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By Sushumna Kannan
ABSTRACT: Excursions discusses issues of identity, agency, labor, society-state, subjectivity, violent histories, and colonialism. The discussions are interwoven with the author's experiences, conversations with friends, students, and colleagues; in locations as diverse as London, Sierra Leone, aboriginal Australia and New Zealand. It carries a focus on the 'human condition' and the challenges presented in intercultural encounters.
Recent times have seen enormous skepticism about what ethnography can achieve. Ethnography could easily pass for a venture where ‘anything goes’, with categorical, conceptual and ethical accountability taking a beating. Empirical research in general and ethnography in particular run the danger of becoming pre-designed encounters where the data proves the hypothesis, predetermined categories produce facts and questions shape answers: ‘what is found is thus, what one went looking for’. In this kind of research, the results confirm the initial assumptions, which might well be valid if a book is illustrative of earlier researches, but not so if it aims at original enquiries. We are more alert today to the very impulse behind 19th century disciplinary developments in the social sciences, but there are few methodologies available to help track our own biases. That said, ethnography is still a significant way in which problems of reference and language can be confronted. Michael Jackson’s Excursions is refreshing in that it understands this predicament in our disciplines and voices its dilemmas very clearly, so that readers could assess the cognitive and theoretical moves made.
Excursions is interested in the human condition in general, and the challenges presented in the encounters of different cultures. It recuperates the idea of 'human nature' from the otherwise excessively historicized contexts, and attempts a balanced view of human dispositions and historical determination. The twelve chapters are each dedicated to take up specific issues like identity, agency, labor, society versus state, subjectivity, violent histories, and colonialism. Discussions of these issues are interwoven with the experiences of the traveling author in various geographical locations and cultural spaces. As the author tells us –the book originates from three kinds of conversations –a dialogue with authors who have captured his imagination and conversations from ethnographic fieldwork in Sierra Leone, Aboriginal Australia and New Zealand and conversations with friends, students and colleagues. Excursions travels not just through various cultural spaces, but also across different disciplinary conventions. Its inter-disciplinarity is not simplistic in ways that might reduce the complexity of the concerns raised in any of the disciplines, but is achieved by writing that is clear and jargon-free; presenting us with a perceptible chain of thought.
Throughout the book, Jackson effectively juxtaposes the "voice of modernity that is predicated on the assumption that we can make history the way we want it to be and through knowledge, democracy and foreign aid bring humanity from the dark ages of sectarian hatred and civil strife..." and "the contrary view that we can never legislate away intolerance, or through scientific innovation bring an end to suffering, or through punishment prevent crime, or through remembering history alter its course" (pp. 36-37). Instead of weaving conspiracy theories about how the 'State fails people everywhere' (p 48), Jackson brings the domain of the cultural to the fore and draws our attention "to bear witness to how people endure their lot, affirming life in the face of death". While emphasis on cultural misunderstanding and cultures enabling life-affirming action is a good move, Jackson does see the nation-state as constitutively problematic rather than as functionally so. Thus the new themes introduced by Jackson still use older theorizations and concepts as necessary foundations. This is