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Anthropology | Julia Cassaniti

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

Research Interests

Social Anthropology, Psychological anthropology, Medical anthropology,
Theravāda Buddhism, Mental Health, Religion and Ritual, Culture and Cognition, Gender/Sexuality, Temporality, Technology, Affect, Agency, Contemporary Social Issues in Thailand, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Japan and across Transnational South/East Asia.

I am a Psychological and Medical Anthropologist working on issues surrounding the intersection of mental processes, cultural variation, and religious practice. With a focus on Buddhist practice in South/East Asia, my research is about ways that religious ideas and ontological assumptions are interwoven into the psychology of everyday life around the world, and the implications of these connections for global 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 MA and PhD students on projects relating to medical and psychological anthropology.

Current Research

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

How does the way we attend to our environment affect what we see? In a wide-reaching project on perception and attention in cultural context I am seeking to understand patterns of cognitive biases and their foundations in cultural practices of attentional training. I am currently engaged in a large study on what is called the frequency bias, a quirk of perception in which a phenomenon to which one is newly alert suddenly seems ubiquitous. Through interviews, observation, and experiments I am exploring variation in this perceptual experience in relation to social media use, mental health, meditation, and predictive processing. This comparative, collaborative project is centered in Thailand and the United States, with plans to expand across Asia and around the world. It speaks to larger issues at the intersection of culture and mind.

A Cross-Cultural Study of Buddhist Impermanence, Social Change, and Mental Health

I am currently engaging in a new project investigating conceptions of impermanence (mujō) in Japan, as part of ongoing research into the societal implications of Buddhist transience in a rapidly changing world. Exploring the personal meanings of Japanese approaches to change in the lives of people living through personal and social upheaval, the project speaks to the social construction of reality, and the positive therapeutic potential of attending to change. This work continues my larger interest in Buddhist interpretations of impermanence for their expression in social life, and the implications these expressions have in the development of programs for Global Mental Health.

Living Buddhism

For the past twenty 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 Christian Karen Thai village and with other globalizing identities and cultural practices throughout Asia. The book that came out of this work, Living Buddhism: Mind, Self, and Emotion in a Thai Community (Cornell University Press, 2015), won the 2016 AAA Stirling Prize for Best Book in Psychological Anthropology. It draws from this research to argue for an alternative conception of agency and mental health through a local religious attention to change.

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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 what we call a cultural kindling hypothesis, along with new anthropological approaches to theory of mind, and relationships between affect, intersubjectivity, and the supernatural. In collaboration with Tanya Luhrmann at Stanford University I am carrying out this research 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 preparing an ethnographic project on perception and mentality at the Suan Prung Psychiatric Hospital in Chiang Mai to continue this work.

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

 

Mindfulness in Southeast Asia

Cassanitiphoto3My most recent research project is a grounded, empirically-driven investigation of Buddhist mindfulness (Pali: sati) in the Southeast Asian Theravadan countries of Thailand, Myanmar (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 psychiatrists in the region. Remembering the Present: Mindfulness in Buddhist Asia relates this research, and suggests cultural variations in temporality, affect, power, ethics, and selfhood (TAPES) for mindfulness practices around the world.

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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 Articles

2019. Cassaniti, Julia. “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.

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

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.

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. (In German, 2017. Cassaniti, Julia and Tanya Luhrmann. “Die kulturelle Erweckung spiritueller Erfahrung.” Zeitschrift fűr Anomalistik, 16:85-114.)

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
  • 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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