Graduate student spotlight

Allison DiBianca Fasoli combines anthropology and psychology to study how children develop a moral vision.

“The topic of morality has long interested me,” says Allison DiBianca Fasoli, AM’08, a graduate student in comparative human development. “I am particularly interested in competing visions of the moral domain, especially those that oppose neoliberal notions.” For her dissertation, which she hopes to complete next year, she conducted a yearlong ethnographic study of children’s religious education classes at an evangelical Christian church in North Reading, Massachusetts.

DiBianca Fasoli studied first and second graders in six different Sunday school classes, and observed family interactions in six families that belonged to the church. Her research was grounded in her ethnographic observations of church interactions as a whole: church events, weekly sermons, Bible study groups, general outings, and her informal conversations with both adults and children.

DiBianca Fasoli’s work was supported by a 2010 Gianinno Dissertation Fellowship, sponsored by Lawrence Gianinno, AM’79, PhD’99, and Susan Gianinno, AM’09, who both received their degrees in human development. “Allison DiBianca Fasoli is one of the exemplary graduate students in comparative human development who has benefited from our fellowship fund,” said the Gianinnos in a recent e-mail to Dialogo. “We are thrilled to provide this support.”

Dialogo contributor Carrie Golus, AB’91, AM’93, recently spoke with DiBianca Fasoli about her work.

What were the questions that guided your research?

I was interested in the fact that the disciplines of psychology and anthropology have dissimilar notions of morality. Psychology defines morality in terms of harm and justice, and the focus is on a singular pathway of moral development. Other types of ideas that have to do with authority, in-group preference and loyalty, or purity and pollution, for example, are seen as outside the moral domain or as developmentally prior—and hence, inferior—types of moral reasoning.

Anthropologists and cultural psychologists have critiqued this view as overly narrow. In anthropology, the idea that different cultures have different moral values is often a given.

In my research, I was trying to combine the two approaches: if there are diverse moral values, how would they be learned? In other words, how do you become oriented to, and internalize, local systems of morality?

Existing theories of moral development don’t really speak to that, because they don’t assume multiple moral frameworks or moral systems.

Why did you choose to work with evangelical Christians?

The evangelical part is actually the aspect of my project that is least central. I wanted to get at a moral system that is different from the one presented in psychology and different from my own. I didn’t set out to study evangelicals in particular.

Did you have any experience with evangelical groups before?

No, my first real contact was doing this project. I was raised Catholic. To some extent, encountering the evangelical faith in this context, I could draw on what I know about Catholicism.

Was it difficult to find a church that would give you so much access, especially to young children?

The people at “Boston Evangelical Church” were so overwhelmingly welcoming and generous with their time. Obviously, some had motives (just as I did): they saw this project as part of my own journey with God. As one church member told me, “We don’t believe in coincidences.” That was their explanation for allowing me this kind of access. 

I don’t know how much of an exception that was. I had tried to reach out to other churches in the area, but failed completely. 

What was it like, trying to do research in religious studies classes?

There were definitely instances when I felt incredibly uncomfortable. On the one hand, from the viewpoint of anthropology, you’re a participant-observer, so you participate. But it’s difficult in religion. For me to profess something that I didn’t believe seemed wrong.

I found awkward ways of compromising. For example, they encouraged me to join in during circle prayer, which I did, trying to be a good participant-observer. We would all hold hands and when you’re done saying your prayer, you squeeze the next person’s hand. I would take the route of “saying the prayer in my head,” hoping, is this enough time? 

The adults knew I didn’t necessarily believe what they did, but the kids didn’t get that. I was in a teacher role, a helper in the classroom. It was confusing to them when I would not say anything in the circle prayer. All the kids would then want to do their prayers silently too.

You also studied families in their homes, while they were eating dinner together. Did you participate in the family dinners?

No. I would set up the video camera, then leave. The family had their mealtime by themselves, and I looked at the video recording afterward. I felt that a camera by itself was less obtrusive.

You also asked parents to discuss moral vignettes with their children (see sidebar). Did you develop the vignettes yourself?

I wrote them, but based them on past research about moral reasoning, so I could make better comparisons. I also did the illustrations. I don’t draw, but they were really fun to do.

I gave parents the vignettes and questions, then asked them to use the questions to guide the conversation. I wanted to see not just how kids learn morality, but how parents teach it.

What surprised you the most?

The idea of service—that you help other people in order to develop a relationship with God—comes up again and again. That surprised me. I assumed that helping would be seen as an obligation or a duty—something God required them to do. But it wasn’t talked about in that language at all.

In the psychological literature, research has shown that helping is seen as a good thing to do, but you don’t have to help except in a life or death situation or special role relations (like parent-child). You can’t be punished for not helping. I thought my sample was going to say you have to help, and they didn’t. The data was exactly the same.

What was different was the reasoning. In the psychological literature, there’s a lot of talk about individual rights. Of all the people I studied, only one person talked about rights. Instead, they talked about character. They were really concerned not that Johnny didn’t help, but that he didn’t even want to help. I thought that was interesting: you have to shape your desires so that you want to do these things.

So what did you conclude about how morality develops?

I’m still exploring that. Very preliminarily, I’m finding that kids usually talk about things in terms of being “fair” or “even.” Then parents put that into a spiritual framework: something like, “Yes, it’s nice if things can be even, but sometimes we do things just to be helpful. Because God is giving you an opportunity to help.”

During both the religious education classes and the vignette interactions, the idea of a deity was part of the discussions about helping. But during the family mealtimes, this was not the case. Jesus and God did come up, but not in the context of helping.

My research does not make a direct comparison with the development of nonreligious morality, because I only studied one group, though it has implications. I’m looking at the ways that the ethic of divinity gets placed on top of or embedded into other kinds of moral values, like equality and fairness. 

Did you ever find yourself reevaluating your own morality?

I went to this church three times a week for a year. There were definitely times when I found myself thinking, when I was in an ordinary situation like the grocery store, how could this be an opportunity from God? 

When I wasn’t immersed in that environment anymore, those thoughts went away. But every time I get intensely into the data, I start thinking about these issues again.

How does it feel not to be part of that world anymore?

I really miss the kids. Aside from doing research projects, I hadn’t spent much time interacting with kids before. My work on children and development comes out of a theoretical interest, but hanging out with the kids was pretty fun.

Were the children more morally advanced than children not raised in this environment? Were they nicer kids than average?

I’m not sure you could say the kids were nicer or kinder. There were always kids who were disrespectful and would get sent out of class. 

At this age, the kids don’t really understand the idea of helping people as an opportunity. Few would say that on their own with no prompting from their parents. One of the reasons I chose this age range—first to second graders—was because I felt that would be when the kids were just starting to learn, and that’s what I found. 

That’s actually a really beautiful idea, that when someone needs help, it’s an opportunity.

Yeah, I think so too.

Moral Vignettes: OK or not OK?

As part of her research, DiBianca Fasoli gave parents moral vignettes—which she wrote and illustrated herself—to discuss with their children. In this vignette, Julie discovers she’s forgotten her lunch money. She asks Sarah if she can borrow money for a sandwich, but Sarah says no—she wants to buy herself a drink and dessert as well as a sandwich.

DiBianca Fasoli then lists “some questions for you both to figure out together,” such as:

When Sarah refused to give Julie money, was that a sin?

Should Sarah be punished in any way for not helping or is it her own business whether to help?

Would it be OK for someone to try and make Sarah help, or is it up to Sarah whether she helps or not?

Pretend that last week, Julie had given Sarah some money for lunch. Would Sarah’s decision not to give Julie some of her money for lunch be wrong or would it be perfectly OK?

Pretend that instead of classmates, Sarah was hired as Julie’s babysitter. Would Sarah’s decision not to give Julie some of her money for lunch be wrong or would it be perfectly OK?