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Honoring a Professor Who Asks: "What is Normal?"

Written by John Chadwick | SAS Senior Writer

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Allan V. Horwitz has studied mental health from many different angles throughout his career, including the social response, family caretaking, and the impact of social roles and status.

Now the Board of Governors Professor of Sociology has been named the 2013 recipient of the Daniel Gorenstein Memorial Award. The award is given each year to a Rutgers University faculty member noted for both outstanding scholarly achievement and exceptional service to the University.

In announcing the award, Richard L. Edwards, Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs and Interim Chancellor for Rutgers-New Brunswick, noted that Horwitz “wholly represents the ideals of this singular recognition named in honor of a scholar and intellectual who made deep and lasting contributions to Rutgers University and the world.”

The award ceremony and lecture will be held on Wednesday, September 25th at 5:00PM in the Scholarly Communications Center Teleconference/Lecture Hall in Alexander Library. Horwitz will give a talk titled, "Creating Normality and Abnormality: Psychiatry and the Construction of Mental Illness."

In the interview below, Horwitz, who is also the interim director of the Institute for Health, Health Care Policy and Aging Research, discusses the Signature Course "Normality and Abnormality," which he will teach in the 2014 spring semester.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for this course?

A: I focus on the study of what is generally called mental illness. And over time we’ve seen that symptoms once called mental illness are now generally acknowledged as a normal response to life circumstances. Someone close to us dies. We lose a job. A romantic partner leaves us.  Many people will naturally show symptoms of what is called depressive disorder. But they are not acting in a disordered way. They are responding naturally, or in a normal way, to a difficult situation.

Another example is anxiety. If you look at the most common kinds of fears - fear of heights, or fear of small crawly animals - they make no rational sense at present. But they probably did make a lot of sense at the time the human genome came into creation in prehistoric societies.

I started thinking of more areas:  food preferences; physical appearance; sexuality. Ultimately I decided to create a general course that would explore normality across many different areas.

Q: What do we know about normality in terms of the latest scholarship?

A: Let me make a big point here:  there is no field of normality. It would be impossible to use a single textbook because it spans many, many disciplines. I don’t know a single person whose primary area of research is normality.

Q: How do you approach teaching a topic so vast and one that lends itself to interdisciplinary approaches?

A: There are several schools of thought that we are going to compare and contrast throughout the course. One comes out of the humanities and says essentially that what is considered normal and abnormal are social constructions – that society defines what is normal.  In contrast, the evolutionary psychologist says that what is normal, they would say “natural,” stems from our nature as humans, and in response to the environment. There are particular characteristics that at one point might have conveyed a reproductive advantage. But I should add that that does not mean they should be seen as a deterministic, unchanging reaction. As environments change, people adapt. What is normal, or natural, in one environment may not be the same in a different environment.

Q: What type of materials are you planning to use to teach the course?

A: It will be very, very diverse. I will be using academic studies, newspaper articles, and video clips. I will be drawing from many, many different fields.

Q: College students, particularly undergraduates, are in a stage of development in which they are typically moving away from the conformity of high school and defining their own identities. Do you think students who take the course will benefit emotionally as well as intellectually?

A: I think so. Certainly one of the takeaway points is that what is normal is not something to be thought of as a given, objective reality. It’s not a standard that they should have to strive to conform to. There is a tremendous diversity in normality.

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