Possession, Professional Spirit Mediums, And The Religious Fields Of Late-Twentieth Century Thailand

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This dissertation substantively documents and analytically examines the subculture of Bangkok professional spirit mediums, a relatively novel religious actor on the Thai religious landscape. Drawing on 18 months of fieldwork in Thailand, I argue that Bangkok professional spirit mediums are constituted as individuals, as a social collectivity and as a cultural category through the diverse, ambiguous and contradictory consequences arising out of their pragmatic transactions, symbolic relations and social positioning within a multitude of religious fields. Through the social and ideological labor of cultivating relations, managing boundaries and asserting distinctions of value vis-à-vis a variety of other religious and non-religious actors within a variety of Thai religious fields of action, Bangkok professional spirit mediums make distinctive claims to charismatic authority, authenticity and legitimacy which are only partially and selectively recognized or validated by Thais unfamiliar with their subculture. This dissertation employs an approach to the dynamics of religious fields inspired by Bourdieu's practice theory in order to rethink a number of foundational analytic concepts, models and vocabularies typically utilized in the study of spirit possession in Thailand. I argue that rather than focus on "spirit cults," "Buddhism," "syncretism," and "clients and the social dynamics of therapy," greater interpretive clarity is achieved through an analysis that examines professional spirit mediumship in relation to "modalities of possession," "regimes of Buddhist value," "popular religiosity," and "vocational careers and the social dynamics of entourage building." In addition, this dissertation argues for a deeper and richer historical and sociological contextualization of professional spirit mediums, their ideological claims and their organization of social relations than has previously been achieved in the existing scholarship. By rethinking their historical emergence and social distinctiveness against a backdrop of Buddhist modernism and establishmentarianism, capitalist industrialization, democratization and urbanization, it is revealed that many cultural, social and religious innovations displayed by professional spirit mediums are shared by other actors on the post-World War II Thai religious scene. These include strategies of religious upgrading ("Buddhaization"), organizing a religious calling as a professionalized vocation, the use of devotionalism and esotericism, and embedding religious activities and hierarchies within a partially autonomous networked subculture.

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Spirit Possession; Thailand; Buddhism


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Sangren, Paul Steven

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Holmberg, David Hines
Willford, Andrew C.
Blackburn, Anne M.

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Ph. D., Anthropology

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Doctor of Philosophy

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Government Document




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dissertation or thesis

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