Posts filed under ‘Culture’
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.
On the subject of Silvestre de Sacy’s three volume Chrestomathie arabe, a selection of writings from Middle Eastern and Northern African cultures, Edward Said has this (and much more) to say:
Sacy’s anthologies were used very widely in Europe for several generations. Although what they contain was claimed as typical, they submerge and cover the censorship of the Orient exercised by the Orientalist. Moreover, the internal order of their contents, the arrangement of their parts, the choice of fragments, never reveal their secret; one has the impression that if fragments were not chosen for their importance, or for their chronological development, or for their aesthetic beauty (as Sacy’s were not), they must nevertheless embody a certain Oriental naturalness, or typical inevitability. (Edward Said, Orentalism, p.129)
Much of what I am finding fascinating about Orientalism is that it is not just about the characterization and domination of the Orient by European intellectuals, but that it is about knowing. It is a different take on the production and dissemination of knowledge, one more informed by continental authors which I did not really acquaint myself with in the last few years. Said’s most frequent philosophical acknowledgements seem to go to Foucault, and then Marx, but as a philologist he also has interesting commentary on Schlegel and Nietzsche.
This excerpt grabbed my attention in particular because it is about editorship and the politics of pedagogical compilation. Most of the professors I have had in the last few years preferred not to use textbooks. A frequent complaint they voiced was that textbooks consist of information predigested by some panel of experts elsewhere. It also takes a long time for information to be so digested, so textbooks are frequently far behind the work being published in books and journals. The result was that most of what I have read for class in the last few years has been collections of excerpts from books and journal articles, selected by professors.
While it is good to know the editor directly, and be able to engage them in their editorial choices in discussion, I have a new feeling of unease brought about by this passage of Said’s. I would not say that I am suspicious of the sources that have been suggested to me by professors, but I am even more worried about my own range of texts. At the moment, I am my own editor with somewhat limited resources. I have a great deal of time, but not much in the way of money (at least not money I could spend on journal subscriptions). I need excerpts, anyway—I wouldn’t want to read every article in every issue of even one journal, unless it was a special issue on a particular topic of my interest. How can I make the most, though, of the sources available to me? I don’t want to read, and because of my limited memory, time, attention, or money, end up feeling as if I know things only with a certain philosophical naturalness or inevitability.
And maybe that is the real source of my unease: not the issue of editorial motives, but of attitudes towards knowledge. I feel this chiefly, selfishly, about my own attitude towards knowledge. I am worried because that feeling of naturalness or inevitability definitely crept over me while I worked on my senior thesis. Of course science was like this or that, of course religion has this or that attitude towards experience. I don’t think I spent enough time asking, “says who?”
When I graduated a few weeks ago, I was very excited about the prospect of reading fiction. So I ran through Haruki Murakami’s excellent The Wind Up Bird Chronicle. But about 3/4 of the way through, I was already back to nonfiction. I blame Raven Used Books in Harvard Sq. Jerks sell unmarked copies of current philosophy of biology texts on the cheap.
So, the current reading list is this:
Edward Said, Orientalism
I’m borrowing this one from our housemate, but I might as well be borrowing it from Nateene. So far I’m two chapters in, but Said writes in long form and with incredible style. I’ve tried starting on Orientalism before, but gave up. This time, it’s personal. Really, though, this is about the West’s perception and construction of the Orient, and how that has actually affected the orient that’s out there. On this reading, it’s sounding a strong note of caution for reaserch that I hope to do on the attitudes towards evolution possessed by people from Muslim cultures.
Philip Kitcher, In Mendel’s Mirror
As this is an essay collection, I’ve read a few of these before. I’m reading those essays, and others of Kitcher’s, again. It seems like a very good collection, and I can see it coming in handy for future courses that I plan to take in philosophy of biology.
Peter McLaughlin, What Functions Explain
Although filled cover to cover with difficult and frequently esoteric material and terminology, this is the best book-length piece of philosophy of science that I’ve read in a few months. It’s about teleology in philosophy, biology, artifacts, and all sorts of other areas. It covers a range of treatments of teleology and teleological thought, from Aristotle to Kant in some of the earlier chapters through Hempel and Nagel in the chapter I’m currently reading. There’s also a lot of original material and argument from the author.
I’ve been especially excited by this book because it offers a different entry point into issues of scientific and philosophical explanation. The investigation of what counts as a good explanation, what it means to explain something, is a classic issue of philosophy of science (if a domain so young can have classic issues). The trouble is that I don’t have the stamina to read through Carnap’s Aufbau or another Logical Positivist/Empiricist text on my own, when I’m supposed to be on a bit of an academic break. McLaughlin’s book is just accessible enough while being so technical as to be interesting and curious.
Gary Gregg, The Middle East: A Cultural Psychology
Orientalism is a good companion to this book. Written in 2005, this is one of the most current attempts to sketch a psychology of the Middle Eastern/North African region (Gregg refers throughout the book to the region as MENA, to distance himself from the tradition of considering the Middle East as a monolith). It’s a very thorough treatment of the area, at least for its size- at 365 pages, Gregg fits in chapters on the Social Ecology of MENA and chapters on psychological development from early childhood through adulthood. Gregg is very sensitive to the task of characterizing the psychology of a region with diverse geography and cultures, but is general modest in his claims and provides more descriptive material (for example, average number of months Middle Eastern mothers spend breast feeding) than conjecture (as to the effect of this breast feeding on the character of the people of MENA). Of course, he has to draw some conclusions… but the care with which he supports them makes me feel more confident that the information is reliable.