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Rebecca Seligman

Associate Professor of Anthropology

PhD, Anthropology, Emory University, 2004

Rebecca Seligman is a medical and psychological anthropologist who focuses on transcultural psychiatry, or the study of mental health in cross-cultural perspective. Her research interests involve critical examination of the soci-structural factors that affect the experience and distribution of mental and physical illness, with an emphasis on understanding the mechanisms through which social experiences become embodied. Seligman is interested in the relationships of stress, social disadvantage, and social identities to outcomes such as dissociation, somatization, diabetes, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Her work also explores the links between culture and neurobiology, and she is co-editor of the Oxford Handbook of Cultural Neuroscience. Her past research has explored the connection between mental health and religious devotion in northeastern Brazil. Her book on this research is titled Possessing Spirits and Healing Selves: Embodiment and Transformation in an Afro-Brazilian Religion.

Before joining Northwestern's faculty, Seligman completed a postdoctoral fellowship, funded by the Canadian Institute of Health Research, in McGill University's psychiatry department. Her work has been published in academic journals in the fields of health, psychiatry, and anthropology, and was featured in the magazine Discover. The National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, and the William T. Grant Foundation have provided support for her research. Seligman’s public scholarship on health and medicine has appeared in outlets including STAT News, Scientific American, and the LA Review of Books.

Current Research

Culture, Selfhood, and Psychiatric Diagnosis Among Mexican Youth. This project investigates the disproportionately high levels of depression, anxiety, and suicidal behavior among Latino youth in the United States. In particular, Seligman’s study examines sociocultural influences on the ways in which Latinx youth and their families conceptualize and experience their emotions, relationships, social identities and sense of self—and how such influences affect their help seeking and experiences with mental healthcare. The study also investigates how cultural and social differences are addressed by clinicians within mainstream contexts of care.

Social Distress, Embodied Meaning and Medically Unexplained Illness.  Seligman’s latest project is a collaborative exploration of the role of personal and social meanings in shaping how bodily sensations and physiological processes are perceived.  In particular, Seligman and her collaborator, Dr. Maddalena Canna, a postdoctoral fellow in anthropology, are investigating the bio-sociocultural processes through which women come to disproportionately suffer from medically unexplained conditions like Conversion Disorder, also known as  Functional Neurological Disorder.

Selected Publications

Seligman, R. 2022. Metaphor and the politics and poetics of youth distress in an evidence-based psychotherapy. Transcultural Psychiatry, 13634615211066692.

Canna, M., and R. Seligman. 2020. Dealing with the unknown: Functional neurological disorder (FND) and the conversion of cultural meaning. Social Science and Medicine 246:112725.

ojalehto mays, b., D. Medin, and R. Seligman. 2020. Cognition beyond the human: Cognitive psychology and the new animism. Ethos 48(1): 50–73.

Seligman, R. 2018. Mind, body, brain and the conditions of meaningEthos 46(3): 397–417.

Seligman, R. 2017. “Bio-looping” and the psychophysiological in religious belief and practice: Mechanisms of embodiment in Candomblé trance and possession. In The Palgrave Handbook of Biology and Society, ed. M. Meloni, J. Cromby, D. Fitzgerald, and S. Lloyd, 417–39. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Seligman, R., S. Choudhury, and L.J. Kirmayer. 2015. Locating culture in the brain and in the world: From social categories to an ecology of mind. In The Oxford Handbook of Cultural Neuroscience, ed. J. Chiao, S. Li, R. Seligman, and R. Turner. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Seligman, R. 2014. Possessing Spirits and Healing Selves: Embodiment and Transformation in an Afro-Brazilian Religion. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.

Seligman, R., E. Mendenhall, M. Valdovinos, A. Fernandez, and E. Jacobs. 2014. Subjectivity and self-care among Mexican Americans with diabetes. Medical Anthropology Quarterly 29(1): 61–79.    

Seligman, R. 2010. The unmaking and making of self: Embodied suffering and mind-body healing in Brazilian Candomblé. Ethos 38(3): 297–320.

Mendenhall, E., R. Seligman, A. Fernandez, and L. Jacobs. 2010. Speaking through diabetes: Rethinking the significance of lay discourses on diabetes. Medical Anthropology Quarterly 24(2): 220–39.

Seligman, R., and R. Brown. 2009. Theory and method at the intersection of anthropology and cultural neuroscience. Social, Cognitive, and Affective Neuroscience.

Seligman, R., and L Kirmayer. 2008. Dissociative experience and cultural neuroscience: Narrative, metaphor, and mechanism. Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry 32(1): 31–64.