Counselling Psychology: Historical Underpinnings

Kathleen B. Stephany
Simon Fraser University

This paper examines counselling psychology from a historical perspective. The terms counselling and counselling psychology are defined first. The bulk of the paper discusses historical background which includes the theoretical, social and cultural context that have influenced the development and changes within the profession over time. Lastly, a critical analysis will be conducted, emphasizing both the strengths and weaknesses of this branch of psychology as it exists today.

Counselling & Counselling Psychology: What is it? 

Counselling denotes a professional relationship between a trained counsellor and a client. The counselling process is designed to help clients understand and clarify their views of their life space in order to learn to reach their self-determined goals through meaningful, well informed choices (Burks & Stefflre, 1979). Counselling psychologists are expected to apply one or more psychological theories and a recognized set of communication skills, based on empirical research of the client and the counselling process, to client's concerns, problems or aspirations, and they are interested in using the   counselling method as a tool to influence positive change in persons who are dissatisfied   with their present behaviour (Clarkson, 1998; Feltham & Dryden, 1993; Lewis, 1970).  

One clear difference between counsellors and counselling psychologists is that   the later group makes a conscious use of the knowledge they have acquired from the field   of academic psychology alongside practising counselling skills, whereas the former   group do not necessarily have as extensive an educational background (Clarkson, 1998). For example, counselling psychologists have a basic degree in psychology and then a   Masters degree in counselling psychology (British Psychological Association, 1988). However, many individuals who practice under the heading of "counsellor" may not even   have a background in academic psychology at all and they also do not necessarily have a   Masters degree (Clarkson, 1998).  

Historical Underpinnings Propelling Forces: Scientific Theory & Society

According to Mannheim's (1985) views on the sociology of knowledge, the development   of ideas within a scientific profession do not necessarily originate from the individual   who is named as the founder of an idea, but rather they develop out of the collective   purposes of the scientific group with whom the individual belongs. One of the major   influences of any science is theoretical orientation. Theory assists a scientist in   organizing a series of events into "a coherent pattern and to systematically extend his   knowledge about the relationships among these events by testing predictions generated   by theory" (Lewis, 1970, p.7). The focus and research of any given scientific body is   strongly directed by theory of orientation, and theory change is in turn influenced by   research results. What will become evident, is how counselling psychologists, in   formulating their own theories, have borrowed ideas from others within the field of   psychology. However, influence over a scientific body is not limited to the social world   and theory of the scientific group itself or other scientists, but also by the spirit of the   times. Therefore, in order to appreciate what counselling psychology is about today, one   must examine the theoretical, historical, social and cultural forces that have influenced   and changed the discipline over time. However before proceeding, it is imperative to   stress that the influences on the profession of counselling psychology are in no way   limited to those presented in this paper, but include other influences that are not   discussed.

Prelude to Birth of a Profession  

Counselling is a profession that started at the beginning of the twentieth century   but it's roots go deeper than the time of its inception. During the eighteenth and   nineteenth century the rise of industrialism, urbanization, and capitalism in Western   Europe and America created many new social demands which in turn set the stage for   counselling psychology. Massive numbers of people who once lived in small rural   villages moved into cities. Persons who normally looked to the community for support   and guidance were now living isolated lives in an impersonal macrocosm. Capitalism   grew to dominate economics and politics, and the values of science began to replace the   values of religion (McLeod, 1998). Scientific and technological advances decreased the   threat of disease and environmental induced tragedies, and allowed the majority of   middle class people more free time to concentrate on themselves as persons and on more   intimate and less threatening aspects of everyday living (Lewis, 1970). Because   capitalism emphasized private ownership of wealth and competition, personal autonomy   and independence became crucial. High demands were placed on the individual to adopt   ethics of hard work and to internalize norms (McLeod, 1998). It is not surprising that all   of the aforementioned conditions set a stage for the search for new psychological   knowledge as a means to address personnel confusion and dilemmas of the time.   Counselling psychology became one of the means to address some of these concerns.  

The Profession is Born  

The birth of counselling psychology occurred at the beginning of the twentieth   century within the educational system in the United States (USA), and also quickly   infiltrated the Canadian educational system (McLeod, 1998). Historical accounts cite an   American, Frank Parsons, as the founder of the educational and guidance movement in   the United States and claim him as the forefather of the profession, with 1906 or 1909, as   the official birth date (Hansen, Rossberg & Cramer, 1994; Stefflre & Grant, 1972). At   the turn of the century there was rising societal concern in America that the educational   system was not properly preparing youth for employment. Parsons set out to address   those concerns by developing a system of aptitude and capacity tests to be used in   conjunction with counselling, to gather data about the individual and about occupations,   in order to appropriately match the two (Hansen, Rossberg & Cramer, 1994). However,   Parsons' system did not occur as the result of original thought, but rather as a spin-off   from the work of others at the time who were deeply involved in the trait-factor theory   movement.

Trait-Factor Theory  

Trait-factor theory, which is also referred to as individuality theory of human   nature, is based upon the belief that aptitudes or potential performance ability can be   determined by tests prior to employment or education (Stefflre & Grant, 1972).   Trait-factor theory developed as a result of the work of several psychologists at the time.   For example, at the end of the nineteenth century, an Englishman, Galton, inspired by the   work of his cousin, Darwin, became one of the first behavioural scientists to empirically   and systematically study measurable differences in individual capacities and aptitudes (Benjafield, 1996; Stefflre & Grant, 1972). Galton, was keenly aware that people at that   time were looking for ways to initiate self-improvement and therefore he linked his work   to practical rather than just academic concerns (Danziger,1990). Galton's study results   made assertions about hereditary genius and established a link between a person's ability   and the family to which he or she belonged (Benjafield, 1996). Nature and inherited   abilities became fashionable and the notion of individual differences became popular   because they quantified the human experience, just as physics quantified the natural   elements. Ultimately, Galton's work set the stage for many others. For example,   Munsterberg, who moved from Germany to the United States, emphasized the   implications for individual differences in education, industry and government. One   historical account attests that Munsterberg's work was readily accepted into American   society, because his ideas seemed relevant to social change and because he openly   marketed his study results in booths exposed to the public (Stagner, 1988). It was   Munsterberg's work that directly influenced the work of Frank Parsons   (Stefflre & Grant, 1972).  

Trait Factor Theory & Beyond

Brewer and Davis were also American pioneers in the field of counselling   psychology at the beginning of the twentieth century and their ideas followed those of   Parsons. Brewer wanted to change the system of education from one that was primarily   concerned with the passive transmission of knowledge, to one that would prepare youth   for the future by teaching them useful life skills. Davis further developed the concept of   educational guidance beyond Parson's concern for appropriate vocational choices and   Davis' life skills training, to include counselling youth on issues of moral guidance and guidance for the total life of the individual (Hansen, Rossberg & Cramer, 1994).  

The ideas of Parsons, Brewer and Davis were readily infiltrated into the American   educational system, but Parsons' trait-factor approach was by far the most widely   accepted (Lewis, 1970). For example, psychological tests became the most frequently   used tool of the school counsellor throughout the 1920s and 1930s and expanded beyond   being used for vocational choices to include determination of scholastic ability. Even   though some school counsellors became somewhat sceptical of the increasing   sophistication of tests, most continued to use them (Lewis, 1970). In fact, during the   Great Depression, educational guidance methods became increasingly important when   employment opportunities were scarce.

Personal Counselling: Offshoot from Psychoanalysis  

During the late 1930s and early 1940s, while psychological testing and guidance   counselling continued to infiltrate the educational system, counselling was also beginning   to take place in the private sector and resulted somewhat indirectly from the rise of   psychoanalysis. An Austrian psychiatrist, Sigmund Freud, is known as the founder of   psychoanalysis. Although psychoanalytic theory has changed quite drastically over time,   the original theory was based on these very basic premises: that humans are all essentially   neurotic, that underneath the rational conduct of a successful person lie unconscious   inner conflicts and instinctual drives, and through the method of psychotherapy an   individual can become aware of their unconsciously determined conflicts and deal with   them (McLeod, 1998).

Freud's ideas implied that the knowledge and methods derived   from psychiatry could be used not only for the mentally ill but also for the common   person. Psychoanalysis, although rejected by many, infiltrated the European middle class who were struggling to make a transition between traditional patriarchal authority to   personal values and autonomy (McLeod, 1998). Although Sigmund Freud himself did   not like America, many other psychoanalysts moved to the United States in order to   escape the rise of fascism and anti-Semitism in Europe. For example, famous   psychotherapists like, Ferenczi, Rank and Erikson moved to areas in the Eastern states   and they were readily received (McLeod, 1998). It appears as though American society,   with its increased social mobility, nuclear families, and the search for financial and   personal success, created a fertile receiving ground for psychotherapy as a method for   self improvement (McLeod, 1998).  

Under the guidance and counselling heading, Clifford Beers began to specifically   use methods derived from psychoanalysis, such as talk therapy, as a direct tool to help   people solve their problems. Counselling psychology, which once only concentrated its   efforts within the educational system now began to use counselling methods to assist   private members in the community. Some of the key reasons for this expansion included:   decreased public reliance on religion for guidance, the addition of psychotherapy as a   new means to address normal people's problems, as well as the fact that, in less   populated parts of America there were not enough psychiatrists and clinical psychologists   available to do psychotherapy (Lewis, 1970). However, open criticism occurred from   members in the fields of psychiatry and clinical psychology, that the typical counsellor,   with little more than a Master's degree in education, was lacking appropriate or adequate   training to conduct counselling in the community (Lewis, 1970). The opposition was   such that counselling may not have been allowed to continue in the public realm if it   were not for the influence of a prominent clinical psychologist, Carl Rogers.

The Role of Carl Rogers  

The 1940's and a book by Carl Rogers arrived just in time to assist counsellors   faced with the dilemma of professional disapproval. Carl Rogers published the book,   Counselling in Psychotherapy. This book apparently implied that there was essentially   no difference between psychotherapy and counselling and articulated a simple method of   counselling that could be easily used by persons not trained in psychoanalysis   (Lewis, 1970). Rogers believed that through psychotherapy and the ideal therapeutic   client-therapist relationship, a person could be enabled to discover within him/herself, the   capacity for growth, change and personal development (Rogers, 1959). Rogers' theory,   which has been cast under the heading of humanistic psychological theory, advocated   that every person is born with the potential to develop into a normal personality and that   the drive toward self enhancement is innate. Rogers' ideas were in alignment with   counselling psychology's underlying assumption that persons are both capable of, and   responsible for, their own growth and change, but that they sometimes require   professional assistance in order to discover how to best proceed.  

Rogers' methods were also quickly grasped by counsellors because he developed   his theory of counselling totally from research conducted during the clinical process. For   example, Rogers' ideas on the effect of the ideal client therapist relationship and the non   directional role of the therapist, occurred as a result of thoughtful inquiry of his clients'   perspective as expressed during numerous psychotherapy sessions (Rogers, 1959). After   World War II there was a rise in interest in improving methods of practice when the use   of tests in order to diagnose and label persons became increasingly distasteful because   they were often inaccurate predictors of future behaviour and they depersonalized the human experience (Nietzel, Bernstein & Milch, 1998). Clinicians in both clinical and   counselling psychology were in search of more comprehensive and less restricting ways   to understand the people they were asked to treat. It logically followed that the desire to   improve practice spurned an increased interest in qualitative methods for conducting   research. Qualitative research involves a systematic, subjective approach which is used   to describe life experiences and give them meaning (Burns & Grove, 1993). Present day   counselling psychology utilizes both quantitative and qualitative methods for conducting   research and continues to specifically use qualitative research techniques on counselling   methods and the therapeutic relationship (Coyle, 1998).  

The change toward a greater emphasis on praxis and less emphasis on   quantitative science also occurred simultaneously within the discipline of clinical   psychology. However, it was this very subject that spurned a greater devision between   the two disciplines. Clinical psychology, in its pursuit of being recognized as a "real"   science, refused to accept knowledge that was obtained by means other than the   traditional experimental method which uses quantitative means. Quantitative research   involves a "formal, objective, systematic process to describe and test relationships and   examine cause and effect interactions among variables" (Burns & Grove, 1993, p. 777).   Consequently, mostly by consensus, clinical psychology's direction turned to the Boulder   model, and insisted that clinicians be trained first as scientists and practitioners second,   and completion of a four year doctorate became the minimum education required prior to   obtaining a license to practice (Nietzel, Bernstein & Milch, 1998). Rogers' views and   qualitative methods were rejected by many within the profession of clinical psychology   and considered unscientific, yet earnestly grasped by those within the counselling profession. It is ironic that Rogers succeeded in rescuing counselling psychology from   professional disapproval only to be rejected by his own.  

The 1950s & 1960s: Conflicting Directions  

Due to the combined influence of the humanistic and mental hygiene movements,   and the rejection of behaviourism's total environmental determinism, the 1950s saw an   increased emphasis on developmental tasks within the counselling profession. Some   basic assumptions of the humanistic movement were presented earlier and include the   belief that humans possess both the potential and capacity for growth and change. The   mental hygiene movement was based on the assumption that the cause of social and   interpersonal problems were due to the maladjustment of the individual which was   caused by maladjustment in childhood (Danziger, 1990). Out of these two movements   came the focus on developmental tasks. Developmental tasks are viewed as those tasks   that arise at certain points in a person's life cycle whose successful achievement of, leads to   personal fulfilment, and whose failure to achieve, leads to unhappiness (Hansen, Rossberg &   Cramer, 1994).

Counselling was viewed as means to assist persons through successful   achievement of developmental tasks. But why was this type of counselling thought to be   useful? Some historical accounts attribute the increased interest in counselling as a   means to solve development difficulties, as a direct result of the increased secularization   of American and Canadian societies (McLeod, 1998). For example, for large numbers of   the population, religious faith was being replaced by therapy which was viewed as a new   means to define social values, as a means to fill the void created by consumerism, as   well as a way to answer existential questions such as, "why am I here" (McLeod, 1998).

However, although there was strong pressure within the profession to commit to life development counselling, there was also increased pressure to return to the career   counselling role. For example, in 1958, the National Defence Education act in the USA   placed pressure on the discipline to recruit more youth into the sciences and many   counsellors were forced to conduct psychological aptitude testing, often to the exclusion   of counselling (Hansen , Rossberg & Cramer, 1994).  

Although many within the counselling psychology discipline rejected the notion   of total environmental determinism as advocated by behaviourists because it violated the   concept of personal freedom and the pursuit of personnel happiness which was so   integrally a part of the American belief system, others readily accepted some behavioural   tactics. For example, learning theory, which was knowledge derived from behavioural   research of the learning process, was readily accepted and applied within the counselling   process and generated a new approach named, "behavioural counselling," which focused   on changing the behaviour of the client through the process of counselling   (Hansen, Rossberg & Cramer, 1994).   The 1970s & 1980s and Expanding Roles   During the next two decades counselling psychology expanded its role to include   a broader array of services, once again partially because of the well accepted view that   these services could cause betterment of society and also because, in this post modern   era, individuals in the Western world, including Canada, were becoming increasingly   aware of the choices open to them and that change was a real possibility. Furthermore,   the media often provided widespread positive publicity concerning the benefits of   counselling (McLeod,1998). Consequently, counselling began to be readily provided to   the following: persons with marriage and family problems, adolescents in trouble, persons with disabilities and those who were occupationally displaced (Hansen, Rossberg   & Cramer, 1994). What was apparent was that role of counselling psychology had   expanded far beyond its original focus on testing for vocational choices.  

It was during this same time period that counselling moved into the field of   mental health and health in general. For example, in both the USA and especially in   Canada, the late1980s saw reduced financing available for health care services and   managed systems of care were seeking new ways of providing counselling services at   lower costs (Nietzel, Bernstein & Milich, 1998). Psychiatrists, and clinical   psychologists, long associated as possessing the monopoly of control over treatment   provided to the mentally ill, were now competing with increased numbers of counsellors   who were readily infused into the health system. Counsellors were an attractive   alternative largely because their services were considered by the public to be relevant to   social change, they were less expensive, and counsellors could provide a wider arrange of   services to more people, such as counselling for professionals within the fields of mental   health and health, as well as counselling to effect life style related health issues (Nietzel,   Bernstein & Milich, 1998).  

The 1990s & Private Practice  

The 1990s have seen large numbers of counselling psychologists entering private   practice, at a rate never seen before (McLeod, 1998). The reason for this growth in private   practice, is partly because of all of the reasons previously mentioned, as well as because   counselling psychologists are generally considered by the public at large, to be the   professional therapist for the normal individual and less likely to be connected with   mental illness (Nietzel, Bernstein, & Milich, 1998). The 1990s has also seen further expansion of the theory component of courses offered in the training of counselling   psychologists to include cognitive-behavioural therapies, developmental psychology,   psychiatric diagnoses, aspects of sociology related to social class, race and gender, as   well as further specialization in areas such as marital, couples, group and bereavement   counselling (McLeod, 1998).    

Critical Analysis: Strengths & Weaknesses of the Profession  

There are several strengths of the counselling psychology profession as it exists   today. For example, as previously illustrated, when compared to psychiatrists and   clinical psychologists, members of the counselling psychology discipline provide   professional counselling services at somewhat reduced costs to a wide range of   individuals. Furthermore, their methods have successfully assisted numerous individuals   in developing more effective and positive ways of dealing with the many diverse   problems of everyday life as experienced in a complexed Western world (Hansen,   Rossberg & Cramer, 1994).  

The discipline as a whole should also be praised for its continued respect for   human agency and autonomy, while still continuing to fulfil its commitment to the global   goal of improving society at large. For example, approaches presently used have become   increasingly eclectic and are focused on utilizing the best approach to meet the needs of   each individual client in relation to his or her community (McLeod, 1998).  

An additional asset of the profession is its choice of research methodology.   Research is done in order to improve praxis. For example, both quantitative and   qualitative methods are used in order to obtain a clearer picture of which   counselling processes are most effective in assisting the client. Coyle (1998)   points out that the emphasis on including qualitative research techniques on counselling   techniques increases the amount of understanding of the processes involved, links   research to practice, and invariably improves the validity of methods used for   intervention.   Furthermore, the discipline considers both academic excellence and character   qualities of equal importance when assessing potential candidates for admission into   graduate school (McLeod, 1998). Although being a caring, integral person seem to be   attributes most often considered by members of the public as essential characteristics of a   therapist, clinical psychology considers academic excellence as the most important   prerequisite for consideration for graduate school, often to the total exclusion of the   personal qualities of the candidate (Ley, 1998).  

Not everything about the counselling psychology profession is worthy of praise.   Counselling as a theory of cure, has long been criticized as only being applicable to   middle or high class persons living in Western society, and having little, if no relevance,   to large numbers of other members of society, such as those living in impoverished   conditions (McLeod, 1998). Furthermore, although both the individual and community   have both been targeted for change, the methods employed up until now have often been   too heavily focused on the betterment of society with individual needs taking a secondary   seat in importance (Hansen, Rossberg & Cramer, 1994).  

Counselling psychology has also been criticized for using methods that are not   changing fast enough in order to appropriately address the changing cultural context in   which the various members of society live. For example, although there has been a slow movement toward development of techniques that are culturally specific, this move has   not progressed fast enough to meet with growing demands (Ramierz, 1999).  

Clarkson (1998) points out that shorter term interventions are also needed in   addition to more effective ways to provide rapid responsiveness to emergency situations,   such as accidents and natural or economic disasters. Hansen, Rossberg and Cramer   (1994) stress that development and change in theory and practice needs to expand to have   praxis more closely tied in with philosophy and values and less tied to traditional science   in order for praxis to be more humanly relevant, and advocate that approaches from   alternative frameworks be included, such as those of the naturalist-ethnographic and   phenomenological groups.    


This paper examined the theoretical, social and cultural influences upon the   development and changes within the profession of counselling psychology over time. It   was evident how the rise of industrialization, urbanization and capitalism in Western   Europe and America, combined with a decreased emphasis on religion and an increased   emphasis on science, set the stage for counselling psychology. However, a profession   that began with an emphasis on quantifying human abilities through tests, gradually   moved toward a greater emphasis on praxis and less emphasis on quantitative science.  

The profession owes a great deal of its success to Carl Rogers. It is highly likely   that without the influence of Rogers, the profession may have been forced to remain   within the confines of the educational system. Furthermore, without increased   secularization of both American and Canadian societies, high levels of social mobility,   and consumerism, counselling may not have grown to where it is today.  

Although the counselling psychology profession has many strengths, there is room   for improvement. One of the biggest challenges facing the profession in the future, will   be for it to expand its role beyond relevance to Western society in order to seek out ways   of becoming more relevant to the problems experienced by members of other societies   and cultures.


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