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Shifting cultures, shifting moralities: Intergenerational conceptions of morality in rural and urban Thai communities

By:  Jessica McKenzie, Assistant Professor in the Department of Child, Family, and Consumer Sciences at California State University–Fresno

By:  Jessica McKenzie, Assistant Professor in the Department of Child, Family, and Consumer Sciences at California State University–Fresno

It’s Monday morning, and village members are heading to work on beat-up motorbikes with farming boots and equipment tossed over their shoulders. Some are walking. Several school children in uniforms pile onto a motorbike and a boy who looks 10-years-old starts the engine. The smell of cows and hay pervade the village, and the sound of them eating their morning meal can be heard from the street. A few small shops dot the main road, and the owners leisurely open their doors. A temple placed regally in the middle of a rice field demands attention, and several dogs lounge on the premises, as if gatekeepers. Village members congregate at the District Office to hear a talk on the Sufficiency Economy – the Thai approach to sustainable development through Buddhist philosophies of moderation and self-reliance.


–rural village, northern Thailand

Twenty-five miles away on a late Saturday afternoon, a group of teens dine at KFC in a shopping complex before watching a movie in English. Mothers of these teens are browsing new arrivals and sorting through discount bins in the department store. Sounds of cars, motorbikes, and live music fill the air. Within a one-block radius, one can hear conversations in Thai, Kam Meuang (northern Thai dialect), English, Chinese, and Japanese. At a famous temple just outside the city center, young monks gather outside a tree-covered sitting area and whip out their computers. Groups of Thai teens hang out on the temple grounds as the sun begins to fade, gripping pieces of paper with questions written in English to ask foreigners as they enter the temple.
–urban city, northern Thailand
            The above excerpts are drawn from ethnographic notes I took during fieldwork in these two communities in 2012. Descriptions so brief cannot capture the complexity of each setting; it is critical, though, to understand that in spite of the geographic proximity of these communities, they are differentially impacted by globalization.
In my project supported by the SRA Innovative Small Grant Award, I visited parents and adolescents in these variously globalized communities to explore how globalization impacts psychological conceptions of morality, self, and society. The investigation undertaken in this project iscritical because in spite of growing literature on the psychological impact of globalization in recent years (e.g., Arnett, 2002; Hermans & Dimaggio, 2007; Jensen, 2003; Jensen, Arnett, & McKenzie, 2011), work to date has been primarily theoretical in nature. This project provides an empirical examination of indigenous views of globalization and morality in rapidly changing cultural contexts.
To conduct the research, I combined ethnography with interviews with adolescents and their parents pertaining to morality, values, and cultural change. Over the course of one year, my research assistants and I conducted semi-structured one-on-one-interviews with 80 participants in rural and urban Thai communities (20 adolescents and 20 parents, one parent of each adolescent). Some of the most interesting findings came from the part of the interview in which participants were asked to recall a personal moral experience – a time when they did something that was morally right or wrong – and to explain why they deemed their behavior right or wrong.
I analyzed participants’ moral discourses with the Three Ethics Coding Manual (Jensen, 2004) after making relevant cultural additions. The Ethics of Autonomy, Community, and Divinity capture distinct conceptions of morality and self. Briefly stated, the ethics are defined as follows:
  • The Ethic of Autonomy involves a focus on the individual self, and includes concepts such as individual rights, justice, and harm to other individuals
  • The Ethic of Community focuses on the social self, and includes moral concerns such as group welfare, role obligations, and hierarchy
  • The Ethic of Divinity focuses on the spiritual self, and includes moral concepts such as virtues of holiness, purity, and sanctity
Analyses shed light on the impact of globalization on moral reasoning in two ways. First, use of the three ethics differed across cultural contexts. Compared to urban participants, rural participants reasoned more in terms of the Ethics of Community and Divinity and less in terms of Ethics of Autonomy. Second, whereas rural adolescent and parent discourses closely aligned with one another, urban adolescent-parent discourses did not.
In the rural context, Community-based discourse both dominated moral reasoning and typically led their justifications. As demonstrated in the quotes below, not only was the amount of Community reasoning similar for rural parents and their adolescent children, but their moral discourses also sounded similar.
Rural parent on helping poor villagers:
Sometimes they have fewer chances than us–they didn’t have enough to get by. Their family did not have a convenient life. Just 1, 2 persons, I tried to find the chance to help them in their family…As I was born Thai, I’m happy to be part of this, helping Thai people…Our family’s mind loves to help socially.
            Rural adolescent on helping an ill friend:
If we help [sick people], that must be good for the society. We live in a society with others. We should help each other, love each other. Then there will be harmony.
In the urban context, parent moral discourses were equally comprised of Community and Autonomy reasoning. For urban adolescents, though, Autonomy reasoning dominated the number of total moral justifications provided; moreover, all 20 urban adolescents also led with Autonomy justifications. Below are examples of urban parent and adolescent explanations.
Urban parent on quitting her job:
It could be morally wrong because it’s like I was not responsible for my work. It’s like I left my work behind. It could be right in that…I had the responsibility to take care of my children, so I think I’d better do another job that gives me more money than that job.
            Urban adolescent on quitting practicing basketball:
I’m not fit, first. Second, I’m not the first five players in the game. I don’t get to start, you know–not a starter. Then I hurt my ankle, and I can’t play anymore. And in the past–my teammates, I’m better than them. But after that, they are better than me.
Note that, although the moral issues shared by this urban parent and adolescent are similar, the justifications demonstrate different conceptions of the self. Whereas the adolescent framed himself exclusively in Autonomy terms, the parent vacillated between Autonomy- and Community-based concerns, with each ethical justification leading to a different moral conclusion. This is important, as it highlights the tension between concerns for personal responsibilities and duties to others for these urban parents.
For rural participants, then, the seat of morality is the social self who has obligations to others, and to the community and society as a whole. Behaviors are moral insofar as they serve others. Rural moral discourses – adolescents and parents alike – were characterized by highlighting the necessity of being sympathetic, helpful, and harmonized in order to flourish. For urban participants, the seat of morality depends on with whom you speak. Focusing on both the individual and the social self, urban parents’ moral framings may illustrate conflicting demands in their cultural context, and for their generation. In a sense, urban parents uniquely straddle two worlds, having both witnessed their parents’, and now their children’s, generations. Of all participant groups, only urban adolescents had an almost unilateral focus on the individual self. This is not to say that they are selfish, but rather, that their moral worlds are envisioned as autonomous selves deserving of fairness and justice. On the relatively rare occasion that urban adolescents discussed Community-based concerns, these concerns were always voiced after framing their moral behavior in Autonomy terms.
Urban adolescents’ parents expressed deep concerns, both in and out of the interview context, about precisely the findings described above. That is, they spoke at length about dissipating Thai values in the current generation of teens, often referring to their own children as exemplars of such changes. One urban parent explained, “Sharing and generosity for people who have less, now it has become less and less. The kids, this generation–they started to think more about themselves…I see that from this generation, from my boy [pause]’s friends.” Another urban parent expressed concerns about a lack of respect, “Kids these days are not very kind to the elderly…We get old, so they should be kind.” Urban parents, then, were particularly aware of, and concerned about, a changing moral landscape in Thailand. Interestingly, the differences in moral reasoning between urban parents and their children indicate that these concerns have merit, as urban adolescents stand alone in their conceptions of morality and themselves.
When rural parents expressed concerns about impending changing values, they tended to frame themselves as guardians of Thai values, and as buffers against changes that threaten youth whose parents are not equally invested. One rural parent, for example, explained:
Now it’s different–us people, this isn’t the majority. They no longer raise their kids on milk. They raise their children on money nowadays…When they get up, parents give money to them without guiding, without communicating. Father heads off to work for money; mother is a guest at a social event. They barely stay and chat…But today I’m trying to have meals with my children. Otherwise it’s impossible.
Using the pronouns “us” and “them,” this parent distinguishes himself from parents who “raise their kids on money” and fail to offer guidance. Were this quotation severed from its context and the findings described above, one might assume that this is an exaggerated perception of parental power in preserving traditional moral values. When situating this quotation – and countless similar quotations uttered by parents in this rural community – in light of the similarity of intergenerational moral discourse, it does not seem exaggerated, but rather, an insightful analysis of moral socialization in the context of cultural change.
The overall findings from my SRA Innovative Small Grant Award illuminate disconnects across contexts of globalization, and between parents and their children residing in more globalized contexts. My work suggests that moral reasoning changes as cultures change. In rural Thai villages such as the one described here, youth typically grow up living in intergenerational households, attending schools that emphasize morality and social service, and practicing Buddhism at home and in school. With matching moral messages across these settings, it is perhaps no wonder that rural adolescents’ moral reasoning and views of self parallel that of their parents. Meanwhile, adolescents in urban settings are exposed to a wide array of – oftentimes competing – moral discourses. For instance, urban parents lamented the eradication of cultural practices in favor of global practices, as well as increasing competition among today’s youth. And yet, the school that urban adolescents attended emphasizes the importance of becoming a global citizen and the necessity of competition, particularly with the 2015 opening of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), which aims to unify 10 Southeast Asian nations politically, economically, and culturally. These discordant messages help make sense of the vastly different moral views held by urban adolescents and their parents.
By situating rich interview data in home, school, and community-based observations, this project points to the dynamic nature of morality in rapidly globalizing cultural contexts. In so doing, my work suggests an imperative for researchers to examine the moral-psychological impact of cultural change.       
Author Bio:
Jessica McKenzie, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Child, Family, and Consumer Sciences at California State University–Fresno, received her Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology from Clark University in 2014. Her primary research interests fall into two domains: moral development across cultural contexts and the psychological impact of globalization. She is particularly interested in the intersection of those domains, and has also examined related topics such as identity development, socialization, and religion. In addition to her work in northern Thailand, Jessica has analyzed moral discourses of children, adolescents, and adults from evangelical and mainline Presbyterian communities in the United States. Jessica is passionate about travel, photography, speaking Thai, reading, running, and yoga. In fact, she submitted this feature article while pursuing each of these passions in Thailand.
Arnett, J. (2002). The psychology of globalization. American Psychologist, 57, 774-783.
Hermans, H. J., M., & Dimaggio, G. (2007). Self, identity, and globalization in times ofuncertainty: A dialogical analysis. Review of General Psychology, 11, 31-61.
Jensen, L. A. (2003). Coming of age in a multicultural world: Globalization and adolescent cultural identity formation. Applied Developmental Science, 7, 189-196.
Jensen, L. A. (2004). Coding manual: Ethics of autonomy, community, and divinity (Revised).
Jensen, L. A., Arnett, J. J., & McKenzie, J. (2011). Globalization and cultural identity developments in adolescence and emerging adulthood. In S. J. Schwartz, K. Luyckx, & V. L. Vignoles (Eds.), Handbook of identity theory and research (Vol. 1, pp. 285-301). New York: Springer Publishing.
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