In recent decades, scholars of the Middle East have observed the activism of the Middle Eastern poor in response to conditions of increasing economic deprivation and social marginalization. Much of the work has exclusively focused on the poor's reactive acts of political agency. Surprisingly little is understood, with any empirical leverage, about the mechanisms involved in leading poor individuals to adopt the decisions and strategies that they do. A large part of the puzzle is the role of culture, which some have touched upon, but few have studied systematically. Poor people in the Middle East, so these researchers infer, are aware that they have become increasingly excluded under the new global market economy and so resist its effects by reasserting their power within extended family and community networks or maximizing their economic interests by engaging in petty unlawful practices. However, current approaches can neither show patterned differences in the ways that poor people in the region think and react to their social worlds nor can they provide explanations of how culturally-based motivators inform how the poor move in their pursuits. This article addresses these shortcomings by systematically examining the role that cultural factors play in shaping poor young people's particular choices and decisions. It relies on two years of ethnographic fieldwork among poor young men and women in two urban capitals in Iran in order to show how poor youth manage their everyday lives and attempt to move forward. In so doing, it is shown that in order to understand poor young people's preferences for undertaking certain actions over others, we must place their choices within a larger moral universe that is guided by their conceptions of good and bad. In this moral universe, the moral codes of honor and work provide both guidelines and an evaluative code for individual initiative and conduct. It is suggested that current perspectives should incorporate the role of moral systems and reassess the relationship between poverty and behavior in the region.


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