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Anthropology | Julia Cassaniti

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

Research Interests

Psychological anthropology, medical anthropology, cognition and culture, Theravāda Buddhism, mental health, religion and ritual, gender/sexuality, time, technology, 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 Buddhist practice, my research is about ways that religious ideas are interwoven into the psychology of everyday life in contemporary Thailand and around the world. 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

Living Buddhism

For the past ten years I have been engaged in 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 engages with issues of gender, sexuality, emotion, and new forms of modern subjectivities. It is at times explicitly comparative, involving work in a Chrisitan Karen Thai village and with other globalizing identities and cultural practices throughout Asia. My most recent book Living Buddhism: Mind, Self, and Emotion in a Thai Community (Cornell University Press, 2015) draws from this research and argues for an alternative conception of agency and mental health through a local religious attention to change.

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Villagers in a Buddhist Northern Thai Community gather for a funeral, a parade,
and a music festival in celebration of life and death.

The Phenomenology of Religious Experience

Along with a close attention to Buddhist thought I have also been investigating the experience of religion from a broad 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 and others I have used this research to compare religious experiences of Buddhists in Thailand with those of groups of evangelical Christians in the United States and Southern Asia.

Cassaniti 3 websize_235x155Dr. Cassaniti interviewing a local man about his encounter with the spirit of a brother-in-law.


Mindfulness in Southeast Asia

My most recent 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, where it has long been a central part of the region’s history and society. I investigated mindfulness as part of cultural constructions of health and well-being, paying special attention to its connections in Buddhist philosophy, local politics, and global flows of power and knowledge. With the help of student researchers from WSU, Chiang Mai University, the University of Peradeniya, and the University of Mandalay, we gathered interview, observational, and large-scale survey data from monks, university students, and psychiatric staff. I am currently writing a book about mindfulness practices based on this research, with a focus on ethnographic participant observations at meditation retreats and area psychiatric hospitals, to be published by Cornell University Press in 2017. For more information about the travel and research on this project, read the article in CAS Connect.

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Villagers, monks and psychiatrists in Myanman (Burma), Thailand,
and Sri Lanka share experiences with Buddhist concepts of mindfulness.

All of my research projects are grounded in and driven by the personal experiences of 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 South, East and Asia, tracing regional and global impacts at the intersection of psychology, religion, and health.

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

Representative Publications

In Press. Cassaniti, Julia. “Wherever you go, there you…Aren’t?” In Buddhist Studies and the Scientific Study of Meditation. David Mitchell and Erik Braun eds. Oxford University Press

2016. Cassaniti, Julia and Tanya Luhrmann. “Die kulturelle Erweckung spiritueller Erfahrung.” Zeitschrift fűr Anomalistik, 16:85-114.

2016. Cassaniti, Julia. “Return to Baseline: A Woman with Chronic Acute Onset, Non-Affective Remitting Psychosis in Thailand.” In Our Most Troubling Madness: Case Studies in Schizophrenia across Cultures. Tanya Luhrmann and Jocelyn Marrow (eds). University of California Press.
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2015. Cassaniti, Julia. Living Buddhism: Mind, Self, and Emotion
in a Thai Community
.
Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

2015. Cassaniti, Julia. “The Asanha Bucha Day Sermon: Boring, subversive, or subversively boring?” The Journal of Contemporary Buddhism, 16(1): 224-243. In a special issue on Theravada Buddhist sermons.

2015. Cassaniti, Julia. “Intersubjective Affect and the Embodiment of Emotion: Feeling Supernatural in Thailand.” The Anthropology of Consciousness, 26(2): 132-142. For a special issue on affect theory.

2014. Cassaniti, Julia L and Tanya Marie Luhrmann. The Cultural Kindling of Spiritual Experiences. Current Anthropology. DOI: 10.1086/677881.

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

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

2014. Cassaniti, Julia. “Buddhism and Positive Psychology.” Positive Psychology of Religion and  Spirituality Across Cultures. Chu Kim-Presto, ed. Springer Press. p.101-124.

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. Cassaniti, Julia. “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. Cassaniti, Julia. “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. Cassaniti, Julia. “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. Cassaniti, Julia. “Encountering the Supernatural: A Phenomenological Account of Mind.”; Co-authored with Tanya Luhrmann (Stanford U). Religion and Society, 2: 37-53.

2009. Cassaniti, Julia. 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. Cassaniti, Julia. “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. Cassaniti, Julia. “Meditation at the Mall.” Seeds of Peace: Journal of Engaged Buddhism and Asian Issues. Sathirakoses-Nagapradeepa Foundation. 18(2), 25-26.

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Courses

Graduate

  • ANTH 591 – Religion and the Body
  • ANTH 522 – Culture and Mind

Undergraduate

  • ANTH 490 – Integrative Themes in Anthropology
  • ANTH 390 – History of Anthropological Thought
  • ANTH 303 – Gods, Spirits, Witchcraft and Magic: The Anthropology of Religion
  • ANTH 302 – Childhood and Culture
  • DIVR 203 – Peoples of the World

Current Students

  • Peter Crivellaro (Ph.D), Perception and Subjectivity among Thai forest monks
  • Chia Randise-Hinchliff (M.A.), Identity, Psychological Engagement and Inequality in the Art of the Mexican Huichol
  • Piyawit Moonkham (M.A.), Ethno-Historical Archaeology of Naga Myths in Northern Thailand
  • Jason Chung (Ph.D), Substance use and Society in South Africa and Southeast Asia
  • Chris Lanphear (B.A.), Buddhist practice and mental health in the U.S. Pacific Northwest

I encourage prospective students to contact me via email or phone (509.335.8224) about these and related issues.

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A monk walking through monastery grounds at Wat Suan Dok in Chiang Mai, Thailand