Circumscription and Compromise – Gottfredson’s Theory of Career Development

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Linda Gottfredson (1981) outlined a theory of career development and career choice which she describes as one of “circumscription and compromise”. She perceives career choice as having a developmental trajectory. This means that she believes that career choice evolves within an individual as they grow up in their family and society… but she concentrates her attention on the on the limiting effects of socialization in determining career choices.

While she believes that career choice is self-expressive, she focuses more precisely on the origins and boundaries of an individuals self-concept, their image of who they are, both, privately and inwardly… and outwardly in relation to others and proposes that career selection is based to a large extent on social identity. She feels that social identity is organized across three areas: Masculinity/femininity, Personal interest and Prestige.

Her theory emphasizes the processes of socialization and cultural learning which begin very early in life to create a person’s ideas about who has what kind of power in the world, and what work is typically done by men and women. She notes that a very young child will pick up an attitude of respect or of dismissal of categories of people and jobs, depending on what is modeled by adults in their life so that cultural socialization determines what children accept as appropriate sex-type behavior and which professions are seen as having prestige.

Personal interests are important but they are fostered or discouraged within culturally tolerable boundaries on the basis of the first two categories. Beyond this, she suggests, reality testing and available opportunities suggest what career possibilities are seen as accessible.

Many individuals enter the work force unaware of the degree to which they have been driven by these historical and societal influences. As a result when they reach a plateau or an impasse in their career they may suddenly feel adrift and wonder how they got to that place. They may suddenly doubt the wisdom or appropriateness of their career choice and there may be good reasons why the original pathway now feels overly constraining or, as Gottfredson puts it, “circumscribed”.

It may well be that their life circumstances have widened their field of vision beyond the constraints that were imposed upon it when they entered the work force. They may now find that they live in a world which has moved towards broader and more inclusive definitions of appropriate sex-type work. For other individuals it may happen that having achieved the sought after “prestige” individuals still find themselves unsatisfied on a deeper level.

It is at these points that career development and personal development can coincide and in the face of a larger field of choices and a more developed set of skills, a new challenge or a new direction may be chosen to healthily reorient the next part of of their working life.


Gottfredson, Linda S. (1981). Circumscription and Compromise: A developmental theory of occupational aspirations. Journal of Counseling Psychology. Vol. 28(6), Pp. 545-579.

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