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. 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 Ours is a time in which happiness is seen as a measurable state to which everyone is entitled.
Life Within Limits: Well-being in a World of Want by Michael D. Jackson
Instead, humans are always to an extent open to the world around them and enmeshed with it. However the extent to which people recognize their connection to others and to the world may of course vary across space and time. Always longing for companionship and social recognition, humans are never complete on their own, as the Kuranko have it.
Of course, this ontological openness may make a person vulnerable to excessive requests from his or her kin, to attacks by witches and sorcery, to the judgement or gossip of others. Yet despite this vulnerability, openness is valued highly by the Kuranko and the worst lot one can suffer is a state of isolation, in which one passes through life alone, without friends or kin. Like all of us, though in their own particular way, Kuranko are compelled to manage the complex dynamics between being open to the world, with all the vulnerability this brings, and being isolated or closed off.
While in some sense fundamentally open, not least to requests and expectations, Kuranko feel the need to fend off some intrusions and to express their individual wills. Many of them want more than what they have at any given moment; they want to be more and to make something of themselves, but this is difficult in times of scarcity, when means are limited and opportunities shut off.
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The condition of openness is the basis for an existential dilemma of well-being, which becomes a matter of finding a balance between doing justice to others and doing justice to oneself, or perhaps between what one owes to others and what one owes to oneself. Perhaps it is also a question of belonging without losing oneself. The dilemma is made more visible when people struggle to achieve a better or at least a more bearable life, balancing their obligations to the group whose support is often precious , and the feeling of strain in sharing their scarce resources or submitting their life-course to the plan laid out for them, with the importance of social harmony and custom always in mind.
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Acute for many Kuranko, this dilemma rings true for most of us and Jackson makes an attempt to say something about universal human existential issues using the Kuranko example. He sets himself the task of exploring well-being and related themes, believing that the answers to many of the questions insightfully raised by philosophers can be provided by the ethnographic method, and indeed that the latter might be one of the most instructive ways of exploring them. And yet one does sense that a potential danger lies in the power of western philosophical theories, often compelling in their internal coherence, in that once one knows them they may distort the quieter voice of ethnographic material and the less neat fabric of the everyday and somewhat contradictory story it tells.
In these, the reader cannot be certain of the relationship between the accounts and the ideas brought from a very different universe of thought. In fact, it has considerable experience in doing so, having not shied away from issues such as religion and morality.
Life Within Limits: Well-being in a World of Want
Yet not many ethnographers have taken up this question directly as their main focus. And it does so above all by telling stories, weaving together those that people tell, the stories they know and retell, or stories they share or make their own, with the stories of their circumstances, of their lives. The point stories make is often ambiguous, but this is their strength: rather than simplifying the links between the causes and effects, stories are comprised of multiple meanings.
They have a capacity to teach people how to act in a complex world of changing circumstances, and as Arthur Frank pointed out, how to make our lives good. Perhaps this is what makes them so well suited for an exploration of well-being. There was a man and a woman.
They had a child. This woman would prepare rice and sauce and put it on the same platter. All her children would eat from the same plate. But one day the woman divided the food into two portions.
One portion was for her own children. And then into this portion the woman put poison. When the child ate this food she began to foam at the mouth, and she soon died. You must have eaten that poisoned food elsewhere. She disappeared from this life. It is hard to know if this means that a punishment will ensue or if the girl disappeared for good with a vain hope. The ending of the story tells of several possibilities and circumscribes an uncertain existence.
The night before she told the anthropologist one of her stories, she came to the spot where he was sitting with a few companions near a fire. Despite her slender physique, her voice was strong and beautiful, more noticeable than that of the two older girls who accompanied her.
Life within limits: well-being in a world of want
She had not eaten for two days but her voice was unwavering and her song compelling. It later transpired that Sira had composed the song herself, like many others, and also had a gift for divination and herbal medicine, making a living in this way. After her father left she could no longer afford school fees and stopped her education, so Jackson started wondering if he could help by paying her fees.
In the end, he decided to do so, despite having doubts and realizing that Sira had found a way to live, making do with what she had — her gift. Jackson emphasizes hope, which allows people to envision their lives as more than what they already are, with tomorrow always bringing new possibilities. Hope is an important element of well-being for these young people dealing with the harsh reality of everyday life, facing scarcity and poverty.
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