Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

Thin Description: Ethnography and the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem

Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

Thin Description: Ethnography and the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem

Article excerpt

Thin Description: Ethnography and the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem. John L. Jackson Jr., Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2013, 404 pp.; reviewed by Miciah Z. Yehudah (Archivist, Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection, Temple University).


In Thin Description, John L. Jackson Jr. critiques the traditionally hegemonic position heavily guiding disciplinary ethnography, one that has its adherents to view their accounts as the exclusive authorities on phenomena irrespective of the narratives created by the actual research subjects. Jackson suggests that ethnography should refrain from the Geertzive impulse to offer the authoritative or thick text (1), and rather, accept the painful but liberating reality that ethnography is only one way to skin the proverbial cat. Hence, Jackson recommends a "thin" description that itself requires thorough analysis, but avoids the arrogant assumption that it could capture everything there is to know about active and living research subjects that are already utilizing multiple methods to document their own experiences. Brilliantly woven into 45 short thematic chapters, the text features everything from Jackson's thoughts about ethnographic dilemmas such as sincerity, authenticity, and working in an era of globalization, to musings from various members of the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem (AHIJ) regarding their ideas of "divine" business endeavors, immortality, and race.

Here, Jackson's essential concern is with how the members of AHIJ community utilize various forms of media to propagate their critique and corrective of the encompassing environments, and the extent to which the community's approach to chronicling their experiences revolved around notions of race and spirituality. He utilizes the case of the AHIJ to display how groups such as these are complicated for scholars, not only for their beliefs, but their interest in and awareness of academic discourse. Rather than waiting to be studied, AHIJ constituents have already began to study and write on themselves, and have used media to assist in the process, or, in Jackson's words, mastered the "youtubification" of their experiences (2). Although Jackson's text is more a treatment of the question of ethnography than an exhaustive interrogation of the history of the AHIJ it does highlight certain peculiarities.

For example, in Chapter Six (Exiles) Jackson is critical of the notion that ethnographers are conferred some type of legitimacy for being the first to arrive at the field site. Jackson wisely interrogates that notion of pioneer status, questioning what happens when (as in the case of Jackson's first visit to the community in Dimona, Israel) the Arrival Scene experience is not a solitary experience. (3) Jackson poses another powerful question to challenge that idea of ethnographic legitimacy, when he wonders aloud what it means when other unknown individuals travel with the researcher to experience the same phenomena he is hoping to study.

An additional concern Jackson addressed in his text was the issue of sincerity. In typical ethnographic studies researchers question whether their subjects are responding to prompts with honesty. However, with the more alienated groups, such as the AHIJ, the ethnographer must do more of an "Ethnographic Dance" (4) to assure the research subjects that the study is sincere, even in cases in which the responses appear implausible to the investigator. Throughout the text, this quandary materializes often.

In the chapter "Visitations" Jackson explains how during one of the "sacred visitations" tours, members of the AHIJ tour company seemed to display a "bizarre obliviousness" as a muted television broadcast heightened tensions due to the State of Israel's ongoing attempt to remove Palestinian settlers from claimed territory. (5) Later in the text, Jackson discussed the AHIJ use of technology under the moniker of "redemptive enterprises" (6) wherein one case, the group attempted to promote a device that would truncate television programs by deleting unnecessary repetitive frames in the broadcast. …

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