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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