The 'Placebo Effect' in Highland Laos: Insights from Akha Medicine and Shamanism into the Problem of Ritual Efficacy (WGF - Hunt Postdoctoral Fellowship)

Part of the Wenner-Gren Foundation Grant Application Collection Metadata (DRAFT) project

Author(s): Giulio Ongaro

Year: 2021


This resource is an application for the Hunt Postdoctoral Fellowship from the Wenner-Gren Foundation.

How do indigenous practitioners successfully heal? What can we learn from animistic medical traditions? My research has examined these questions through long-term ethnographic fieldwork on the healing practices of the Akha, a group of non-literate swidden farmers living in highland Laos. I documented for the first time in detail the system of Akha healing sacrifices and their shamanic tradition. Taking an interdisciplinary approach, I explored the question of efficacy by drawing from the burgeoning science of 'placebo effects,' a field of study that has considerably advanced our understanding of the effective elements of rituals. Analysing the Akha ethnographic material through the lens of 'placebo science' offered new ways of interpreting the efficacy of Akha therapies and refined previous anthropological theories. It also revealed that Akha own ideas about efficacy and aetiology capture some fundamental aspects of the causal dynamics implicated in illness and healing, which biomedicine, for instance, overlooks. I argued that this finding vindicates the value of animistic healing practices. Accordingly, it sheds new light on old anthropological debates on 'rationality.' The implications of the argument extend beyond anthropology to inform larger debates in global history of medicine and science, as well as biomedical practice. During the Hunt Fellowship, I will complete a book manuscript for this project.

Cite this Record

The 'Placebo Effect' in Highland Laos: Insights from Akha Medicine and Shamanism into the Problem of Ritual Efficacy (WGF - Hunt Postdoctoral Fellowship). Giulio Ongaro. 2021 ( tDAR id: 468651) ; doi:10.48512/XCV8468651

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Spatial Coverage

min long: 100.316; min lat: 17.768 ; max long: 105.15; max lat: 21.635 ;

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Contact(s): Wenner-Gren Foundation


Rights & Attribution: This resource is an application from the Wenner-Gren Foundation and has been approved by the grantee solely for pedagogical purposes. Please do not cite, circulate, or duplicate any part of these documents without the express written consent of the author.

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