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Anthropology | Julia Cassaniti

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

Research Interests

Psychological anthropology, medical anthropology, cognitive bias, Theravāda Buddhism, mental health, religion and ritual, gender/sexuality, time, technology, affect, agency, contemporary social issues in Thailand and across 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 Southeast 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 Masters and PhD students on projects relating to medical and psychological anthropology.

Current Research

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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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 Dr. Cassaniti interviewing a local man about his encounter with the spirit of a brother-in-law.University and others I are using this research in a large, collaborative project on Spiritual Curiosity and the Mind, comparing religious experiences of Buddhists in Thailand with those of groups of evangelical Christians in the United States, Ghana, China, Vanuatu, and Southern Asia.

Living Buddhism

For the past fifteen 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. My first book, 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, and 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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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.



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




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




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



Selected Articles

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.




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


  • 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

  • Jason Hwanjin Chung (Ph.D.)  Drug Addiction Treatments and Models of the Person in the Global South
  • Xinyi Zhao (M.A.) Psychiatric Approaches to Psychosis and Normality in Thailand
  • Daphne Weber (M.A.) Bhikkhuni ordination: 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: Prison inmates and the navigation of moral personhood
  • Chaise Jung (M.A.) Dreams and Migration in the Tonga
  • Roxanna King (Ph.D) Witchcraft Beliefs in Southeastern Cameroon
  • Mihiret, Mesganaw (Ph.D) Theories of Personhood among Jewish Ethiopian Immigrants
  • Matthew Newsom  (Ph.D) Psychobilly Music and Pretend Play Violence in Berlin
  • Emily Casillas (Ph.D) Mothering Practices in indigenous communities in Lima, Peru

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