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by allan v. horwitz
Sociologists typically study phenomena
that stand out from the commonplace.
They pay more attention to crime than
conformity, homosexuality than heterosexuality, blackness than whiteness, or holidays than regular days. The conventional,
usual, and expectable is usually taken for
granted and more rarely studied.
Despite its general neglect, normality has an extraordinarily powerful effect
on how people behave. Even those who
want to be different use a conception
of the normal as a guide.
One dilemma in the study of normality is that in most cases no formal rules or
standards indicate what conditions are
normal, unlike the study of disease, which
relies on the presence or absence of symptoms, or crime, which can be dened in
relation to a body of laws. This lack of
standards for dening normality has led
many to look to statistical distributions,
where the normal is whatever trait
most people in a group display.
Intelligence tests provide the model
for this conception of normality. These
tests measure intelligence by relating the
number of correct answers given by one
person to the number other people
answer correctly. For example, the average or normal IQ is set, by denition, at
100. Normal, then, is whatever the average or typical behavior is. Conversely,
subnormal people test at the bottom of
the statistical curve while the supernormal rank at the top. The IQ score of any
particular person is meaningful only in
comparison to the scores of others who
take the test.
A striking characteristic of the statistical conception of normality is that it
isnt a characteristic of individuals, but
rather a quality of the distribution of a
trait within a particular group. As with
measures of intelligence, its impossible
to know if any given individual is normal
or not without also knowing about that


same trait in other people. Indeed, when

normality is viewed as an average, we
often find no individual could possibly
be normal. For example, a statistically
normal woman in the United States has
2.09 children, which no individual could
have. Statistical normality is a property
of groups, not individuals.
If statistical normality is a property
of groups, then it will differ from group
to group. In societies where the average
person dies at age 65, someone who
lives to 80 might be statistically abnormal. But in the contemporary United
States, an 80-year lifetime falls within
the range of a normal life span.
Someone whose scores on a personality test in Japan indicate theyre outgoing, gregarious, and friendly might be
judged as shy, introverted, and hostile in
the United States, despite giving exactly the same answers.
Sociologist Emile Durkheim gave an
unusual twist to the statistical conception of normality. He postulated that the
needs of specific social groups, rather
than statistical forces, generate distributions of normality. Because all groups
need to construct denitions of normal
behavior, they single out behavior at the
tails of statistical distributions as
deviant to ensure behavior within the
tails is normal.
He used the example of a society
of saints to illustrate. According to
Durkheim, members of groups such as
monasteries or convents develop norms
of appropriate behavior so a certain proportion of members is dened as deviant.
Actions such as not closing ones eyes
while praying, which would be unremarkable in other settings, are punished in
societies of saints. Because all social
groups require standards of normal
behavior, Durkheim believed rates of nonconformity would be roughly equal in all
groups, regardless of whether these

groups were composed of what we generally regard as saints or sinners.

Several problems arise with statistical conceptions of normality. One is
that purely statistical views can often
make abnormal phenomena appear normal. During World War II, for example,
nearly 70 percent of soldiers exposed to
extended periods of continuous combat
developed mental illnesses. Similarly,
according to the Oregon Adolescent
Depression Project, more adolescents
report having some symptoms of mental illness than having none. In such
contexts, the psychologically healthy
are statistically abnormal.
Another anomaly of the statistical
view is the arbitrary nature of the connection between normality and social values.
Consider Nazi Germany during the 1930s
and 1940sa majority of its citizens supported policies of genocide, racism, and
aggressive military conquest. Yet, many
today say such beliefs, however common
they might have been in this context,
should never be considered normal.
Related to this is the problem of
how to handle people who differ from
normality in positive, rather than negative, ways. Geniuses, athletic stars, and
exceptionally talented people receive
very different social responses than the
intellectually decient, clumsy, or incompetent. Yet a purely statistical view cant
distinguish positive from negative deviations from normality.
A final limitation of the statistical
conception is that when we consider
increasing numbers of independently distributed traits, it becomes less likely anyone can ever be normal. For example,
one prominent theory assumes personality is divided into ve major dimensions,
each independent of the others. People
within two standard deviations of the
mean, or two-thirds of the population,
are considered normal on each trait.

Using this standard, however, only a

minority of people (40 percent) would be
normal on any two traits, and only 13
percent would be normal on all ve traits.
Someone who ts a prole that contains
multiple dimensions of normality would,
in fact, be an extraordinary person.
Because of these problems, sociologists are more likely to view normality
as some sort of ideal or social norm. The
normative approach drops the statistical
aspect of normality and treats what is
normal entirely as conformity to a standard or ideal.
In contrast to statistical conceptions
of normality, normative conceptions
imply that everyone or no one in any
particular group can be normal. Another
difference from the statistical conception
is that when we consider normality valuable, we can determine whether or not
a person is normal by measuring the
qualities of that person without knowing anything about the distribution of the
trait in question among other members
of the group.
Durkheims second and more
important contribution was to show how
the statistical fact of normality in any
group often comes to be equated with
valued behavior. That is, statistically
normal (average) behavior often
becomes a norm or ideal standard of
behavior so that frequent behaviors are
seen as desirable behaviors. People often
want to be normal and strive to achieve
normality, so that statistical conceptions
are transformed from group averages
into traits people seek to emulate.
Conversely, all groups use these standards of normality to define deviant
behavior as behavior that falls outside
statistical norms.
Another version of this normative
approach sees standards as relative to
particular groups rather than universal.
Here normality is dened with reference
to some conventional, culturally grounded standard. The military, for example,
might strive to recruit soldiers who will
conform to standards of discipline, subordinate themselves to group demands,

and display obedience to authority.

Universities, in contrast, might value
qualities of autonomy, self-motivation,
and independence. Whats normal in one
setting wouldnt be valued in another.
The normative view overcomes
many of the problems of the statistical
view, but suffers from deciencies of its
own. One is it often relies on ostensibly
universal criteria that, as the inuential
French intellectual Michel Foucault
emphasized, can be imposed on less
powerful people in the name of the general value of normality. What is consid-

to what they think are the expectations of

others. Institutions such as corporations,
the military, or professional athletic teams
often use personality tests in attempts to
ensure potential recruits are within
norms. Legal systems use standards of
normality when bringing people to trial
and allowing defenses against charges
of criminal behavior. Advocacy groups
claim we should regard their members as
normal members of society. Advice
columnists, not to mention professional
therapists, constantly handle questions
about whether someone is normal or not.

When normality is viewed as an average, we often

nd no individual could possibly be normal.
ered normal varies from culture to culture,
so that we have no universal standards by
which to judge normality.
A third denition of normality stems
from evolutionary theory. In this view,
promoted by philosopher Jerome
Wakeeld and evolutionary psychiatrist
Randolph Nesse, normality is dened by
characteristics that result from natural
selection. Just as normal dogs chase cats,
and normal birds y to warm climates in
the winter, normal humans are those
whose eyes allow them to see and ears
allow them to hear. People who lack
these traits are abnormal.
Evolutionary conceptions differ from
statistical conceptions of normality in
that universal standards of functioning,
rather than the statistical distribution of
a trait, are used to judge normality. These
conceptions differ from normative views
of normality in that criteria of normality
arent supposed to be evaluative. Rather,
they stem from how humans are biologically designed by natural selection to
Conceptions of the normal are
used to sort people into jobs, screen out
allegedly abnormal people from valued
social roles, dene what deviance is, and
set norms by which people judge valued
behaviors. People use views of normality
to orient their own behavior and conform

Contexts, Vol. 7, No. 1, pp. 7071. ISSN 1536-5042, electronic ISSN 1537-6052. 2008 American Sociological Association.
All rights reserved. For permission to photocopy or reproduce see DOI:

For as little agreement as there is among

sociologists about what constitutes normal behavior, normality nonetheless is a
critical aspect of everyday social life.

recommended resources
Michel Foucault. Discipline and Punish: The
Birth of the Prison (Vintage, 1979). One of
the central works of a famous French
philosopher who questioned the timelessness of many taken-for-granted aspects of
Stephen J. Gould. The Mismeasure of Man
(W.W. Norton, 1996). A popular work of the
late Harvard paleontologist and evolutionary
biologist that critiques the assumptions of
normality that lie behind intelligence testing.
Jerome C. Wakeeld. The concept of mental disorder: On the boundary between biological facts and social values, American
Psychologist 47: 37388. A philosophical
examination of what distinguishes normal
from disordered emotions.
Michael Warner. The Trouble with Normal:
Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life
(Harvard University Press, 2000). A notable
literary critic interrogates and critiques the
various definitions surrounding abnormal and normal sexual activity.
Allan V. Horwitz is dean of social and behavioral
sciences in the School of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers
UniversityNew Brunswick.

winter 2008 contexts 71

Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.