Abnormality: Personal View

Personal View of Abnormality

An approach to abnormality begins with an exploration of normality. Abnormality can only be defined in opposition to normality. Put differently, the more normality is understood, the easier it becomes to distinguish clearly what is abnormal. In the field of psychology, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV TR) (2000) is an essential reference for considering what behaviors, thoughts, and feelings may be considered abnormal.

What does "normal" mean? It can mean the usual, the socially acceptable, the familiar, the predictable, the healthy, and such. What is important to notice is that all these categories are in general culturally determined. In other words, different cultures may have different assessments of what is usual, familiar, socially adaptive, predictable, and harmless. These norms are often dependent on alternative notions of morality. They are influenced by belief and value systems. In one culture, for example, it might be usual for women to avoid wearing shorts, while in a different culture it might be usual and common for women to practice wearing shorts. Surrounding these two different norms might be constellations of moral and social rules (traditions) that rely on competing worldviews. Normal behavior is socially reinforced. Breaking those rules and traditions can lead to negative punishment for abnormal behavior. In the one case, a woman who wears shorts might be punished, while in the opposite case a woman who does not wear shorts might be censured. The point is that "normal" is culture-specific and value-based much of the time. So any discussion of what is normal ought to be aware of the target culture that is being addressed. This ought to make one wary of applying any universal standard of normality/abnormality that risks being insensitive to cultural and moral nuances.

If we speak of behavior then, normal is behavior that is usual, socially acceptable, familiar, predictable, and harmless. This may be considered the rule. Any behavior that is unusual, socially maladaptive, unfamiliar, unpredictable, and dangerous is potentially abnormal. To judge whether or not someone's actions are abnormal, these criteria can be used with relative confidence. However, they are not failsafe. They are general guidelines that must be applied to a concrete situation cautiously with awareness of the full context. Take smoking cigarettes. While it is unhealthy, it may be usual, familiar, predictable, and socially acceptable. On its own, smoking does not typically fall into the category of abnormal. However, taking a lit cigarette and burning someone else with it may certainly be considered abnormal, even in societies where smoking is acceptable. What makes this behavior abnormal is that it is a violent infraction of the other person's body, provided the person is unwilling to suffer burning and there are no cultural traditions at play (such as a "burning festival" during whose time such normally prohibited behavior becomes specially sanctioned). What constitutes it as abnormal are the social rules about rights to protect one's own body from harm and moral strictures against violence and imposing one's will upon another. Should these rules be different in another culture, then the behavior may be deemed normal rather than abnormal. It is a matter of cultural perspective. It is also situational. In one culture, it may be deemed a form of just punishment to burn someone else for breaking a law. In such a case, the punishing behavior would be considered appropriate. Cultural context is of utmost importance for the determination of normal or abnormal action.

Normal can also mean the frequent. This assumes that how a majority of people in a society act, think, and feel is normal (usual, acceptable, familiar, and healthy). However, statistical evidence for what is normal can be misleading. Statistics do not always reflect changing social norms. For instance, smoking is less acceptable now than fifty years ago in the West. If a behavior falls statistically outside the norm, it is not necessarily abnormal in a psychological sense. Someone may engage in risky behavior more than most of the population,…