A Critical Genealogy of Normality
Reference to the “normal” is so well established in our time as a modern cultural and intellectual routine that it is hard to imagine it as having taken on its modern significance only in the course of the nineteenth century. Our ARC-funded project aims to follow the detail of that change, and the emergence of a new set of discourses. The normal, we will argue, was originally conceived in broadly mathematical terms. In the early 19th century, significant changes took place in the field of medical statistics, where a mathematical understanding of the average, the type, and the normal person emerged alongside a contestatory discourse, supported by many doctors, which rejected mathematical calculation in this domain, declaring it to be unsuited to the complex unpredictability of living organisms. To many in the medical field during the first half of the nineteenth century, the choice appeared to be between numerical method and an artistic or instinctive perception of health and illness. For decades these matters remained unresolved. People were in the habit of referring to the “normal state” as the opposite of the pathological one, but the “normal” was difficult to define in both principle and practice. During the later nineteenth century, the focus changed. It was as if medical and anthropological thinkers had given up their attempts to define the normal, and were content instead make the abnormal the object of their attention, thereby begging the question about the standard of normality to which the abnormal was to be referred.
This project aims to demonstrate the ongoing impact of this history on both contemporary medical practices and on the widespread uptake of medical technologies in the pursuit of physical self-improvement. Given the increasing medicalisation of bodies, and the privileged cultural role medicine occupies as a source of knowledge about those bodies, recognising the assumptions about normality built into current medical practice will make for a productive intervention into contemporary debates about medical bioethics and new medical technologies.
A workshop will be held at the Wellcome Instute on 12 December 2014 where the cheif investigators will present their outcomes.
- Professor Peter Cryle, Centre for the History of European Discourses, University of Queensland
- Dr Elizabeth Stephens, Centre for the History of European Discourses, University of Queensland