Life Within Limits: Well-being in a World of Want


“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. . . . An 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