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"

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.