Speaking of normalcentrism

- We should speak of "normal-centrism" in the same way that we speak of ethnocentrism. This was the opinion of special needs educationalist, Ivar Morken, at the Culcom-seminar titled "The Normal and the Deviant". The seminar speakers pointed out that not only people coming from foreign countries have different conceptions of what constitutes "the good life," but also people who are deaf, blind and use wheelchairs. And far from everyone aspires to be "normal."

Per Solvang: Being like ‘everyone else’ can provide a sense of security. Pictures: Lorenz Khazaleh.

Perceptions of what is normal and abnormal (including wearing a hijab, a hearing impairment, being homosexual, Protestant, punk, billionaire, communist, etc.) plays a central role in the construction group identities. “Every community needs a suitable “enemy” to strengthen its own identity,” said Thomas Hylland Eriksen, director of CULCOM. “It is precisely the ‘abnormal,’ or ‘deviant’ who make suitable enemies. Earlier it was the criminal or homosexual, today it is the Muslims.”

Eleven speakers from different academic disciplines and one author of fiction were invited to the second conference in a series of events that tackle important key questions about the new Norway. The interdisciplinarity of this conference is intended to provide new perspectives.

“Normality is a concept that is difficult to define and one that people can relate to in many different ways,” explained sociologist Per Solvang. “On the one hand, it can feel reassuring to know a person is normal, and not unnatural. Being like ‘everyone else’ can provide a sense of security in a constantly changing world. In the United States, a ‘Mr. Average Man’ is selected and honored. At the same time, the term is both exclusionary and oppressive,” Solvang pointed out.

“Deviance is connected to suffering,” commented political scientist Thorvald Sirnes. “Many researchers on migration take on the perspective of ‘otherness as the norm.’ In some settings, those who break norms are given praise (for example, in art),” said Solvang, referring to the book Hip: The History by John Leland.

Tian Sørhaug: It is difficult to say what is normal in working life.


The Average as the Ideal?

But what is normal? Sociologist Lars Grue spoke about different ways to define normality and locate with deviance in a historical perspective. One possibility is to define normality with the help of statistics. Mathematician Adolphe Quetelet (1796-1874) introduced the so-called normal distribution, or Gaussian distribution, in social science. He believed it was possible to calculate an average behavior and intelligence in the population. According to Quetelet, the average represented the ideal. He interpreted deviance in either direction to be negative and defective.

Eugenicist Francis Galton (1822-1911) on the other hand was more concerned with the people at the top of the curve. Galton was preoccupied with “race hygiene”and introduced the term eugenics in 1882. He believed intelligence was inherited. Therefore, it was most important for Galton that the top of the curve reproduced itself. The road to Nazism and the Holocaust was shorter than Galton doubtless had hoped.

Which people are valuable, and which are not? This is the question on which race eugenicists are focused. In his famous analysis of the Holocaust, Zygmunt Bauman used a gardening metaphor: “Some sprouts are weeds. They do not belong anywhere and must be eliminated. The Nazis thought in this way.”

“To the Nazis, Jews and people with disabilities represented ‘weeds,’” explained Lars Grue.

On Cornell University’s webpage, a person can access many interviews from the Nuremberg Trials, including the interview with Doctor Wilhelm Gustave Schueppe. There he explained why he thought it was okay to kill Jews and persons with disabilities with a large dose of morphine. He said, “I believe in the system. Rotten trees must be removed.” A murder for him was a rational and normal action, and something he did not question.

Rehabilitation- Becoming Normal Again

Eugenics and racial hygiene are extreme examples of ways in which to administrate and manage perceptions of normality. A bit more ordinary example is the rehabilitation to which people with illnesses and/or disabilities are subjected. This was roundly criticized by the researchers at the seminar.

“The purpose of rehabilitation is to bring deviants as close as possible to the norm. A prosthetic substitutes for a missing arm so that a person can appear whole again. The problem with the rehabilitation way-of-thinking is the belief that there is only way to be a whole person,” said Lars Grue.

Ingunn Moser: To show that there are alternatives, reduces normality and undermines its power.

Sociologist Ingunn Moser gave several examples of persons with disabilities who sought completely different things. Not everyone seeks to be “normal.” One research informant participated in extreme sports with a special type of wheelchair. In contrast, another informant accepted the disability as fate. She did not want anymore exercise or education, and willingly accepted offers of assistance. The disability is not something she viewed as a deficiency.

“In policy, there is always a focus on normalization. Yet, there are many different ways to be live and be happy,” said Ingunn Moser.

Anthropologist Tian Sørhaug agreed. He said smilingly that he became alarmed when he went through the countless categories of deviance that were used within Psychiatry:

“When I read this, I thought, ‘ I hope they don’t commit me!’”

Normalcentrism and Phonocentrism

“Quality of life does not mean the same thing for everyone. Therefore, we should talk about “normalcentrism” in the same way we talk about ethnocentrism,” said special needs educationalist Ivar Morken.

“Normalcentrism” is a variant of ethnocentrism and a term that comes from Harald Ofstad’s book Our Contempt for Weakness (1971),” explained Morken. Yet, for one reason or another, the term did not get utilized by other researchers. However, the concept itself was challenged in a book by Henri-Jacques Stilker,” said Per Solvang.

Yet another variant of ethnocentrism is phonocentrism, according to anthropologist Jan-Kåre Breivik, who wrote his dissertation on identity politics among people who are deaf.

“The entire society is built on hearing people’s premises and most people who are deaf consciously move away from settings consisting of hearing people. The environment in Norway is small, and to meet others, one must move out of the country. Home is often connected with the journey. A global community exists among people who are deaf. They are ‘at home with strangers,’” he said.

A person can view people who are deaf as disabled or deviants. But Breivik is of the opinion that people who are deaf should be regarded as a linguistic or ethnic minority. People who are deaf define themselves as culturally different, oppressed by the hearing majority of people. People who are deaf have their own language (sign language). Discourses that exist among people who are deaf are similar to those that exist among indigenous peoples. Who is allowed to describe them as deaf, and who is not? Those who become deaf as adults find themselves in an “ambiguous” category, while people who are deaf with two deaf parents traditionally have a high status.

Bente Ailin Svendsen: Multilingualism is the norm rather than the exception.

“The situation among people who are deaf is relevant to research on migration,” Breivik proposed.

Normal dialect, deviant accent

Language and normality is a paradoxical subject. This paradox came out in several of the researchers’ contributions to the seminar. On the one hand, we can observe a conservative ideology of purity, especially in the school system,” pointed out Bente Ailin Svendsen, who has written her dissertation on multilingual among children. Even though multilingualism is the norm rather than the exception among children in Norway, the education authorities adhere to a uniform language mentality (e.g.“Norwegian only”) and to the notion that languages should not be mixed together.

On the other hand, a great tolerance for linguistic diversity exists in Norway. Few countries assign such importance to different dialects as Norway. “Norway is a dialect paradise,” said Stephen Walton, linguist and author of the book Ivar Aasen’s Body. But not all variations of the Norwegian language are tolerated. Norwegians distinguish between dialects, which are positive, and accents, which are negative and undesirable.

Stephen Walton: Not all variations of the Norwegian language are tolerated.

“In Norway, only the immigrants speak incorrectly,” he stated.


Notions of normality are constantly changing. And, as the author Ole Robert Sunde related in a short tale, normality is often different than what it is believed to be.

“It is difficult to say what is normal,” said Tian Sørhaug, with reference to the big changes in working life. “What is normal about the nine-to-five workday? Previously, it was most important to be ‘on time,’ now it is important to be ‘online.’ Normality is a flexible term,” he said.

The changes are also reflected in the commercials that music scholar Stan Hawkins presented. Hawkins researched the interaction between music, commercials and normality. He believes the commercial produces normality:

“It seems like Norwegians identify more with African American music than with the Hardanger fiddle,” he said, after having shown a bank commercial with the music of MC Hammer.

“We Norwegians consume way too much sugar,” said the voice in a commercial for “light” products, which showed a man of color in front of a soda dispenser.

“Whether it is the advertising industry, psychiatry or the school system, normalization is tied to experts and institutions. Therefore, normalization can be seen as a disciplinary project from above,” said political scientist Thorvald Sirnes.

“But there is a way to offer resistance,” said Ingunn Moser. “To show that there are alternatives, reduces normality and undermines its power.”

By Lorenz Khazaleh
Published May 25, 2011 1:34 PM - Last modified June 2, 2014 1:55 PM