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The Invention of "Normal"


The Invention of "Normal"

Thomas Whitley

Todd Rose has a piece over at The Atlantic titled "How the Idea of a 'Normal' Person Got Invented." The piece is an excerpt from a book at his and tells the fascinating story of Adolphe Quetelet. Quetelet was the first person, Rose tells us, to apply the common astronomical practice of averaging measurements to humans. His research expanded out from measuring chest sizes to include work on suicides and other aspects that had been previously neglected as too messy and unknowable. While Rose tells an interesting story, his fundamental argument is wrong because his fundamental assumptions are misguided. Rose concludes:

Quetelet’s invention of the Average Man marked the moment when the average became normal, the individual became error, and stereotypes were validated with the imprint of science. These assumptions would eventually prompt generations of parents to worry if their child did not develop according to the average milestones, and cause almost everyone to feel anxiety when their health, social life, or career deviated too far from the average.

The first problem with Rose's claim that Quetelet marks the beginning of "average" or "normal," is that for Quetelet, as Rose points out, the Average Man was the perfect man, not the person most like everyone else who would never stand out from the crowd and make a name for himself.

But for Quetelet, the Average Man was perfection itself, an ideal that Nature aspired to, free from error.
“Everything differing from the Average Man’s proportions and condition, would constitute deformity and disease,” Quetelet asserted. “Everything found dissimilar, not only as regarded proportion or form, but as exceeding the observed limits, would constitute a Monstrosity.” He also pronounced, “If an individual at any given epoch of society possessed all the qualities of the Average Man he would represent all that is great, good, or beautiful.”

By Rose's own admission, our conception of average is actually almost exactly the opposite of Quetelet's. Beyond that, though, Rose's fundamental assumption is that the idea of "normal" did not exist before it was measured mathematically, but historians such as myself know that the idea of "normal" did not first come on to the scene in the early 19th century. Indeed, in my area of study - early Christian heresiology - we can trace ancient attempts to define certain beliefs and practices as normal (read: orthodox) while defining those of opponents as abnormal (read: heretical).

Quetelet was clearly an influential figure, but the leap from Quetelet's Average Man in the early 19th century to 21st century parents worrying whether their child's head is a "normal" size is a bit too much. A study of normalcy that I would find much more interesting would examine how the concept is defined by different people toward different ends and through different means. Many early Christians defined is with respect to belief and practice, Quetelet defined it with respect to mathematical averages, contemporary American politicians define it with respect to that portion of their base that is most active in voting.

Normalcy (or normativity) is not a stable concept that can be seamlessly traced throughout history. What we can explore, though, are the constant redefinitions of "normal" and the constantly renegotiated attempts to define normalcy in such a way as to benefit one group and hurt others. A project like that would be less interested in finding some mythical conceptual origin and more interested in studying the authority given to the "normal" in different times and places.


Image via Wikimedia