Why do so many of us aspire to be “normal?” Who decides what’s normal and abnormal? What happens to our self- and social- worth when we discover that we aren’t “normal?” In a recent article, “How Did We Come Up with What Counts as Normal,” Jonathan Mooney discusses the rise of an idea that has acquired substantial power in modern society. Mooney notes that “normal’ entered the English language only in the mid-19th century and has its roots in the Latin “norma” which refers to the carpenter’s T-Square. It originally meant simply “perpendicular.” Right-angles however, are considered mathematically “good” and “normal” soon came to be associated not just with their description of the orthogonal angle, but also with the normative notion of something that is desirable or socially expected. Mooney argues that it is this ambiguity as both a descriptive word and as a normative ideal, that makes “normal” so appealing and powerful.
“Normal” was first used in the academic disciplines of comparative anatomy and physiology. For academics in these and other fields, “normal” soon evolved to describe bodies and organs that were “perfect” or “ideal” and also was used to name certain states as “natural”. Eventually, thanks largely to the field of statistics, ideas about the normal soon conflated the average with the ideal or perfect. In the 19th century, for example, Adolphe Quetelet, a deep believer in the power of statistics, advanced the idea of the “average man” and argued that “the normal” (i.e., average) was perfect and beautiful. Quetelet characterized that which was not “normal” not simply as “abnormal,” or non-average, but as something potentially monstrous. “In 1870, in a series of essays on “deformities” in children, he juxtaposed children with disabilities to the normal proportions of other human bodies, which he calculated using averages.” Thus, averages soon became the aspirant ideal.
Mooney also describes how the statistician Francis Galton, who was Charles Darwin’s cousin, “…was both the first person to develop a properly statistical theory of the normal . . . . and also the first person to suggest that it be applied as a practice of social and biological normalization.” “By the early twentieth century, the concept of a normal man took hold. Soon, the emerging field of public health embraced the idea of the normal; schools, with rows of desks and a one-size-fits-all approach to learning, were designed for the mythical middle; and the industrial economy sought standardization, which was brought about by the application of averages, standards, and norms to industrial production. Moreover, eugenics, an offshoot of genetics created by Galton, was committed to ridding the world of human “defectives.”
The ensuing predominance (some might say “domination”) of “the normal” became firmly established by the mid-20th century. Mooney points out however, that the normal was not so much “discovered” as it was invented, largely by statistics and statisticians, and promulgated by the social sciences and moralists. “Alain Desrosières, a renowned historian of statistics wrote, “With the power deployed by statistical thought, the diversity inherent in living creatures was reduced to an inessential spread of “errors” and the average was held up as the normal—as a literal, moral, and intellectual ideal.”
“How Did We Come Up with What Counts as Normal,” Jonathan Mooney, Literary Hub August 16, 2019
Normal Sucks: How to Live, Learn, and Thrive Outside the Lines, Jonathan Mooney, Henry Holt and Co., 2019
For information on social norms (formal and informal norms, morays, folkways, etc.) see https://courses.lumenlearning.com/alamo-sociology/chapter/social-norms/ and “What is a Norm?”