Homeopathy as Boundary Object and Distributed Therapeutic Agency. A Discussion on the Homeopathic Placebo Response

Am J Ther. 2018 Jul/Aug;25(4):e447-e452. doi: 10.1097/MJT.0000000000000607.


Background: We discuss homeopathy's placebo effect as the result of a distributed therapeutic agency involving humans, objects, and texts. Homeopathy has been involved in controversies for centuries, and the dispute whether it is therapy or quackery is as lively as ever. Still, homeopathy has retained significant popularity and acceptance within the medical establishment.

Areas of uncertainty: We bracket the issue of biochemical effectiveness of homeopathic remedies as we only discuss homeopathy's potential to elicit a placebo response within its therapeutic alliance, in virtue of its social, symbolic, and material features.

Data sources: The review is based on literature discussing homeopathic effectiveness, including historical, biographical, sociological, and epistemological perspectives. We build upon research that clarifies the therapeutic relationship, examining its activities and meanings for practitioners and patients.

Results: Previous analyses discussing homeopathy's placebo effect stress the importance of the individualized consultation that functions as psychotherapy and generates empathy and hope. We enlarge the discussion, highlighting homeopathy's distributed therapeutic agency across humans, texts, and materials. The historical evolution of homeopathy in relation to biomedicine and science is important to understand its institutional integration into mainstream medicine and its appeal to scientifically minded doctors. Anecdotes of healing and the message of no-harm encourage patients to try homeopathy and hope for the best. The esthetics and ritual of remedies, coupled with computers' scientific legitimacy and time-saving power constitute a material infrastructure of therapeutic persuasion.

Conclusions: Through its relation with biomedicine, its doctrine, consultation design, and treatment rituals, homeopathy offers a powerful medium to elicit a placebo response in a therapeutic alliance. By virtue of its proximity and radical difference from the scientific and biomedical enterprises, its material and textual organization, its storytelling and esthetics, homeopathy offers doctors and patients the opportunity and the tools to collaborate, to witness healing, and to hope for success against adversity.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Homeopathy / methods*
  • Homeopathy / psychology
  • Humans
  • Placebo Effect*
  • Treatment Outcome