Life Within Limits

Well-being in a World of Want

Life Within Limits

Book Pages: 248 Illustrations: 20 photographs Published: February 2011

Author: Michael Jackson

African Studies, Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, Religious Studies

The sense that well-being remains elusive, transitory, and unevenly distributed is felt by the rich as well as the poor, and in all societies. To explore this condition of existential dissatisfaction, the anthropologist Michael Jackson traveled to Sierra Leone, described in a recent UN report as the “least livable” country in the world. There he revisited the village where he did his first ethnographic fieldwork in 1969–70 and lived in 1979. Jackson writes that Africans have always faced forces from without that imperil their lives and livelihoods. Though these forces have assumed different forms at different times—slave raiding, warfare, epidemic illness, colonial domination, state interference, economic exploitation, and corrupt government—they are subject to the same mix of magical and practical reactions that affluent Westerners deploy against terrorist threats, illegal immigration, market collapse, and economic recession. Both the problem of well-being and the question of what makes life worthwhile are grounded in the mystery of existential discontent—the question as to why human beings, regardless of their external circumstances, are haunted by a sense of insufficiency and loss. While philosophers have often asked the most searching questions regarding the human condition, Jackson suggests that ethnographic method offers one of the most edifying ways of actually exploring those questions.


“Jackson offers a way of doing anthropology that is open to the people one encounters, aware of the limitations of that encounter and capable of turning the experience of those limitations into a productive ground of theoretical synthesis. . . . [A]n example of what a good, sensitive and patient pursuit of ethnography can accomplish within the limits of a lifetime.” — Samuli Schielke, Social Anthropology

“Jackson succeeds in showing that there is more to well-being than monetary and material security in ‘Western’ terms. He refers to theory in close connection to his empirical observations and he does so as a participant in the field who interacts with and closely relates to those he studies. Rather than imposing ideas and models on the people he studies, he aims at describing their everyday lives, their ways of seeing, and understanding things by engaging with them in their lives and struggles.” — Jacqueline Knörr, Anthropos

“Michael Jackson is one of contemporary anthropology’s consummate storytellers.... In this case, Jackson’s theme is the existential discontent that human beings wrestle with as they attempt to define, and live, a fulfilling and hopeful life.... How do the pressures of poverty in a world now defined by the money economy shape the aspirations of individuals and communities?... Given the diversity of ways in which human beings deal with a similar set of existential problems, philosophy for Jackson is best done with the tools of ethnography and by serious immersion in the minutiae of different ways of being human.... For both aspiring and veteran ethnographers, Jackson’s stories are poignant examples of how human a science anthropology can be.” — Danny Hoffman, Journal of Anthropological Research

“The real value of Jackson’s books lies in the way he manages to hold a mirror to ourselves by examining the way others perceive the world. Ours is a time in which happiness is seen as a measurable state to which everyone is entitled. Countries like Sierra Leone not only appear at the very bottom of international rankings of ‘happiness’ or ‘quality of life’ but have come to represent places where life is almost ‘unliveable.’ By dismissing suffering, pain and effort – those necessary counterparts of happiness – we risk losing the tools to deal with constraints; any deviation from monotonous happiness is perceived as a major disruption.” — Annika Lems, Inside Story

“Reading Michael Jackson’s remarkable book reaffirmed my belief in the remarkable human capacity for social resilience. Such resilience enables us to experience a measure of well-being—even in a context of want. Unlike most books that focus on anthropological subjects, this one compels us to think about big questions—themes that shape the human condition. As such, Life within Limits is a gift to us all.”  — Paul Stoller, American Ethnologist

Life Within Limits skillfully blends history, philosophy and travel memoir to address a contemporary development problem: How can people achieve well-being in a world of finite resources?” — Laura Camfield, Progress in Development Studies

“This is the work of an elder, literary and philosophical, yet the style is personal, anecdotal, and impressionistic…. One former renegade Jackson encounters… serves as a briefly glimpsed symbol of separation from others and from the deeper cultural sensibility that Jackson explores so gracefully in this book.”  — John Chernoff, Africa

“Jackson weaves effortlessly between the raw details of life in Sierra Leone and the musings of Western writers and philosophers, and he brings to light how, in spite of the immediate differences of detail in humanity’s daily struggles, the underlying themes of dissatisfaction and hope are resonant.” — Catherine E. Bolten, Current Anthropology

“In sum, Jackson provides a compelling and eloquent alternative account of ‘the good life’ as lived in Firawa, as temporally deep as it is ethnographically evocative. More than a corrective to current popular, academic, and development discourses on ‘quality of life’ in Sierra Leone, Life Within Limits explores recent social transformations wrought by civil conflict, migration, and growing inequality… without reducing lived experience to these analytical categories." — Shirley Yeung, Journal of Religion in Africa

Life Within Limits is a book on Sierra Leonean realities, but it is also a work that tries to understand the human condition more generally. At its center is a trip to Sierra Leone, where Michael Jackson revisits the village where he did fieldwork almost forty years ago. Between the conversations in the 1970s and those of today falls a brutal civil war with immense human suffering, but also births and deaths, young people growing old, some dreams realized, others not. In its rare combination of accumulated knowledge and ongoing critical self-reflection, Life Within Limits is anthropological writing at its best.” — Sverker Finnström, author of Living with Bad Surroundings: War, History, and Everyday Moments in Northern Uganda

“Distinctively original and beautifully written, Life Within Limits recounts Michael Jackson’s return to the Sierra Leonean village of Firawa, where he first began fieldwork in 1969. Re-encountering the life-worlds of people in the wake of a shattering civil war, Jackson follows the Kuranko notion of kendeye, or well-being, juxtaposing this with insights on well-being grounded in the work of anthropologists, philosophers, and novelists. Throughout, Kuranko proverbs and stories offer a rich counterpoint to Western philosophers.” — Kirin Narayan, author of My Family and Other Saints

“Michael Jackson has done it again. This is a beautifully observed essay on human well-being and the ethnographic process. There is an elegant blending of ethnography, travel memoir, and philosophical reflection.” — Michael J. Lambek, author of The Weight of the Past: Living with History in Mahajanga, Madagascar


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Michael Jackson, Distinguished Visiting Professor in World Religions at Harvard Divinity School, is an award-winning poet, novelist, and anthropologist. His many books include The Palm at the End of the Mind, Excursions, In Sierra Leone, and At Home in the World, all also published by Duke University Press.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Imagining Firawa ix

Fathers and Sons 1

Forty Days 13

Scenes from a Marriage 30

Smoke and Mirrors 46

Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World 63

The Reopening of the Gate of Effort 77

Something's Missing 88

The Politics of Storytelling 100

The Road to Kabala 112

Their Eyes Were Watching God 122

Albitaiya 134

The Year of Supernatural Abundance 145

Strings Attached 158

The Shape of the Inconstruable Question 172

Not to Find One's Way in a City 187

Coda 199

Acknowledgments 201

Notes 203

Index 225
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