‘Slaughter your sacred cows’

Kate Abney

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. People make meaning from TB in different ways, and have done so across societies the world over, from the advent of written texts in ancient China to visual representations in postindustrial North America and Europe (Chalke 1962). Despite my own misgivings about my writing (which were many), I adored this section of my dissertation, all twenty-two pages of it. In a word, it was my favourite. It was the piece of writing of which I felt most proud, and (for once) I thought it was actually good.

Unbeknownst to me, this section had become my sacred cow; it was a piece of writing that I held dear – perhaps a bit too dear. Writing a dissertation, one invests countless hours and energy to meticulously craft each piece that demonstrates a constituent part of the overall argument. But sacred cows slowly morph into a class of writing that appears to be beyond critique, and this metamorphosis can be dangerous. When I received the external examiners’ reports there were a few issues to work through before the final submission, and very little time. However enthusiastic the examiners were about the quality of the research that contributed to the TB and the arts section, one reviewer thought it detracted from the chapter as a whole. The recommendation was to delete it entirely from the final dissertation.

Given the window of time to make corrections, I had to act speedily, though I was extremely disappointed and upset at the prospect. Deleting the whole section was the last edit I made to the final dissertation. Despite the many advantages of computer technology – its tools and time-saving benefits – the process was painful. I imagine that most every doctoral student experiences this strange sense of loss. One takes care to bring words into sentences and paragraphs and pages, and yet they are, in the end, so disposable. No piece of writing is too precious to be considered beyond criticism, no piece of writing is beyond the ‘delete’ button.

To recognise my own sacred cow, others with more experience helped me see that a particular piece of writing did not, ultimately, theoretically ‘fit’ into the final product. Here, the literal and figurative ‘letting go’ (the metaphorical slaughter, if you will) was the most challenging aspect for me – but why? As irrational as it sounds, simply pressing ‘delete’ was really difficult. Economic philosophers explain that people have difficulty making rational decisions about things in which we have invested time, effort, or money, calling this the ‘sunk-cost fallacy’ (see Dobelli 2013, 17–19). For example, one might sit through a terrible film from start to finish, or complete an unpalatable meal at a restaurant. The similarity to my sacred cow is this aspect of personal investment. The irrational (but understandable) thinking that comprises the sunk-cost fallacy, as Dobelli (2013, 19) explains, ‘is most dangerous when we have invested a lot of time, money, energy or love in something’. Indeed, carrying on with a project that is not working, yet justifying it by the amount of personal investment to date, only increases the amount of costs sunk. Inevitably, the cost of the meal, the cost of the movie ticket, or the hours invested in a particular piece of writing are all irretrievable. This was probably one of the hardest realisations I experienced during my PhD. I was forced to let go of the hours of intellectual investment on this section, delete it, and move on.

There may be, of course, some projects that one might continue to pursue, despite the sunk costs or the sacred cows. But in the end, I found this advice invaluable: it helped me think not only about my intellectual investments to date, but about the costs and benefits for the future. I came to see that my sacred cow has a silver lining: the section on TB and the arts does not have to be ‘deleted’ forever, and may yet find a home in another publication. For those pieces of writing one labours over, but do not seamlessly ‘fit’ into the dissertation, this is good news.

About the author

Kate Abney received her PhD from the University of Cape Town, South Africa, in June 2014. Currently she manages the ‘First 1000 Days of Life’ project and lectures in the Social Anthropology division. Her postgraduate research focused on the social experience of tuberculosis (TB), TB-related stigma, lay aetiologies, and paediatric inpatient treatment experience. Her research interests include: maternal and child health, nutrition and access to food, infectious disease, and the medical humanities. She received the Monica Wilson Award (2013), gave a TED Talk (2014), and participated in a newly released MOOC: ‘Arts and the Humanities’ through Futurelearn and the University of Cape Town (2015).


Chalke H. D. 1962. ‘The Impact of Tuberculosis on History, Literature and Art’, Medical History 6(4): 301–318. 
Dobelli, Rolf. 2013. The Art of Thinking Clearly. London: Sceptre.
Farmer, Paul. 1996. ‘Social Inequalities and Emerging Infectious Diseases’, Emerging Infectious Diseases 2(4): 259–269.