The Forces of Normalization

Carol A. Hand

“Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”
― Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

The last decades of my life as an employee were spent in academia as social work faculty. It wasn’t the field of study I ever intended to follow. I chose it after observing the ways in which oppressive institutions robbed people of their human rights and dignity. It was the route I took to learn about community organizing and social policy advocacy. Yet by the time I arrived in academia, the field was well on its way to a narrower agenda – recognition as a clinical profession equal to law, medicine, and psychiatry. From my perspective, this is a repressive agenda that not only robs people of their dignity but also fails to acknowledge the forces of social control that remain unchallenged by a medicated, behaviorally-modified docile citizenry.

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Despite warnings sounded by Harry Specht and Mark Courtney in 1994 (Unfaithful angles: How social work has abandoned its mission), the discipline of social work had continued its accelerating transmutation into a profession with an ever-narrowing focus on helping deviant individuals better adapt to their environments. Initially, I was naïve about academia. When I was first recruited to join a faculty in a department that had recently hired Black, Korean-American, and Muslim members, I paid little attention to the department’s history. As I look back now, I am able to see a disturbing pattern. Unlike the university where I earned my degrees, each of the institutions where I served as faculty had recently added a new graduate program, purportedly to compliment the long-standing baccalaureate degree program.

Because tuition for graduate degrees is higher, universities saw this expansion as a way to generate more revenue. They could add a few more faculty members, not enough to cover the expansion, but the workload for new and existing faculty could be increased to accommodate the change. In the process, the quality of undergraduate programs was compromised by some institutions. Although some institutions initially tried to maintain an equal focus on the larger socio-structural forces that contributed to the challenges individuals, families, communities, and nations faced, money ultimately was not to be made by graduates who challenged structural inequality. Insurance companies, medical model standards, and state professional licensing requirements increasingly dictated which degree-holders could practice and what services they would be paid to provide. It is not in the interest of these gatekeepers to have graduates who think critically about normalizing hegemonic forces.


Photo Source: Drawing by Carol A. Hand
(based on an adaptation of N. Andry (1749), Orthopaedrics or the art of preventing and correcting deformities of the body in children, cited in Foucault)

I am saddened to say that the college I currently work for as an adjunct has followed this trend by adding a clinically-focused master’s degree. In an effort to help prepare undergraduate students for an easier transition into the new graduate program, faculty are being asked to standardize and reformulate the curriculum to focus on an enhanced clinical foundation. What this means is choosing texts and assignments that will please the gatekeeping accrediting body for social work programs, a body focused more on replicating the status quo than on challenging hegemony. I have been told that the standardized text that all undergraduate faculty will have to use to teach research is designed to prepare students to be producers and consumers of research. Once again, I face the reality that my commitment to work with students to promote liberatory praxis doesn’t fit with an institutional agenda. It is of little consequence that I have more experience as a researcher across a broad range of topics, populations, and methods than those administrators who will choose the required texts. As a Native American, my view will in all likelihood be marginalized rather than accepted as a well-grounded analysis based on an understanding of how research has served as a tool to further careers of the privileged while it added new “objective” dimensions to the oppression and suffering for generations of vulnerable peoples around the globe.

Although the following observation made by Linda Tuhiwai Smith (2001) specifically mentions Indigenous Peoples, the same can be said for any “objects” of research that have less power than researchers in the prevailing social structure.

A continuing legacy of what has come to be taken for granted as a natural link between the term “indigenous” (or its substitutes) and “problems” is that many researchers, even those with the best of intentions, form their research in ways that assume that the locus of a particular problem lies with the indigenous individual or community rather than with other social or structural issues…. For indigenous communities, the issue is not just that they are blamed for their own failures but that it is also communicated to them, explicitly or implicitly, that they themselves have no solutions to their own problems. (Smith, 2001, Decolonizing methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, p. 92, emphasis added)

Oppression is complete when “othered” people believe they are the problem, that their differences make them deviant and their cultures are deficient – when they believe they can only make progress if outside experts take charge. From my perspective, students need to think critically and question these assumptions in published studies and those they may plan to conduct in the future.

Of course, I plan to do what I can to carve out a liberatory space as the program goes through this transition. Although I hope to be more successful this time around, experience has shown me that well-reasoned arguments don’t always prevail. But sometimes, tenacity does.

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20 thoughts on “The Forces of Normalization

  1. Great essay. The sentiments expressed here mesh nicely with Thomas Jefferson’s vision of education in an enlightened society. Unfortunately, that higher purpose has been supplanted over the last three decades with a technocratic and business-centric orientation. Knowledge is no longer seen as intrinsically valuable, but as purposefully useful. Such thinking offers flawed yet pragmatically appealing arguments like “don’t study liberal arts because it won’t help you get a job.”

    The state, which was intended to serve the citizenry, now serves amoral corporate interests. The new paradigm cannot support democracy, egalitarianism, and individualism. Money is now driving everything, and in my opinion, right off an existential cliff. We are headed towards authoritarianism, and America’s once great educational institutions will be but one of many victims.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful analysis, Robert. I share your concern that higher education has sold out to a corporate agenda that threatens to destroy one of our most valuable resources — the creativity and imagination of those who seek knowledge to broaden horizons and explore possibilities.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. As always you touched on some important issues. You are so correct in your conclusions of the direction to medicate people – or put them in prison – rather than to examine the real causes of many social problems. From hypertension to ADHD – the medical establishment and seem the social service establishment are not addressing the social and economic causes of too many problems. Fortunately, we do have people such as you shining your light.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you, Skywalker Storyteller. I know you work on the front lines with these issues, touching people’s lives with kindness and compassion. As Jeff often says, we are all part of the light.


  3. Internalized oppression is the ending, I think! It’s so frustrating, and worse so because watching resistance happen all of the time, and the old narratives come in to close down conversations makes me want to shout! Carol, do you know the work of Don Foster? He works a lot on critical psychology here in South Africa, and he speaks a lot about the clinical and individual model of psychology as the greatest form of deception. He works at UCT (I think he may be deputy dean of humanities now). Kevin Durrheim, Leslie Swartz, Melissa Steyn, Buhle Zuma have also fought hegemony quite a lot, and work to transform psychology (Melissa has established a diversity/social justice department in it’s own right, with incredible tenacity).

    I think we just have to keep trying, and we have to draw on all the allies as well!

    Knowledge production is one of the biggest ways of maintaining the status quo!

    Thank you for a wonderful article!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Miigwetch, Nicci. I appreciate the resources you shared, and as always, your thoughtful comments.

      Reading the early literature about Ojibwe people demonstrated the danger of biased perspectives to me in unforgettable ways. Astoundingly, some of the worst examples can still be found on bookshelves, labeled as reputable accounts of history and “traditional” culture. As I read ethnographic accounts of Ojibwe culture that repeatedly characterized us as “the children of savages,” I reflected on my mother’s internalized shame. No wonder! Add to that the influence these studies have on laws and social policies — hence the status of tribal governments in the U.S. as “domestic dependent nations” subject to the “protective” rule of the U.S. Congress. Studies of other disempowered groups likewise tend to point out their failures as individuals or cultures as the cause for their poverty, living conditions, failure to succeed in school, etc.

      My studies have focused primarily on history, sociology, and anthropology, but I am interested in the resources you shared from the field of psychology and would love to learn more!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi Carol, I did my masters thesis on the way that individuals are blamed for structural difficulties, but I’ve started to notice quite how much cultures of people are blamed (and essentialized) as cultures as well more recently.

        I was aware of ‘race’ as the discursive killer of possibility and opportunity, and of the thin narratives or descriptions around ‘race’, but the continual bombardment I’ve started to notice recently whenever anybody does drop a shamed identity and start to speak back has been quite astonishing!

        It’s as if keeping ‘other’ people in a state of shame is the goal. I’m learning quite how much children carry the pain of parents’ shame or humiliations as well! I remember reading that your mother was also in an abusive marriage, which would just add to the pain as well.

        Reggie September, one of South Africa’s revolutionary leaders used to say that oppression is just so painful that working against it is not heroic, it’s just all a person could do. I think that too. What else can we do but keep trying?

        I am grateful for the connections and the blogging you do, it helps me learn, and it brings a deeper connectedness to the work. Learning about the oppression of the Indian people is very sad! All oppression is sad though.

        Warmth to you, Carol!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Nicci, your work adds such important dimensions for understanding the mechanisms and consequences of oppression based on socially-constructed categories that keep groups of “others” in their place from one generation to the next. Two constructs that may be helpful in your work include “historical trauma” and “soul wound.” Here’s a list of some resources you might find interesting:

          Historical trauma (Dr. Maria Yellow Horse Braveheart):

          Click to access 93078-842830.historical-trauma.pdf

          Soul wound (Eduardo Durand):

          Miigwetch for sharing your insights and wisdom, Nicci. It helps keep me motivated as I work on editing a chapter of my book on Indian child welfare by adding new dimensions for me to consider..


        2. Hello, fellow blogger! A peaceful day to you!
          Congrats! You are nominated for the Wonderful Team Member Readership Award.
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        3. Thank you, Nicci. This is so very kind and thoughtful. It is especially meaningful coming from someone I respect deeply. Your work on social justice issues is consistently thoughtful and raises crucial questions about how to create more inclusive, respectful dialogue and communities. The reflections and resources you share are of special importance for those of us “on the margins” whose voices are often ignored.

          Again, chi miigwetch, Nicci.


  4. I may have shared this with you already but this is post is one of the most powerful I have across in my time as a blogger…

    Liberating oneself from the colonized mindset is a constant state of unraveling the tangle of narratives many of us have been raised on in the mainstream culture and unpacking the accompanying baggage. As much as I believe in pubic education as a universal means for alleviating social and economic inequalities, the dogmatic approach taken in American public schools undergirded by the corporate textbook and test publishers needs to be dismantled. In the U.S., we are far from Freire’s vision of participatory and inclusionary education. In even worse news, the POTUS just appointed another one of the princes of privatization as the undersecretary of the DOE…

    Hope all is well with you, Carol.


      1. Jeff, thank you for your comments and for the links you shared. I love the essay you sent on unraveling a colonized mind, and found the news about the new DOE undersecretary disturbing.

        Actually, this essay about “the forces of normalization” helped me begin to formulate strategies to create a liberatory space for my self in the short term. As an adjunct, I have the luxury of using whatever sources and assignments I have learned will best meet the needs of my students. And I am ever learning from my current students what will best reach each individual. My motivation is to figure out how can I unlock their excitement to learn and master new challenges they thought were beyond their abilities. I don’t need administrators to tell me how and what to teach because I only agree to teach subjects in which I have prior practice experience. Nor do I feel the need to follow orders from people who erroneously believe they have the power to force others to act in unethical or ill-advised ways. I accept the risk of losing a part-time job, but I don’t feel the need to provoke conflict. I can just ignore directives and teach my own way without advertising the fact. I’m so unimportant in the larger context of what administrators need to focus on these days, so I’m sure I can find creative ways to remain off their radar.

        More importantly, I am concerned with how to work toward change on a systems level. Today, I had a long meeting with a trusted colleague to explore possible strategies for creating a space for critical dialogue among faculty that could build a sense of community and lead to creative teaching approaches across satellite campuses. (Something I have learned from you, in fact.) I don’t expect change to come from the top, and in keeping with Freire’s example, I believe liberation can only come from the oppressed through dialogue and collaboration. A long response, I know. It’s my way of saying that I am doing fine despite the polar vortex — I am happiest when I feel the spark of possibility that liberatory transformation is possible, even on a modest local scale.


  5. Hello Carol. First, I want to thank you for visiting “through the luminary lens” and your interest in following my ruminations. I am honored, and look forward to the honor of following your experiences.

    Your journey in academia, seems a bit similar to my wife’s, with the trend towards standardization, the clinical path etc. … although her field was not social work, but in education and counseling. You likely will be interested in a couple of her past articles – Indigenizing Counsellor Education and Couselling with First Nations Women. Here’s the link – . You can scroll down till you see the proper link.

    She departed from academia and has pursued a path of working in the field, through writing 2 novels – each covering numerous themes of exploitation, bullying, grief, liberation, etc. She is happy in her new good work. Your tenacity at the university is much needed. Good work indeed.

    Peace and best regards – Bruce

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Bruce. I love your photos and ruminations, and I appreciate the link to your wife’s work. I look forward to reading the article and following both or your fascinating blogs.


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