eyes of society and the child. They learn to see certain tasks as ‘suitable’ for them and others as ‘not suitable’. This will in turn influence their self-concept.
  • Compromise: within their ‘shortlisting’ of suitable career options, children will compromise and select those that are most available in their social environment as those to aim for, rather than their ideal careers in their shortlist that may not be as available. They compromise their ideal choice with what is practical.

As mentioned, circumscription happens in 4 stages, according to Gottfredson: Career theory of Circumscription and Compromise by Gottfredson.

You can see that with each stage, career learning becomes more sophisticated with a more complete, if that’s ever the right term to use, view of careers, the world of work and a more sophisticated self-image.

Let’s have a look at the stages in more detail (Gottfredson, 2005, pp. 77 – 82)

Gottfredson's model of career guidance theory, stage one.

Stage 1

  • Progression from magical to intuitive thinking
  • Beginning to achieve object constancy (e.g.: realisation that people can not change their biological sex)
  • Beginning to classify people in simple ways – big and strong versus weak and small
  • Progression to more realistic view of careers – e.g.: child is not thinking they want to be an animal or fantasy character when they grow up
  • There is an adult world, working in a job is part of this. They will be adults once. They will have a job once they are adults.

Gottfredson's model of career guidance theory, stage two.Stage 2

  • Children think in concrete terms and make simple distinctions
  • Begin to recognise more occupations but mainly those that are highly visible – e.g.: those that require a uniform for instance, or they have frequent contact with, such as teachers and their parent’s occupations
  • Children rely on highly visible indicators to make distinctions – age and gender are the primary ones they distinguish
  • Dichotomous thinking: jobs belong to one biological sex and not the other.
  • Confer moral status to the dichotomies – own sex viewed as superior and sex-appropriate behaviour is imperative
  • Person-job match is seen as part of biological sex-role – already turning more towards some career roles, rather than others
  • Both nature and nurture inform and influence occupational circumscription to sex type – this differences increase with age

Gottfredson's model of career guidance theory, stage three.Stage 3

  • Thinking becomes more abstract
  • Children can conceptualise occupations they can’t directly see (occupations without uniforms or big red fire trucks)
  • More awareness of status hierarchies and more social awareness and to social evaluation by friends or wider society
  • 2 dimensional classification of occupations: by status and by sex role
  • Understanding of tight links between income, education and occupation – awareness of the competitive nature of jobs
  • Beginning of the realisation of floors and ceilings to their options and aspirations
    • family expectations/family class have an effect on floor – tolerable level boundary
    • children rule out occupations they would find too difficult to achieve, based on their academic ability
  • Circumscription: by the end of this stage, children will have blacked out large sections of possible occupations according to sex type and tolerable level boundary (too low or too difficult). The area left is the area of acceptable alternatives, or their social space.
  • Influenced by their social vantage point – which job is ‘good enough’ rather than which is the highest I can achieve linked to my ability.
  • Occupational choice is almost a by-product of wanting to belong and having a comfortable life

Gottfredson's model of career guidance theory, stage four.Stage 4

  • Conscious awareness steers occupational choice
  • Increasingly conscious search among the occupations that remain for one that fulfils them – which career choice is compatible with who they are
  • More sophisticated understanding of the abstract, internal unique aspects of people and their occupations
  • A more multi-dimensional matching process
  • Many still struggle to understand what their interests, abilities and goals are because they are still being developed
  • More awareness means occupational choice becomes more difficult and anxiety provoking
  • More detailed awareness is needed of actual routes, details of jobs and the qualifications and training to get there
    • Idealistic aspiration is clear to many but whether this is achievable is unclear.
    • Realistic aspirations are those that are somewhat less desirable but more realistic to achieve
  • Both realistic and idealistic aspirations shift and they are just a sampling of what is out there and what is possible from within their social space
  • The risks are that they:
    1. Can’t test their assumptions and choices in a real life environment
    2. Choose a direction without thinking about all the options, either because of external pressure, anxiety or restraints.

What circumscription and compromise look like within Gottfredson’s model:Gottfredson career theory model of circumscription and compromise.

Relationship with other developmental theories

If we compare this theory with that of Super, we notice immediately that her theory stops at adolescence. Gottfredson argues that development in the sense of the theory stops at that period. Super’s theory is also more based on ‘life stages’ and Gottfredson on ‘stages of cognitive and intellectual development’. In that sense, Gottfredson’s theory is more closely related to that of Ginzberg. Their approaches are slightly different, however. I would argue that Gottfredson focuses on definition and limitation in a process of elimination, whereas Ginzberg links career development to expansion, exploration and crystallisation.


Gottfredson’s theory in practice

Linda Gottfredson herself offered a clear way of putting her theory in practice (Gottfredson, 2005, pp.86-98). Please have a look and see what you think. Gottfredson (2005, p. 86) argues that:

  • Effective learning (cell 1-3) and adequate experience (cell 4-6) are needed in all 4 stages – they are the foundation for self-insight and wise self-investment
  • Self-insight (cell 7&8) is best addressed when the child is in late primary/early secondary school onwards – self-insight is important for self-investment
  • Self-investment (cell 9) is important to concentrate on when making and implementing decisions is pressing

Gottfredson's career theory or Circumscription and Compromise in practice.

For me, at first sight when looking and interpreting Gottfredson’s theory I feel it would be less applicable to the process of offering career counselling or support and more to the understanding of the client and where they are. The Theory of Circumscription and Compromise is in its detail and implicitly less suitable to be used with adults of course, at least at first sight.

Children as clients

Of course, children is a broad concept and some teenagers may rather not describe themselves or be described as children anymore. The Theory of Circumscription and Compromise is clearly more aimed at this group of clients. I think Gottfredson’s insights and theory can be helpful in gauging professional interactions with these 4 different groups of children, whether they are one to one interactions or class-based workshops. It gives us a real tool to help influence children’s thinking about careers and their choices and options within. In this way, we can combine it with Howard’s Career Choice and Attainment Model which can be offered as a broad structure, Gottfredson’s theory can inform content. Obviously this is not a black and white division of roles, but in broad lines you can hopefully see how this could work.

Using Gottfredson’s theory with adults – is it possible?

I would argue it is but not in a direct way. I can think of appointments with adult clients who regret their career choice and are now exploring a different way forward. In one or two of these cases I can see a point in coming back to the decision making process they used as a child, as well as the development they went through as a child. This can have two purposes:

  1. This can help these clients understand where their initial choice came from and may alleviate some of the regret they may feel and offer themselves more forgiveness.
  2. It can also support clients in understanding ‘where they went wrong’ so they won’t make the same mistake again. Having said that, understanding the cognitive and intellectual stages of development in relation to career choice as a child may have limited validity when you’re an adult. I would argue however that understanding the principles of power, sex roles, social values and who you are and have become as a unique self can offer valuable insight for the client in some cases. In this sense, the application of Gottfredson’s theory moves closer to the narrative approach in picking out, not role models but strong influences on the client’s developmental story.


As with any developmental theory it’s important to wonder how every client can be caught within the clear categories it proposes. And… of course there are always exceptions to the rule.

  • Gottfredson argues, in my view quite rightly, that there is a biological/genetic as well as a social influence on gender behaviour. She states that what a child plays with is influenced by their genetic make-up as well as the social sphere of influence in which they move. Experientially and empirically I would argue that genetics doesn’t just divide us up in two categories, but that the way this is divided up is much more fragmented into an into an individual level. Generally, we can observe differences in girls’ and boys’ behaviour, but if we look into this on a more individual level, rather than a generalised level, we’ll soon see that in some individuals, these differences are more minimal than suggested by Gottfredson and sometimes there may even be overlap or cross-over. Evidence is that there are individuals who don’t work in a job typical for their gender, as Gottfredson appears to want to make us to believe. Translated visually, I would state there isn’t so much a representation of two blocks, masculine and a feminine, than there is a scatter chart with one concentration around feminine and a stronger one around masculine, but with many, many dots where you wouldn’t expect them.
  • Can you also see how there can be a more general critique in the way Super’s model needs to be more flexible because of an ever changing social and vocational context? Super’s model is very linear but in reality, there are many eddies and spirals where people need to return to ‘a previous stage’. Since Gottfredson’s model is closely linked to developmental theories in child psychology this may not be the case as much as with Super. However, Gottfredson sees a major influence in the social environment a child moves around in and the social influences it picks up. How does this influence the linearity of her model?

What are your thoughts about this? Do the changes in society make Gottfredson’s theory less valid? A clear example is that of the different sex roles within careers. As young adults and especially as adults we can see the relative value of assigning biological sex to the suitability of a career, however strongly it’s still prevalent in society. Gottfredson suggests children have not developed this relativism yet. Do you feel that this makes children in between 6 and 8 impermeable to societal changes in sex roles? Or are their ideas more sophisticated than previous generations of children of that age, and does Gottfredson’s assertion of the role of gender roles play a lesser part in children’s career learning? Think back on your own life and situation and if you can, the jobs you were thinking of when you were in between 4 and 6. Now explore this with children of that age if you can and notice the differences, if there are any.

Coming back to my initial point; what do you think of the clear categorisation? Can it be justified? Or is it too much of a simplification in your mind? If you do, think of some examples of when it would need to be more flexible as far as the 4 clear stages goes.

Here too, don’t forget to use Brown as a touch stone to see how this theory performs.


Useful links


  • Gottfredson, L. S. (2005). Applying Gottfredson’s Theory of Circumscription and Compromise in Career Guidance and Counseling. In S. D. Brown & R. W. Lent (Eds.), Career development and counseling: Putting theory and research to work (p. 71–100). John Wiley & Sons Inc.

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