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. 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. This past summer with the help of student researchers from WSU and Chiang Mai University I gathered preliminary interview data from 50 monks, university students, and psychiatric staff in Northern Thailand. The next phase of the project will be to continue data collection in Sri Lanka and Burma, and to augment qualitative and quantitative interview data in each location with ethnographic participant-observation at meditation retreats and psychiatric hospitals.

Monks and novices at Wat Suan Dok in Chiang Mai

Monks and novices thinking about mindfulness at Wat Suan Dok in Chiang Mai

The Phenomenology of Religious Experience

For the past few years I have been working on a project that investigates 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 project have 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 long longitudinal project on 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 and 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.

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 for the projects 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 go regularly for economic, educational, medical, and spiritual services, and internationally in Southeast Asia and more widely through cross-cultural collaborative research.

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

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

Under review. “The Asanha Bucha Day Sermon: Boring, subversive, or subversively boring?” Under review at The Journal of Contemporary Buddhism. For a special issue on Theravada Buddhist sermons organized by Nicola Tannenbaum.

Under review. “Locating Affect: Feeling supernatural in Thailand.” Under review at The Anthropology of Consciousness. For a special issue on affect theory organized by Ian Skoggard.

Under review. “God, the Devil, and Ghosts: A Thai woman with chronic acute onset, non-affective remitting psychosis.” For a book on Schizophrenia and Culture edited by Tanya Luhrmann and Jocelyn Marrow.

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

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

In press. “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

Back to Top

Heading using the h3tag

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipisicing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

Department of Anthropology, PO Box 644910, Washington State University, Pullman WA 99164-4910, 509-335-3441, Contact Us