Bioethics Blogs

‘Slaughter your sacred cows’

The title of this essay stems from a practical piece of advice handed down to me from a senior lecturer in the Social Anthropology division at the University of Cape Town. Similar to many (if not all?) PhD students, I was a bit daunted by the task of writing my dissertation, which focused on the experiences of paediatric tuberculosis (TB) inpatients in a TB treatment hospital, and so I asked her for advice. Allow me to clarify: I was not prone to procrastination at any stage of my research, though the work was emotionally intense and physically exhausting. The writing and editing stages, however, were a completely different challenge, one that required the perspective of others who had ‘been there, done that’. She advised me: ‘Slaughter your sacred cows’.

In drafting the dissertation, I employed a great deal of biomedical information relating to TB. As is the transdisciplinary nature of medical anthropology, I incorporated extensive TB medical history: the history of sanatoriums globally, epidemiological and physiological information, the most current treatment strategies, and public health statistics in South Africa. I also included the social history of TB and its relation to language, metaphor, and the creative arts more broadly. I invested much time on this section, and both my advisor and I agreed it was important to illustrate the enduring relationships between an infectious epidemic disease and human populations in the arts. TB, in particular, vividly demonstrates the ongoing structural violence experienced by many around the globe (Farmer 1996), as well as the multitude of social relationships to a biological condition.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.