Stirling Prize 2016 for Best Published Work in Psychological Anthropology: Julia Cassaniti
A valuable contribution to psychological anthropology and the anthropology of religion. —Jack David Eller
Living Buddhism: Mind, Self and Emotion in a Thai Community (Cornell University Press, 2015) investigates Theravada Buddhist teachings on impermanence, attachment, and karma as understood by a small group of people in a rural area of Northern Thailand. The Buddhist teaching of impermanence emphasizes the idea that change is a fundamental aspect of the world; Living Buddhism demonstrates how the Buddhist teaching of impermanence affects the ways that people think and feel about themselves and their surroundings. Emotion is key because it is largely through affective engagements, including ritual and interpersonal ones, that people practice thriving in a world of change. By showing how cognitive constructs and affective practices are tied up in everyday experiences with teachings that emphasize constant change, Julia Cassaniti argues that emotion cannot be considered an individual or state-based phenomenon, but rather as part of interpersonal (intersubjective) relationships of social groups. Cassaniti makes this argument through personal narratives of individuals over time, and in doing so engages with anthropological questions about the role of elite and non-specialist knowledge and personal agency. The book includes an extended case study of a man named Sen, who develops a debilitating addiction to alcohol and eventually finds himself in a series of regional hospitals for liver cirrhosis.
Tracing the ways that Sen and his family and friends (including a group of Christian, Karen neighbors from a village nearby) understand his problems and those of others around him, the book demonstrates how emotion and mental health work in the everyday lives of people in Northern Thailand. Inspired by Shweder and LeVine’s Culture Theory: Essays on Mind, Self and Emotion, Living Buddhism: Mind, Self and Emotion in a Thai Community offers new ways to think about the role of the individual in local and global worlds. Written in a highly accessible, narrative style, Living Buddhism is geared to appeal to university students and scholars of cultural, psychological, and medical anthropology. Jack David Eller provides a full review of the book here.
Julia Cassiniti is an assistant professor of anthropology at Washington State University. Her research focuses on religious experience, culture, and cognition in Southeast Asia.
Condon Prize 2016–17 for Best Student Paper in Psychological Anthropology: Amir Hampel
In Chinese cities, young college graduates are eagerly discussing new possibilities for self-definition. However, in a society long tied together by kinship, young urbanites have limited institutional, cultural, and psychosocial resources with which to construct an identity: in a sea of strangers, many people feel adrift. In an article titled “Equal Temperament: Autonomy and Identity in Chinese Public Speaking Clubs”, Amir Hampel presents Beijing personal growth groups as sites for articulating tentatively liberal social imaginaries, and as therapeutic institutions that help people to connect with strangers.
The article draws on a year and half of fieldwork on popular psychology in China, dissertation research that focused on how young adults use concepts from self-help to articulate both social critiques and personal projects. Scholars have shown that psychological interventions often serve to create self-managing subjects, people who work hard on themselves in the name of self-actualization. However, this article argues that members of public speaking clubs are not only learning new modes of self-management, but also adapting to the possibilities, dangers, and psychosocial demands of life among strangers. Many young professionals in Chinese cities are eagerly studying what are called communication skills; they say that they are worried about the “job interview”, but also about the “date.” Entering Toastmasters public speaking clubs in Beijing, we see psychosocial techniques and institutional forms that aim to anchor people otherwise floating in an undefined urban space. While a highly individual subject appears on stage before an audience of equal peers, new forms of social connection come into view offstage. By coming together to learn to talk to strangers, club members reconfigure historical consciousness, social affiliation, and daily interaction.
It is vital for us to think about how young adults are striving to find themselves by connecting to others in rapidly changing and often alienating urban environments. During this critical period of identity formation, the possibility of integrating into social life depends on unevenly distributed cultural, institutional, and psychosocial resources. Young Chinese urbanites are getting on stage because, like their peers elsewhere, they are learning the power and the necessity of self-definition in a world of strangers.
Hampel’s paper will be published in a forthcoming issue of Ethos.
Amir Hampel is a PhD student in Comparative Human Development at University of Chicago. His research focuses on cultural psychology, culture and anxiety, social identity, social anxieties, globalization, and China.
Tawni Tidwell and Kathy Trang are contributing editors for the Society for Psychological Anthropology’s AN column.