UCL Anthropology


Elizabeth Elliott

Elizabeth Elliott

UCL Email: elizabeth.elliott.11@ucl.ac.uk
Websites: www.elizabethelliott.co.uk
Year of Start: 2011 (part-time)
Supervisors: Joe Calabrese,  Michael Heinrich (Pharmacy), David Napier
Subject: Medical Anthropology
Fieldsite: Laos

PhD Research

A medical landscape in Laos

Ya pheun meuang, 'traditional' or 'local' medicine is widely popular in Laos and has a high socio-political value, but in contrast to other Asian countries, it has not been systematised or reinvented. Healers use a variety of treatment methods including herbal decoctions, ritual and spiritual techniques, based on unique transmitted knowledge and the collection of materials in the wild, and various modalities are practised within families. In rural society this still represents a significant portion of healthcare, despite rapid knowledge and biodiversity loss in the current era.

This research aims to map a contemporary 'medical landscape' in southern lowland Laos, exploring how diverse but intertwined practices are used and engage with the changing natural, social, political and religious landscape. Based on 18 months fieldwork with rural healers, patients, villagers, health staff and government workers, it examines the complexities of accessing rural healthcare by following illness narratives and exploring  therapeutic encounters and concepts of efficacy. How do people negotiate this medical landscape in order to achieve health?  What is 'health' in the Lao context, and how is it created and enacted through social and bodily processes?

Locating this work at the interface of medical anthropology and ethnopharmacology, and incorporating aspects of material culture, I argue that keeping the plant at the 'forefront' of research is a valuable ethnographic method, both practically and theoretically. I explore encounters with plants, emphasising specific techniques and their role in social relations. In the creation of a medicine, the plant and human bodies are materially and socially linked, and thus can yield insights both into the construction of medical knowledge and the culture of health and illness.

As part of a broader project in collaboration with the Institut de Recherche pour le Développement and Champasak Regional Hospital, applied aspects include research into remedies for fevers and liver disease, working towards the creation of medicinal plant gardens and documenting traditional medical knowledge in a little-studied area. Working closely with healers and hospital staff, I hope to evolve a longer-term scheme to assist in knowledge and biodiversity protection.

Alongside my own research, I work as a consultant and project manager of public health and development research, both in Laos and internationally, including work on malaria, nutrition, child health and liver cancer; and am a practitioner of Asian medical therapies.

Research Interests

  • Laos & Southeast Asia
  • Asian medicines
  • Ethno-botany/pharmacology
  • Critical & applied medical anthropology  
  • Global & public health, malaria, maternal & child health, liver cancer
  • Anthropology of the body & sensory anthropology
  • Healing ritual


Issues, barriers and facilitators that influence access to malaria interventions for people living in the Mekong border regions of Lao People’s Democratic Republic, WHO publication, 2018

Issues, barriers and facilitators that influence access to immunisation programmes for people living in the Mekong border regions of Lao People’s Democratic Republic, WHO publication, 2018

Peum Tamla Ya Pheun Meuang (Book of collected traditional medicine prescriptions), with Champasak Hospital Traditional Medicine Department & Institut de Recherche pour le Développement, Laos, 2016

Analysis of Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Margaret Lock, "The Mindful Body: A Prolegomenon to Future Work in Medical Anthropology." Forthcoming at www.macat.com, 2013

Presentations & Conferences

Conference & panel organisation
  • 'Traditional’ medicine in rural Laos: continuity and governmentality. History of Medicine in Southeast Asia 9th meeting, Vientiane, Laos, 2018.
  •  Traditional Herbal Knowledge in the 21st century: Research, Challenges and Future Prospects (Grand Challenges of Human Wellbeing series). Interdisciplinary symposium & workshop co-organiser, UCL School of Pharmacy, 2017. 
  • The Creation of Efficacy in Southeast Asian Healing Practices. Panel co-convenor, European Association for Southeast Asian Studies Conference, University of Oxford, 2017. 
  • Indigenous Legal Mentoring and Understanding. Workshop organisation assistant, UCL, 2014.
Conference papers & presentations
  •  Phisanu: the "Active Ingredient" of lowland Lao medicine. European Association for Southeast Asian Studies Conference, University of Oxford, 2017
  • Plants are Like People: the production of medicinal plant knowledge in lowland Laos. "Plant Worlds" Symposium, University of Kent, 2017 
  • A Medical Landscape in Laos - 'Traditional' Medical practices in the rural South - as part of panel Social forms of health: Ongoing investigations in Laos. 4th International Society of Lao Studies Conference, Bangkok, Thailand, 2016. 
  • A Medical Landscape in Laos: An anthropological approach to documenting traditional medicine practice in the rural South. 16th Congress, International Society of Ethnopharmacology. Yulin, China 2016. 
  • A survey of traditional medicine practice in Southern Lao PDR. 3rd Symposium on Botanical Research in Tropical Asia, Vientiane, Laos, 2015. 
  • A Medical Landscape in Laos (& acceptance of Nina Etkin award). 14th Congress, International Society of Ethnopharmacology, Puerto Varas, Chile, 2014.
Seminar papers
  •  Tying the souls and binding relationships in the Lao home: metaphor, performance and tactility. ArgO-EMR Seminar Series, Socialities of the Hearth, University of Oxford, 2017.

Teaching Experience

  • Oxford Royale Academy: Anthropology Gap Year programme, course writer, teacher & thesis supervisor, 2017
  • Institut de la Francophonie pour la Médecine tropicale and Faculty of Pharmacy, University of Health Sciences, Vientiane: Guest lecturer, medical anthropology/ethnobotany, 2015-16
  • Escuela Internacional "Etnofarmacología: del conocimiento tradicional al científico y del científico a la sociedad" (Columbia, by skype): Lectures on using an anthropological approach in ethnopharmacology research, 2015
  • St. Clare's School, Oxford Prospects & Regent School, Oxford: English for general & academic purposes, 2014-17

Education History

  • MSc Medical Anthropology, University of Oxford. Dissertation (distinction): Tactile Vision: Against an Essentialised Sensory Anthropology
  • BSc Traditional Chinese Medicine, Middlesex University (clinical placement in Beijing). Dissertation (1st): The Use of Qinghao (Artemisa Annua L.) in the Treatment of Malaria.

Honours, Awards & Funding

  • UCL Grand Challenges grant for interdisciplinary workshop Traditional Herbal Knowledge in the 21st Century.
  • Nina Etkin 'Young Researcher' Award, International Society of Ethnopharmacology
  • Slawson Award, Royal Geographical Society
  • Fieldwork grant, Sutasoma Foundation

Additional Information

Research Consultancies & Project Management

  • COCLICAN Collaborative consortium for the early detection of liver cancer, Assistant project manager (EU 3-year grant, international research consortium based in Peru/Laos/France/Belgium/Lithuania) (IRD), 2018 -
  • World Health Organisation: Study of access and barriers to malaria and immunisation programmes in Mekong border regions, Laos, 2017
  • Save the Children: SCALING Nutrition baseline survey among mothers and children in the Northern uplands, Laos, 2018
  • Researcher, project coordinator, editor, interpreter as part of a multi-disciplinary team with the Institut de Recherche pour le Développement/Pharma-Dev UMR 152, Laos. 2014 -
  • Research intern, Anthrologica (health research consultancy), 2013-14
  • Academic consultant (medical anthropology) for Mouseion, 2013-14

Asian Medicine & Ethnobotany

  • Professional massage diplomas (UK/China/Thailand); self-employed practitioner, Traditional Thai & Chinese Bodywork, 2010 -
  • Clinical placements in acupuncture and herbal medicine, London/China 2005-8
  • 'The Ethnobotanical Assembly' online forum for research on human-plant relationships