My research lies in the areas of medical anthropology, shamanism, and ritual efficacy, with an ethnographic focus on highland Laos. As part of an ESRC-funded PhD, I conducted 19 months of ethnographic fieldwork among the Akha, a group of nonliterate swidden farmers living in highland Laos and neighbouring borderlands. I studied for the first time in detail the Lao Akha medical system – a system based on animism, animal sacrifice and shamanism – examining the knowledge and techniques mastered by Akha shamans, the nosology and aetiology of the system, the phenomenology of ritual healing, and Akha overall medical philosophy. I focused in particular on ritual efficacy – on how healing ritual works and how people think it works.
Parallel to my ethnographic fieldwork, I independently conducted research within the science of ‘placebo effects’ (a field of study that investigates empirically how therapeutic rituals can elicit clinically significant responses) and surrounding areas of cognitive science and philosophy of mind. My interest in the topic developed from a MSc in Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. It continued throughout my PhD at the LSE and led to relevant publications in neuroscience and philosophy journals.
My PhD thesis made novel contributions to medical anthropology by examining Akha healing rituals from the perspective of placebo science. Knowledge of placebo effects allowed me to produce an informed analysis of the workings of Akha healing rituals. Conversely, I showed that the Akha material sheds light on longstanding problems in anthropological theory of rationality, which are captured by the very notion of ‘placebo effect’ and its contradictions. Espousing a kind of anthropology that looks at the ‘other’ for insights into one’s own culture and the human condition, the thesis examined how Akha resolve these contradictions, and what the biomedical worldview can learn from them.
I am currently working on a monograph on the Akha medical system, and on several new projects. These include an anthropological account of 'voodoo death', a series of papers on the 'extended mind', and a prolegomenon to the global history of medicine that looks at the epistemic value of animistic medical philosophies.