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Dr Katherine Swancutt

Dr Katherine Swancutt (Lecturer in the Anthropology of Religion)Senior Lecturer in the Anthropology of Religion

Tel: +44 (0)20 7848 2623
Address: Department of Theology & Religious Studies
King's College London
Room 3.29, Virginia Woolf Building,
22 Kingsway
London WC2B 6LE



I joined King’s in 2013 and teach the anthropology of religion. In 2016, I launched the Religious and Ethnic Diversity in China and Asia Research Unit (REDCARU) at King’s, of which I am the Director.

I came to King’s from the University of Oxford, where I was a Research Fellow in Social Anthropology on two large research grants, first with the ESRC and then under the AHRC-ESRC’s Religion and Society programme. Before that, I held a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship in Modern Chinese Studies at the University of Cambridge and taught as a Departmental Lecturer at the University of Oxford. I have a PhD in Social Anthropology from the University of Cambridge and three separate BA degrees in Anthropology, Chinese, and Russian from the University of Utah.

My area of research is Inner Asia, where I focus on ‘animistic’ or ‘shamanic’ religions and the ‘anthropology of anthropology’. Having conducted fieldwork on innovative shamanic practices among Buryat Mongols for over a decade, since 2007 I have expanded my field of study into Southwest China, where I work among a Tibeto-Burman ethnic group called the Nuosu. I have also conducted fieldwork among the Deed Mongols of northern China.

Personal Webpage:

Religious and Ethnic Diversity in China and Asia Research Unit (REDCARU):

Research interests and PhD supervision
  • The anthropology of dreams
  • Shamanic and animistic religions
  • Anthropological approaches related to the ‘ontological turn’
  • Chinese anthropology, ethnography, and ethnology
  • Innovative forms of religious or magical practices across Inner Asia
  • Divination, games, the performing arts and other techne that are brought into dialogue with religious themes
  • Ethnic minorities of China and Mongolia

My current research project focuses on dreams, sacred texts, and the ethnological studies carried out by the Nuosu of Southwest China. I have conducted multi-sited fieldwork for this project, travelling between Nuosu villages, a county town, and the city of Kunming, where I studied the dreams of Nuosu anthropologists, priests, shamans, laypersons, and members of ethnological teams who translate their animistic scriptures into Chinese. Nuosu dreams take a variety of forms, including night dreams, waking dreams, lucid dreams, priestly dreams, shamanic dreams, the ideal dream life, scholarly dreams, and more. I suggest that Nuosu dreams shape the ways they envision their cosmos, history, society, and culture.

Building on my study of Nuosu dreams and scholarship, I have undertaken further projects on ‘reflexivity’ and the making of anthropological knowledge within and beyond China (special issue of Social Analysis 2016 and article in Religion and Society: Advances in Research 2016). This research was also central to an ethnographic film that I produced with a Nuosu anthropologist and ethnological team during summer 2016. My upcoming research will build on the study of Nuosu scholarship, through a focus on the relationship between Nuosu animistic religion, ethno-politics, and conceptualisations of the local ‘ecology’.

Some main themes running throughout my work are the study of the human soul; freedom and irony; hospitality and slavery; economies of prestige and value; favours and anti-favours; the nature of challenges and ordeals; pedagogy and virtuosity; joking and the environment; the imagination and materiality; aesthetics and ideas; nostalgia and traditional mediation; reflexivity in fieldwork; and the study of the social sciences within China. I also have long-standing interests in concepts of fortune, luck and fate; heuristics of time and space; divination; games; conflict and witchcraft; and Buddhism.

I welcome enquiries from people interested in undertaking an anthropological PhD with a strong commitment to long-term ethnographic fieldwork in China or Mongolia. Students with other regional interests – and especially those whose research would focus on the anthropology of dreams, animism, or shamanism – are also welcome to contact me about potential PhD projects.

Please email me at if you are interested in any of the events at the Religious and Ethnic Diversity in China and Asia Research Unit (REDCARU).

For more details, please see my full research profile.

Selected publications


  • Katherine Swancutt and Mireille Mazard (eds). 2018. Animism Beyond the Soul: Ontology, Reflexivity, and the Making of Anthropological Knowledge. New York and Oxford: Berghahn. (First published in 2016 as a special issue of Social Analysis 60(1):i-139).
  • Katherine Swancutt. 2012. Fortune and the Cursed: The Sliding Scale of Time in Mongolian Divination. New York and Oxford: Berghahn.

Recent Book Chapters:

  • Katherine Swancutt. 2018. ‘The Anthropological Imaginarium: Crafting Alterity, the Self, and an Ethnographic Film in Southwest China’ in Liana Chua and Nayanika Mathur (eds). Who Are ‘We’?: Reimagining Affinity and Alterity in Anthropology. New York and Oxford: Berghahn.
  • Katherine Swancutt (苏梦林) and Jiarimuji (嘉日姆几). 2018. ‘The Return to Slavery? Nostalgia and a New Generation of Escape in Southwest China’ in James Laidlaw, Barbara Bodenhorn, and Martin Holbraad (eds). Recovering the Human Subject: Freedom, Creativity and Decision. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Pp. 131-147.
  • Katherine Swancutt. 2016. ‘Freedom in Irony and Dreams: Inhabiting the Realms of Ancestors and Opportunities in Southwest China’ in Hans Steinmüller and Susanne Brandtstädter (eds). Irony, Cynicism and the Chinese State. London and New York: Routledge. Pp. 138-154.

For a complete list of publications, please see my full research profile.


I teach the anthropology of religion at all levels. 

Undergraduate Modules

  • 4AAT1009 Introduction to the Anthropology of Religion
  • 5AAT2014 Religion in Ethnographic Perspective
  • 6AAT3801 Anthropological Approaches to Religious Innovation and Questions of Being
  • 6AAT3802 The Anthropology of Dreams, Visions, and Shamanism

Postgraduate Modules

  • 7AATC825 The Anthropology of Ontology and Religious Innovation
  • 7AATC826 Shamanism, Animism, Dreams and Religious Visions
Expertise and engagement

I organise events, including receiving foreign scholars and foreign delegations, for the Religious and Ethnic Diversity in China and Asia Research Unit.

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