Normalization and Populational Reasoning
Recent scientific research and studies about the brain development in infants and young children thrust the under-five-year-old child, for example, into the spotlight of curriculum and policy reforms. The research on brain development, especially, was part of a shift in reasoning about young children as future citizens and as workers in society. Preparing them to tap on their “potential” while administering palliative remedies to children who are designated as “at risk” and as “dangerous outsiders” has been the goal of many reform efforts in many places around the world during the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. These arguments or discursive text led to an increased allocation of resources to the education of young children across a variety of nations (e.g., OECD, 2012; UNICEF, 2005), while at the same time the documents also illustrate a greater concern about the policing of young children in multiple ways, including by the use of standards and the monitoring of their full and normal development.
The word [normal] became indispensable because it created a way to be “objective” about human beings . . . it uses a power as old as Aristotle to bridge the fact/value distinction, whispering in your ear that what is normal is also all right. But also, in the events to be described, it became a soothsayer, teller of the future, of progress and ends. (Hacking, 1990, pp. 160-161; italics added)
Hacking’s idea that “what is normal is also all right” is continued as he adds, “Normality is a vastly more important idea than determinism, but they are not unrelated. A story of the erosion of determinism is also an account of the invention of normalcy” (1990, p. 161). Therefore, the relationships between the construction of “determinism” where the child appears to be determined by whether he is considered normal/abnormal and the notion of constructing “normalcy/ abnormalcy” are part of the discussion about normalization; to what extent do we examine the discourses that construct the normal or abnormal child, and in what ways were these discourses of abnormality determining belief and action with material consequences?
Over the past three decades, the rate of generation of new knowledge about early childhood development has been staggering. It has led to a number of advances in both concepts and methods—and it promises to increase even further in the near future. This scientific explosion has been fueled by multiple contributions, ranging from theoretical and conceptual advances to dramatic leaps in both the measurement technology and the computer-based analytic capacity available to the behavioral and biological sciences. (Shonkoff, 2000, p. 20)
As seen in the Shonkoff citation, the discourses of “progress” and normalization are part of the grid of reasoning about the young child in these arguments, with specific practices prescribed to ensure a child who would be a normal, or supernormal, citizen who could enhance the nation-state (be of “benefit” to the nation), rather than be part of its “cost” in the globalized neoliberal society of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. The large push for enlarging early education in many countries has come specifically from what are known as “cost-benefit” economic analyses while the brain research suggesting a critical period of development when children are stimulated (shown through neurological studies of brain activity in, generally, 0-3-year-old children) has been used by many to focus on the importance of funding early education (0-5 years) (e.g., see quotation above, Shonkoff, Neurons to Neighborhoods, 2000).
An increased push for scientific rigorous data on young children’s development and learning, including the development of country and regional standards as well as national curricula for young children, emerged in relation to the increased truth-value given to this research. Scientific discourse increasingly portrayed children as knowable, using evidence-based scientific methods. Childhood came to be seen as a set of normative and measurable stages of development. While this may not initially appear to be integral to the “statistical turn” in social science, all of the “norms” established have been based on quantitative extrapolation of data from various modalities of research on child development. Data is collected and displayed, or “inscribed” (Rose, 1993) on a bell-shaped curve, making it possible to use numbers to quantify the degree to which a child is normal, above normal, or below normal.
Scientific research was a critical strategy used to construct truth about who was normal and which children or families were perceived as abnormal and in need of different social interventions. (Bloch, 2003,
As the standards movement increased in the early twenty-first century in England, the United States, and many other countries, these shifts in reasoning created a tension between the changes advocated for, even required by, these reforms and the child-centered or multicultural education that was part of “best practice” before this break in ideas about what constituted an educated young citizen. The reforms of the early twenty-first century formally articulated new ideas about normality in young children and the universal, scientific norms of child development of the reforms in policy and curriculum became heightened, with many legislators, caregivers, and families shifting from diversity education to concerns with standards established in literacy and numeracy, among others.