- The Middle East: A Cultural Psychology
Gary Gregg's book, The Middle East: A Cultural Psychology, merges the principles of cultural psychology with ethnographic evidence to produce a nuanced description of the trajectory of personality and identity [End Page 123] development in Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) societies. By drawing on an impressively diverse range of source material—from historical documents to ethnographies by other social scientists to his own fieldwork in Morocco—Gregg uncovers the commonalities and shared features that he believes characterize most life cycles in the region. Gregg writes in an accessible and engaging style and skillfully combines anecdotes with theory to provide useful insight into how the progression from childhood to adulthood unfolds. However, in the process, he relies on some generalizations and problematic assumptions that may compromise his overall conclusions.
Gregg divides his work into two parts. The first, "Cultural Contexts of Development," addresses the general theories and issues that underpin the book's structure and purpose. In a section entitled "Misunderstandings," he rightfully situates his book and research against many of the reductive tropes that have characterized Western conceptions of MENA societies. He deconstructs sweeping labels that have been used to describe a MENA "psyche," among them tribal, honor, and fatalistic. In the next part of this section, "The Social Ecology of Psychological Development," Gregg outlines the "traditional forms of social organization in MENA societies" (44) in which individual identity development unfolds. Although he is sketching a picture that he believes applies in some way to the entire region, he is careful to continually reiterate his insistence on the flexibility and innovation of MENA social organization. Most importantly, he emphasizes that two concepts applied to MENA societies—tradition and modernity—are not absolute opposites. Rather, MENA cultures can and do incorporate elements from both categories.
The final chapter of this section, "Honor and Islam," is a description of the sources of a MENA value system. Gregg believes that cultural values, in addition to systems of social organization, deeply affect psychological development. Thus he devotes this chapter to an explanation of the major tenets and practices of Islam. He focuses particularly on Islamic beliefs about personhood and individual personality, information which resurfaces in later sections of the book. His succinct summary of Islamic ideas about personal development provides a useful reference.
The second part of the book, "Periods of Psychological Development," divides psychological development into six periods of life. Gregg relates his selection of these six periods to major currents in the study [End Page 124] of psychological development. In the first period, childbirth and infant care, he notes that MENA societies follow a "pediatric" model of infant care that typifies pre-industrial societies. Weaning marks the end of this period and the beginning of the following phase, early childhood, during which children develop "assertive dependency," a style they use to secure their needs. Gregg also begins to distinguish development patterns on the basis of gender in this section. The next period, late childhood, is one in which children develop concepts of honor and the values of Islam. Gregg includes an exploration of the role of patriarchy in shaping development in this period.
Gregg then notes that adolescence in MENA societies is briefer than in the West, and casts it as often nonexistent for women. He observes that acts of individualization occur most prominently in the period of early adulthood, as people learn to manipulate honor systems, religious tenets, and values to personalized ends. Finally, mature adulthood marks the end of the life cycle and a period in which MENA psychological development sharply diverges from Western development. Gregg uses this life period to argue against assumptions that MENA societies are always collectivist and never individualistic. He also observes pointedly that women in particular amass notable amounts of social influence during this phase of life.
Gregg's analysis of social development in MENA societies rests on his assertion that "MENA societies constitute a 'culture area' with distinctive influences on psychological development" (359). This concept of a MENA culture area allows him...