Giulio Ongaro

Grant Type

Hunt Postdoctoral Fellowship

Institutional Affiliation

London School of Economics

Grant number

Gr. 10060

Approve Date

October 2, 2020

Project Title

Ongaro, Giulio (London School of Economics) "The 'placebo effect' in highland Laos: insights from Akha medicine and shamanism into the problem of ritual efficacy"

GIULIO ONGARO, London School of Economics, London, United Kingdom, was awarded a Hunt Postdoctoral Fellowship in October 2020 to aid research and writing on “The ‘Placebo Effect’ in Highland Laos: Insights from Akha Medicine and Shamanism into the Problem of Ritual Efficacy.” The project explored the therapeutic value of externalist medical systems. Unlike biomedicine, these are systems in which both the cause and treatment of illness are partly cast onto the social environment. The basis of this research consisted of 19 months of doctoral ethnographic fieldwork conducted among the Akha, a group of swidden farmers living in highland Laos and neighbouring borderlands. The Akha maintain a robust indigenous healing tradition in which sacrificial rituals are performed to counter external afflicting spirits. This fieldwork investigated Akha shamanism, aetiology, and the dynamics of ritual healing. Analysing the ethnographic material from the lens of clinical science — particularly “placebo science” — the thesis argued that externalization significantly broadens therapeutic possibilities and pre-empts stigma on psychiatric illness. Expanding on this thesis, the work conducted during the Fellowship led to the publication of several articles in both medical anthropology and philosophy of psychiatry. It also led to the development of a book manuscript: a prolegomenon to the global history of medicine that, widening the ethnographic scope and challenging the biomedical view of medical history, vindicates the value of shamanic traditions and places them in a more refined comparative perspective.


Ongaro, Giulio, et al. 2022. Why the extended mind is nothing special but is central. Phenom Cogn Sci (2022).

Ongaro, Giulio, et al. 2022. “Towards a Progressive Theory of Myth: Turner and Graeber on Social Creativity.” FocaalBlog, 24 January.

Ongaro, Giulio, et al. 2022. Doctors Speak: A Qualitative Study of Physicians’ Prescribing of Antidepressants in Functional Bowel Disorders. Cult Med Psychiatry.