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The birth of ‘normal’: interview with Dr Sarah Chaney


Ahead of her upcoming Voltaire Lecture on 1 December, we caught up with author and researcher Dr Sarah Chaney to discuss the theme of her upcoming talk: the strange emergence of what societies consider to be ‘normal’.


Hi Sarah! Your book, Am I Normal? and your Voltaire Lecture, is an examination of the emergence of the study of ‘the normal’. It has a fascinating history, could you take us to the beginning?

Well, it all began in the 1830s, with the statistical study of human characteristics – at the same time, the word ‘normal’ was starting to be used in medicine to describe a state of health. Belgian statistician Adolphe Quetelet was the first to take the statistical methods that astronomers used to determine error to instead compare human traits across a large group. He found that simple measurements across a population – like height or weight – tended to fall on a bell curve, and assumed that this would hold true for all human characteristics, from artistic ability to personality. As an astronomer himself, Quetelet assumed that the normal was not only average but the ‘correct’ measurement of any specific thing: the ‘average man’ was also ideal. This contradictory definition of normal – which in everyday speech we might take to mean average, common, ideal or expected, depending on the context – has infiltrated our lives ever since.

Class and ethnic background, and how different groups have been underrepresented in studies, has played a major role in shaping what we consider ‘normal’ today. Could you tell us more?

From the beginning, studies of the normal have tended to start with the group doing the measuring (historically speaking this was usually White, Western European or North American middle-class men), assuming that they are the ‘norm’, with everyone else understood by comparison. This has, of course, had a significant impact on those underrepresented. It can and has led to the exclusion of those not deemed ‘typical’ from data gathered to determine an average. For example, when sexologist Robert Dickinson and sculptor Abram Belskie created statues of average Americans in 1942, the data they used was almost entirely from young, White people. Meanwhile early and mid-twentieth-century studies of normal weight and blood pressure came from insurance company data, which largely reflected those who had the means to buy insurance. The norms reinforced by this selective data were then assumed to apply to everyone, with those in marginalised groups, who were more likely to fall outside these boundaries, being doubly excluded by the results, which further reinforced prejudice against them.

The study of mental illness is also featured in your book. Could you elaborate on the behavioural studies you’ve researched, and address the very common worry of whether we have a typical mind, please?

In 1967, young psychiatrist Paul Horton carried out a survey of what his fellow doctors (and patients) understood by the term ‘normal’. He asked them about the behaviour of a ‘typical normal person’ and found that although their predictions varied hugely, most were nonetheless willing to use their personal idea of normal to categorise the behaviour of others.

Of course, the variation in judgment is significant. Mental illness has largely been judged by behaviour since the birth of medical psychiatry in the early 1800s, and yet our actions are dependent on a wide range of other circumstances. ‘Much insanity depends on the artificial relationships of society,’ psychiatrist George Savage noted in 1891; at the same time, he and his peers accepted judgements made along sex, class and race lines as normal and natural. Ultimately, what’s unusual to you might not be to me, and vice versa. Indeed, some studies – like the Census of Hallucinations begun in 1889 – showed that certain unusual states of mind were not as uncommon as had previously been thought and may not indicate ill-health at all.

As well as mental health, your books also deal with the evolution of beauty standards. What, in your view, has driven these physical ideals, and is it worth noting that these beauty ideals differ in different cultures, and so on?

From the emergence of physiognomy in 1775, ‘beauty’ was not simply about appearance but also the personality and morality of the individual. While physiognomy as a practice was fading from scientific respectability by the late nineteenth century, this association between appearance and character remained widespread. ‘The perfect moral man must be of perfect physical development,’ claimed psychologist Henry Maudsley in 1862. This view retained potency for decades – if not centuries – afterwards, and has certainly inflected modern Western associations between beauty and economic success.

But what did beauty even mean? While Victorian scientists recognised that beauty was relative, they nonetheless assumed that the standards they held to be attractive were ‘normal’ while traits preferred in other cultures required anthropological investigation. The beauty standards Charles Darwin referred to in The Descent of Man (1871) relied on racist hierarchies of appearance, developed as part of colonialism, such as the assumption that flat noses were unattractive. Darwin’s cousin, eugenicist Francis Galton, spent many a happy weekend on the streets of different cities, grading the relative attractiveness of passing women. Galton concluded that women in his native London were the most attractive, and those in Aberdeen the most ‘repellent’, without seemingly considering how his expectations were based on his elite upbringing.

 It’s been fascinating to see how discredited Victorian ideas still shape present-day norms and beauty standards. Do you have any peculiar highlights you’ve discovered during your research?

The slippage between average and ideal across these measurements always intrigues me – weight or blood pressure tables emerged from the average, which was simply assumed to be healthy. Moreover, for decades in the twentieth century, healthy weights (and standard clothing sizes) came in three different ‘body shapes’ – something that was erased for convenience in the post-war era, indicating that some of our modern norms are significantly less nuanced than those of our predecessors.

What interests me more, though, is when certain groups or individuals in Victorian times critiqued or rejected norms imposed upon them, which we often mistakenly assume is a modern phenomenon. At the Bethlem Royal Hospital, psychiatric patients in 1881 complained about their names being included in the census (leading to the anonymisation of psychiatric patients in the 1891 census), and objected to certain language used to describe them, such as an instruction on the hospital’s ancient donation box to ‘pity the poor lunaticks’. In 1899, speciality artists in Barnum and Bailey’s ‘Greatest Show on Earth’ held an indignation meeting to object to being publicly described as ‘freaks’: their chosen epithet was ‘prodigies’, reflecting their possession of ‘more or less limbs, more or less hair, more or less bodies, more or less physical or mental attributes than other people’. Normal, as these people pointed out, was a matter of opinion.

Could you outline the connection between the study of the ‘normal’ and the emergence of scientific racism? How did these 19th century practices reinforce ideas on eugenics, for example, and how is data being skewed to reinforce racist ideas today?

Scientific racism pre-existed the study of the normal, meaning that assumptions based on racist hierarchies were built into ideas of normality from the start. As the nineteenth century progressed, these became more explicit, not least through the work of Francis Galton. Galton was one of the first people to refer to the astronomer’s error curve as ‘the normal distribution’; he also coined the term eugenics. Galton’s interest in statistics was inextricably bound up in his belief in racial improvement, and he used the bell curve to support his theories. Galton’s ideal was not the average man but the genius. If only geniuses like him had more children, the childless statistician proclaimed, the world would be infinitely improved. Galton’s main concern was class rather than race: social class and talent, he held, were intimately related – he blithely assumed that the poorest people were of the least worth and therefore should have the fewest children. And since White Victorian scientists tended to claim that people of other cultures were just as ‘primitive’ as working-class Westerners, these assumptions were racist as well as classist.

Race and class discrimination continued to go hand in hand through the twentieth century. When the 1917 Army Alpha IQ Test concluded that White Americans were more intelligent than everyone else, the tests assumed knowledge of middle-class American culture, while decisions about post-war intellectual disability and special schools were made on grounds of race and class. Claims about the supposed biological basis of race and intelligence continue to be made in our own era – such as in Herrnstein and Murray’s 1994 The Bell Curve which, in a manner scarily reminiscent of Francis Galton, claimed that a link between high IQ and wealth proved not the replication of privilege but the so-called natural order of things.

Just to zoom out to end with, why is it, in your view, that human beings desire to be considered ‘normal’? Can we take an evolutionary view? Can we draw upon any conclusion on the behaviour of human beings here?

Charles Darwin would probably have hypothesised that a desire for normality was of value in human evolution in promoting in-group sympathy and cooperation. These traits, he claimed, had led to particular groups attaining prominence over others. In-group bonding gave such societies an advantage – though, importantly, variation within that group was also an advantage to ensure there were a range of skills to draw on. Before the collection of mass data on human beings in the early 1800s, however, and the efforts of Quetelet and other statisticians to interpret this data in a particular way, the desire to be like others would have been quite different. There was no universal standard – or ‘average man’ – for anyone to compare themselves to. So, while some social rules might be common across particular societies, there would doubtless have been differences in expectation between different groups in that society. The birth of the normal gave us all an (impossible) standard to strive towards.

Thank you, Sarah!


Book your tickets now to see Dr Sarah Chaney deliver the Voltaire Lecture, Am I Normal?, online on 1 December.

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