Encountering Migration: Worlds Within and Worlds Without. In conversation with Michael Jackson

In this conversation, Birmingham Fellow Dr Jennifer Allsopp and Professor Michael Jackson from the Harvard Divinity School discuss the inter-relational aspects of migration research and how literature has informed their fieldwork both in terms of method and interpretation, from Sebold to Dante. In a wide-ranging and deeply personal discussion, they cover topics including the nexus between autobiography and ethnographic research; the possibilities and limits of empathy and the relationship between narrative as told and lived in life, books and art. Michael and Jennifer touch on the limits and possibilities of empathy and the inter-subjective nation of anthropological research. How can we seek to connect with and relate to the experiences of migrants through art or research, or even video games, without taking away individuals’ legitimate right to difference? Whether it comes to migratory acts or migration research, who moves us to act? Michael and Jennifer discuss how bringing themselves into the research can serve to support a de-colonizing agenda rather than simply ‘taking up space’ by speaking with not overpeople. In this vein, they discuss ‘conversation’ as a method of research as well as a means of engaging with and transforming research transcripts and literary texts through interpretation. What do we risk by taking policy categories at face value? And how can looking back in time as well as across space to different epistemological traditions shed new light on contemporary issues? Re-imagining and re-thinking, concludes Michael, is key to the good anthropology…even if it can be uncomfortable.

In the second part of the conversation, Michael and Jennifer discuss Michael’s book The Wherewithal of Life which follows the life stories of three migrants, his writing on identity politics, and forthcoming intellectual memoir, Worlds Within and Worlds Without. How does close ethnographic work enter into dialogue with policy? As migration studies academics, do we sometimes serve to contribute to the ‘othering’ of people on the move by going along with policy categorizations rather than challenging them? How can Michael’s work on the imagination of migration and research as a series of encounters help us to challenge identity thinking that reduces human beings to categories? And why is Michael hesitant to label himself as one of the founders of existential anthropology? Coming back to the value of inter-subjective research, Jennifer and Michael conclude by discussing how the migrants they’ve worked with have navigated multiple identities and balanced the pursuit of individual and family wellbeing through the strategic use of stories, and they reflect on the relationship between fact and fiction, history and myth. How can we make space and dialogue between legalistic narratives alongside creative forms of storytelling in a way that shows the multiple and fluctuating nature of migrant lives and experiences across space and time? They conclude with a call to experimentation, imagination and to making new things…but not in the style of Dr Frankenstein!


Michael Jackson is internationally renowned for his work in the field of existential anthropology and has been widely praised for his innovations in ethnographic writing. He has done extensive fieldwork in Sierra Leone since 1969 and carried out anthropological research in Aboriginal Australia, Europe, and Aotearoa New Zealand. He has taught at universities in New Zealand, Australia, the United States and is currently Senior Research Fellow in World Religions at Harvard Divinity School. He is the author of over forty books of poetry, ethnography, fiction, and memoir, including The Politics of Storytelling (2002), The Wherewithal of Life: Ethics, Migration, and the Question of Wellbeing (2013), and The Genealogical Imagination (2021)

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