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Observations of more socio-centric families

I now present one very brief episode from an observation undertaken in a primarily Muslim country, and then a more extended sequence of observations taken from an observation in a slightly more socio-centric culture in Britain.

Cemal at eleven months

Cemal is seated on a high chair at the edge of the room. The rest of the family are starting to eat. Today father's parents are there, so there are both sets of grandparents. There is much noise, colour, shouting and laughter. Cemal is alert, looking around, watchful. His oldest sister places his bottle in front of him, and he looks at it, and back at her and then away. He then lifts it and takes a few sips. He seems slightly dreamy, watching life around him take place, not flat, more as if carried along on a tide. His cousin, Erkin, comes back from the toilet and on his way past pats him on the shoulder. Cemal smiles slightly and Erkin exaggerates the movement and Cemal smiles slightly more broadly. Erkin looks at his mother who seems to display slight disapproval and Erkin goes to sit down. Cemal takes his bottle again, and shows no emotion.

The adults are having a discussion about local issues, a kind of cross between politics and gossip. The seven children are all sitting quietly, occasionally glancing at each other and making faces. None of them ask for anything or make much noise.

This was a typical moment in this family. The children do not expect to get very much attention from adults and indeed are expected to contribute to family life and be fairly unobtrusive. Particularly striking in this culture is the fear of the "evil eye". This family is typical in having the traditional amulet around the house that is said to protect from the effects of the evil eye. Boastfulness is rare as there is a terrible fear of envy, and a worry that envy can cause all manner of damage and difficulties. If a new baby is born, and neighbours come round and shower the baby with compliments, this would worry the mother who would fear that the baby might get ill as a result of the evil eye. This particular belief seems to add another layer to the idea that children should not get too much special attention. Erkin's mother's response was typical, in that not only should he have been sitting at the table and not "playing", but also Cemal and babies in general should not be made too much the centre of attention.

A challenge for me in observations in such cultures is trying to apply the psychological understanding we have gained without asserting our own cultural assumptions. For example, it often seemed to me that Cemal looked somewhat forlorn, and I longed for his latent liveliness to be responded to and enhanced.

Each culture presents its own challenges to observers trained elsewhere. For several years I have taught in Sicily where it is hard not to be somewhat taken aback at the different treatment first-born boys get, as opposed to girls, the boys often treated as a somewhat regal centre of the universe and gaining a quality of attention that daughters rarely get. In such situations I have often had to try to restrain my personal feelings, not always successfully.

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