Patai Review

Academic, Politics, Race

Earlier I expressed my dismay that the Neocons were so enamored of a book entitled The Arab Mind. As a result of that post, someone brought to my attention this review of Patai’s book written in 1977, by Elaine C. Hagopian. The original review, published in the Journal of Palestine Studies, is available online, but only to people whose libraries offer institutional subscriptions to JSTOR. What follows is my own transcription of the article, so please be tolerant of any typos and other mistakes caused by my OCR software. I hope to clean up the article (which is still missing the original emphasis) over time (and hopefully with some help from astute readers of this blog).

Here is the short version of Hagopian’s review:

Patai’s book is filled with myths. By any standards of scholarship, the book is poor. His revival of national character studies, and his adoption of peculiar frameworks and methods betray his real intent. The book is not an anthropological study of the Arab mind,” and is not even anthropology. Its language is loaded; the concepts of science are not there.

And here is the full citation:

The Arab Mind. Review Author: Elaine C. Hagopian. Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 6, No. 4 (Summer, 1977), 122-130.

THE ARAB MIND. Raphael Patai. The Arab Mind (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1973).


National character studies were quite popular in American social science in the 1940s and 1950s. World War II was an additional stimulant to an area of interest that has fascinated human beings for centuries, i.e., to describe and generalize personality characteristics for whole populations. A small flood of theoretical and substantive studies were produced during this period. In a short time, a reverse tide of publications critical of both the theoretical and the substantive studies challenged the validity and practical use of such studies in advancing the scientific explanation of human behaviour. Indeed, Otto Klineberg notes that the authors often confused national character with national mythology.1

Of late, the field, most popularly known now as personality and social structure,” has refined its frameworks and procedures and has developed realistic goals for the scientific yield possible from the more delimited studies. Taking off from a suggestion made by Alex Inkeles in 1948,2 these newer studies tend to recognize a variety of personality types (modal personality types) in a given population, and to relate them to the social context and structural locations of the actors. The studies are now primarily concerned with the interaction of personality systems with subunits of the social system and the consequences for order and change. Rarely does one see the type of study represented in the works of Gorer, Maad, Benedict, DuBois, LaBarre, Bateson, Kardiner, etc. There are, of course, popular works, such as Barzini’s The Italians, that continue to generalize about whole populations, but few social scientists hazard this road any longer. Unaffected by the significant challenge to the validity and scientific usefulness of national character studies, nor even their proven danger in stereotyping a people, Raphael Patai returns to the past focus in his rendering of The Arab Mind.

Patai is an anthropologist who was born in Hungary, studied with orientalists such as Goldziher and Brockelmann, and was a resident of Palestine from 1933-1947, becoming a frequent visitor to the Middle East thereafter. He is aware of the criticism of the national character studies. Nonetheless, he blithely excludes some and/or converts” other critiques into a form to make such studies (and therefore his own) appear scientifically valid. For example, he takes note of Inkeles’ concept of a number of modal personality structures within a population that is in constant interaction and change with the social system, but he excludes the specific reformulation of the field suggested by Inkeles. In fact, he converts” what Inkeles says into the form Patai’s biases require. He says:

The basis of modal personality or national character studies is the observation that human beings who grow up in a common environment exhibit beyond their individual differences, a strong common factor in their personality …. I would, therefore, venture to define national character as the sum total of the motives, traits, beliefs, and values shared by the plurality in a national population. Since the personality of the plurality in a given population can also be designated as the modal personality, it appears that national character can be equated with modal personality.

At the same time, one can agree with those who insist on a distinction between national character and modal personality and propose that the former term should be used for the more general concept, while the latter should be applied to more narrowly delimited groups. In any population, and especially in contemporary largescale industrial societies with their great diversity of constituent sectors, there may be several modal personality structures. This means that the national character consists of the sum total of the modal personality structures found in the national population. [Reviewer’s note: Inkeles never says this.]

On the other hand, if the national population studied is fairly homogeneous as far as its ethnic composition is concerned, one will find that the modal personalities of any two or more sample groups will be sufficiently similar to warrant extrapolation from them to the character of the national population at large . (pp. 1819)

Thus Patai is able to prepare us for the sweeping generalizations he is about to make regarding the Arab mind” in his following chapters by claiming (without advancing any valid evidence) that the Arab world is a culturally homogenous area. Therefore, he can generalize about all Arabs from disparate studies of some Arabs. (This is somewhat equivalent to generalizing about old Bostonian families from a study of Kansas farmers.) But further, since the Arab world is not an industrial society, and thus not differentiated and specialized, one can legitimately” speak of a culture area, and thus a modal personality” that is equated by Patai with national character, i.e. the Arab mind,” This Arab mind” can therefore explain” all Arab political, social and economic behaviour. Patai ignores the serious observations made by Inkeles on such constructs:

The term national character,” … has been used in the broadest possible sense as being more or less synonymous with all learned cultural behaviour …. Clearly so global a concept does not permit the precise gathering of data.3

Unfortunately, in the existing studies the selection of the components of personality to be studied has frequently been haphazard, impressionistic, and arbitrary. Little has been done to insure comparativity from one study to another. In addition, the existing studies frequently give so little specification of the methods whereby regularities were delineated, that it is difficult if not impossible to replicate and thereby verify findings.4

Next, Patai turns his attention to presenting his various frameworks and methods for his study. Here too, he chooses to ignore the critics of such frameworks, and elects methods for collection of data” that would not be employed by an introductory anthropology student. He produces a cacophony of frameworks and methods which he advances as a sound” methodology for dissecting the Arab mind” scientifically.

Frameworks. Patai integrates two approaches. He selectively identifies and interprets Arab childrearing practices and relates them to adult behaviour. On the other hand, he selectively identifies cultural values and attributes of Arab language, arts, music, literature, etc., which he interprets psychologically and offers as the social context from which socialization of the child draws its content. Thus, of course, the results of each framework will support the results of the other since the author created both, arranged their content, and asserted their linkage.

Regarding childhood training, there are numerous critiques of this approach when it attempts to generalize the adult behaviour of a whole population from specific practices.5 Inkeles notes, for example, that:

Two major difficulties have been manifested in many of the efforts to relate specific infant care disciplines to adult personality. The first of these derives from the prevalence of a marked tendency to analogical reasoning. Gorer, for example, sees the scheduled feeding to which American infants are frequently exposed as producing in American adults the symptomatic fear that America will be reduced to want, perhaps to actual starvation, if it lets its food or resources of money outside of the country.”6

This leads directly to a second major difficulty. Many explorations of the relationship between infant care disciplines and adult character, while acknowledging the importance of other forces in shaping personality, have a tendency in practice relatively to neglect the variables intervening between infancy and adulthood.7

Undaunted by these cautions, Patai offers the following example of the connection he sees” between early Arab childhood training and adult behaviour:

As for the boy, both the actual treatment accorded to him and the expectations he will develop are fundamentally different. While still being breastfed, there is the tendency on the part of the mother to pamper him more than she would a girl child. By the time the boy is weaned, he has learned to walk, run, play and control his elimination. What is more important, he has learned to talk and so can and does ask verbally for the mother’s breast whenever he wants it. And, since the principles followed by the mother include both pampering the boy and demand feeding him, he actually gets the breast whenever he asks for it. Thus the verbalization of the one major childhood desire, that for the mother’s breast is followed, in most cases at least, by instant gratification. And, what is psychologically equally important, the emphatic verbal formulation of the wish carries in itself, almost automatically, the guarantee of its fulfilment without the need for any additional action on the part of the child. This experience, repeated several times a day for a number of months, cannot fail to leave a lasting impression on the psyche of the boy child. It may not be too farfetched to seek a connection between this situation in childhood and a characteristic trait of the adult Arab personality which has frequently been observed and commented upon: the proclivity for making an emphatic verbal statement of intention and failing to follow it up with any action that could lead to its realization (p. 31).

The second approach used by Patai, i. e., to characterize psychologically the main patterns of the culture which become the content of the modal personality through internalization of them (and in the form and with the meaning interpreted by the author), has drawn criticism as well. Lindesmith and Strauss note that the investigator often offers gross data” from which he abstracts and synthesizes his characterizations without describing very clearly or in detail how these characterizations are derived.8 That is, there is no systematic, proven way to interpret and portray various cultural qualities accurately and connect them in a onetoone relationship with particular behaviour. Nonetheless, in a series of tedious chapters ranging from the spell of language” to alleged Arab sex codes, Patai selects and asserts what he feels are Arab qualities, and then he links them together in an interpretation that draws a very negative picture of the Arab, and offers a fixed” and abnormal” Arab psyche to explain particular manifestations of political, economic and social behaviour.

For example, Patai interprets Arab art, music and literature as uncreative, repetitive, and unrelated to reality. Coupled with the Arabic language which he says tends to form rather than to rational thought, a context is provided that conjures up an unrealistic Arab psyche prone to emotional outbursts. Thus Arab political demonstrations or mob behaviour are not explicable by classical sociological theory on collective behaviour, but as a special kind of aberration committed by unrealistic and emotional Arabs (pp. 156-179).

InterArab conflicts, inability to plan, to unite, to create, to be committed to a work ethic are asserted by Patai and connected to the assumed exaggeration of the Arabic language, to Beduin values of hospitality, generosity, honour, facesaving, etc. All of the latter values are interpreted as developing out of Beduin life needs, and Patai implies that they were not motivated other than by rather sinister and exploitative traits of the Arab mind.” These values, rooted in their original motivations and meanings as defined by Patai, are general to the contemporary Arab population, he states.

Interestingly, because Jews had shared some of the same cultural qualities as Arabs, Patai makes sure to indicate that Jews have transformed these qualities and have become akin to the West. For example:

In its ancient form, Hebrew duplicated the indeterminancy of verb tenses we found in Arabic …. However, after the biblical period, the Hebrew language began a process of development whose end result today is a complete elimination of those ancient ambiguities. In fact, it can be said that one of the main differences between modern and biblical Hebrew is that in modern Hebrew the verb has past and future tenses as in Western languages, . . (p. 72).

In dealing with the linguistic, cultural, Beduin or Islamic components of the Arab mind,” Patai has the Arab come off as an irrational, dull, uncreative, emotional, aggressive, hostile, frustrated, flashy, lazy, fatalistic, psychologically contradictory and polarized person. While barely acknowledging the richness of the ArabIslamic civilization, he prefers to focus on the stagnation of that civilization and relate it causally to the Arab mind” as he portrays and explains it. Thus, he states:

The fact remains that under traditional Islam, efforts at human improvement have rarely transcended ineffectuality. In general the Arab mind, dominated by Islam, has been bent more on preserving than innovating, on maintaining than improving, on continuing than initiating. In this atmosphere, whatever individual spirit of research and inquiry existed in the great age of medieval Arab culture became gradually stifled; by the fifteenth century, Arab intellectual curiosity was fast asleep. It was to remain inert until awakened four centuries later by an importunate West knocking on its doors (pp. 15455).

In short, Arabs did not have a normal” historical stagnation. The inherent qualities of their mind produced it.

Having set the stage as such, Patai goes on to assert and interpret Arab hatred (his usage) of the West as irrational and stemming from an inferiority complex. Because of all of the psychological baggage Patai attributes to the Arab, he further interprets this to mean that the Arab has much difficulty in acquiring Western civilization, i.e., modern civilization. As a result, the Arab world blames the West for all of its woes rather than facing it as a challenge to its stagnation and the basis for Arab world rejuvenation (pp. 247-306). Nowhere in his book does Patai deal with Western colonization and imperialism or with the emergence and impact of Zionism on the region. Nowhere does he deal with established stratification analysis and its relationship to economic development. No, the Arabs are unhappy with the West (he continues to use the word hate”) because Arabs can’t accept their own stagnation and want to reassert their superior” past. In short, the Arabs are incapacitated from learning well from the West because of their own psyche, which he feels exaggerates the greatness of the Arab past.

While certainly there is much to criticize in Arab societies and leadership, Patai’s analysis, which explains all in terms of the Arab mind” he has sculptured to his own biases, raises questions about his intentions in writing this book. Patai even explains the Yemeni war and Black September as Arab manifestations of characteristic fratricidal tendencies” (p. 21). Patai also goes to great pains to leave the impression that basically Arabs, whose majority are Muslims, are intolerant because of the terms of Islam itself (pp. 204226). Therefore given his analyses,” he leads the reader to draw the conclusion that Jews and Christians in the Middle East have to worry; the West will not find a friendly, rational, or reliable population in the Arab world; and finally that Jews are more Western and are therefore rational, friendly and reliable.

Through a series of unrelieved and repetitious convoluted discourses, Patai attempts to isolate the Arab mind” from world history and contemporary events. Nothing, it seems, had an impact on the Arab mind” except the Arab mind” as defined by Patai. Nothing, he implies, can change the mind” he portrays since he has asserted it to be in a discourse primarily with itself, and it can only therefore feed on itself. It” is too angry, unable to accept or absorb the superior” Western civilization. Everything, therefore, that the Arab does in dealing with his life or with politics is unique and strange to ordinary” world behaviour, especially Western behaviour. In short, the Arab mind” can’t get its act together.

Methods of Data Collection. The conclusions drawn or implied by Patai employing the analytical frameworks” just discussed were derived from a data” base that was assembled by the following methods:

  1. Observation and Interviewing. Patai notes his particular use of these techniques:

The present book is the result of my lifelong interest in the Arabs and their world. It presents some of the things I have learned from talking to Arabs over many years, informally in most cases, but not infrequently in formal interviews Reviewer’s note: by this he means more structured” talks] as well, and from observing them and absorbing innumerable little details of their behaviour, attitudes and expressions, movements and gestures, and words both uttered and left unsaid. Sometimes I even became guilty of some unplanned eavesdropping (pp. 56).

As an example of his scientific” observations, here is one form they took in providing data” for his assertion of Arab extremism:

I myself could not help making the same observation repeatedly when, for instance, after an Arab theatrical or motion picture performance I heard the loudly voiced comments of the audience as they converged in the aisles and moved slowly toward the exits. Almost invariably the opinions expressed were in black and white; the play or film was judged to have been either excellent,” magnificent,” great,” or disgusting,” stupid” (p. 156).

  1. Published Studies. Not wanting to rely only on observations” and interviews,” Patai notes:

It goes without saying that a book like this cannot be written on the basis of personal observations alone. Reading what others wrote about the Arabs has been one of my constant occupations throughout the years I spent in Jerusalem as well as thereafter; … (p. 6).

Patai relies heavily on published studies. His criterion for inclusion of a study, it seems, is not whether it has been recognized as sound and scholarly, but rather the degree to which quotations from it can fit into the points Patai wishes to make. In that sense, therefore, much of what Patai quotes is arranged in a manner to legitimate” Patai’s points through a process of distortion of original intent and focus of the studies, or by generalizing further from a study than the author intended or his data base would permit. Patai is particularly fond of drawing on Arab studies, and especially discredited studies such as that of Sania Hamady, Temperament and Character of the Arabs.

What can one conclude from this book? Obviously, if Patai’s portrayal of the Arab mind” was accepted, it would certainly not be very helpful to explain the Egyptian Revolution, the Algerian Revolution, the Palestinian Revolution, the superplanning going on in the Gulf, Algeria, etc., nor the numerous developmental projects, the 1973 war (which took place after this book was published), and the growing ArabWest relations.

The distinguished scholar of Arab origin, Edward Said, puts such studies as
Patai’s in proper context:

The myths of Arab society under discussion here are those preserved in the discourse of Orientalism, a school of thought and discipline of study whose focus includes the Arabs,” Arabism, Islam, the Semites, and the Arab mind.” It should be immediately evident hat Arab society in fact cannot be discussed, because the Arabs all told number over a hundred million people and at least a dozen different societies, and there is no truly effective intellectual method for discussing all of them together as a single monolith. Any reduction of this whole immense mass of history, societies, individuals, and realities to Arab society” is therefore a mythification. But what it is possible to do is to analyze the structure of thought for which such a phrase as Arab society” is a kind of reality — and this strucutre, as we shall soon see, is a myth, with its codes, discourse, and tropes. This structure has a history (albeit a far simpler one than the subject it purportedly treats) and is upheld by a set of institutions that give ti whatever power and validity it seems to have. For this myth the October War was a surprise, but not because The Arabs” fought well; rather because the Arabs, according to the myth, were not supposed to fight at all, and because the war seemed therefore to be a deviation out of context, a violation of a well-established logic ….9

Patai’s book is filled with myths. By any standards of scholarship, the book is poor. His revival of national character studies, and his adoption of peculiar frameworks and methods betray his real intent. The book is not an anthropological study of the Arab mind,” and is not even anthropology. Its language is loaded; the concepts of science are not there.


  1. Otto Klineberg, Recent Studies of National Character,” in Sargent and Smith, Culture and Personality (Viking Fond).
  2. Alex Inkeles, Some Sociological Observations on Culture and Personality Studies,” in C. Klockhohn, et al. (editors), Personality in Nature, Society, and Culture (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, second edition, 1953), pp. 577-592.
  3. Ibid., p. 579.
  4. Ibid., p. 578.
  5. A. L. Lindesmith & A. Strauss, Critique of Culture Personality Writings,” in American Sociological Review, Vol. 15, October 1950.
  6. Inkeles, op. cit., p. 580.
  7. Ibid., p. 581.
  8. Lindesmith and Strauss, op. cit., passim.
  9. Edward Said, Shattered Myths,” in Naseer H. Aruri, editor, Middle East Crucible: Studies on the Arab-Israeli War of October 1973 (Wilnnette, I. : Medina University Press International, 1975), pp. 408-447.