In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Careers

  • Introduction
  • Textbooks and Edited Collections
  • Classic Works
  • Career Development Theories
  • Organizational and Structural Theoretical Approaches
  • Sociological Approaches

Sociology Careers
Phyllis Moen, Shi-Rong Lee
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 April 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0129


The concept of career has traditionally been defined as a series of positions, an orderly and hierarchical progression up occupational status (or seniority) ladders, most commonly in professional occupations. However, it is increasingly used to refer to patterns of movement across jobs (or roles) throughout the life course. The career concept is both a metaphor and an organizing principle, providing conceptual and methodological guidance to the sociology of work and occupations; organizational sociology; the study of social stratification, inequality, roles, mobility, the economy, and the labor force; the study of families, the family economy, gender, and the life course; as well as the social psychology of work, motivation, and identity. A sociology of occupational careers is necessarily a sociology of time, referring to the processes of job development, mobility, plateauing, transitions, exits, and entrances. But the notion of “careers” is a function of historical time as well, a modern invention, emerging as a social fact only with the development of corporations, bureaucracies, and white-collar employment. As C. Wright Mills pointed out, prior to the Industrial Revolution, most people worked in either agriculture or a family business. Though individual farmers, craftspeople, and family entrepreneurs may have had “life plans,” they did not have “careers.” The whole idea of “career” is thus really a product of industrialization and the development and bureaucratization of occupational lines. As paid work (for others, particularly in corporations and government) became a central role in 20th-century society, the work career shaped life chances, life quality, and life choices in virtually every arena. The question is, with the uncertainty associated with a global information economy, how are 21st-century careers coming to be shaped?

Textbooks and Edited Collections

Most of the textbooks on careers have been written by organizational scholars (Arthur, et al. 1989; Hall 1976), but there are several important edited collections by the German sociologist Hans Peter Blossfeld and others (Blossfeld and Hofmeister 2006; Blossfeld 1986; Blossfeld, et al. 2008; Blossfeld, et al. 2006; Blossfeld and Drobnic 2001) that provide a contemporary and comparative cross-cultural focus on careers at different stages of the life course. Older textbooks often treated career development as an individual decision-making process, but more contemporary publications (Barley 1989, Gunz and Peiperl 2007) recognize its Janus-like nature—describing both individuals’ occupational paths and a series of positions within occupations or organizations.

  • Arthur, Michael Bernard, Douglas T. Hall, and Barbara S. Lawrence. 1989. Handbook of career theory. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511625459

    This is an excellent overview of theories and empirical evidence from sociology, psychology, anthropology, organizational theory, and economics. This handbook was updated several times in the 1990s.

  • Barley, Stephen R. 1989. Careers, identities, and institutions: The legacy of the Chicago School of Sociology. In Handbook of career theory. Edited by Michael B. Arthur, Douglas T. Hall, and Barbara S. Lawrence, 41–65. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511625459

    This chapter in the Arthur, Hall, and Lawrence volume offers a key sociological perspective on careers. It is extremely insightful and well worth reading.

  • Blossfeld, Hans-Peter. 1986. Career opportunities in the Federal Republic of Germany: A dynamic approach to the study of life-course, cohort, and period effects. European Sociological Review 2.3: 208–225.

    This article offers an insightful empirical study on how life course, cohort, and period effects (in terms of the duration of labor force engagement, timing of entry into the labor market, and labor market conditions) influence the career consequences of three birth cohorts in Germany.

  • Blossfeld, Hans-Peter, Sandra Buchholz, Erzsebet Bukodi, and Karin Kurz, eds. 2008. Young workers, globalization and the labor market: Comparing early working life in eleven countries. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar.

    This book covers the dynamics of labor market entry and early careers of young workers across European countries and the United States. The changing nature of early careers as a result of growing instability and flexibility by employers in terms of being able to lay off works in the global current labor market is a key theme.

  • Blossfeld, Hans-Peter, Sandra Buchholz, and Dirk Hofäcker. 2006. Globalization, uncertainty and late careers in society. London and New York: Taylor & Francis.

    DOI: 10.4337/9781781007495

    This book presents a comparative analysis of late careers and career exits across different social contexts. It locates the career experiences of older workers in four institutional settings, including conservative welfare regimes, southern European welfare regimes, liberal welfare regimes, and social-democratic welfare regimes.

  • Blossfeld, Hans-Peter, and Sonja Drobnic. 2001. Careers of couples in contemporary society: From male breadwinner to dual-earner families. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    This book adopts a comparative framework to show how couples’ careers have developed and transformed both the labor market and family life. It expands understanding of gender inequalities vis-à-vis the intersection of paid employment and family processes from a longitudinal perspective, as well as documenting how career dynamics are influenced by gender in different institutional settings.

  • Blossfeld, Hans-Peter, and Heather Anne Hofmeister. 2006. Globalization, uncertainty and women’s careers: An international comparison. Cheltenham, UK, and Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar.

    DOI: 10.4337/9781781007495

    Blossfeld and Hofmeister provide an important comparative overview of women’s career paths and how gender inequality is reproduced.

  • Gunz, Hugh P., and Maury Peiperl. 2007. Handbook of career studies. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

    This handbook offers a comprehensive picture of the history and development of the field of careers as a subject of inquiry.

  • Hall, Douglas T. 1976. Careers in organizations. Pacific Palisades, CA: Goodyear.

    Douglas locates career trajectories within organizations, noting that organizations serve as the systems and settings in which most careers develop.

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