At Home In The World
Duke University Press, 2000
ISBN 0-8223-2538-1 (Paperback)
At one time, the books anthropologists wrote were about the peoples -- exotic or familiar -- they studied. Recently, a new genre of anthropological monographs has appeared. These books are not so much descriptions of peoples as autobiographical accounts of anthropologists in the process of studying them. Maybe this reflects a growing angst, mistakenly attributed by some to postmodernism, about the possibility of saying anything simultaneously true and politically acceptable about anyone other than the self. Or maybe publishers and a critical mass of authors think that audiences big enough to matter (undergraduates and the general reading public) won't put up with a book unless it enables them to achieve some vicarious feeling for what is being described through the personal experience of the author. Perhaps those same publishers and authors imagine, disputably, that what goes on in the author's mind and emotions while doing fieldwork is somehow more interesting than what is happening with the Moroccans or the Awa.
Michael Jackson is a first-rate anthropologist who has undeniably paid his dues with thoughtful ethnographic studies of New Zealand and West Africa. At Home in the World is a thoughtful study too, a kind of ethno-poetic essay about belonging and being uprooted in the contemporary world. Jackson's idea is to see if new insights emerge from contrasting his personal experience of a permanent move away from home with that of the Warlpiri of Central Australia, who have been seriously dispossessed of their land and culture, but who, as nomads, might have had a different sense of home in the first place. The book reads rather like a diary of Jackson's fieldwork among the Warlpiri. While it would be unfair to brand it as an egregious example of the genre discussed in the preceding paragraph, it does omit any kind of thorough ethnographic analysis, and this reader put it down with the sense of having been told a good deal more about Jackson than about the Warlpiri.
His experience among the Warlpiri taught Jackson some important lessons. "Being at home," he discovers, has less to do with a geographical place than with comfort in a way of acting. For the Warlpiri, being at home essentially entails taking full advantage of whatever resources are available at the moment. If someone else has them, you have no qualms about asking for them and using them for your own purposes. If you have them, you do not resent distributing them among others. This involves a view of the self not as a bounded, distinct entity but as a being living in connection with others. The Warlpiri way may not be right for everyone, but the lesson about home connoting "a sense of existential control and connectedness...and...a balanced reciprocity between the world beyond us and the world within which we move" holds true and is important for anyone to consider.
With insights like this in mind, Jackson ruminates on doing anthropology. "The object of ethnographic fieldwork ceases to be the representation of the world of others; it becomes a mode of using our experience in other worlds to reflect critically on our own." Surely this goes too far. What we learn of others often has important implications for our understanding and conduct of our own lives. But are we so self-absorbed that this is the only value we can perceive in learning about others? I doubt very much that Jackson's Warlpiri informants/teachers, with their emphasis on self in its connectedness with others, would even understand this view. We, with our individualistic tendencies, can understand it well enough, but an important value of anthropology is, and always has been, to help us get beyond it. Knowing something of others is intellectually, aesthetically, politically, and morally valuable in its own right, regardless of what it might tell us about ourselves.
Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.