Sub-theme 01: (SWG) Rethinking Careers: Theoretical Foundations of Career Studies and their Development

Wolfgang Mayrhofer
Vienna University of Economics and Business, Austria
Martina Gianecchini
University of Padova, Italy
Hugh Gunz
University of Toronto, Canada

Call for Papers

Since their very early foundation, career studies have been interdisciplinary. In the Handbook of Career Theory, Arthur, Hall and Lawrence (1989) listed eight social sciences which contribute to the understanding of careers. An enriched list is proposed by Gunz and Peiperl (2007) in the introduction of the Handbook of Career Studies. The call for interdisciplinary approaches in studying career has been continuously repeated (Khapova & Arthur, 2011) even though, as Suddaby, Hardy and Huy (2011) suggest when they analyse current organizational theories, one may contend that as a consequence career research risks to fail to develop truly indigenous theory out of its own field.

Among others, a theoretical review by Sonnenfeld and Kotter (1982) identifies psychology and sociology as the most important disciplines which inform career studies. Career scholars "borrow" ideas from these two theoretical domains to address issues and explain phenomena in the career domain. Examples are social cognitive career theory or self-efficacy career theory from the psychological domain, and the theory of social system by Luhmann, or the theory of practice by Bourdieu from sociology. Beyond that, a number of other disciplines such as economics, demography, ethnology or political science are relevant.

Does borrowing theory from many disciplines sacrifice the goal of developing career theory as a distinctive field, as Markoczy and Deeds (2009) claim? If so, how can career scholars propose new theories which demonstrate both novelty and continuity, in order to avoid the formulation of theories which "reinvent the wheel", on the one side, and the risk of following "roads to nowhere", on the other side?

A first approach to theorizing (Suddaby et al., 2011) involves challenging the implicit or the explicit assumption of the field. It may be done either through problematization by comparing the explanatory power of the current key constructs with alternative constructs, or by finding blind spots or contradictions in the current body of literature. It is worthwhile noting that in these cases building new theories should not stop at the "challenging phase"; it should proceed with generating novel concepts and research questions. A second approach to theorizing is based on blending concepts from multiple knowledge domains. This theory-building approach may be pursued by either involving disciplines which are close to the career field (as for instance sociology and psychology) or borrowing concepts from fields which are more remote (for example biology, game theory, aesthetics, post-modernism, critical theory, cybernetics) but provide stimulating ideas for problems which career studies address.

In this sub-theme we address the question of exploring new theoretical approaches to studying careers. We welcome papers examining such questions as:

  • To what extent do existing career theories explain the career behaviors of contemporary workers in different social contexts?
  • Do we need new theoretical concepts in order to keep pace with changes in the complexity and non-linearity of modern careers?
  • Do the existing theories sufficiently address the requests of different groups of stakeholders of career research (i.e. people, organization, society)?
  • Do other theoretical fields propose frameworks and/or concepts which offer relevant alternative explanations for career-related phenomena?

These questions are merely examples. In addition, we also and with the same merit welcome empirical papers based on novel or sound theoretical bases demonstrating a strong link between theory and empirical work.



Arthur, Michael B., Douglas T. Hall & Barbara S. Lawrence (eds.) (1989): Handbook of Career Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Gunz, Hugh & Maury Peiperl (2007): 'Introduction.' In: H. Gunz & M. Peiperl (eds.): Handbook of Career Studies. Thousand Oaks (CA): SAGE Publications.
Khapova, Svetlana N. & Michael B. Arthur (2010): 'Interdisciplinary approaches to contemporary career studies.' Human Relations, 64 (1), 3–17.
Markóczy, Livia & David L. Deeds (2009): 'Theory building at the intersection: recipe for impact or road to nowhere?' Journal of Management Studies, 46 (6), 1076–1088.
Sonnenfeld, Jeffrey & John Kotter (1982): 'The maturation of career theory.' Human Relations, 35 (1), 19–46.
Suddaby, Roy, Cynthia Hardy & Quy Huy (2011): 'Where are the new theories of organization?' Academy of Management Review, 36 (2), 236–246.


Wolfgang Mayrhofer is Professor of Management and Organisational Behaviour at WU Vienna, Austria; research on human resource management, careers, leadership, social systems theory, published in a wide variety of journals, 26 authored, co-authored or co-edited books.
Martina Gianecchini is Associate Professor of Organizational Behaviour and Human Resource Management at the University of Padova, Italy; research on human resource management, careers, labour market and education, entrepreneurship, published in field journals, co-authored textbooks.
Hugh Gunz is Professor of Organizational Behaviour, J.L. Rotman School of Management, Toronto, Canada; research on careers, the management of professionals, and ethics, in a wide variety of journals as well as three books (including co-editing the "Handbook of Career Studies" published by Sage in 2007).