Problems Defining Abnormality

Defining abnormality is no easy task. There are 4 definitions discussed in Cardwell <& Flanagan (2003) and each has its merits and disadvantages. The first is statistical infrequency. Abnormality is defined in terms of the frequency any given behaviour is said to exist in a given social group. For example, foot size can be averaged so that everyone can be seen to fall within a certain size. People whose foot size is much smaller or larger fall outside the average and are therefore by definition – abnormal. This definition is suggesting that abnormal behaviour is somehow measurable, and that behaviour can be easily grouped in terms of numbers.

This is not the case. There are many behaviours that would fall outside the average for the population, shoe size being one example, where a person would not be classified as abnormal just because their feet were larger or smaller than average. In a similar way defining abnormality as deviating from social norms means that most people behave in a given way as determined by the dominant social group. Most social behaviours are determined by laws, and people who break such laws are classified as criminals. However, the unwritten rules, or residual rules (Scheff, 1984) are those that are taken for granted.

These are associated with etiquette, manners and other behaviours that are culturally determined but often subtle. If an individual beaks these, they are seen as not quite right, in some sense different from everyone else. A major problem with this definition is that socially desirable behaviours are very much an issue for different cultures. Each separate culture has its own unique set of behavioural patterns that determine that culture. For example, men in the UK don’t really ever kiss each other on the cheeks, but in France, it is quite common as a form of greeting.

In Arabic cultures men may often hold hands, yet it is unheard of here in England. Another way of defining abnormality is failure to function adequately. Here the focus is on the individual and his ability to cope with daily living. If an individual is unable to deal with daily life, they may become isolated, unkempt and may avoid the attention of others. Also the individual may display unusual or bizarre behaviours that others may feel uncomfortable with, for example, smearing faecal matter over themselves.

The concept of failure to function is based on a judgment of what is acceptable and adaptable behaviour. Whether behaviour is acceptable depends on the era an individual lives. Up until 1973 homosexuality was considered a mental disorder in DSM. From that date it was removed from the diagnostic manual but the behaviour remains. What changes are views and attitudes, not necessarily the behaviour per se. One further criterion is based on Jahoda (1958) views about what is needed to be considered normal. Here she applies a number of criteria that an individual should posses in order to be classified as normal.

These include; autonomy; an ability to cope with stress; to be able to have and maintain close relationships with others; having an accurate perception of reality; and others. The problem of having set criteria for defining normality, or by definition, abnormality, is that it seems unlikely that anyone would ever truly meet such ideals. This is particularly true from a cross-cultural perspective. Since behaviour is so diverse across culture, it could be argued that such criterion is inherently racist. Again, there is an element where judgment, based on set values, determines normality for everyone.

These four definitions of abnormality are not on their own, all encompassing. They reflect thinking and ideas about human behaviour which may or may not be easily classified. Usually a person is considered abnormal if they fall into all the criteria and do not posses characteristics essential to be classified as normal according to Jahoda. Culture plays an important role in determining what is considered abnormal as well. All these definitions tend to be based on a white middle-class set of values that make up the Western psychiatric service, so therefore it may not be possible to account for all variations in culturally specific behaviour.

This essay will be a critical evaluation of the diagnosis and classification of abnormality and the intrinsic problems involved. The term ‘abnormality’ is defined as ‘deviation from a norm or standard’, but how do psychologists determine what is abnormal or …

These four definitions are useful for identifying different kinds of abnormality depending on the situation and the definition that is the most suitable – the one thing that needs to be remembered is that all the definitions are culturally relative …

Abnormality is a term that is difficult to define due to the wide range of behaviours displayed by people. There are not a certain set of characteristics which can be directly related to abnormality, which could therefore be used to …

‘Deviation from optimal psychological well-being (a state of contentment that we all strive to achieve). Deviation is characterised by a lack of positive self-attitudes, personal growth, autonomy, accurate view of reality, environmental mastery, and resistance to stress; all of which …

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