Normalisation

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Normality and Normalisation

In its earliest use, the word normal meant “perpendicular; forming a right angle” like something normālis (“made according to a carpenter’s square”). In Late Latin, however, normālis had come to mean “according to a rule”. This is where the modern English interpretation of the word, established towards the end of the 19th century, originates from, and what explains the word’s usage to denote social standards. For example, heterosexuality in the early 20th century was normal (Harper 2021).

The notion that a thing can be normal is intrinsically tied to the technics1 of the modern bureaucratic state. This is reflected in the word used to describe the discipline in which normality takes centre stage: Statistics2. It is the field of statistics that assumes that the characteristics of human bodies, the parameters of its experience or features of entire populations can be meaningfully measured and compared against each other. The final aim of this exercise is the construction of an ideology3 of purification4 that classifies human bodies, experience and collectives into normal and abnormal, governed and not (yet) governed, pure and impure. This ideology is so deeply entrenched in modern discourse that its removal from the discourse would render much of it unintelligible and meaningless (Link 1997).

In its more general sense normalisation refers to the “processes that construct experiences and capacities of some social segments into standards against which all are measured, and some found wanting or deviant” (Young 2006). In the discussion of these processes and their modes of operation, Michel Foucault’s work is of paramount importance5.

Foucault distinguishes between two types of normalisation. The first being what he later called normation and the second being normalisation proper. Their difference lies primarily in their target object. While disciplinary “normation” as analysed in Discipline and Punish6 (Foucault 1975) targets the individual body, normalisation, on the other hand, as analysed in the lecture series Security, Territory & Population targets entire populations. Let me treat each of them in turn:

First, in Discipline and Punish, Foucault describes normalising disciplinary practices or normation as the set of techniques which seek to identify and then homogenise (with minimal effort) any measurable deviation of bodies from a norm. The discursive construction of such a norm only becomes possible through close surveillance of individuals such that their individual characteristics can become subject to measurement, classification and, finally, correction. Here, it is important to realise, contrary to popular understanding, that in order to sustain disciplinary power through normation, the existence of the abnormal or the deviant is essential in that it renders the processes of bodily normation meaningful thus justifying its continued operation. In that sense, normation creates the mechanisms for its own expansion, the natural endpoint of which can be described as society in which every body and almost everything else is understood as either being normal or deviant from a norm in some measurable degree. In that expansion, normation often creates the need to invent new deviant categories: the homosexual, the person who went dark, i.e. seized to communicate in way that is trivial to surveil, or the person who refuses to wear a face mask in public. Whenever the pathologization of these categories is contested, it is important to consider two things in one’s appraisal of such a contestation: The first is the alleviation of human suffering. Obviously, the assertion of homosexuality as non-deviant has had an unimaginably positive impact on the lives of many. Quite the opposite is the case when the norm of wearing of face masks during a global pandemic is contested. Importantly, however, both of these contestations are similar in one important respect. They do not challenge normation per se, but only quite specific claims about what exactly is normal and what deviant. In that sense, they remain locked within a discourse that cannot do without notions like normality and abnormality.

The second form is what Foucault later, more precisely in the third lecture of the series Security, Territory & Population, called normalisation “in the strict sense” (Foucault 2009, 63). It differs from disciplinary normation in that it is applied to populations as whole and not individual bodies. Foucault uses the governmental response to epidemics in the 18th and 19th century to explain the divergence of normalisation from the disciplinary normation discussed above. While in the disciplines, a norm is predefined and normation then operates to achieve fixed objectives such as how to hold the rifle and who to have sex with, the operation of normalisation now consists in “establishing an interplay between these different distributions of normality and [in] acting to bring the most unfavorable in line with the more favorable” (Foucault 2009, 63). Imagine different states within a country. Suppose each of these states has different rates at which people succumb to COVID-19, thus creating different normalities. Then these different normalities are compared against each other to construct a temporary norm of what is demmed most desirable for the overall population. Finally, as Ladelle McWhorter summarises it succintly in her contribution to the Cambridge Foucault Lexicon: “These population-enhancement techniques do not discipline individual bodies to fixed norms; rather, by changing the conditions of life of a population, they cause changes in the norms themselves.” (Lawlor and Nale 2014)

Annotated Bibliography

(Foucault 1975)

In this seminal book, Michel Foucault analyses the transformations in the way people are looked over and punished in Western European states. Based on extensive archival research focusing on French writers from the 18th and 19th century, Foucault tries to understand how punishment morphed from a brutal spectacle into a measured, scientific enterprise. He opens the book by contrasting the extreme brutality of the public torture of regicide Damiens in 1757 with the time-tables of a Parisian prison eighty years later. In a nutshell, the rest of the book is about tracing this gradual but profound development. Throughout this genealogical exercise, Foucault draws on and further develops important but often complex notions such as discourse, discipline, panoptic surveillance and aforementioned normalisation. To this day, the book continues to have a noticeable impact, especially on newer interdisciplinary fields such as surveillance studies.

(Foucault 2009)

This book is derived from Foucault’s lectures at the Collège de France in 1977-78. In these lectures, and especially in the fourth lecture, he develops one of the central themes of this course, namely gouvernmentality. Given the popularity of this concept in the social sciences today, it is fair to say that this fourth lecture, in which Foucault attempts something like a definition of gouvernmentality, is one of his most popular and fruitful contributions. Fundamentally, Foucault revises some of his earlier work (see his update to the notion of normalisation above), in order to map the development of the dominant modes of power. First, a transformation from a society of sovereignty to a society of discipline and then to what he calls a “society of discipline by a society of government […] which has population as its main target and apparatuses of security as its essential mechanism” (p. 107f)

(Link 1997)

This book is a lesser-known example of how the genealogical approach pioneered by Foucault can be fruitfully applied to contemporary times. Writing in the 1990s, Jürgen Link attempts to map the territory of what he calls the “archipelago of the normal” (p. 13). Among the many theoretical contributions of this volume is the concept of “discourse-carrying categories, which if they were to be removed, would cause a collapse of the discourse which they carried” (p. 15). Another imporant conceptual contribution is that of the delineation between specialised discourse, interdiscourse, inter-specialised discourse and everyday discourse. He defines special discourses as striving towards a maximum of immanent consistency, the absence of ambiguity and a clear delineation from other discourses. The usual examples are the scientific discourses (medicine, biology, geology). Interdiscourses are those discourses (or elements of discourse, i.e. a certain subset of statements of the discourse) which play a role across many special specialised discourses and feature heavily in general, so-called everyday discourses. Link further provides ample reason to believe that a general notion of normality is such an interdiscursive element (p. 50ff). Thirdly, inter-specialised discursive elements are those that, like mathematics, feature in various specialised discourses. Finally, everyday discourses are the “elementary socio-culture” that exists if it displays “functional independence” and is not “a pure epiphenomenon of the system of specialised discourses and interdiscourses” (p. 51). all translations mine


  1. Here, I am referring specifically to a concept used by Lewis Mumford to refer to the interplay of the social and the and technological or mechanical realms of human innovation. In Technics and Civilization, he writes: “To understand the dominating role played by technics in modern civilization, one must explore in detail the preliminary period of ideological and social preparation. Not merely must one explain the existence of the new mechanical instruments: one must explain the culture that was ready to use them and profit by them so extensively.” (Mumford 1934, 4) ↩︎

  2. It is no accident that the words state to denote a political entity and the word statistics share see same root, see Foucault 1975, 101 ↩︎

  3. By ideology, I do not mean an explicit, conscious attachment to a set of ideas and beliefs. Rather, I refer to ideology here in the classic Marxian way: Sie wissen es nicht, aber Sie tun es. For a critique and refinement of that classic Marxian perspective, see Ziv zek 2008. ↩︎

  4. On the issue of normalisation as purification and its relationship to what Foucault calls “state racism”, see especially Society Must Be Defended where Foucault says: “We see the appearance of a State racism: a racism that society will direct against itself, against its own elements and its own products. This is the internal racism of permanent purification, and it will become [in the early 19th century] one of the basic dimensions of social normalization.” (Foucault 2003) ↩︎

  5. It is obvious that the scope of this assignment is unable to capture the breadth and depth of Foucault’s thoughts on the issue. Nonetheless, it can provide a useful starting point for further engaging with his writing. ↩︎

  6. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault still refers to “normation” as “normalisation” as his refined understanding of the latter was not developed until his lecture series on gouvernmentality in 1975. ↩︎


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Graduate Student in International Relations, System Hacker at the FSFE

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