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Anthropology|Department of

Ruth Toulson

Assistant Professor

Cultural Anthropology


BA (Hons). Social Anthropology. University of Cambridge, Newnham College. (2001).
MPhil. Social Anthropology. University of Cambridge, Newnham College. (2002).
PhD. Social Anthropology. University of Cambridge, Newnham College (2009).

RTOULSON@uwyo.edu • (307) 766-6921• Anthropology Bldg 206

Ruth Toulson joined the faculty of the University of Wyoming in 2011. She is a Cambridge trained socio-cultural anthropologist whose ethnographic research shifts between sites in Southeast Asia and Mainland China. Her research engages with the particular entanglements of politics, economics, and culture on the Asia Pacific rim.

Her recent work, with ethnic-Chinese in Singapore, considers the personal perils of capitalist modernity, interrogated through the lens of popular imaginings of the dissatisfied dead. While Singapore is often imagined as disenchanted and sterile, Dr. Toulson reveals that in fact its citizens live an extraordinarily rich and hitherto largely undocumented life of interaction with malevolent ghosts, capricious ancestors, and the undead whom they speak of as pervading their homes and public spaces. At present she is working on a book that presents accounts from coffin carriers, gravediggers, and personal shoppers for the dead, who describe their efforts to satisfy both the desires of the dead and the demands of the state. She focuses particularly on the women who tend to the dead and are caught between the competing demands of global capitalism, the patriarchal family, and a moralistic developmental state.

More broadly, Dr. Toulson is interested in the political lives of dead bodies, particularly the circulation of religious relics, bodies, and body parts.

COURSES TAUGHT
Introduction to Cultural Anthropology (1200)
Introduction to Linguistic Anthropology (2000)
Visual Anthropology
Living, Loving, and Dying in Contemporary China.
The Anthropology of Childhood.

RESEARCH INTERESTS

Anthropology of Religion, Chinese Societies, Southeast Asia, Material Culture, Death and Dying.

My research examines the relationship between religion and politics in Southeast Asia, particularly in Singapore. Broadly speaking, I focus on processes of religious transformation: why are some ritual practices discarded, seemingly without regret, while others become orthopraxy? And why do state measures designed to transform citizens’ religious beliefs so often fail?

My current work explores these issues through the lens of the reform of death ritual. In recent decades Singaporean cemeteries have become sites of acute contestation. Confronted with high population density and rapid economic growth, the state has ordered the destruction of every burial ground but one. My book project, Transforming Grief: Life and Death in a Chinese Funeral Parlor, describes this unprecedented transformation of the religious landscape. My ethnographic fieldwork focuses on families who receive the order to exhume, an event that many resist, believing that destroying a grave transforms ancestors into ghosts. Drawing on fieldwork in funeral parlors, I also probe other shifts in Singaporean Chinese mortuary rites, examining why funerals have been simplified, “traditional” mourning garb has vanished, and ancestral altars have been removed from family homes. Broadly, my research invites scholars to rethink the scope of religious transformation and the shifting place of religion in a globalizing, rapidly transforming state. I examine how the religious and the political intersect, offering a new analysis of the connection between the dead body and the body-politic.


SELECTED PUBLICATIONS
In press  “Eating the Food of the Gods: Interpretative Dilemmas in Anthropological Analysis.” Anthropology and Humanism 39 (2).
 
2013  “The Meanings of Red Envelopes: Promises and Lies at a Singaporean Chinese Funeral.” Journal of Material Culture 18 (2): 155- 169.
 
2012  “Ritual Vicissitudes: The Uncertainties of Singaporean Suicide Rites.”  Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry 36 (2): 372 - 390.

2012  “Necessary Mistakes: Reconciling the Unsettled Dead and the Imagined State in Singapore.” In Power: Southeast Asia Perspectives. Liana Chua, Joanna Cook, Nick Long, and Lee Wilson, eds. London: Routledge.
 
2011  “Luxuries for the Dead: The Six Star Columbarium and New Memorialization in Singapore.” Anthropology News 52 (6).





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