A patterned sequence of occupational roles through which individuals move over the course of a working life, implying increased prestige and other rewards, although not excluding downward occupational and social mobility.
The sociological concept of career began its life in the study of occupations conducted by sociologists such as Oswald Hall and Everett Hughes at Chicago in the 1940s, but was further refined by sociologists within the tradition of symbolic interactionism, and made applicable to areas outside of the simply occupational—suggesting, for example, that there are deviance careers. Thus, Howard Becker in Outsiders (1963) applied the concept to the stages of ‘becoming a marijuana smoker’, whereby smokers learned the technique, learned to perceive the effects, and finally learned to enjoy the experience. Similarly, Erving Goffman in Asylums (1961) discussed the ‘moral career’ of the mental patient, again in three phases: prepatient, patient, and post-patient. Goffman's work, however, was much more concerned with the shifts in subjective images of the sense of self experienced by patients: how, for example, they were stripped of an earlier sense of identity when other (‘the circuit of agents’) started to define them as mad; how this self became mortified on arrival in a mental hospital; and how patients became charged with building a new imagery of the self and a new identity. Both these studies are also classic instances of labelling theory.
In studies of careers the aim is to uncover the recurrent or typical contingencies and problems awaiting someone who continues in a course of action. There is a contrast to be drawn between the objective career line, in which the recurrent problems of adjustment facing someone on a particular path of change can be predicted (for example, the stages involved in becoming a student, a doctor, or a member of a religious sect); and the subjective career or interpretive acts taken by people as they move through certain changes. Goffman highlighted this contrast in Asylums, insisting that the value of the career concept is its very two-sidedness where ‘one side is linked to internal matters held dearly and closely, such as image of self and felt identity; [and] the other side concerns official position, jural relations and style of life, and is part of a publicly accessible institutional complex’.