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Ron’s presentation on Spirit Possession

Ron presented at the conference on  Spirit Possession: Global and Multidisciplinary Perspectives.

Read his abstract below or download the presentation.

Spirit possession in Southern Thailand – linking biology, social context and meaning

Associate Professor Ronald Fischer, Victoria University of Wellington and Tina Tasananukorn, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, NZ.

Spirit possessions are a central aspect of Taoist-Buddhist practices among the Sino-Thai communities in Southern Thailand. These practices find their most visible expression each year during the nine day Vegetarian Festival, celebrated during the first nine days of the ninth lunar month in honor of the Nine-Emperor God. During this period, thousands of spirit mediums go into trance and perform various acts of divination, blessing and self-mutilation. These acts are puzzling due to the apparent endurance of extreme pain, but are seen as acts of supernatural power among local community members. In order to understand these dynamics better, together with a small team of researchers, we have conducted a series of multimethod studies over the last five years, incorporating various surveys, in-depth interviews, observations, physiological measures and historical analyses. In this presentation, we will provide an overall summary of the emerging picture related to the social status and experiences of spirit mediums. Overall, our findings suggest a complex interaction of biological and social variables describes best the emergence and popularity of spirit mediumship in this particular population. Individuals with (biological) vulnerabilities are more likely to become spirit mediums. Interestingly, economic vulnerabilities and socio-economic status appear less important than in Western societies. Yet, these vulnerabilities that in Western societies often lead to marginalization and stigmatization are channeled into a socially acceptable and valuable cultural expression, that elevates the social status of the spirit mediums and thereby allows them to fully participate in social life and provides them with a unique opportunity to fulfill highly valued social roles. Our case study shows that spirit possession is a multi-faceted expression that needs to be unpackaged using multi-disciplinary approaches. It also provides new insights for psychological help, as it highlights the importance of social acceptance and cultural dynamics.

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