Carola Oßmer is a historian of science, knowledge, and culture. Her dissertation and first book project The Invention of the Normal Child is a critical historical study of the 20th century era of normality. Ossmer traces the formation of a set of developmental norms that has – through materials of visual media technology – constituted our understanding of what holds for a ‘normal’ child.
Carola Oßmer is Wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterin (Assistant Professor) in history at the University of Erfurt and a Pre-doctoral Visiting Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science. Before joining the history of science chair at Erfurt in 2021, she was a fellow at the Zentrum für Kulturwissenschaftliche Forschung Lübeck and at the Leuphana Universität Lüneburg. Her research has been supported, among others, by the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung (a German Federal Government Scholarship Foundation) and the Max-Planck-Institute for the History of Science. She received the Biennial Article Prize 2021 of the Forum for History of Human Science, an interest group of the History of Science Society, for her article Normal Development(Isis 111, 3: 515-541).
Carola Oßmer: Zeitplan normaler Kindheit. Arnold Gesells Entwicklungszeitpläne und ihr kritisches Bild von Normalität, in: Viola Balz und Lisa Malich (Hrsg.): Psychologie und Kritik (Wiesbaden: Springer, 2020), S. 117-140.
The Invention of the Normal Child: The Developmental Norms and Visual Technologies of Arnold Gesell’s Psycho-Laboratory (1911-1948)
Developmental norms for assessing whether a child is developing ‘normally’, have been subject to critique since their inception. While for some critics they were not standardized and precise enough, for others they did epitomize normative regulation and normalization. However, still today, for parents, teachers, doctors and psychologists, they provide benchmarks for judging about the development of babies and children. Developmental norms shape pervasive ideas about what holds for a normal child, about what holds for normal behavior at all. How and why did this contested knowledge about normal development emerge? Who invented the normal child? In my dissertation, I trace the formation of these developmental norms and follow normality’s development through a scientific research program that began, ironically, with a critique of that very concept of the normal.
After World War I, a group of child development researchers and film makers around Yale psychologist, pediatrician and educator Arnold Gesell innovated techniques of photography and film in order to collect visual data on the mental development of babies. Although, by means of visual technologies, the researchers sought to challenge standardized measurements of the normal, they created a set of norms. These norms – also known as developmental milestones – became a worldwide standard for assessing a child’s normality and shaped a universal understanding of what constituted the normal child. Ultimately, Gesell’s far-reaching theory of normal development contributed to an idea of the normal that he had criticized in the first place.
Based on archival sources from the photographic research program where the developmental norms have been created, the dissertation returns to the foundation of this pervasive knowledge of normal development. By tracing the mechanism behind Gesell’s developmental norms and their making, the dissertation argues that visual technologies played a constitutional role for the emerging knowledge about development and normality. Especially film technology configured ideas of the child and the normal in- and outside of the laboratory. The dissertation reveals entanglements between a scientific theory and highly popularized knowledge and demonstrates that the visual constitution of the normal child seemed natural and inevitable and therefore, was often taken for granted. Thus, the research project also adds to historical understandings of the 20th century notion of normality, and helps denaturalize what had come to be thought of as human ‘nature’.
Supervised by: Bernhard Kleeberg (Erfurt), Christina Wessely (Lüneburg), Christine von Oertzen (Berlin), Cornelius Borck (Lübeck)