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Ruth Toulson

Ruth E. Toulson

Ruth E. Toulson joined the faculty at MICA in Fall 2015. She is a Cambridge trained socio-cultural anthropologist (PhD 2009) whose ethnographic research shifts between sites in Southeast Asia and Mainland China. Her current research examines the relationship between religion and politics in Southeast Asia, particularly in Singapore. Broadly, she focuses 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?

Her 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. In her book project, Transforming Grief: Life and Death in a Chinese Funeral Parlor, Toulson documents this unprecedented transformation of the religious landscape. Her 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, Toulson 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, her research invites scholars to rethink the scope of religious transformation and the shifting place of religion in a globalizing, rapidly transforming state. She examines how the religious and the political intersect, offering a new analysis of the connection between the dead body and the body-politic.

SELECTED PUBLICATIONS

2014  “Eating the Food of the Gods: Interpretative Dilemmas in Anthropological Analysis.” Anthropology and Humanism 39 (2). 159 – 173. 

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).