Review: Gary Gregg, The Middle East: A Cultural Psychology
Gregg’s book is divided into two parts, the first containing three chapters on the social ecology of the Middle East/North African (MENA) cultural area, and the second on periods of psychological development people experience within it. I picked up the book hoping to expand my background on middle eastern peoples and cultures; because of the focus of the pilot study I helped design and analyze last year, most of my knowledge is centered on Pakistan. I was hoping to expand my limited knowledge to the areas which Gregg describes, geographically stretching from Morocco to Pakistan.
For this, the book did exactly what a sprawling survey should do: it complicated everything. Gregg opens the book with a chapter titled Misunderstandings, which was a good introduction to the subject. His writing is cautious and lucid, and Misunderstandings sets the tone for the rest of the book. Gregg is in the business of psychology, not the creation of national or regional sterotypes. He is thusly very open that The Middle East can only cover so much. Unfortunately for my purposes, he eventually has little to say about education, and only slightly more to say about Islam. Most of the influences on psychological development that Gregg describes are social, and he only has so much space in which to describe them. He also had to pick and choose which topics to describe in depth. It seems as though Gregg is perfectly comfortable going on at length regarding particular debates over the effects of certain practices on development, but the book has a lot of ground to cover in 378 pages. The stand-out parts of many chapters were the “debate” sections near the end, in which Gregg built on the framework laid in the first section (the social ecology section) and earlier chapters to discuss a topic in depth. For example, the Early Childhood section featured the most extended and complex discussion of the developmental effects and societal role of male circumcision and female genital cutting (FGC) that I have yet read. Of course, FGC is only practiced by some groups (mainly concentrated in Northern Africa more than the Middle East, but tightening the cultural area under discussion is the price of increased depth.
In the later chapters, Gregg begins to focus on some more concrete details of identity formation. There was also more explicit discussion of the impact of modernity (read: Western influence) and feelings towards tradition, as there is growing awareness of both in later development. A frequent theme in the last four chapters of the book is Gregg’s intuition that (slightly) more accesible education creates perceptions and expectations for success that are not, unfortunately, in line with the opportunities in underedeveloped nations. The impact of this mismatch between expectations and opportunity has not been well explored, and is likely of increasing importance to the psychological development of many in the MENA region.
This book was very helpful to me, and I hope to make use of Gregg’s copious endnotes and citations for further exploration. A great deal will have to wait, because I shouldn’t go back to research yet– but to help shore up my grounding on MENA cultures I don’t think I could have found a better book. Now, if only someone could write something centered around youth and adult development, with an in-depth discussion of the impact of Islam… maybe my own future research could make a contribution to the text.