Rethinking Anthropological Models of Spirit Possession and Theravada Buddhism

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  • 1 University of Michigan edwhite@umich.edu
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ABSTRACT

Anthropological studies of spirit possession in Theravada Buddhist worlds continue to be strongly shaped by many of the theoretical presumptions embedded in the analytic models proposed by the earliest generation of scholars. The ability of subsequent theoretical developments in the discipline to influence analyses of spirit possession, Theravada Buddhism, and the relationship between them has been hindered in recent decades by the limited institutionalization of the anthropology of Buddhism as a shared, comparative research agenda. This article re-examines anthropological models of spirit possession in Theravada Buddhist South and Southeast Asia in light of three theoretical developments in anthropology in the final decades of the twentieth century—the critique of culture, the rise of practice theory, and the historical turn. Incorporating these developments more fully will, it is argued, advance a more analytically robust and empirically nuanced framing of both Buddhism and spirit possession as objects of future anthropological study.

Contributor Notes

ERICK WHITE is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Michigan. His research explores the cultural politics of popular religion in Thailand, the subculture and religious careers of Bangkok professional spirit mediums, and the socio-cultural dynamics underlying claims to Buddhist charismatic authority and legitimacy. He completed his dissertation, “Possession, Professional Spirit Mediums, and the Religious Fields of Late-Twentieth Century Thailand,” in 2014. He is the author of “Fraudulent and Dangerous Popular Religiosity in the Public Sphere” (in Spirited Politics, 2005) and “Contemporary Buddhism and Magic” (in The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Buddhism, 2017), among other publications. E-mail: edwhite@umich.edu

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