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Elizabeth Elliott

Elizabeth Elliott


Year of start: 2011 (Part-time)

Subject: Medical Anthropology

Provisional Dissertation Title

A Medical Landscape in Laos

Research Topic

Traditional medicine practice in rural Southern Laos.


David Napier (Anthropology)
Therese Hesketh (Institute of Child Health)


There has been comparatively little research undertaken in post-revolutionary Lao PDR, especially on local or 'traditional' medical practices, which act as primary health care for a large proportion of the mostly rural population who are often unable to access other healthcare; but have been very little documented or institutionalized in comparison to surrounding Asian countries. My research seeks to explore and deconstruct concepts of 'embodied communities' (Hughes-Freeland 2008), 'traditional knowledge', and the 'creation of continuity through ritual' (Evans 1998), by ‘mapping’ a contemporary ‘medical landscape’ of a lowland area of Southern Laos. It aims to provide an ethnographic account of ‘traditional’ medical practices in Laos, including a description of different healing modalities, health culture and beliefs, palm leaf manuscripts, plant use, everyday health practices, community-based healthcare and government policy. It will examine how these practices can be best protected and researched in a context of rapid knowledge erosion and environmental change; most practitioners are elderly, and the loss of biodiversity is affecting the availability of medicinal plants.

As well as documenting the use, cultivation and preparation of traditional medicines, specific research questions I seek to answer include a discussion of how ‘traditional’ medicine knowledge in Laos is constructed, remembered and practiced; how Lao ideas and experiences of health, such as ‘being Sabaai’ are embodied and enacted through bodily practice and social processes; and how medical and health practices engage with and occur within the changing ‘natural’, social, political and religious landscape. My fieldwork will consist of a period of study and research in Vientiane, followed by a year of rural fieldwork in Southern Laos studying with Maw Yaa (healers), and using ethnobotanical surveys and mapping techniques, and village-based participant observation with a focus on the knowledge of the elderly.

I am working closely with the government-run Institute of Traditional Medicine and the Faculty of Pharmacy, University of Health Sciences in Vientiane, in order to examine the relationship between government policy, the production and promotion of traditional medicine and its integration into the developing healthcare system. I am also collaborating with a French research team ( to form a multi-disciplinary project on anti-malarial plants in the context of emerging drug resistance, and to work towards the publication of a book on medicinal plants in Laos. This research builds upon more than 10 years of experience in studying and practising Asian medicines, and is supported by the International Society of Ethnopharmacology.

Research Interests

  • East & South-East Asian Traditional Medicine
  • Ethnobotany, Medical Anthropology
  • Malaria
  • Anthropology of the body and embodiment
  • Touch, vision, blindness

Academic Background/Education

2011: MSc Medical Anthropology, University of Oxford

2008: BSc (Hons) Traditional Chinese Medicine, Middlesex University; BM Traditional Chinese Medicine, Beijing University of Chinese Medicine. Dissertation: The use of Qinghao (Artemisia Annua L.) in the treatment of Malaria.

2004-present: Clinical experience of acupuncture, massage, herbal medicine: Beijing, China; Kunming, China; Chiang Mai, Thailand; Asante Academy of Chinese Medicine, London; Archway and Whittington Hospitals, London; own practice, Oxford.

Honours and Awards

2014: Nina Etkin Young Researcher Award, International Society of Ethnopharmacology

2014: Slawson Award, Royal Geographical Society

2011: Distinction for MSc Dissertation, University of Oxford: "Tactile Vision: Against an Essentialised Sensory Anthropology."


Fieldwork funding: International Society of Ethnopharmacology, Royal Geographical Society, Sutasoma Foundation

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