A Review of Moral Personhood in a Globalizing World: Dyadic Perspectives in Rural and Urban Thailand, by Jessica McKenzie.
A central issue in developmental psychology has long been morality and how individuals develop into moral persons through childhood, adolescence, and into adulthood. At the same time, sociocultural anthropology has probed the impact of globalization on a wide range of societies and cultures across the world. While personhood—what it means to be recognized as an individual within a given social context—has been a key analytic for anthropology, questions of moral development and its connection with personhood have often been overlooked. Jessica McKenzie’s dissertation, Moral Personhood in a Globalizing World: Dyadic Perspectives in Rural and Urban Thailand, makes an important step in bringing these two lines of inquiry into dialogue with one another. In so doing, this dissertation makes great contributions to both psychology and anthropology.
McKenzie uses a mixed-methods approach to examine, over the course of five chapters, “the impact of globalization on morality and values across generations in rapidly globalizing cultural contexts” (pp. 2–3). As McKenzie explains, northern Thailand provides a good setting for such an investigation because of the rapid economic, political, and social changes facing the region. At the same time, Thai youth have had a strong interest in global culture. Thailand is also predominately Buddhist. As some scholars have argued that Buddhism and Buddhist morality are antithetical to global commodification and consumerism, Buddhist northern Thailand provides a great setting for understanding how adolescents grapple with conflicting moral messages.
In Chapter 1: Introduction, McKenzie defines the key terms used in the dissertation and situates its argument within a broader literature. As a study about the impact of globalization on morality, “globalization” and “morality” are two terms begging for a clearly articulated definition. Drawing on Arjun Appadurai’s idea of “flows,” this dissertation takes up Ted C. Lewellen’s definition of globalization: “the increasing flow of trade, finance, culture, ideas, and people brought about by the sophisticated technology of communications and travel and its local and regional adaptations to and resistances against these flows” (Ted C. Lewellen, The Anthropology of Globalization: Cultural Anthropology Enters the Twenty-first Century. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2002, pp. 7–8). In terms of morality, McKenzie uses Rick Shweder’s “big three” theory of morality. This theory separates moral reasoning into three main ethics from which individuals may draw on: the ethics of autonomy, community, and divinity (Richard A. Shweder, Nancy C. Much, Manamohan Mahapatra, and Lawrence Park, “The ‘Big Three’ of Morality (Autonomy, Community, Divinity) and the ‘Big Three’ Explanations of Suffering” in Why Do Men Barbecue? Recipes for Cultural Psychology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003, pp. 119–159). As emphasized by McKenzie—and the original authors, Shweder et al.—this definition of morality is inherently pluralistic. Societies and individuals living within these societies may draw on one or more of the three ethics at different times and places.
This first chapter also situates the dissertation within the interdisciplinary field of ethnopsychology, addressing questions that bridge psychology and anthropology. Morality has been highly researched in both fields. Psychology, however, has often overlooked cultural differences in morality. While anthropology often focuses on culturally mediated differences, individual development and the life course are often excluded. Drawing on the strengths of each discipline, McKenzie adopts Lene Jensen’s cultural-developmental approach to the study of morality. In particular, McKenzie’s dissertation narrows in on the developmental stage of adolescence as an important step in individuals’ development. Adolescence is often a period in which individuals are solidifying forms of identity and moral reasoning. McKenzie proposes that focusing on how adolescents experience moral development and globalization can illuminate for us how globalization is impacting culturally based moralities.
Chapter 2: Northern Thai Ethnographic Communities, provides a “thick description” of the two primary field sites. As the study focuses on adolescents, two schools were chosen in very different globalizing contexts. The city of Chiang Mai, the second largest city in the country and largest in northern Thailand, is one site. The rural village of Mae Kiaw is the other. Reminding the readers in the conclusion, too, that there is a “mere 25-mile geographic distance between the urban and rural contexts,” the social landscapes of the two areas are vastly different (p. 208). McKenzie richly describes the cosmopolitanism of Chiang Mai: large shopping centers, easy access to a wide variety of foreign foods and goods, and mixed with “traditional” objects and practices like spirit houses and Buddhist temples. The population of Chiang Mai is also more diverse with many international tourists, migrant workers, and expatriates. Mae Kiaw, on the other hand, has local markets instead of shopping centers and very few farang (Westerners or foreigners) living in the area. Within these areas, McKenzie selected two government schools from which to recruit adolescent participants and their parents. The chapter shows how these differences in levels of globalization between the communities are refracted in the schools’ mission statements, in student-teacher interactions, and in home life. Overall, the chapter shows how globalization has led to two different forms of everyday life in these areas.
With the stage set with this ethnographic description, Chapter 3: Moral Personhood Across Contexts of Globalization delves into what adolescents and parents in these two contexts feel makes a person a moral person. Continuing the interdisciplinary nature of the dissertation, the chapter’s argument draws on multi-method data: qualitative, open-ended interviews that were coded for key themes among participants and quantitative questionnaires. There were 80 interviewed participants: 20 urban adolescents and one of their parents (20 urban parents); 20 rural adolescents and one of their parents (20 rural parents). The key finding from this data is that rural and urban participants significantly differed in their reports of what constitutes morality and moral personhood. Moreover, there was an interaction effect between age (adolescent versus parent) and context (rural versus urban) such that the degree of difference between urban parents and adolescents was greater than the difference between rural parents and adolescents. This difference was mostly around the Ethics of Community and Autonomy. Drawing on rich interview data, McKenzie demonstrates how rural Mae Kiaw participants (both adolescents and parents) often drew on themes of familial roles and community duties when talking about morality. While the urban parents of Chiang Mai also talked about social roles and duties, they much more frequently discussed these in terms of work-related roles than in terms of familial roles. The urban Chiang Mai adolescents differed the greatest from the other three groups, drawing much more on ideas of self and personal desires than social obligations or community roles when moral reasoning.
These data and analyses support the chapter’s main thesis—and I would suggest the most intriguing and largest contribution of the entire dissertation. The data suggests that, as McKenzie argues, “shifting sociocultural contexts have the potential to bring with it shifting conceptions of both oneself as a moral person and the moral world in which one resides” (p. 89). The study’s well-thought-out design demonstrates that differences in moral reasoning are not just because of different age categories. Instead, there is an interaction between age and socicultural environment that allows for new ways of thinking about self, identity, and moral identity to emerge. Rural adolescents and urban adolescents had different ways of talking about morality and drew on different themes when moral reasoning.
The final data chapter, Chapter 4: Qualitative Analyses of Societal Moral Values, looks at how participants see globalization impacting “Thai values” more generally. A portion of the interviews asked participants to reflect on changes in “Thai values” in a number of ways: 1) what “Thai values” are most important; 2) what “Thai values” should be passed on to the next generation; 3) what “Thai values” should not be passed on; and 4) how and why “Thai values” are changing across generations. Participants overwhelmingly discussed these values using themes of community (e.g., taking care of parents, listening to elders, helping others, etc.) and traditions (e.g., annual festivals like Songkran and Loi Krathong). Urban participants—particularly parents—spoke more of moral degradation and a weakening of “Thai values” because of the impact of foreign ideas and cultures that adolescents pick up and enact without reflecting on their impact on “Thai values.” As McKenzie points out, discussion of moral degradation is a common theme of globalization in other contexts outside of Thailand. What is interesting about this dissertation’s findings is that the impact of globalization and the discussion of moral degradation differs according to context (rural or urban). For instance, McKenzie argues that in the urban context of Chiang Mai, self-reflection and self-analysis of appropriating certain values is becoming more common and more valued than in rural Mae Kiaw.
The dissertation concludes with Chapter 5: Conclusions and Implications. Here McKenzie reiterates the project’s main finding that there is a difference in globalization’s impact on moral personhood and moral reasoning between parents and adolescents. Moreover, there is a difference in globalization’s impact between urban and rural contexts. “Taken together, this empirically identified double-gap illuminates the psychological impact of globalization such that a disconnect emerges across contexts of globalization and between parents and their children residing in more globalized contexts” like urban Chiang Mai (p. 215). While parent-adolescent dyads in the rural context are more congruent in their ideas of morality, McKenzie suggests that this is because adolescents receive similar moral messages from multiple sources, not just from parents. Their schools, extended family, and other community institutions all align with their moral messages to adolescents. In the more globalized context of Chiang Mai, however, adolescents’ parents, schools, peers, and others often have conflicting moral messages. It is the greater moral and identity work required by urban adolescents that results in the greater difference between urban parents and adolescents than between rural parents and adolescents.
Overall, McKenzie’s dissertation is an important contribution to the cultural-developmental approach to the study of morality. It provides a timely intervention into the fields of developmental psychology and sociocultural anthropology, showing how broad economic, social, and cultural changes most greatly influences those who are entering adulthood in the midst of these changes. She shows that while generational differences are often common in both urban and rural contexts, more rapidly changing urban areas can often exhibit greater generational divides with important psychological consequences for adolescents.
Department of Comparative Human Development
University of Chicago
Participant-observations at high school in Chiang Mai
Participant-observations at high school in Mae Kiaw
Focus groups with adolescent students
Questionnaires from adolescent and parent participants
Semi-structured interviews with adolescent and parent participants
Clark University. 2014. 292 pp. Primary Advisor: Lene A. Jensen.
Image: Urban field research site. Picture taken by Jessica McKenzie.