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Normality: A Critical Genealogy

by Peter Cryle and Elizabeth Stephens University of Chicago Press
Pub Date:
Pbk 464 pages
AU$82.00 NZ$86.09
Product Status: Not Our Publication - we no longer distribute
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The concept of normal is so familiar that it can be hard to imagine contemporary life without it. Yet the term entered everyday speech only in the mid-twentieth century. Before that, it was solely a scientific term used primarily in medicine to refer to a general state of health and the orderly function of organs. But beginning in the middle of the twentieth century, normal broke out of scientific usage, becoming less precise and coming to mean a balanced condition to be maintained and an ideal to be achieved.


In Normality, Peter Cryle and Elizabeth Stephens offer an intellectual and cultural history of what it means to be normal. They explore the history of how communities settle on any one definition of the norm, along the way analyzing a fascinating series of case studies in fields as remote as anatomy, statistics, criminal anthropology, sociology, and eugenics. Cryle and Stephens argue that since the idea of normality is so central to contemporary disability, gender, race, and sexuality studies, scholars in these fields must first have a better understanding of the context for normality. This pioneering book moves beyond binaries to explore for the first time what it does—and doesn’t—mean to be normal.


Part One. The Normal in Nineteenth-Century Scientific Thought

Chapter One
The “Normal State” in French Anatomical and Physiological Discourse of the 1820s and 1830s

Chapter Two
“Counting” in the French Medical Academy during the 1830s

Chapter Three
Rethinking Medical Statistics: Distribution, Deviation, and Type, 1840–1880

Chapter Four
Measuring Bodies and Identifying Racial Types: Physical Anthropology, c. 1860–1880

Chapter Five
The Dangerous Person as a Type: Criminal Anthropology, c. 1880–1900

Chapter Six
Anthropometrics and the Normal in Francis Galton’s Anthropological, Statistical, and Eugenic Research, c. 1870–1910

Part Two. The Dissemination of the Normal in Twentieth-Century Culture

Chapter Seven
Sex and the Normal Person: Sexology, Psychoanalysis, and Sexual Hygiene Literature, 1870–1930

Chapter Eight
The Object of Normality: Composite Statues of the Statistically Average American Man and Woman, 1890–1945

Chapter Nine
Sex and Statistics: The End of Normality


“The rise of normativity across a broad range of progressive critical work as an ur-signifier for that which should be resisted has tended to obscure the fact that we don’t yet know that much about what it is to be normal. The immense value of Cryle and Stephen’s erudite and persuasive work is that it attends painstakingly to normality for the primary reason of understanding it as a phenomenon—its uneven historical emergence, the cultural effects of its conceptual incoherence, and its persistence as a cultural ideal. Working through a series of engaging historical case studies, Normality amply demonstrates the epistemologically rich dividends accrued through the genealogical encounter with the normal.”
Peter Cryle is emeritus professor in the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Queensland. He is the author or coauthor of many books, including Frigidity: An Intellectual History.

Elizabeth Stephens is associate professor of culture studies and deputy head of school (research) in the School of Arts and Social Sciences at Southern Cross University, Australia. She is the author of Anatomy as Spectacle: Public Exhibitions of the Body from 1700 to the Present.