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An anthropologist’s journey between two worlds

Author: Keith Hart
Reviewer: Olatoun Gabi-Williams
Price: $29.05 (paperback) Amazon

Part 1 of Keith Hart’s Self in the World is entitled Ancestors. It is divided into three chapters – Writing the Self: A Genealogy, Anthropology’s Forgotten Founders and The Anti-Colonial Intellectuals: Thinking New Worlds.

The men he profiles here are his heroes (where are the women?). In their various fields, these personalities are world-renowned for contributions that have shifted paradigms and defined eras. Ancestors include Nigeria’s foremost novelist, Chinua Achebe; Russia’s foremost novelist, Vladimir Nabokov; Henry Adams, American historian and descendant of two US Presidents; Benjamin Franklin, a founding father of America; the Swiss philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Michel de Montaigne, a great philosopher of France’s Renaissance era.

Self in the World: Connecting Life’s Extremes, stands on the shoulders of memoirs written by these men. Amongst them is a long line of anthropologists to whom he pays tribute. They include France’s Marcel Mauss whom he ranks as ‘the most important of anthropology’s modern founders’.

Great leaders of Pan-Africanism feature prominently in the inspiringly sub-titled section Thinking New Worlds:


  • America’s W.E.B Du Bois, co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People [NAACP]
  • Trinidad’s CLR James – most famous for his history of the Haitian revolution, The Black Jacobins
  • Frantz Fanon, Martiniquais psychiatrist and author of the revolutionary manifesto, The Wretched of the Earth.

Considered the most important economic anthropologist of the last 50 years, Keith Hart is best known for coining the concept of the informal economy during his 1971 study of economic activities among rural migrants in Accra, Ghana. It has since become an established area of Development Studies.

By situating his memoir in the biographical traditions he presents in Part 1 of his memoir, Hart demonstrates connection and kinship across time and distance within a genealogy rooted not in class or biology but in dedication to lofty – yet grounded- planetary quests.

Driving the work of this scholarly pantheon is an urgent quest: to “find our way to humanity”. [So evocative of Rumi’s heavenly vision of man’s earthly quest: I came to this earth so that I could find my way to my Beloved]

A pathway to humanity promoted in Hart’s book is the pathway of personal connection with the world. It necessitates an engagement with the human condition as a whole. The book’s title reflects this value and Self in the World, an astonishing and generous book, is organized around this principle. Scroll down the table of contents to find in its sequence, a mirror of our journey into self and out into the world.


Self in the World: Connecting Life’s Extremes, is an important book through which Keith Hart bequeaths to us autobiographical material which not only immerses us but brings us into larger intellectual speculations about the world we live in.

How to remedy the ills of the planet we inhabit? He offers illumination. The informal economy is bedlam; it has taken over the world! Hart comforts us with recommendations rooted in economic wisdom acquired over many years. When he shares tales about his lapses into debilitating mental illness followed by revivals of good health, it is to channel hope: there is for those who have faith and fight, life after death. He addresses human development in terms of economies of scale and recommends we practice scaling ourselves up while scaling down the world around us: a wily device of perspective. The result is that rather than feeling overpowered by the vast world around us, we feel empowered – on top of its chaos.

No two life journeys are the same. In Self in the World, Hart underlines the plenty we have in common while recognizing the uniqueness of each of us as individuals. Numerous examples of that uniqueness are taken from his own life. For example, his peculiar, cosmopolitan history. He is no longer just a local man (at home with loved ones), he has become a global man with a range of specific and deep needs which will be met only if he divides his time between various locations – Durban, Paris and Cambridge. Only Keith Hart knows how uncommon a life Keith Hart has led and a unique, uncommon vision of himself in the world is a bequest of this astonishing memoir. It is bursting with life, multiple lives and it is the best kind of memoir – one which helps each of his readers achieve a clearer picture of our own place in the world.

It is inspiring to see how Keith Hart rejects – in his words, the ‘blinkered habits of specialists’, inviting and celebrating instead, unwieldy thought and wild exploration and teachers! Let children be children. A passionate humanist, social and economic justice for the world is the quest into which he has invested his formidable intellectual energy. His desire is that humanity achieves the fullness and stature of its humanity. The memoir foregrounds the place of movement in healthy human life. He argues “that freedom of movement, not a static concern with the preservation of individual identity should be reinstated as humanity’s priority in the drive to make a viable world society” and he issues a call to action: “If movement is a problem, we urgently need to redress the inequality that causes it”
He proudly sources his thinking in everything and from everywhere, adventuring where angels fear to tread. I’m thinking of his years of living dangerously as a 20-something-year-old in the slums of Ghana. But of the myriad, inspiring parts of the book written not in academese but written for the layman with intelligible and refreshing candour, it is his engagement with modern Africa that is for me the most compelling.


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