Post by Luke de Noronha, DPhil Candidate in Anthropology (COMPAS) at the University of Oxford. His doctoral research looks at post-deportation outcomes, particularly of ex-offenders deported from the UK. Luke is on Twitter @LukeEdeNoronha.

Review of The Wherewithal of Life. Ethics, Migration, and the Question of Well-Being by Michael Jackson (University of California Press, 2013). 

book cover m jackson
The Wherewithal of Life provides a beautiful account of three remarkable stories. Reading this book transported me, in ways that few academic texts can, into other life-worlds, into the places where Emmanuel, Roberto and Ibrahim’s lives played out, into moments of rupture, transformation and rebirth, right into the messiness, tragedy and romance of their biographies.

Having moved from Uganda to Denmark, Mexico to the US, and Burkina Faso to the Netherlands, these men’s stories are united not primarily by their movement from South to North, but by the sheer drama of their biographies. Their stories are the stuff of page-turning fiction; intense periods of suffering and entrapment find their resolution in the chanciest of encounters. Jackson allows the men to speak for themselves, providing pages of verbatim narrative in which they describe events in their lives and consider their significance. Jackson fades into the background, offering only analytical nibbles to guide the life-stories and providing some colour to the men’s words, describing the flow of conversation during the interviews. Jackson’s insightful analysis is woven into the life-stories, his thesis permeating the whole text. Consequently, and much to the anguish of the time-pressed undergraduate, the reader cannot skip chapters, skim the introduction, or use the index to locate relevant sections. This is a book to be read in full, a thoughtfully composed monograph that merits two-hundred-and-thirty pages of your time.

Migration can be apprehended through a number of analytical lenses and my experience as a fledgling postgraduate involves trying on different glasses at different times (gender, temporality, postcoloniality), perhaps seeking to fashion some novel set of varifocals. Jackson approaches migration stories through the optic of ethics. He argues that ethics cannot be reduced to moral codes. Instead we should explore the ways in which ethics is responsive to the surprises that regularly punctuate life (p. 199).

Jackson’s focus on the ethical is not about the influence of some reified notion of culture, society, religion or morality on behaviour, but rather on the complex ways in which individuals wrestle with questions of justice in their own biographies, as they seek to navigate incredibly trying circumstances, pursuing some way of ‘being at home in the world’. This book charts the ethical and existential dilemmas that interrupt and define the men’s lives. Jackson suggests that these quandaries are not only defining of the migrant condition, they also punctuate all of our experiences and narratives: “the vicissitudes of attachment, separation, loss, and renewal are unavoidable aspects of every human life” (p. 2).

The main thrust of the book, then, is in exploring the ethical project as lived by three men. Jackson argues that migration serves as a striking instance in which this facet of the human condition can be observed. The key theme in the book is the tension between established rules and roles and our desire to reconfigure our lives outside of these constraints―between hierarchy and humanity. For Jackson, this tension speaks to us all. We all seek to move forward, to progress. When we feel we are standing still or slipping backwards we encounter existential anxiety. Movement then is agency, or as Ghassan Hage notes, “it is when people feel that they are existentially ‘going too slowly’ or ‘going nowhere,’ that is, that they are somehow ‘stuck’ on the ‘highway of life,’ that they begin contemplating the necessity of physically ‘going somewhere’” (p. 471). In fact, given the striking parallels between Hage’s concept of existential mobility and The Wherewithal of Life, it is surprising that Jackson and Hage do not cite one another.

The book emphasises the role of chance and contingency in our lives: those moments, the minor miracles or heavenly interventions, wherein everything changes. Jackson brings out these moments as part of his endeavour to explore ethics as lived. The book also examines the theme of loss, a theme as familiar in fiction and film as in academia. These men’s words emphasise the impossibility of reconciling one’s life abroad with what one has left behind. Like Stuart Hall and Edward Said, these respondents cannot but contemplate the counterfactual, the life they might have led had they remained in Uganda, Mexico or Burkina Faso.

The Wherewithal of Life is notably impressive in its account of human agency as inventiveness, resistance and competence. We all recognise that we should acknowledge and write about agency. But it is not always easy to know whether we have afforded our informants enough, or too much perhaps, as we seek to be true to the powerful forces framing human lives without writing out individual choices and motivations. It always feels easier to write out other people’s agency than to acknowledge limitations on one’s own. Jackson manages to describe the at times crushing weight of circumstance without effacing human agency. Jackson conveys the competence, and at times the sheer brilliance, of his informants in a way that is legible, reminding us that the “capacity for strategic shape-shifting, both imaginative and actual, defines our very humanity” (p. 202).

Jackson states that he did not so much interview the men as collaborate with them. Granted, this is easier to do when your respondents are so eloquent, reflective and analytical. Yet even so, good ethnography is not always about the expert analysis of complex and hidden cultural meanings, it can simply be about witnessing, channelling and relaying. Jackson, in his own life, met three fascinating men with remarkable stories. He built enough trust with them so that they would share their stories and, in a theory-light yet innovative way, he relayed them to a wider audience:

I have…sought a form of ethnographic writing that assigns as much value to showing as to knowing, while accepting that some of the most illuminating moments in a human life exceed our ability to grasp them cognitively or translate them into the language of the academy. By implication, a form of writing―either discursive or creative―that stirs a reader emotionally is as valuable as a form of writing that seeks to systematize or edify. (p. 198)

Arguing that academic writing should describe as much as analyse, and stir emotionally as much as explain, is a bold declaration, one that will displease many. This position may have more of a home within anthropology than in other social sciences but it is not uncontested there either.

For me, the strength of anthropological approaches to migration is in their detail and carefulness. The anthropology that inspires me embraces complexity and urges caution in our claims to knowing. With this in mind, The Wherewithal of Life is anthropology of migration par excellence. Much like in Shahram Khosravi’s auto-ethnography Illegal Traveller, this book examines the unpredictable, opportunistic, inventive, exciting and terrifying process of crossing borders. Where Jackson’s approach is novel is in framing this in reference the human ethical project, in which we all pursue ways of ‘being at home in the world,’ seeking freedom from certain laws and customs, while mooring in others.

While this is not a book about border control and one that seldom mentions immigration laws and policies, nor the broader migration movements of which these men’s stories might be a part, it does contain a number of lessons for all scholars of migration. Jackson teaches us how to attend to complexity and messiness while retaining a strong (albeit light) theoretical framing. He explores the agency of his informants in a way which is compelling and instructive. He reminds us as that there is power and purpose in describing, in witnessing as much as in theoretically ordering the world, in showing as much as in the “intellectual-cum-magical capacity to render the world intelligible” (p. 4). Finally, the pleasure to be had in reading this book reminds me of the importance of good writing. While the tragedy, romance and drama of these men’s stories lends itself to captivating prose, there is no reason why all scholars of migration should not seek to constantly improve their writing. The words we choose are all we have, the vehicle through which our hard work finds form. As Ruth Behar notes:

Taking a writerly approach has the potential, I think, to make us learn to communicate the knowledge we want to share more lucidly and more movingly, and through that process to question what constitutes knowledge in the first place.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

de Noronha, L (2015) Book Review: The Wherewithal of Life: Ethics, Migration and the Question of Well-Being. Available at: (Accessed [date]).