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Anthropology | Julia Cassaniti

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

Research Interests

Social Anthropology, Psychological Anthropology, Medical Anthropology, Cognition, Mental Health, Religious Experience, Gender/Sexuality, Temporality, Technology, Affect, Agency, Theravāda Buddhism, Contemporary Society in Thailand, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Japan, and across Transnational South/East Asia.

I am engaged in research examining the co-construction of culture and mind, with an ethnographic focus on Buddhist and other spiritual practices of Southeast and East Asia. In my work I ask how ontological assumptions about the mind are constructed in and through cultural/religious practice; how they are interwoven into the psychology of everyday social life in the region; and the implications these have for understanding global health and well-being. I teach undergraduate and graduate level courses based on these interests in anthropological theory, culture, mind, religion, and the body, and supervise MA and PhD students on projects engaging with these issues in medical and psychological anthropology.

Current Research

Impermanence: Culture, Change, and Mental Health 

For the past twenty years I have been engaged in a longitudinal, cross-cultural research project that examines Buddhist ideas about impermanence, and their implications for cognition and mental health in a changing world. Through interviews and ethnographic fieldwork I am drawing out some of the complex ways that local notions of impermanence are connected non-attachment, moral causation (karma), personhood, and resilience. The project engages with issues of gender, sexuality, emotion, and new forms of modern subjectivities, and involves comparative work in Buddhist and Christian communities in Northern Thailand and the United States. Work on this project can be found in Living Buddhism: Mind, Self, and Emotion in a Thai Community (Cornell U. Press, 2015), winner of the American Anthropological Association’s Stirling Prize for Best Published Book in Psychological Anthropology. More recently the project has turned to an investigation of impermanence (mujō) in Tōhoku, an environmentally and socially precarious region of central Japan. Exploring the personal meanings of approaches to transience in individual lives, the study of impermanence adds to our understanding of the social construction of reality, and the positive therapeutic potential of attending to change in programs of Global Mental Health.

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Technologies of Attention: Cultural Variation in Attention, Cognition, and Perception

How do the ways we attend to our environment affect what we see? In a wide-reaching research project on perception and attention I am seeking to understand globally-variable patterns of well-known cognitive heuristics, and their foundations in cultural practices of attention. I am especially interested in the frequency bias, a quirk of perception in which a phenomenon to which one is newly alert suddenly seems ubiquitous. Say you want a new car, and suddenly the car you’re attuned to seems to be everywhere. A new word or phrase appears, and then appears again, even that same day. Why does this happen, and why does it happen to some people more than others? Through cross-cultural interviews, observation, and ethnographically-grounded experiments, I explore variation in this common perceptual phenomenon, with an eye for its relationship to  social media use, marketing, mental illness, and predictive theories of perception.  Comparative and collaborative, the project is currently collecting data from Thailand, England, Japan, and the United States, with plans to expand across Asia, Europe, and around the world. the work engages with issues of perceptual experience and reality-building that are at the center of questions about culture and mind.

Spirits of the Mind, Spirits of the Land 

How are ideas about spirits embedded in a cultural landscape, and how do ideas about their presence impact the health of the mind and environment? Spiritual energies are thought to circulate in psychological and physical space in many parts of the world, inviting people to engage with their surroundings in intriguing, patterned ways. The practical means by which people deal with these forces are thought to have implications for bodily, mental, and environmental health, from psychological dissociation and spirit possession to haze pollution brought on by contract farming and more. The work currently involves two ongoing projects:

Spiritual Phenomenology: The Cultural Kindling of Religious Experience

Here I investigate the felt experience of religion in order to contribute to our understanding of the cultural kindling of spiritual encounters. In collaboration with Tanya Luhrmann and colleagues at Stanford University, I am involved in a large, Templeton-funded collaborative project on Spiritual Curiosity and the Mind, comparing theory of mind among Buddhists and Christians in Thailand with those of groups of evangelical Christians and others in the United States, Ghana, China, Vanuatu, and South Asia. We are currently examining perception and mentality in conceptions of the spiritual at the Suan Prung Psychiatric Hospital in Chiang Mai to continue this work.

Cosmopolitical Ecology: Spirits of the Land and Capital in a Changing Environment

Air pollution caused by agricultural burning is an increasingly recognized health crisis around the world, and in Southeast Asia it is reaching critical levels, especially during the dry summer months, when farmers burn their fields to make way for new crops. In my work on cosmopolitics I am investigating shifting attitudes about land and spirits in Northern Thailand, pointing to the ways that ideas about spirits change when people grow crops in contract farming to sell to agrobusinesses, and are less likely to carry out traditional rituals of propitiating spirits of the land. I show how even what appears to be material engagements also themselves invoke spiritual, cosmopolitical attitudes involving the spectre of global capitalism. Together, the work on spirits and culture demonstrates some of the ways that people respond to cultural invitations in the construction of the mind, and the implications this has for mental and environmental health.     

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

 

Mindfulness in Southeast Asia

Cassanitiphoto3Finally, in this ongoing project I investigate the meanings and practices of sati, a Pali-language Buddhist term that was first translated as mindfulness over a hundred years ago, and that is now influencing ideas about the mind and mentality at a global level. Based on ethnographic data I gathered from more than 600 monks, psychiatrists, and lay Buddhist practitioners in the Theravāda areas of Thailand, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka, the project reveals some of the cultural aspects of mindfulness considered central to the workings of mental health in the region. I have found connections between mindfulness and an attention to memory in present-moment awareness; the power and potency of supernatural and political effects; an emphasis on the multiplicity of a transient self; and particular social and ethical orientations to living well. These connections, while central to thinking about mindfulness in South/East Asia, are largely absent in Western conceptions of the mind. The research from this project was recently published as Remembering the Present: Mindfulness in Buddhist Asia (Cornell U. Press 2018) along with a continuing series of articles in journals and books of psychiatry, religion, and culture. In the work I argue for a greater appreciation of the cultural diversity within contemporary global mindfulness practices, and suggest possibilities for further developing mindfulness’ global therapeutic potential.

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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, but has increasingly expanded through comparative, collaborative work to trace movements of ideas about the mind and body across Asia and around the world.

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Books

 

Cassaniti, Julia. 2015. Living Buddhism: Mind, Self, and Emotion in a Thai CommunityIthaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

 

 

 

Cassaniti, Julia and Usha Menon, eds. 2017. Universalism Without Uniformity: Explorations in Mind and Culture. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

 

 

 

Cassaniti, Julia. 2018. Remembering the Present: Mindfulness in Buddhist Asia. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

 

 

 

Selected Research Publications

Cassaniti, Julia. 2019. “Keeping It Together: Idioms of Resilience and Distress in Thai Buddhist Mindfulness.” Transcultural Psychiatry, 56(4): 697-719. In a special issue on idioms of distress.

Cassaniti, Julia. 2018.“Wherever You Go, There You…Aren’t?” In Meditation, Buddhism, and Science. David Mitchell and Erik Braun eds. Oxford University Press. 131-152.  

Cassaniti, Julia. 2016. “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. 167-179.

Cassaniti, Julia. 2015. “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.

Cassaniti, Julia. 2015.  “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.

Cassaniti, Julia L and Tanya Marie Luhrmann. 2014. The Cultural Kindling of Spiritual Experiences. Current Anthropology. DOI: 10.1086/677881. (In German: Cassaniti, Julia and Tanya Luhrmann. 2017. “Die kulturelle Erweckung spiritueller Erfahrung.” Zeitschrift fűr Anomalistik, 16:85-114.)

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

Cassaniti, Julia. 2014. “Meditation and the Mind: Neurological and Clinical Implications of Buddhist Practice” In Panitan: Chiang Mai University’s Journal of Philosophy and Religion, 7-30.

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

Cassaniti, Julia. 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.

Cassaniti, Julia. 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.

Cassaniti, Julia. 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.

Cassaniti, Julia. 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.

Cassaniti, Julia. 2011. “Encountering the Supernatural: A Phenomenological Account of Mind.”; Co-authored with Tanya Luhrmann (Stanford U). Religion and Society, 2: 37-53.

Cassaniti, Julia. 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.

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

Cassaniti, Julia. 2002. “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
  • ANTH 554 – Anthropological Field Methods

Undergraduate

  • ANTH 490 – Integrative Themes in Anthropology
  • ANTH 390 – History of Anthropological Thought
  • ANTH 303 – The Anthropology of Religious Experience
  • ANTH 302 – Childhood and Culture
  • DIVR 203 – Global Cultural Diversity

Student Research Projects

  • Miranda Wootton (M.A.) “Mindreading” and the Learning of Cultural Theories of Mind in Cognitive Behavioral Therapeutics: A Comparison of the United States and Thailand
  • Jason Hwanjin Chung (Ph.D.)  Drug Addiction Treatments, Attachments, and Models of the Person in the Global South
  • Xinyi Zhao (M.A.) Psychiatric Approaches to Psychosis and Normality in Thai Theories of Mind
  • Daphne Weber (Ph.D.) Bhikkhuni ordination: Healing Among Thai Female Monks at the Margins
  • Piyawit Moonkham (Ph.D.)  Mythscapes: An Ethnohistorical Archeology of Space and Narrative of the Naga in Mainland Southeast Asia
  • Anna Jordan (Ph.D.) Incarcerated Morality: The Navigation of Moral Personhood Among Recently Released Prisoners in Southern California
  • Chaise Jung (M.A.) An Ethnographic Study of Dreams and Migration in Tonga
  • Roxanna King (Ph.D) Witchcraft Beliefs in Southeastern Cameroon
  • Mihiret, Mesganaw (Ph.D) Imagined Placemaking: Tizita, “Place-Based Nostalgia,” and the Creation of Immigrant Selves Among Amhara Ethiopians in Minnesota, USA
  • Matthew Newsom  (Ph.D) The Politics of Dreaming: Collective Memories, Emotion, and Imaginaries in Berlin
  • Emily Casillas (Ph.D) Mothering Practices in indigenous communities in Lima, Peru
  • Chia Hinchliff (M.A. A Thread of Continuity: Spiritual Journey Through Yarn in Honor of Wixarika Ancestors in Mexico
  • Jessica McCauley (M.A.) The Embodiment of Knowledge: Djinn Healing in Mali

 

Dr. Cassaniti can be contacted via email or phone (509.335.8224) about these and related issues.

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