James Bennett reviews 'Normality: A critical genealogy' by Peter Cryle and Elizabeth Stephens

The word ‘normal’ and its derivatives permeate our language, but what exactly does the term mean? It is entrenched in contemporary medical discourse (normal blood pressure, normal heart rate, normal body temperature, normal blood sugar levels), shows up in statistics (normal distribution curve), in geometry (normal lines) and even in chemistry as a measurement term. There were once even normal schools – teacher training colleges – originating from the French tradition of the école normale. These definitions of the term (essentially medical or mathematical) are a long way from popular contemporary usage – a vague and highly contested concept that often rests on the notion of mental and emotional order in the individual. A critical genealogy of the normal over time also involves a close analysis of a range of cognate terms including ‘average’, ‘typical’, ‘regular’, ‘standard’, and ‘ideal’ in all their ambiguity, contestability, and even incompatibility.

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James Bennett

James Bennett

James Bennett teaches history at the University of Newcastle, Australia. He has published widely on aspects of Australian and New Zealand history, including war and society, history on film, transnational labour history as well as medicine and sexuality. He is the author of Rats and Revolutionaries (2004) and co-editor of several anthologies: Making Film and Television Histories (2011); Radical Newcastle (2015), and Australians and the First World War (2017). His forthcoming publications are an article in the April 2018 issue of Medical History on the de-medicalisation of homosexuality in the 1970s, and an invited chapter in A Companion to Australian Cinema (Wiley-Blackwell).

Published in May 2018, no. 401