Moral Meta-Narratives, Marginalization, and Youth Development



Moral Meta-Narratives, Marginalization, and Youth Development

José M. Causadias and Kimberly A. Updegraff

T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics

Arizona State University

Willis F. Overton, Ph.D.

Department of Psychology

Temple University

Word count: 9,528

Author Note

Correspondence should be addressed to José M. Causadias, T. Denny Sanford School of

Social and Family Dynamics, Arizona State University, Cowden Family Resources Building,

850 South Cady Mall, Tempe, AZ 85281. E-mail:



Morality, a central dimension of culture, is crucial for research on the development of youth

experiencing marginalization. In this article, we discuss two main meta-narratives as moral

frameworks that provide different meaning to the past and to cultural change: liberal progress,

focused on the struggle of those who have historically experienced marginalization (e.g.,

racial/ethnic minorities), and community lost, focused on those who are experiencing some forms

of marginalization in response to cultural and economic changes (e.g., rural Whites). Because

these two meta-narratives represent a false dichotomy, we use relational epistemology principles

–holism, identity of opposites, opposites of identity, and synthesis of wholes- to formulate an

integrated meta-narrative, community progress, to overcome this polarity and promote research

on the development of all youth experiencing marginalization. Acknowledging and

understanding these moral meta-narratives is crucial because they influence scientific discourse,

political action, and policy that impacts marginalization and youth development.

Keywords: culture; morality; meta-narratives; marginalization; development.


Moral Meta-Narratives, Marginalization, and Youth Development

The role of culture1, as well as research on racial/ethnic minority youth (henceforth,

minority youth2), have been historically neglected in developmental science. If marginalization is

defined as relegating ideas and groups to the fringe of society, both culture and minority youth

have experienced considerable marginalization in developmental research. It took decades for

scholars to convince their colleagues that culture is not peripheral, but of central importance in

human development (e.g., Quintana et al., 2006; Rogoff, 2003; Super & Harkness, 1986), and

that minority youth are under- and misrepresented in developmental research (e.g., García Coll,

Akerman, Cicchetti, 2000; Graham, 1992; MacPhee, Kreutzer, & Fritz, 1994; McLoyd &

Randolph, 1985). One of the major achievements of García Coll and colleagues (1996)’s

integrative model is that it addressed both forms of marginalization by placing culture and

minorities at the forefront of developmental science.

In this article, we advance this endeavor by presenting morality as a domain of culture

that is often neglected in developmental research on marginalization, and by discussing the role

of meta-narratives as moral frameworks that have profound impact on the development of youth

experiencing marginalization3. We center on two opposing meta-narratives that are implicitly

used to approach youth marginalization: liberal progress and community lost. We use Overton’s

(2010, 2015) relational epistemology to frame and propose their integration. Fundamental split

dichotomies, such as these opposing meta-narratives, are typical of Cartesian dualistic

epistemologies. However, from a relational epistemological viewpoint this separation represents

1 We define culture as a system of practices, symbols, values, and ideals that are shared by a community, transmitted from one generation to the next, dynamic and constantly changing, operating at the individual and societal levels, and related to ethnicity and race (Causadias, 2013; Cohen, 2009; Kitayama & Uskul, 2011). 2 We use the term minorities to represent membership in any non-White groups in the US, including, but not limited to, African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, and Pacific Islanders. 3 Consistent with the editorial for this Special Issue (see Causadias & Umaña-Taylor), we focus on “youth experiencing marginalization” or “youth marginalization”, rather than “marginalized youth”.


a false dichotomy, as both are in constant interpenetration, coaction, and reciprocal

bidirectionality (Overton, 2010, 2015). We employ relational epistemological principles –holism,

identity of opposites, opposites of identity, and synthesis of wholes- to approach these meta-

narratives and developmental research on youth experiencing marginalization, and to formulate a

new integrated meta-narrative: community progress. We believe this meta-narrative can guide

research, policy, and interventions to support the development of all youth experiencing

marginalization. Following García Coll and colleagues (1996)’s integrative model, we focus

primarily on youth residing in the United States.

Culture, Morality, and Development

García Coll and colleagues (1996) situated cultural influences in minority youth

development, not as isolated, but within the dominant stratification system of society. According

to this framework, minority youth development is inherently linked to culture, ethnicity, race,

gender, and class. Reflecting on the role of morality can further advance our understanding of

marginalization, as morality plays a central role in human development and culture (Jensen,

2008; 2015). Moral development is conceptualized as a universal aspect of children’s

socialization in all cultures and societies (Jensen, 2015). Within the field of developmental

psychology, research has focused heavily on the development of children’s moral reasoning with

regard to principles of justice, fairness, and individual rights (see Haidt, 2008). Kohlberg (1963,

1969) proposed a cognitive developmental theory of moral reasoning that posits an invariant

sequence of stages through which individuals progress. Although this theory was informed by

data from youth and young adult males in the U.S. (Colby et al., 1983; Kohlberg, 1963),

Kohlberg’s stages of moral reasoning were postulated as universal (e.g., Nisan & Kohlberg,

1982; Snarey, Reimer, & Kohlberg, 1985), but scholars argued that moral reasoning concepts


among children from different cultural groups are broader than the concepts articulated by

cognitive-developmental (Kohlberg, 1963) and domain approaches (Turiel, 1983).

Efforts to integrate developmental and cultural perspectives on moral reasoning has led to

an expansion of the concepts that are pertinent to moral development to better represent the

diversity of human experience in different cultures (Jensen, 2008). One such model involves an

emphasis on moral reasoning with regard to autonomy (i.e., individual rights and needs), divinity

(i.e., spirituality, religiosity, and divine law), and community (obligations and concerns for the

group’s welfare; Jensen, 2008; Shweder, Much, Mahapatra, & Park, 1997). These expanded

concepts of morality are pertinent to the study of youth marginalization in the U.S. For example,

many Latino youth are socialized to value concepts of community, such as placing the needs of

the family above the needs of the individual (Sabogal, Marín, Otero-Sabogal, Marín, & Perez-

Stable, 1987). As such, understanding moral development from a perspective that is informed by

developmental and cultural models has the potential to advance the field. But it also entails

recognition of the supra-individual nature of culture (Kitayama & Uskul, 2011), the

acknowledgement that morality goes beyond the development of moral reasoning at the

individual level. It also operates at the societal level through moral meta-narratives that impact

the development of youth experiencing marginalization.

Morality and Meta-Narratives

Morality4 specifies ideals, norms, values, virtues, ethics, and goals (Wuthnow, 1987),

informing the distinction between good and bad, right and wrong, fair and unfair, and

meaningful and meaningless (Smith, 2003). Morality is made of interrelated sets of values, rules,

4 We rely on some of the premises of Haidt and Graham’s moral foundations theory (Graham, Haidt, & Nosek, 2009; Graham & Haidt, 2010; Haidt & Graham, 2007). However, a detailed discussion of this theory goes beyond the scope and aims of this paper. For a comprehensive review, see Haidt (2012).


practices, identities, and organizations that work together to regulate individual behavior and

make social life possible. For individuals, morality provides a cohesive -but not always coherent-

set of assumptions, expectations, commitments, beliefs, aspirations, thoughts, judgements,

obligations, and feelings. But morality is not merely a set of abstractions far removed from

everyday life. Morality is a call for action, a motivating engine to enact and sustain moral orders,

a framework that inspires individuals to pursue what is good, valued, and just (Smith, 2003). For

groups, communities, societies, and nations, morality is enacted collectively in social practices,

rituals, and institutions. Morality is personified by institutions, so not merely limited to

subjective concerns for rules and values (Graham & Haidt, 2010). Morality plays a pivotal role

in cooperation and coalition building, as perceived moral outrage over transgressions galvanize

groups and facilitate social cohesion (Tooby & Cosmides, 2010). Ultimately, moral systems,

such as religions, bind individuals into moral communities (Graham & Haidt, 2010).

The broader cultural frameworks in which individuals derive their morals beliefs are

profoundly narrative in form. For instance, the “American experiment” meta-narrative argues

that brave and freedom-loving pioneers, fleeing religious and political persecution, came to the

New World to carve a new civilization (Smith, 2003). Through their hard work, they forged a

new society where equality and liberty rule. This meta-narrative has powerful effects in the lives

of Americans, and even citizens of other countries. It organizes practices, rituals, and obligations.

Without this narrative, “many Americans would confront the world with profound confusion and

disorientation” (Smith, 2003, p. 68).

We acknowledge the rich tradition of narrative research in developmental sciences, that

has documented the importance of root metaphors as cultural models of development (Cooper,

1987; Cooper & Denner, 1998), and cultural conflict and rapid social change (Greenfield, 1999;


Rogoff, 2003), to name a few approaches. However, we argue that morality and meta-narratives

are not central to their conceptualizations. Furthermore, while narrative research on youth

development has often focused on the role of master narratives, these are typically rooted in the

work of Erik Erikson and focus on identity (Hammack & Pilecki, 2012; McLean & Syed, 2015).

In contrast, our approach to meta-narratives is grounded in the work of Smith (2003) and Haidt

(2008, 2012), and centers on morality.

Moral meta-narratives (henceforth, meta-narratives) are a unique form of narratives. They

are broader and more encompassing than single narratives and master narratives5, in that they

include, in some cases, all history, experience, and meaning in a single story. Meta-narratives

function like invisible constitutions that guide and inspire communities. They are shared stories

that lay out the foundation for a moral order, offering a system of beliefs, ideology, and

obligations (Haidt, 2008). Meta-narratives go beyond chronicles of separate events placed in

time, but they aspire to express the magnitude and meaning of actions and events in a unified,

interconnected explanation (de Rivera & Sarbin, 1998). Meta-narratives are therefore

purposefully created to provide accounts and meaning to human history, usually by articulating

three common components: (a) a cast of characters who are the subjects or objects of action; (b)

a plot with a structured sequence of beginning, middle, and end, although not always in that

order; and (c) the transmission of an important message, whether it is a revelation, explanation,

or insight about life and the world (Smith, 2003). Many Western meta-narratives parallel or

emulate the Christian narrative, including elements of paradise lost, fall or awakening into sin,

temptations along the way, and a road for redemption (Smith, 2003).

5 For a discussion of differences and similarities between master and meta-narratives, see Supplemental Material.


In addition to providing meaning and social cohesion, meta-narratives have the function

of enforcing moral systems that challenge, perpetuate, or seek to reclaim social power. Power

dynamics lie at the center of meta-narratives because they serve to maintain a moral and social

order. They define who experiences marginalization and who does not, and who is entitled to

rights and privileges, access to resources, and even justice. They inform ideology and serve for

system-justification, motivating individuals and communities to defend the status quo and to

view current social arrangements as just, legitimate, and necessary (Jost, Federico, & Napier,

2009). But they can also articulate system-resistance by challenging the status quo and

illuminating the present conditions of some groups as unfair, unfair, and oppressive. Thus, these

meta-narratives are not power-neutral: they are biased towards responding to perceived threats to

privilege and social status or towards denouncing oppression. Next, we discuss the meta-

narrative that arguably inspired García Coll and colleagues (1996)’s integrative model, and that

is at the core of most developmental research on youth marginalization.

The Liberal Progress Moral Meta-Narrative

One of the most consequential moral frameworks for the study of youth marginalization

is the “liberal progress” meta-narrative (henceforth, liberal progress), described as follows:

“Once upon a time, the vast majority of human persons suffered in societies and social institutions that

were unjust, unhealthy, repressive, and oppressive. These traditional societies were reprehensible because of their

deep-rooted inequality, exploitation, and irrational traditionalism — all of which made life very unfair, unpleasant,

and short. But the noble human aspiration for autonomy, equality, and prosperity struggled mightily against the

forces of misery and oppression, and eventually succeeded in establishing modern, liberal, democratic, capitalist,

welfare societies. While modern social conditions hold the potential to maximize the individual freedom and

pleasure of all, there is much work to be done to dismantle the powerful vestiges of inequality, exploitation, and

repression. This struggle for the good society in which individuals are equal and free to pursue their self-defined

happiness is the one mission truly worth dedicating one’s life to achieving” (Smith, 2003, p. 82).


The core message of liberal progress is that injustice, oppression, and inequality

provoked significant suffering in the past, but modern democracy and science offer a chance to

reverse these effects by promoting equality and fighting to overcome the lingering consequences

of exclusion (Haidt, 2012). Issues of power are central to this meta-narrative because it focuses

on groups that have historically faced marginalization (e.g., ethnic/racial, sexual, and religious

minorities; women; immigrants6). According to liberal progress, these groups have been

oppressed, victimized, excluded, and neglected by those who hold positions of power and enjoy

exclusive social advantages and privileges (e.g., Whites7, religious majorities, heterosexuals,

men, nationals). Thus, liberal progress is not an abstract issue disconnected from the reality of

children and youth who have historically experienced oppression and exclusion. On the contrary,

this meta-narrative has had profound impact in the development of youth experiencing

marginalization. It has provided a roadmap for group action aimed at ending racial segregation

and discrimination, like the American civil rights movement. In turn, these movements resulted

in landmark legislations (e.g., Brown versus Board of Education, 1954; Civil Rights Act of

1964), that have led to some improvements in the educational opportunities and lives of minority

youth over the last decades.

The impact of this meta-narrative in developmental science on youth marginalization

cannot be overstated. We argue that García Coll and colleagues’ integrative model (1996) is

firmly embedded within this meta-narrative, as it conceptualizes marginalization as central rather

than peripheral for the theoretical understanding of minority youth development. Grounded

6 Individuals can belong to more than one of these groups, as proposed by the intersectionality framework (Crenshaw, 1991). We do not utilize this model because it has already been employed to approach marginalization (e.g., Santos, 2016), while using moral meta-narratives to address marginalization has not. 7 We use the term Whites to represent membership into any racial/ethnic group in the US of European ancestry, including, but not limited to, European-Americans, Anglo-Americans, and Caucasians.


within social stratification theory, a key emphasis of this framework is on its underlying

processes, including racism, discrimination, oppression, and segregation (García Coll et al.,

1996). Furthermore, this meta-narrative impacts development by inspiring, providing life

purpose and meaning, and articulating political, ideological, social, and professional goals to

those who embrace it (e.g., the struggle against inequality), including many minority scholars

(see Syed, in press).

The Community-Lost Moral Meta-Narrative

The community lost meta-narrative (henceforth, community lost) represents history and

morality in stark contrast to the liberal progress meta-narrative. Also framed as the Reagan

narrative (Westen, 2008), this meta-narrative is defined as follows:

“Once upon a time, folk lived together in local, face-to-face communities where we knew and took care of

each other. Life was simple and sometimes hard. But we lived in harmony with nature, laboring honestly at the

plough and in handcraft. Life was securely woven in homespun fabrics of organic, integrated culture, faith, and

tradition. We truly knew who we were and felt deeply for our land, our kin, our customs. But then a dreadful thing

happened. Folk community was overrun by the barbarisms of modern industry, urbanization, rationality, science,

fragmentation, anonymity, transience, and mass production. Faith began to erode, social trust dissipate, folk customs

vanish. Work became alienating, authentic feeling repressed, neighbors, strangers, and life standardized and

rationalized. Those who knew the worth of simplicity, authentic feeling, nature, and custom resisted the vulgarities

and uniformities of modernity. But all that remains today are tattered vestiges of a world we have lost. The task of

those who see clearly now is to memorialize and celebrate folk community, mourn its ruin, and resist and denounce

the depravities of modern, scientific rationalism that would kill the Human Spirit” (Smith, 2003, pp. 85-86).

In contrast to liberal progress, community lost focuses on groups who are now

experiencing some forms of marginalization (e.g., rural and working-class Whites, alienated

males) and argues that the excessive pressures and demands of modern societies -science,

urbanization, industrialization, secularization – have eroded and fragmented communities that


were previously harmonious, integrated, religious, and traditional in values and lifestyles. The

past plays a central role in community lost, and it is usually viewed as a splendid period of

prosperity and cohesion; happiness and harmony; and obedience to tradition and God. Cultural

change is perceived as negative, as alien ideas championed by intellectuals (e.g., professors,

journalists) challenged and perverted this order. Those who endorse this narrative see the present

as decadent and yearn for the past. They “have discovered that nostalgia can be a powerful

political motivator, perhaps even more powerful than hope. Hopes can be disappointed.

Nostalgia is irrefutable” (Lilla, 2016, p. xiv).

In part, community lost articulates the reaction to major demographic shifts in the US,

including the rapid growth in minority populations. By 2044, Whites will no longer be the

numerical majority in the US (Colby & Ortman, 2014). It also accounts for economic and

cultural changes, including the decline in health and rise in mortality as a result of worsening

economic conditions of rural and working-class Whites in the US (Case & Deaton, 2015, 2017),

their struggle to keep up with rapid cultural changes, deep resentment of urban liberals, and

feelings of betrayal and abandonment by the federal government (Hochschild, 2016). However,

it is problematic to equate the experience of rural, working-class Whites to that of groups that

have historically faced marginalization in ways that are quantitatively and qualitatively different

(see Causadias & Umaña-Taylor, in this issue). For instance, marginalization of rural Whites is

often related to class and education, while minority marginalization is also based on culture,

ethnicity, and race (Isenberg, 2016), which have different developmental implications.

Despite these differences, the impact of the community lost meta-narrative should not be

easily disregarded, even if its premises are questionable. This meta-narrative articulates

arguments employed by the populist wave that depicts liberal progress as a threat to the social


status, power, and privilege of Whites. It sheds light on the rise of Donald J. Trump to the

presidency of the United States under the call for a return to the past and the status quo of

unapologetic and uncontested White dominance (“Make America Great Again”). It has profound

effects on the development of youth who have historically experienced marginalization because

it directly threatens their wellbeing, not only by removing protections, but by potentially

criminalizing undocumented, transgender, and minority youth.

However, community lost may have the positive effect of calling attention to the adverse

experience of rural White youth. In recent years, rural White youth have been afflicted by the

heroin epidemic (Cicero, Ellis, Surratt, & Kurtz, 2014), and have surpassed urban youth in

substance abuse (Lambert, Gale, & Hartley, 2008; Roberts et al., 2016). Landmark research on

the development of White youth has documented the role of social class identity development in

the context of educational and career pathways (Bettie, 2014; Bullock & Limbert, 2003; Fine &

Sirin, 2007), and White youth and their feelings of marginalization in school, their multi-ethnic

communities, and more broadly, society (Azmitia, Syed, & Radmacher, 2008). Nevertheless,

more developmental research on rural White youth is necessary.

Moral Meta-Narratives, Marginalization, and Youth Development

Liberal progress and community lost impact emotional responses and cognitive

processing, provide meaning to the past, help explain the present, and give guidance for the


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