Social Domain Theory
In the early 1970s, longitudinal studies conducted by the Kohlberg research group began to reveal anomalies in the stage sequence. Researchers committed to the basic Kohlberg framework attempted to resolve those anomalies through adjustments in the stage descriptions (see the Power, Higgins, & Kohlberg, 1989 reference for an account of those changes). Other theorists, however, found that a comprehensive resolution to the anomalous data required substantial adjustments in the theory itself. One of the most productive lines of research to come out of that period has been the domain theory advanced by Elliot Turiel and his colleagues. Within domain theory a distinction is drawn between the child's developing concepts of morality, and other domains of social knowledge, such as social convention. According to domain theory, the child's concepts of morality and social convention emerge out of the child's attempts to account for qualitatively differing forms of social experience associated with these two classes of social events. Actions within the moral domain, such as unprovoked hitting of someone, have intrinsic effects (i.e., the harm that is caused) on the welfare of another person. Such intrinsic effects occur irregardless of the nature of social rules that may or may not be in place regarding the action. Because of this, the core features of moral cognition are centered around considerations of the effects which actions have upon the well-being of persons. Morality is structured by concepts of harm, welfare, and fairness.
Dr. Elliot Turiel
In contrast, actions that are matters of social convention have no intrinsic interpersonal consequences. For example, there is nothing intrinsic to the forms of address we employ that makes calling a college teacher "professor" better or worse than calling the person Mr. or Ms., or simply using their given names. What makes one form of address better than another is the existence of socially agreed upon rules. These conventions, while arbitrary in the sense that they have no intrinsic status, are nonetheless important to the smooth functioning of any social group. Conventions provide a way for members of the group to coordinate their social exchanges through a set of agreed upon and predictable modes of conduct. Concepts of convention then, are structured by the child's understandings of social organization.
These hypothesized distinctions have been sustained through studies over the past 20 years. These studies have included interviews with children, adolescents and adults; observations of child-child and adult-child social interactions; cross-cultural studies; and longitudinal studies examining the changes in children's thinking as they grow older. An example of the distinction between morality and convention is given in the following excerpt from an interview with a four-year-old girl regarding her perceptions of spontaneously occurring transgressions at her preschool.
MORAL ISSUE: Did you see what happened? Yes. They were playing and John hit him too hard. Is that something you are supposed to do or not supposed to do? Not so hard to hurt. Is there a rule about that? Yes. What is the rule? You're not to hit hard. What if there were no rule about hitting hard, would it be all right to do then? No. Why not? Because he could get hurt and start to cry.
CONVENTIONAL ISSUE: Did you see what just happened? Yes. They were noisy. Is that something you are supposed to or not supposed to do? Not do. Is there a rule about that? Yes. We have to be quiet. What if there were no rule, would it be all right to do then? Yes. Why? Because there is no rule.
Morality and convention, then, are distinct, parallel developmental frameworks, rather than a single system as thought of by Kohlberg. However, because all social events, including moral ones, take place within the context of the larger society, a person's reasoning about the right course of action in any given social situation may require the person to access and coordinate their understandings from more than one of these two social cognitive frameworks. For, example, whether people line up to buy movie theater tickets is largely a matter of social convention. Anyone who has traveled outside of Northern Europe or North America can attest to the fact that lining up is not a shared social norm across cultures. Within the United States or England, for example, lining up is the conventional way in which turn-taking is established. The act of turn-taking has a moral consequence. It establishes a mechanism for sharing - an aspect of distributive justice. The act of breaking in line within the American or British context is more than merely a violation of convention. It is a violation of a basic set of rules that people hold to maintain fairness. How people coordinate the possible interactions that may arise between issues of morality and convention is a function of several factors including: the salience of the features of the act (what seems most important - the moral or conventional elements); and the developmental level of the person (adolescents for example view conventions as unimportant and arbitrary norms established by adult authority).
It was Turiel's insight to recognize that what Kohlberg's theory attempts to account for within a single developmental framework is in fact the set of age-related efforts people make at different points in development to coordinate their social normative understandings from several different domains. Thus, domain theory posits a great deal more inconsistency in the judgments of individuals across contexts, and allows for a great deal more likelihood of morally (fairness and welfare) based decisions from younger and less developed people than would be expected from within the traditional Kohlberg paradigm.
Current work from within domain theory has sought to explore how the child's concepts of moral and conventional regulation relate to their developing understandings of personal prerogative and privacy. This work is exploring how children develop their concepts of autonomy and its relation to social authority. This has led to a fruitful series of studies of adolescent-parent conflict with important implications for ways in which parents may contribute to the healthy development of youth (Smetana, 1996). This work is also being extended into studies of how adolescents perceive the authority of teachers and school rules. Moral and Social Values Education The implications of domain theory for values education are several. First, the identification of a domain of moral cognition that is tied to the inherent features of human social interaction means that moral education may be grounded in universal concerns for fairness and human welfare, and is not limited to the particular conventions or norms of a given community or school district. By focusing on those universal features of human moral understanding, public schools may engage in fostering children's morality without being accused of promoting a particular religion, and without undercutting the basic moral core of all major religious systems.
Second, educational research from within domain theory has resulted in a set of recommendations for what is termed "domain appropriate" values education. This approach entails the teacher's analysis and identification of the moral or conventional nature of social values issues to be employed in values lessons. Such an analysis contributes to the likelihood that the issues discussed are concordant with the domain of the values dimension they are intended to affect. A discussion of dress codes, for example, would constitute a poor basis for moral discussion, since mode of dress is primarily a matter of convention. Likewise, consideration of whether it is right to steal to help a person in need, would be a poor issue with which to generate a lesson intended to foster students' understandings of social conventions. A related function of the teacher would be to focus student activity (verbal or written) on the underlying features concordant with the domain of the issue. Thus, students dealing with a moral issue would be directed to focus on the underlying justice or human welfare considerations of the episode. With respect to conventions, the focus of student activity would be on the role of social expectations and the social organizational functions of such social norms.
On the basis of this kind of analysis teachers are also better enabled to lead students through consideration of more complex issues which contain elements from more than one domain. By being aware of the developmental changes that occur in students' comprehension of the role of social convention, and related changes in students understanding of what it means to be fair or considerate of the welfare of others, teachers are able to frame consideration of complex social issues in ways that will maximize the ability of students to comprehend and act upon the moral and social meaning of particular courses of action.
The best sources for discussion of domain appropriate education, along with guidelines and examples for how teachers may select materials from existing school curricula from which to generate lessons and practices which will foster students' development within both the moral and conventional domains may be found in: Nucci, L. & Weber, E. (1991) "The domain approach to values education: From theory to practice" In W. Kurtines & J. Gewirtz (Eds.) "Handbook of Moral Behavior and Development (Volume 3: Applications)pp. 251 - 266). and also in: Nucci, L. (1989) "Challenging Conventional Wisdom About Morality: The Domain Approach to Values Education." In L. Nucci (Ed.) "Moral Development and Character Education: A Dialogue" Berkeley: McCutchan.