Biological Anthropology Section
Central States Anthropological Society
Cosponsored - Oral Presentation Session
Abstract: In this panel, the participants advance the conceptual framework of “biological normalcy” as a way to better describe and understand human biological variation from a biocultural perspective. Biological normalcy refers to the relationships between normative social views of, and statistical norms for, biological variation within our species. Over seventy years ago Margaret Mead grappled with the relationship between the statistical norm and the normative, writing that “normal…may refer to the statistically usual in the culture – usually without any recognition that this is culturally relative – so that the statistically usual is identified with the basically human…” (Mead 1947:62). We start from Mead’s premise that within human societies there are ideas about what constitute “normal” human bodies, and, in a series of case studies of examples of human biological variation, consider the two meanings for “normal:” normative views about what bodies “should” be like, and, the statistical norm, i.e. measures of central tendancy and variance. While in this second sense “normal” carries no explicit evaluative weight, we pose the question of how statistical norms are related to judgements about what is “normal” or “abnormal” and when “abnormal” comes to mean undesirable or pathological. Does observation of others in a population influence individuals’ perceptons of what is “normal?” To date there has been little research on this topic.
Our first goal is to gain a deeper understanding of the relationships among various conceptualizations of normal, identifying cultural similarity and variability in what is considered biologically “normal," and the broader implications of such definitions. Our second goal is to illuminate the ways in which ethno-biocentric views exist in discourse about human biological variation. Ethno-biocentrism refers to the ways in which there are cultural assumptions about what constitutes “normal” human biology. The panel participants will investigate the ways that ethno-biocentric views exist in discourse about human biological variation and seek new language for describing it. We thereby hope to contribute to a more robust biocultural anthropological analysis of human variation that also has critical policy applications.