Concepts of normality

Approaches to normality

The term ‘normal’ is extremely subjective and context-dependent. We can say that what is accepted to be normal is “the pattern of thoughts, feelings or behaviour that conforms to usual, typical or expected standards in a culture.” (Grivas et al, 2010) It is unsurprising, then, that abnormal is “the patterns of thoughts, feelings or behaviour that is deviant, distressing and dysfunctional in relation to the usual, typical or expected standards in a culture.” (Grivas et al, 2010)

There are numerous approaches to normality:

Sociocultural approach

What may be deemed as normal in one societal makeup or culture is likely to be vastly different to another culture. In the sociocultural approach, thoughts, feelings and behaviours which are inappropriate or unusual in a culture are deemed as abnormal. For example, in some South-East Asian countries, it is entirely acceptable for one to spit on the ground to clear one’s throat – it is normal. However, in Australian culture, this is largely unacceptable and abnormal.

Functional approach

The functional approach to normality uses a scale of 0-100. On this scale, a score of 0 suggests that an individual is entirely dependent, and a score of 100 indicates complete independence. In this approach, an individual is normal if they are able to function independently in society.

Historical approach

It is true that what is considered to be normal can change with time. This is a significant part of the historical approach to normality. For example, it once was normal to believe that the world was flat (before it was proved otherwise). The historical approach shows us that nothing is inherently normal nor abnormal.

Situational approach

Even within cultures or different groups of people, whether something is normal or not may come down to the particular situation or context. For example, carrying a fully-loaded rifle may be normal if you are part of the armed forces, but probably not if you are strolling around the suburbs of Melbourne on a Sunday afternoon.

Medical approach

The medical approach suggests that normality is based on biology: if one is healthy (mentally and physically), they are normal, and otherwise, they are abnormal. The medical approach is contentious, as it may lead to labeling and discrimination.

Statistical approach

Comparatively, the statistical approach suggests that normality is based on mathematics: there is a normal bell-shaped distribution of normality in the human species, and only those on the extreme left or the extreme right (the outliers) of this distribution are abnormal.