College of Arts and Sciences

Department of Anthropology

Dr. Julia Cassaniti


Ph.D., University of Chicago
Assistant Professor
Cultural Anthropology: Psychological/Medical Anthropology


Current Research - Courses - Publications

 

Research Interests

Psychological anthropology, medical anthropology, cognitive psychology, Theravāda Buddhism, mental health, religion and ritual, gender, affect, agency, contemporary social issues in Thailand, Southeast Asia.

I am a psychological and medical anthropologist working on religious experience, culture, and cognition in Southeast Asia. With a focus on Buddhism, my research is about ways that religious ideas are interwoven into the psychology of everyday life in contemporary Thailand. This interest ties into a broader curiosity about the role of culture (that is, shared historical imaginings, ideologies and behaviors) in mental practices and processes. To that end I have been conducting ethnographic research for the past ten years in a small Northern Thai community, focusing on a range of phenomena that speak to local connections between ontology and psychology, and their implications in the wider world of health and well-being. My teaching draws from these interests: I teach undergraduate and graduate level courses on anthropological theory, culture, mind, religion, and the body, and supervise Masters and PhD students on projects relating to medical and psychological anthropology.

 

Current Research

Mindfulness in Southeast Asia

My latest research project is a grounded, empirically-driven investigation of Buddhist mindfulness (Pali: sati) in the Southeast Asian Theravadan countries of Thailand, Burma, and Sri Lanka. The experience of mindfulness is investigated in connection to well-being, Buddhist philosophy, local politics, and global flows of knowledge among people in countries with a long history of engagement with the concept. In the first half of 2014, with the help of student researchers from WSU, Chiang Mai University, the University of Peradeniya, and the University of Mandalay, I gathered interview data from monks, university students, and psychiatric staff. I am currently writing a book about mindfulness in practice based on this research, augmented with ethnographic participant observations at meditation retreats and area psychiatric hospitals.

Monks and novices at Wat Suan Dok in Chiang Mai

Monks and novices taking part in research about mindfulness at Wat Suan Dok in Chiang Mai

The Phenomenology of Religious Experience

Since 2010 I have been investigating the experience of religion from a phenomenological perspective, asking what a range of religious practices from meditation techniques to encounters with the supernatural feel like on the skin and through the eyes, nose, mouth, ears and mind. Data from this research has been used in articles on cultural variation of the social kindling hypothesis, new anthropological approaches to theory of mind, and relationships between affect, intersubjectivity, and the supernatural. In collaboration with Tanya Luhrmann at Stanford University I have also used this research to compare the religious experiences of Buddhists in Thailand with those of groups of evangelical Christians in the United States and India.

Dr. Cassaniti interviewing a local man about his encounter with the spirit of a brother-in-law

Dr. Cassaniti interviewing a local man about his encounter with the spirit of a brother-in-law

Living Buddhism

For the past ten years I have been working on a longitudinal project that examines the cognitive and social psychology of Buddhism in everyday life. Through long-term ethnographic fieldwork I am drawing out some of the complex ways that local notions of health and well-being are connected to Buddhist ideas of impermanence, non-attachment, and intention (karma). The project touches on issues of gender, sexuality, emotion, new forms of modern subjectivities, and includes comparative research in a Christian Karen Thai village and medical research at physical and psychiatric hospitals in the region. A book based on this research will be published in 2015 by Cornell University Press.

Celebration at Wat Gu temple in the countryside to Open the Eyes of the Buddha

Celebration at Wat Gu temple in the countryside to 'Open the Eyes of the Buddha'

 

All of these research projects are grounded in and driven by the personal experiences of my informants and augmented with theory drawn from the fields of anthropology, psychology and religious studies. The main research site is a small rural community in the far Northwest of Thailand, where I have been conducting field visits twice yearly since 2002. Small-scale, long-term participant-centered fieldwork is complemented with data collection in the larger urban setting of Chiang Mai, where villagers regularly go for economic, educational, medical, and spiritual services. More recently this research has expanded into other areas of Southeast Asia, tracing regional and global impacts at the intersection of psychology, religion, and health.

Cassaniti being welcomed into a Poy Luang festival parade celebrating the construction of a new temple building

Dr. Cassaniti being welcomed into a Poy Luang festival parade
celebrating the construction of a new temple building.

I encourage prospective students to contact me via email or phone about these and related issues.

Courses

Graduate
  • ANTH 591 - Special Topic: Culture and Mind
  • ANTH 591 – Special Topic: Religion and the Body
Undergraduate
  • ANTH 390 - History of Anthropological Thought
  • ANTH 302 - Childhood and Culture

Wai khru: Students in the Fine Arts Department paying respect to their teachers on the Chiang Mai University campus

Wai khru: Students in the Fine Arts Department paying respect to their teachers
on the Chiang Mai University campus

Representative Publications

In Press. Living Buddhism: The Psychology of Everday Life in Buddhist Thailand. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Accepted. “Intersubjective Affect and the Embodiment of Emotion: Feeling Supernatural in Thailand.” The Anthropology of Consciousness. For a special issue on affect theory organized by Ian Skoggard.

Accepted. “A Social Kindling of Spiritual Experience.” Current Anthropology. (with Tanya Luhrmann, Stanford University)

2014. “Moralizing Emotion: A Breakdown in Thailand.” In Anthropological Theory. Part of a special issue on morality organized by Julia Cassaniti and Jacob Hickman.

2014. “Meditation and the Mind: Neurological and Clinical Implications of Buddhist Practice” In Chiang Mai University’s Journal of Philosophy and Religion.

2014. “Buddhism and Positive Psychology.” For an edited volume Positive Psychology of Religion and Spirituality Across Cultures. Chu Kim-Presto (College of New Jersey), ed. To be published by Springer Press, Spring 2014.

2013. “Melford Spiro: Psychological Anthropologist of Buddhism in Southeast Asian Society” John McGee and Richard Warms, eds. Theory in Social and Cultural Anthropology: An Encyclopedia. SAGE Publishers.

2013. “The Rural Radio DJ.” In Figures of Southeast Asian Modernity, Joshua Barker, Erik Harms, and Johan Lindquist, eds. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press.

2012. “Agency and the Other:  The Role of Agency for the Importance of Belief in Buddhist and Christian Traditions.” Ethos: The Journal of Psychological Anthropology. 40(3): 297–316.

2011. "The constitution of mind: what’s in a mind? Interiority and boundedness: Calling in the souls: The kor khwan ritual in Thai spiritual encounters.” Co-authored with Joel Robbins (UCSD) and Tanya Luhrmann (Stanford U). In a special issue organized as part of a Stanford Conference on “Anthropological Theories of Mind.” Suomen Antropologi, The Finnish Anthropological Society, 36 (4): 15-20.

2011. "Encountering the Supernatural: A Phenomenological Account of Mind."; Co-authored with Tanya Luhrmann (Stanford U). Religion and Society, 2: 37-53.
 
2009. Control in a World of Change: Emotion and Morality in a Northern Thai Town. PhD dissertation, Department of Comparative Human Development, The University of Chicago.

2006. “Toward a cultural psychology of Impermanence in Thailand." Ethos: The Journal of Psychological Anthropology. The Condon Prize for Best Graduate Essay in Psychological Anthropology. 34(1), 58-88

2002. "Meditation at the Mall." Seeds of Peace: Journal of Engaged Buddhism and Asian Issues. Sathirakoses-Nagapradeepa Foundation. 18(2), 25-26.

A monk walking through monastery grounds at Wat Suan Dok

A monk walking through monastery grounds at Wat Suan Dok

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