Carola Oßmer is a historian of science, knowledge and culture. Her dissertation and first book project The Invention of the Normal Child provides the first historical study of a controversial set of child development norms which were created by the American psychologist and pediatrist Arnold Gesell. Her research demonstrates that through materials of visual technology, an influential theory of mental development was constructed that contributed to an era of normality in the 20th century.
Carola Oßmer is a 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. She was a Fellow at the Zentrum für Kulturwissenschaftliche Forschung Lübeck (2021), Visiting Fellow at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge (2019), Visiting Scholar in the program for History of Science and Medicine at Yale University (2017), and a guest Ph.D. student in American Studies at George Washington University (2016). Her research has been supported by the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung (German Federal Government Scholarship Foundation), Zentrum für Kulturwissenschaftliche Forschung Lübeck, Leuphana Universität Lüneburg, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, and others. In 2021, her article Normal Development(Isis 111, 3: 515-541) received the Biennial Article Prize of the Forum for History of Human Science (History of Science Society) for the best article published in the last two years on some aspect of the history of the human sciences.
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)