World Futures, 64: 330–347, 2008
Taylor & Francis Group, LLC
ISSN 0260-4027 print / 1556-1844 online
THE CONCEPT OF DOMAIN IN DEVELOPMENTAL
ANALYSES OF HIERARCHICAL COMPLEXITY
MICHAEL F. MASCOLO
Department of Psychology, Merrimack College, North Andover, Massachusetts, USA
Individuals do not operate “at a stage of development.” They operate at a range of
different levels of hierarchical complexity depending on skill area, task, context,
degree of support, and other variables. It is thus necessary to postulate the concept
of domain to refer to the particular conceptual, behavioral, or affective area within
which activity operates. The concept raises questions and implications for theory
building and application. Such issues are elaborated by discussing a variety of
domains and social contexts. A postformal case example of leadership in higher
education illuminates the concept of domains and the interrelationships among
KEYWORDS: Development, domain, hierarchical complexity,higher education, leadership,
It is tempting to think of development as a process that involves the transformation
of a single, broad set of competencies in an organism, human or animal. In the
realm of psychological development of people, it seems intuitive to ask, “At what
level of conceptual development does this person function?” This question cannot
be answered. This is because individuals do not function at any one level of
development at any particular time of life. Instead, at any given time, individuals
operate at a range of different developmental levels depending on the particular
skill area, task, context, degree of support, and a suite of other variables. It is
thus necessary to postulate the concept of domain. The concept of domain refers
to the particular conceptual, behavioral, or affective area within which skilled
activity operates. The concept of domain raises several fundamental questions.
What constitutes a domain? How do domains come into being? How do skills
to perform increasingly complex tasks develop within particular domains? Can
development generalize from one domain to another? What are the implications
of the localized notion of domain for theory building and application? These and
related issues are elaborated with reference to conceptual development in a variety
of different domains and social contexts. A postformal case example of leadership
at the Metasystematic stage in higher education is used to illuminate the concept
of domains and the interrelationships among domains. Drawing from insights
Address correspondence to Michael F. Mascolo, Merrimack College, Department of
Psychology, North Amdover, MA 01845, USA. E-mail: michael firstname.lastname@example.org
THE CONCEPT OF DOMAIN 331
suggested by the case, the article concludes with discussing the implications for
higher education and its leadership.
Models of the development of hierarchical complexity have their intellectual
origins in Piaget’s theory of cognitive development (Piaget, 1970). As is well
known, Piaget suggested that the structure of thinking undergoes a series of quali-
tative transformations in development (Piaget, 1971, 1983). The idea of structures
d’ensemble—structures of the whole—was an important part of this theory of
development. The concept of “structures of the whole” refers to the idea that,
within any given stage of development, thinking forms a more or less singular
system that has broad application to many different tasks or task areas. From this
view, an individual’s thinking could not operate in two different stages at the same
time. For example, when an adolescent passes from the abstract to the formal
operational stage, he or she becomes capable of manipulating abstract ideas in a
variety of different areas in logical and systematic ways. If the structure of think-
ing forms a single integrated holistic system as Piaget assumed, one would expect
different formal operational skills to emerge in development at around the same
age in any given individual. However, decades of research and hundreds of studies
have demonstrated that variation rather than synchrony is the rule rather than the
exception in the emergence of cognitive abilities—even for closely related skills
judged to be of the same level of complexity (Fischer, Bullock, Rotenberg, and
The concept of domain is deﬁned in contradistinction to the Piagetian concept of
structures d’ensemble. Rather than developing as a single, homogeneous series of
stages, thinking develops within particular cognitive, behavioral or socioemotional
domains (Fischer, Bullock, Rotenberg, and Raya, 1993; Turiel, 1983)—particular
areas of thinking, feeling, or acting that develop relatively independent of one
another. This conception is common to a variety of models of development that
have been postulated over recent decades (Case, 1992; Case et al., 1996; Com-
mons, Trudeau, Stein, Richards, and Krause, 1998; Demetriou and Efklides, 1994;
Halford, 1999; Fischer and Bidell, 2006; Mascolo and Fischer, 1998, 2005). The-
orists and researchers have proposed and tested sequences of development in a
wide variety of psychological, social, and academic domains in childhood and
adulthood, including moral reasoning (Dawson, 2004; Kohlberg, 1984), social
reasoning (Lamborn, Fischer, and Pipp, 1994), reﬂective reasoning (Kitchener,
King, and DeLuca, 2005), number sense (Grifﬁn, 2005) narrative knowing (McK-
eough and Genereaux, 2003), ethical reasoning (Perry, 1970), faith (Fowler, 1981),
conceptions of authority and contract (Dawson and Gabrielian, 2003), the devel-
opment of self-evaluative emotions (Mascolo, Fischer, and Li, 2003) and many
others The concept of skill provides a useful way to think about the nature of psy-
chological development as it occurs within speciﬁc domains of thinking, feeling,
and acting (Fischer and Bidell, 2006). A skill refers to an individual’s capacity
to control elements of acting, thinking, and feeling within speciﬁed contexts and
within particular tasks or task domains. As such, a skill is a type of control structure
for performing particular tasks within particular psychological areas. Skills are not
general structures. There are no general, de-contextualized, or all-purpose skills;
skills are tied to speciﬁc tasks and task domains. Skills in different conceptual
332 MICHAEL F. MASCOLO
domains (e.g., reading, mathematics, musical appreciation, social interaction, ath-
letic ability) develop relatively independently of each other at different rates and
toward different developmental endpoints. Assessments of the developmental level
of one skill in one conceptual domain (e.g., logical reasoning) will not necessarily
predict the developmental level of skills in a different domain (e.g., classiﬁcation)
or even in conceptually similar tasks (e.g., classiﬁcation of familiar versus un-
familiar objects). One can chart developmental sequences only for skills within
particular tasks, domains, and within particular social contexts and assessment
conditions (Dawson, Xie, and Wilson, 2003; Fischer et al., 1993; see Table 3 in
“Introduction to the Model of Hierarchical Complexity,” this issue).
The concepts of domain and hierarchical complexity are applicable to humans
and animals alike (Commons, 2006). A wide literature addresses the issue of the
similarities and differences between human and animal capacities (Bekoff, Allen,
and Burghhardt, 2002; Savage-Rumbaugh, Shank, and Taylor, 2001; Tomasello,
Carpenter, and Call, 2005). Much of this work is aimed toward identifying whether
or not higher-level animals exhibit cognitive capacities normally associated with
humans. The question of whether or not animal cognition is best regarded as qual-
itatively or quantitatively different from human cognition is an important issue.
The Model of Hierarchical Complexity provides a set of tools for understanding
and studying comparative cognition. First, as is the case in humans, animal behav-
ior operates within particular domains. These domains reﬂect the organism’s need
to adapt to particular classes of selection pressures in its environment. Commons
(2006) described a variety of different domains of animal action, each of which
is likely to exhibit its own trajectory of development. These include mate selec-
tion, attachment, pecking order, prey defense, predator actions, migration and way
ﬁnding, food sharing, communication, food selection, and other domains of adap-
tive action. Second, within these domains, rather than attempting to inquire about
whether any given species of animal has or does not have any particular capacity
(e.g., symbolic function, use of imagery, capacity for emotion), one instead asks,
what form and developmental level does an animal’s acting, thinking, and feeling
take in particular contexts and as a result of particular experiential histories. Care-
ful examination of the speciﬁc structure of tasks that any given animal performs
allows speciﬁcation of the developmental level of the animal’s performance, thus
allowing precise comparison of human and animal capacities.
CAN THE CONCEPT OF DOMAIN BE PRECISELY DEFINED?
In all of the foregoing, the concept of domain-speciﬁcity is deﬁned negatively,
that is, in contrast to the idea of broad-based abilities. This, however, begs the
question of the precise meaning of the concept of domain. Although we know that
development does not move in broad across-the-board stages, we are nonetheless
left with the question: What deﬁnes the boundaries of a domain? Is it possible
to identify domains precisely? If so, how many domains of thinking and acting
are there? How do they develop in relation to each other? Different researchers
answer these questions in different ways.
THE CONCEPT OF DOMAIN 333
Some theorists suggest that the concept of domain can be deﬁned in relatively pre-
cise terms. For example, Case and his colleagues (Case, 1992; Case et al., 1996)
have identiﬁed what they call a series of central conceptual structures that begin
to emerge and develop in childhood. Building on this framework, Grifﬁn (2005)
describes a series of central conceptual structures that structure the development
of knowledge about number, narrative, and space (drawing) in children. Table 1
provides an adaptation and extension of her analysis of developmental changes in
each of these domains from early childhood through adulthood. As indicated in
Table 1, it is possible to view mathematical, narrative, and visual representation
(drawing) skills as three distinct conceptual domains, each of which develops
along a distinct pathway. The ages speciﬁed for each developmental level reﬂect
the earliest ages at which skills at the level in question can begin to emerge given
appropriate experience, neurological development, and social support. Although
the complexity of skills at each developmental level is comparable across the
domains, it is clear that the level of skill that any given individual achieves in one
domain does not ordinarily predict the level of skills achieved in other domains.
For example, a person who has achieved a relatively high level of skill in fash-
ioning complex narratives may easily function at a much lower level of skill in
mathematical or drawing tasks. Indeed, in the absence of experience and focused
effort over long periods of time, most individuals will not attain the highest levels
of functioning in any particular conceptual domain.
Relations among Domains of Developing Skills
Although some tasks draw on skills that fall within particular domains, many,
if not most tasks and activities involve the coordination of different conceptual
domains in development. One particularly good example of the coordination of
multiple domains involves the development of moral judgment. Turiel and his col-
leagues (Turiel, 1983, 2002) have elaborated a domain theory of moral and social
development. Turiel’s approach builds on, yet departs from, Kohlberg’s (1984)
seminal theory of stages of moral reasoning. Kohlberg (1963, 1984) suggested
that moral reasoning develops through pre-conventional, conventional, and post-
conventional stages. In this way, moral reasoning develops out of social reasoning.
From this view, genuinely moral reasoning can only emerge in the postformal
stage (also called post-conventional). At this level, adolescents and adults gain
the capacity to differentiate consistently between social conventions—which can
take different forms in different social contexts—to genuinely moral concerns that
transcend social convention.
In contrast to Kohlberg’s approach, Turiel (1983, 2002) has suggested that
moral reasoning does not have its developmental origins in social conventions.
Turiel and his colleagues have suggested that reasoning about morality,social
conventions, and personal issues constitute distinct (albeit connected) domains of
reasoning. They have shown that children as young as 5 years of age are able to
differentiate moral and social conventional issues in structured interview contexts.
For example, when asked if it would be right to hurt another child if a person in
334 MICHAEL F. MASCOLO
Developmental Transformations in Hierarchical Complexity for Three
Level Number Narrative (Arts)
Objects. Study of
between groups of
Principled Integration of
Literary Forms and
integration of relations
among multiple literary
genres, methods, styles,
etc. into a stable and
consolidated style or
narrative system that
organizes a given
Principled Consolidation of
Style. Visual expression
organized in terms of
systematic principles that
dimensions of visual,
conventional forms and
over time (e.g.,
calculus as an
capacity to solve
Narratives Structured by
Complex or interweaving
narratives organized by
relations among multiple
qualities of characters and
events; integrative use of
devices (e.g., anachrony,
violation of standard
forms to produce novel
Manipulation of multiple
means to represent
intangible, emotional, or
introduction of novel
means to express abstract,
emotional, and other
Able to coordinate
Dialectic Relations among
use of variation in visual
form, content and/or
variables (e.g., f=
m *a; a2+b2=c2)
with inner states
exhibiting continuity over
time. Conﬂicts derive
from relations among
characters or events.
technique in the service
of a conceptual goal or
outcome (e.g., use of
distortion, variations in
color to represent
emotional themes); use of
visual means that suggest
abstract or themes.
(Continued on next page)
THE CONCEPT OF DOMAIN 335
Developmental Transformations in Hierarchical Complexity for Three
Cognitive Domains (Continued)
Level Number Narrative (Arts)
Abstractions (10 years) Simple Algebraic
mental states and
plots and subplots
driven by conﬂicts
and attempts to
Scenes. Draws scenes
background within an
space. Fills in details
in realistic ways. Use
of visual metaphor
(e.g., drawing a
teacher as a “witch”).
Systems) (6–7 years)
numbers on a
line; capacity for
plot lines involving
mental states and
motives (e.g., ”We
went to the zoo,
but then I got
hungry so we took
train to go buy
some yummy hot
dogs. . . ”)
Mental Reference Line.
Child can draw
and objects placed
within a particular
location or scene (e.g.,
person and a house;
ﬂower under the sun),
often with lines
indicating ground or
Mappings) (31/2–4 years)
more vs. less.
multiple actions or
events in time or in
relation (e.g., “We
went to the zoo
and then we got a
Identiﬁable Objects and
Figures. Capacity to
draw a recognizable
yet barely articulated
ﬁgure or object (e.g.,
person), often depicted
as hovering on the
authority said it was right to do so, most children indicated that the act would
not be right (Kim and Turiel, 1996; Laupa and Turiel, 1986). The differentiation
between the moral and conventional appears to be a ubiquitous one and arises in
a variety of contexts. For example, in highly religious populations, when asked
if stealing or the inﬂiction of pain onto others could be moral if it were God’s
will that it be done, most respondents indicate that God would never will such
acts (Turiel, 2002). Further, Arab women living within the Druze community in
336 MICHAEL F. MASCOLO
Northern Israel were asked whether it is appropriate for men, but not women, to
work outside the home. Most women afﬁrmed the prevailing social conventions
and indicated that it would not be appropriate to do so. However, when asked,
most women also indicated that while the prescription against working outside the
home should be followed, the rule itself was also unfair (Wainryb, 1995; Wainryb
and Turiel, 1994).
Turiel (2002) argues that social and cultural differences in moral rules often
arise not as a result of differences in beliefs about the moral aspects of an action,
but instead as a result of social beliefs and background knowledge about the nature
of the issues at hand. For example, Americans differ in their judgments about the
morality of abortion, although most Americans would maintain that the killing
of an innocent child is immoral. One source of differences in moral judgments
about abortion involves different assumptions about what it means to be a “fetus”
or a “child.” These ﬁndings, and scores of others, support the proposition that
moral and conventional rules reﬂect distinct domains of thinking. In addition,
the idea that ostensive differences in moral reasoning often reﬂect differences in
assumptions about social and other domains of thought provides a framework for
articulating a non-relativistic approach to moral judgment. (Also see Robinette on
moral reasoning, this issue.)
Dynamic Webs of Skill Development
Although it is possible to identify particular tasks and activities that operate within
particular domains of thinking, feeling, or acting in everyday life, most tasks in-
volve an integration of multiple task domains. When working with relatively
simple or bounded tasks, it is often a simple matter to identify the conceptual do-
main or domains on which a given task will draw. Over time, however, individuals
construct higher-order skills for purposes of adapting to novel tasks, events, and
problems. Higher-order skills reﬂect performances at higher stages of hierarchical
complexity. In so doing, higher-order skills emerge from the constructive differ-
entiation and inter-coordination of skill elements from diverse task domains. For
example, the skills involved in composing an effective Letter to the Editor go be-
yond basic writing skills. They involve identifying the perspectives of the editors
and potential readers; adjusting the language in order to be persuasive; ability to
fashion narratives in ways that describe how a given issue affects people; the use
of mathematics or statistics to support a point being made, and so on. Thus, in
everyday social activity—particularly when performing higher-order activities—
there are few if any “pure” conceptual domains of functioning. As a result, it is
often useful to speak of emergent or higher-order domains of action. For example,
consider the repertoire of skills required to function as a social activist or political
lobbyist. A social activist operates in many spheres of action—organizing sup-
porters, giving speeches, making contacts with inﬂuential people, writing letters,
and composing persuasive documents. Although actions in each of these areas
results from the coordination of skills from more “basic” domains, when dealing
with higher-order skills, it is not ordinarily practical or useful to analyze such
skills in terms of basic elements or domains. When attempting to understand the
THE CONCEPT OF DOMAIN 337
domains of functioning relevant to the everyday operation of a social activist or
lobbyist, each of these broad categories of activity could be viewed as an emer-
gent higher-order domain. In this way, when understanding the nature of complex
psychological activity, that which may be considered to be a higher-order domain
must often be deﬁned by the particularities of the context, task demands, and by
one’s analytic purposes.
From this view, when analyzing the development of any particular skill or
capacity, rather than attempting to identify one or more distinct domains into
which a task falls, it is often preferable to work backwards by performing a
task analysis (Commons, 2006; Commons, Miller, Goodheart, Danaher-Gilpin,
Locicero, and Ross, 2007; Fischer, 1980). A task analysis provides a speciﬁcation
of the skill elements (i.e., the structure of what a person must do) that must be
brought together in performing any given task. In performing a task analysis,
one breaks a task into its basic elements and relations. In so doing, one “works
backwards” in order to identify the particular skill elements that task performance
requires, regardless of what domains these elements ultimately derive. Over time,
one can trace the pathways through which particular skills emerge and develop as
products of a person’s ongoing attempts to adapt to local tasks, demands, contexts,
and social goals.
Viewed in this way, it becomes clear that development takes place in a multidi-
rectional web of pathways (Fischer and Bidell, 2006) rather than a unidirectional
ladder—a metaphor depicted in Figure 1. Developing skills do not move in a ﬁxed
order of steps in a single direction, but they develop in multiple directions along
multiple strands that weave in and out of each other in ontogenesis, the develop-
mental history of the person (or other organism). The developmental web portrays
variability in developing skills within individuals, not only between them. For de-
velopment in an individual person, different strands represent divergent pathways
in the development of skills for different tasks or conceptual domains. For exam-
ple, the development of addition and subtraction skills might occupy one strand,
skills for producing stories another, and skills for reading words still another. As
such, the developmental web provides a metaphor for understanding how different
skills develop through diverging and converging pathways toward or away from
THE COORDINATION OF DOMAIN KNOWLEDGE IN ADULT
DEVELOPMENT: A POSTFORMAL CASE ILLUSTRATION
These principles will be illustrated with a case analysis of “Dr. K,” a highly
accomplished adult currently serving as the provost of a small Catholic col-
lege. In what follows, I will examine the ways in which (a) “Dr. K’s” aca-
demic leadership skills emerge and operate as a high-level inter-coordination
of multiple conceptual and behavioral domains; (b) the college capitalized on
his particular skill sets by reorganizing the position of Provost; and (c) how Dr.
K’s talents functioned to support the college’s issues at a particular time in its
history and development. In so doing, I will argue that the domains of knowl-
edge that are required to fulﬁll the post of Provost are relationally rather than
338 MICHAEL F. MASCOLO
Figure 1. Development as a constructive web.
individually deﬁned. That is, at very high levels of functioning, what constitutes
a “domain” of thinking, feeling, or acting is dependent not only on the individ-
ual actor, but on the relation of the individual to the needs of the sociocultural
“Dr. K,” a 59-year-old male, began his career as a priest in a Catholic order. After
several years, Dr. K left the priesthood, eventually married, and had two children.
Dr. K received a doctorate in ministry (D.Min.) and taught classes in the Depart-
ment of Religious Studies at the college at which he is currently provost. Thereafter,
Dr. K returned to graduate school and obtained a second doctorate (Ph.D.), this
time in counseling psychology. Prior to being appointed provost, Dr. K published
a well acclaimed book and a series of scholarly articles. He was appointed the vice
president of “Spiritual Legacy and Mission Advancement”1—a position designed
to forge links between the school’s spiritual heritage and its academic mission. Af-
ter serving in that post successfully for several years, Dr. K was appointed provost
of the college. Dr. K’s appointment as provost of the college was predicated on a
variety of considerations; however, his exceptional interpersonal skills and capac-
ity to “bring people together” were paramount. This was judged necessary because
of the historically tumultuous relations between faculty and administration at the
I interviewed Dr. K about his sense of the qualities that he brings to his ofﬁce.
In so doing, I indicated that “I am interested in the structure and content of your
‘personal job description’—especially with reference to addressing the college’s
most pressing needs. I’m not so much interested in the ‘formal’ job description,
but instead your personal sense of the different areas of responsibility that you
have and how they are related.” I also asked Dr. K to describe areas in which he felt
THE CONCEPT OF DOMAIN 339
Figure 2. The hierarchic coordination of domain-speciﬁc skills: The structure of Dr.
K’s representation of academic leadership.
he had great expertise as well as areas in which he felt he exhibited weaknesses.
Finally, at the end of the interview, I asked Dr. K to describe a principle that would
“tie all of this together.”
As expected, Dr. K’s “personal job description” operates at an extremely high
level of complexity. In terms of the Model of Hierarchical Complexity and Fis-
cher’s (1980; Fischer and Bidell, 2006) skill theory, his articulation of his duties
functions at the respective levels of Metasystematic stage 12, or abstract prin-
ciples, which is the highest level in Fischer’s developmental system. Figure 2
provides a representation of the structure of Dr. K’s academic leadership skills.
As indicated there, Dr. K described his personal commitments in terms of a series
of interrelated abstract systems, each of which is related to his singular guiding
principle. Dr. K’s conception of his duties represents an integration of multi-
ple higher-order domains of cognitive, affective and behavioral functioning. Dr.
K identiﬁed six major themes—each of which can be considered a domain of
thought and action—organized in terms of a core principle. Dr. K’s articulates his
core principle in terms of the maxim “through knowledge to wisdom,” which, to
Dr. K, means:
through knowledge to wisdom . . . you have to get the knowledge, the information,
the data . . . listen, listen, listen . . . you have to learn constantly . . . so [that]
340 MICHAEL F. MASCOLO
you can . . . decide. Maybe they are big decisions, little ones, or just directions
. . . based on the knowledge that you have gained. . . . The many ways as you
can integrate [knowledge] and exercise will . . . that is what I mean by wisdom.
. . . [Wise] decisions . . . have to always be with respect to the dignity of each
person and for the common good; or for the good of the common enterprise.
At another point in the interview, Dr. K elaborated on the ways in which “respect
for individuals” is informed by the need for deep empathy and active listening.
“The virtue of empathy is really really important for me. [Empathy means that we]
don’t just tolerate the other, but actively enter into the world of their frustrations
. . . it’s a big help.”
This principle weaves its way through the various domains of operation in
which Dr. K participates. The six basic domains of thinking include the need to (a)
actualize a vision for the college that will attract high quality students and faculty.
Toward this end, he described the need to (b) develop an innovative curriculum;
in order to develop such curriculum, there is a need to (c) reallocate faculty work-
load in order to make faculty scholarship and curriculum development possible.
Curriculum and faculty workload revision requires (d) extensive assessment of
existing programs, which requires effective interpersonal interaction and collabo-
ration between the provost and the faculty on the one hand, as well as with (e) the
admissions ofﬁcer who requires innovative programs to market the college, and
(f) the president of the college whose imprimatur is necessary to effect change in
the existing system.
Each of these six themes articulated by Dr. K requires different yet overlapping
systems of skill and knowledge. It is not possible, on the basis of a reﬂective
interview, to assess the degree of development of Dr. K’s skills in each domain. For
the present purposes, it is important to note Dr. K’s “personal job description” is (a)
embodied by the inter-coordination of multiple particular domains of knowledge
and action, organized in terms of integrative abstract principles. One might suggest
that Dr. K’s effectiveness in his post—like that of any high-level administrator
or manager—relies on (b) the extent to which this particular conﬁguration of
dynamically executed skills ﬁts the unique needs of the institution at this phase in
its history, and (c) the ways in which the skills and proclivities of other key actors
(e.g., the president, faculty leaders) complement or conﬂict with Dr. K’s initiatives
and actions. For example, when Dr. K was appointed provost, the former position
of academic vice president was divided into two positions—provost and dean of
the college. The provost was charged with the running the everyday academic
affairs of the college; the dean of the college assumed different responsibilities.
This unusual action not only made it possible to render the massive workload of
the former position more manageable, but it also provided ﬂexibility in deﬁning
the duties of each position so that they ﬁt the skills and proclivities of the two
Although it is likely that one could identify seeds of Dr. K’s leadership skills
earlier in his career, like all skills and abilities, Dr. K’s academic leadership skills
developed over a long period of time through the successive inter-coordination
of lower-level skills within different conceptual domains. Figure 3 provides a
THE CONCEPT OF DOMAIN 341
developmental web describing some of the strands that contributed to the devel-
opment of Dr. K’s academic leadership skills. As indicated in Figure 3, Dr. K’s
leadership skills built upon the development and integration of at least four broad
domains of knowledge and action: academics, spirituality, social interaction, and
technical/business skills. Although each of these domains develops along partially
separate pathways, new skills emerge as novel paths split off from existing ones, or
when skills from multiple paths come together in multiple acts of integration. Dr.
K’s “knowledge about academic life” (an important knowledge domain given that
the current president and other vice presidents do not have academic backgrounds)
developed through graduate training, as well as the normal duties of an academic
(i.e., teaching, scholarship, and community service). Dr. K’s interpersonal skills
and commitment to “respect for others” emerged early from his activity in the
priesthood, and continued to develop over his career, including in his capacity
as a teacher, administrator, and counseling psychologist. Dr. K’s academic lead-
ership skills, as exempliﬁed in Figures 2 and 3, result from the coordination of
these multiple paths over time. Nonetheless, Dr. K attests to several domains in
which he feels challenged as provost. These include aspects of his position that
require technical knowledge of a legal or ﬁscal kind, as well as skills for forging
connections with wealthy individuals and business leaders outside of the college.
These less developed skill domains are represented toward the bottom of Figure 3
in terms of unelaborated “legal” and “corporate” pathways.
POSTFORMAL THINKING AND THE FUTURE OF LEADERSHIP IN
HIGHER EDUCATION: COORDINATING DIVERSE DOMAINS
The concept of domain is a relational and dynamic concept. Any domain of
knowledge or action is deﬁned with reference to an organism’s need to adapt
to shifting ecological demands. In modern human cultures, such demands shift
continuously with changes in technology, the global economy, demographics, and
a variety of other socioeconomic processes. In the past half-century, such changes
have spawned the production of novel domains of knowledge and action (Collis,
2001). The proliferation of novel domains poses special challenges for individuals
and groups in positions of leadership—especially leaders in the ﬁeld of higher
education. Consider the following statement by the president of Pennsylvania
Institutions of higher learning, like business and government, cannot be com-
placent about the future. There was a time when universities were content to
adopt a “Field of Dreams” approach—if we build it, they will come. For most of
our history, we were omniscient elders who told our students what they needed,
when they could get it, and what they would pay for it. But those days are rapidly
becoming a distant memory. Changes in technology, demographics, competition,
and for public institutions, legislative expectations, are all coming together to
alter the way we operate. (Spanier, 2000, p. 19)
342 MICHAEL F. MASCOLO
Figure 3. Pathways in the development of Dr. K’s academic leadership skills.
As a result of cultural shifts like those identiﬁed by Dr. Spanier, new domains
of knowledge and action have emerged. To adapt to these changes, educational
leaders face the tasks of recognizing shifts in sociocultural demands when they
occur; identifying novel domains of expertise that have evolved to meet those
demands, and, perhaps most importantly, ﬁnding ways of coordinating novel
domains of knowledge into the integrated fabric of the college or university.
Such acts of coordination become increasingly difﬁcult in an age of increasing
specialization, fragmentation, and decentralization of intellectual and economic
activity like our own. Integrative multiple domains of knowledge in the service
of a common goal requires leadership skills that operate at postformal levels of
In these concluding remarks, I will illustrate the ways in which societal shifts
have spawned the production of novel domains of knowledge and action in the
ﬁeld of higher education as well as the need to coordinate across novel domains
THE CONCEPT OF DOMAIN 343
of knowledge and expertise in order to ensure the continued productivity of the
academy. Toward this end, I will touch brieﬂy upon three basic challenges that face
higher education. These include changes in shifting demographics, the revolution
of information technology, and the explosion of knowledge.
First, educational demographics have changed signiﬁcantly in the past half
century. Whereas 25 percent of all high school graduates went on to college at the
midpoint of the 20th century, today in the United States, 75 percent of graduates
attend some form of higher education within two years of graduation (Caboni and
Adisu, 2004). This shift has produced unprecedented diversity in higher education;
what was once seen as the purview of the well-to-do has now become a virtual
necessity for entry into the workforce. Such diversity has placed novel demands
on higher education that have motivated novel domains of expertise. The rising
number of students has brought with it a heightened need for remedial education
(Caboni and Adisu, 2004). Most schools have racial and ethnic diversity ofﬁces
to address the needs of minority students (Gose, 2006). Social and legislative
changes have mandated resources for students with learning disabilities and other
special needs (Hadley, 2007). Each of these needs has engendered a new domain of
knowledge and expertise within the educational environment. While most colleges
and universities have established programs built around these domains of action,
it has proved more difﬁcult to coordinate these novel programs into the cultural
fabric of the educational institution.
Second, the centrality of information technology in cultural and economic life
has spawned an explosion of academic departments needed to meet increasing
demands for workers trained in the many facets of information technology (La-
genberg and Spicer, 2001; Van Ginkel, 2003). Information technology, including
the Internet, continues to motivate dramatic changes in the delivery of education
(Maughan, 2001; Williams, 2007). Information technology evolves faster than the
academy’s capacity to master effective ways to use it. With the Internet, we have
witnessed a surge in distance learning, online classes, and computer-mediated
instructed within classrooms (Guri-Rosenblit, 2005). However, as with any tech-
nology, information technology is a tool; as a tool, its merits are to be found in
the ways in which it is used. As with many technologies, one runs the risk that
the tool may come to control the user. While Web-based technologies can support
teaching and learning in many ways—convenience; ease of access to multimedia
information; use of education-related software, and so on—more efﬁcient delivery
of information is not the same as genuine learning. Some modes of learning are
well suited for information technology; others may continue to require face-to-
face interaction and the formation of student—teacher relationships (Reinsmith,
2006). The economic incentives for use of Web-based technologies are legion;
the challenge to educational leaders is to ﬁnd novel ways to integrate the various
domains of information technology with the best of traditional education, as well
as with the core values that sustain higher education (Barnett, 2000).
A ﬁnal issue concerns the explosion of knowledge (Adair and Vohra, 2003;
Barnett, 2000). With the passing of each decade, the quantity of knowledge grows
exponentially. Academic disciplines and areas of expertise are becoming increas-
ingly specialized over time. In this way, in addition to the production of novel
344 MICHAEL F. MASCOLO
disciplines (e.g., such as information technology), novel academic domains are
emerging through a process of increasing specialization, resulting in increasingly
narrow domains of expertise. From an educational standpoint, what intellectual
values should prevail when confronting the explosion of knowledge (Rhinesmith,
2006)? Is more knowledge better knowledge? Or should colleges and universities
seek ways to empower students with conceptual tools for organizing relations
among ﬁelds and subﬁelds of knowledge (Barnett, 2000; Boulton and Panizzon,
1998)? How should specialization of knowledge affect disciplinary structures? As
academics become increasingly specialized, what should be the fate of traditional
liberal arts curricula?
The task of leading an educational institution through cultural shifts is no easy
matter. Educational leadership—like leadership in any complex institution—will
require the capacity to coordinate multiple domains of knowledge and expertise
within a shifting sociocultural-economic climate. In the present context, the goal
of inter-coordination of emergent domain-speciﬁc activity functions as a key
leadership principle (Blackmore and Blackwell, 2006; Blaisdell, 1993; Lucas,
2007). Educational leadership will require more than capacity simply to juggle
competing interests; genuine leadership will require teams of postformal leaders
working together to inter-coordinate multiple domains of knowledge for purposes
of pursuing common educational goals.
1. This title is an alias that preserves the original meaning of the position in question.
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