Normality: What Does It Really Mean?

· August 7, 2018

The term “normal” is often and indiscriminately used in our society. On many occasions, we might hear about behaviors that are or aren’t normal. We hit a wall when we try to define what normality really is. It’s difficult for us to define what’s normal and what’s pathological, strange, or weird.

Associated connotations are a very dangerous aspect of the concept of normality. They’re usually used as determinators of what’s right and what isn’t. When we observe a person, behavior, or anything out of the ordinary, we’ll most likely make negative prejudices. This, to a certain extent, is due to our common misconception of normality and how uninformed we are regarding it. It’s important to learn what the word “normal” really means.

An easy way to approach this term is through the opposite of normal, which would be “pathological”. Understanding abnormal processes and behaviors will help us get the true definition of this word. That’s why the first thing we’ll be addressing here is the definition of pathological.

“Normality is a paved road: It’s comfortable to walk, but no flowers grow on it.”

-Vincent van Gogh-


Red balloon surrounded by all white balloons.

Definition of pathological or abnormal

Defining what’s pathological has always been difficult due to how complex it is to determine its criteria. It also confuses people as to what to do about it. People in Psychology are still debating whether or not it should be considered susceptible to a diagnosis or therapy. Now, what criteria should pathological behaviors follow in order for them to be treatable or not?

When it comes to defining a pathology or an abnormality, we usually follow four criteria. A very important fact to consider is that it’s not necessary to meet all of the criteria to consider something’s abnormal. However, it should be understood as four dimensions that score differently qualitatively.

These are the four different criteria:

  • Statistic approach: It’s based on the idea that normality is what is most common. It’s a mathematical criterion based on numbers. Behaviors that are frequently repeated are normal, while those that barely occur are abnormal or pathological. This causes a great impact since it uses an objective method to measure normality. However, it loses effectiveness when there are many variables. There’s also the issue of defining the percentage threshold that implies the change from abnormal to normal.
  • Biological approach: In this approach, biological processes and laws determine normality. Those behaviors or processes that follow biological normality won’t be considered pathological. The problem with this criteria is that biological laws can be wrong or incomplete. A new fact can be interpreted as a pathology instead of part of a normal process.
  • Social approach: It’s based on the idea that normality is what society sees as normal, what people accept. Society, through intersubjectivity and social knowledge, establishes the characteristics of what’s “normal”. History might influence this criterion. The concept of this will vary depending on time and culture.
  • Subjective approach: According to this criterion, if a person considers they’re behaving pathologically, that’s enough to consider them as such. Bias and subjectivity make this approach very deficient. People tend to consider all of their behaviors as normal.

The criteria above are useful when diagnosing and treating disorders in clinical psychology. However, they don’t really look into the real meaning of normality. Nonetheless, we can use them to better understand our personal concept of normal and abnormal.

A pink doll floating among blue dolls.

Normality according to social constructivism

Social constructivism might help us understand the definition of normality. It explains that the interaction people have with their environment creates all knowledge. Basically, the idea of what is normal is constructed through our relationship with our surroundings.

This means we’ll never be able to speak about normality in general terms. We’ll always consider it within a society. This means it doesn’t matter the approach we use to define what’s pathological since all people end up seeing normality or abnormality from a social point of view. This theory makes us see this topic with a different light, it might even stir up an ethical and moral debate.

Not everything that’s strange or weird has to do with the person’s negative or problematic side. In fact, it’s society who ends up excluding behaviors, ideas, or characteristics through prejudice and criticism. This explains how the consideration of normal and abnormal behaviors, actions, and feelings have drastically changed through history. For example, centuries ago, killing someone who hurt your pride was completely normal and legal, very different from how it is now.

In brief, we could say that normality is a social construct that comprises those behaviors, ideas, and characteristics adapted to a society. It’s society’s process for self-regulation. For this reason, psychologists are studying the paradigms about disorders and disabilities based on functional diversity. Let’s start considering abnormality a concept created by society instead of a personality trait.

“Normality is a fine ideal for those who have no imagination.”

-Carl Jung-