Nasir and Kirshner’s (2003) Cultural Construction of Moral and Civic Identities

This piece, in Applied Developmental Science, already over a decade old, points out the missing analysis in studies of moral and civic development (at the time) of examining the cultural context.  In sociocultural fashion, the authors suggest a cultural practice approach to youth moral development, which does not only look at moral exemplars or study individual development, as others had done, but methodologically orients towards examining the nested layers of institutional context, cultural activity, and social interaction that are involved in “development.”  Here, as in all sociocultural psychology since Vygotsky, “development” is not the individualistic development of the atomized person.

This emphasis on cultural practice seeks to address questions of how moral and civic identities are formed by considering the practices within institutions and cultural contexts that shape them.  Other research shows little connection between moral thinking/reasoning and moral action, but higher correspondence between moral identity and moral action (see the work of William Damon and collaborators and Daniel Hart and collaborators).  In other words, if moral action is important to your sense of who you are and what your purpose is, then moral action is likely to follow in your life.  But the formation of identity has been shown again and again to be a contextual and cultural matter, one which does not happen divorced from cultural influences, practices, and discourses.  As such, Nasir and Kirshner’s is a welcome reframing of the questions of moral and civic development.

In the time since, there have likely been many more elaborations on this perspective of civic development, and I’ll try to connect them as I read more of them.  But this framework is foundational to my understanding of civic learning and engagement.  Youth act out what they come to learn that they are, and they come to learn what they are through a process of social and cultural learning.  The analytical lens that takes in the cultural practices of the environment provides an important impetus to look beyond bootstraps moralism toward the structural and institutional resourcing and building that fosters civic engagement.