Cynthia Chou, Ph.D.

C. Maxwell & Elizabeth M. Stanley Family Chair of Asian Studies

View Current CV

I am a socio-cultural anthropologist with teaching and research interest across all Southeast Asia. My specific area of expertise is the Malay World.  Currently, I am working on the following three research projects: 

(1) The Sea Nomads of Southeast Asia

Over the last three decades, I have been conducting longitudinal ethnographic research on the sea nomads, and in particular, the Orang Suku Laut (People of the Sea) of the Riau Archipelago in Indonesia. Four main themes have oriented my research thus far: (1) representations of what it means to be “indigenous”; (2) development processes; (3) space, place and identity and (4) human-environment interaction. Most recently, in an international collaborative and pioneering project on “The Changing Identity and Sustainability of the Music-Cultures and Worldviews of the Riau Islands’ Sea Nomads and Sedentary Malays”, I carried out an ethnographic study of what environmental and musical sounds mean to the Orang Suku Laut). 

(2) Breast Cancer Meanings in Asia 

Breast cancer is now the most common cancer among women in most Asian countries. Yet, in places where medical services are available, many women are dying of the disease largely due to late presentation. Why is this so? In this collaborative research project with medical practitioners (breast surgeons, public health) at the National University of Singapore, I explore the cultural inhibitions that women in Asia are challenged with that often lead to delayed presentation, diagnosis and treatment of the disease. 

(3) Food, Identity and Social Change

The starting point of this research agenda is that food and foodways are core to the centre of how people define themselves as individuals, classes and nations. In this project, I explore the formation of taste as well as the cultural determinants of human responses to food perception, eating habits and identity formation.

Research Interests

  • Southeast Asia
  • Malay World
  • Comparative Anthropology of Indigenous, Nomadic and Hunter-Gatherer Societies
  • Orang Asli Studies
  • Space, Place and Identity
  • Human-Environment Relationships
  • Development
  • Anthropology of Cancer
  • Anthropology of Food

Selected Publications (Books)

  • The Orang Suku Laut of Riau, Indonesia: The Inalienable Gift of Territory. London and New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group.
  • Chou, Cynthia. 2003. Indonesian Sea Nomads: Money, Magic and Fear of the Orang Suku.  London, New York and Leiden: RoutledgeCurzon, Taylor and Francis Group and International Institute for Asian Studies.
  • Benjamin, Geoffrey and Cynthia Chou (eds.). 2002. Tribal Communities in the Malay World: Historical, Cultural and Social Perspectives. Singapore and Leiden: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies and International Institute for Asian Studies.
  • Chou, Cynthia and Will Derk (eds.). 1997. “Riau in Transition”, Bijdragen Tot de Tall-, Land- en Volkenkunde153, 4e. 
  • Cynthia Chou and Miriam Koktvedgaard Zeitzen (eds). 2018. Breast Cancer Meanings: Journeys across Asia. Copenhagen and Singapore: Nordic Institute of Asian Studies Press and National University of Singapore Press. 
  • Kerner, Susanne, Cynthia Chou and Morten Warmind (eds.). 2015. Commensality: From Everyday Food to Feast. London, New Delhi, New York and Sydney: Bloomsbury.

Courses Taught

  • ANTH:2100 Anthropology and Contemporary World Problems
  • ANTH:2140 Food, Drink and Culture
  • ANTH:3170 Peoples and Cultures of Southeast Asia
  • ANTH:3171 Voices of Islam in Southeast Asia
  • ANTH:5135 Space, Place and Identity
Research areas
  • Sociocultural Anthropology
  • Medical Anthropology
Cynthia Chou
Ph.D., University of Copenhagen (2011)
Ph.D., University of Cambridge (1994)
M.S.S., National University of Singapore (1990)
B.S.S., National University of Singapore (1986)
B.A., National University of Singapore (1985)

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