Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Colette Daiute

Committee Members

Joseph Glick

Debbie Sonu

Lois Holzman

Fernanda Liberali

Subject Categories

Developmental Psychology


sense-making, youth studies, narrative analysis, perspective-taking, fairness, sociocultural psychology


Our concrete embodiments as members of a specific class, race, and gender, as well as our historical situations play important roles in shaping our perspective of the world. The goal of this dissertation was to explore how different socioeconomic circumstances shape adolescents’ sense-making about fairness and their capacity to relate to different actors in a social situation including an instance of injustice. Additionally, the study explored the systematic shift in youth’s sense-making – their capacity to adjust one’s ways of knowing and being, depending on the perspective they assume and different others they address. I used narrative methodology to explore linguistic enactments of relational complexity, the capacity to imagine and embody the thoughts, feelings, intentions, and values of another person.

The study involved 64 adolescents of high-school age (M=17), recruited from contrasting socioeconomic backgrounds of New York City. Narrative as a sense-making tool was used as the data collection/production and analysis approach. Youth's narratives (n=256) were elicited as responses to a vignette they read, depicting an ambiguous social situation in which occurrences of deception and exclusion might have occurred. Participants were invited to retell the story from the three perspectives: that of the self, object, and subject of injustice. I explored how diverse youth read the story in terms of injustice present in it; how they position themselves inside the story. Are they closer to the position of the “victim” or the plausible “culprit,” and which do they humanize more? The findings, triangulated through three different analytic strategies (psychological state expression analysis, character mapping, and plot analysis), point harmoniously at differences in sense-making processes among adolescents from socioeconomically contrasting backgrounds. Youth from less privileged backgrounds showed greater flexibility in adjusting their experience, knowledge, and communicative styles to different others they addressed. They showed greater sensibility for different actors’ perspectives, and seemed to be more skillful at relating to, and performing as, both the object and subject of injustice. These young people narrated more directly about injustice, naming names. Being more sensitive to multiple actors’ perspectives makes these participants better at reading power relations and better at performing it while positioning themselves as different stakeholders. People sensitive to injustice realize that perspectives of perpetrator and victim differ as an effect of their previous unfavorable experiences, their rights and responsibilities for retribution, their different access to resources in the face of injustice, and their own sense of entitlement (or restraint) to expect and demand mitigation or reversal of injustice.

A major contribution of this dissertation is a theoretical model it proposes that enhances the understanding of the contextual, situated nature of psychological functioning. Additionally, I conceived a study design and methodology that allowed access to this dynamic and relational nature of social cognition. Finally, unlike deficit-centered approaches, this study redirects our attention toward the developmental potential of socioeconomic adversity and the ways in which it may enhance youth's socio-cognitive skills. This skill of adjusting one’s ways of knowing and being to different others is a great asset; however, we should not romanticize the reality of the challenges that may bestow this epistemic advantage upon underserved youth.


A revised version was uploaded on September 6, 2017 with the approval of the dissertation committee chair and the Graduate Center.