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Winner of the Sue Benson Prize in 2018

last modified Aug 06, 2018 02:22 PM

Every year, the department awards a prize of £200 to the most outstanding IIB dissertation. The prize is named in memory of Dr Sue Benson (1955-2005), an anthropologist who lectured, supervised and directed studies in Cambridge for 26 years and was an inspiration both personally and intellectually for generations of students.

We are pleased to announce the winner for this year’s Sue Benson prize for the best Undergraduate dissertation this year.  Jamie Booth, King's College is the winner this year.  His dissertation is entitled, 'An Ethnographic Study of a Mindfulness Course in the UK'.

Jamie commented, "Most people will have seen the word ‘Mindfulness’ somewhere. It is advertised in diverse places; through aggressive internet popups, inside London Underground tubes (perhaps ironically), and increasing recommended by the NHS. An entire shop opposite King’s College is dedicated to Mindfulness meditation, shop windows adorned with various depictions of Buddha and multi-coloured crystals for good measure. 


 A quick Google search of ‘Mindfulness’ will show that it is a set of meditative practices, centred on breathing, body, and sometimes thought. These practices originate in Buddhism, but have recently been developed by psychologists into a programme of cognitive therapy to help alleviate feelings apparently inherent in the modern west – depression, anxiety and stress. The requirements of this therapy – people practise daily ten-minute guided meditations usually for eight weeks – are seen as an attractive alternative to chemical treatment of mental health problems. 


Taking part in an eight-week Mindfulness class at university, my dissertation investigated a set of tantalizing anthropological questions about Mindfulness and meditation in the modern world. Why do people meditate? What of its Buddhist roots remain? How does this relate to self-identity and decision making? I conclude that the typical description of the modern individual – alienated, atomistic and helplessly lost – is at best reductive, at worst hindered by ideological bias. Instead I demonstrate how Mindfulness was used to help those I met live and even thrive within modernity. On my course, we used the meditations as practices of self-care, a temporary escape from the hustle and bustle of the everyday. The freedom of each individual enabled them to take more or less from the practice dependent on choice of interpretation – a far cry from the powerless figure lost in modernity. 


I am of course very happy and grateful to win the Sue Benson Prize. I would like to thank James Laidlaw, not only for patiently supervising the dissertation (which was started late), but also for three years of guidance through the often perplexing world of anthropological thought. I am also indebted to my good friend Nick Hendy, who took time out of his apparently busy revision schedule to extensively criticize my grammar. Finally, I would like to thank all those involved with Mindfulness at the university, and hope they continue to provide superb support to students – it is much needed.