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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Past Events

Centre for Nineteenth-Century Studies Postgraduate Conference - Abnormality and the Abnormal in the Nineteenth Century

Senate Suite, Durham University

Centre for Nineteenth-Century Studies Postgraduate Conference

‘Neither moral philosophy nor poetry condescends to the monstrous or the abnormal,’ Thomas De Quincey, 1848.

Abnormality and the Abnormal in the Nineteenth Century

7 May 2015, Senate Suite, Durham University

in association with Newcastle University and Northumbria University

supported by British Society for Literature and Science


PROFESSOR MARTIN WILLIS, Chair of Science, Literature and Communication, University of Westminster


The words ‘abnormal’ and ‘abnormality’ first emerged in the nineteenth century; contemporary usage reflects their pejorative connotations.

The first recorded use, in 1817, contrasts ‘abnormal’ with ‘healthy,’ suggesting that ‘abnormality’ was initially a medical term. In medical discourse it became an ostensibly objective descriptor – in 1847 The Lancet defined abnormality as ‘something that is abnormal; an instance of irregularity.’ However, the term eventually came to mean an aberration from any kind of ‘normal’ concept, behaviour, expectation, or way of being: indeed, the construction of ‘normal,’ and the values associated with normality, is itself implicated in nineteenth century constructions of the abnormal.

This one-day interdisciplinary conference aims to explore categorisations, explanations, and implications of abnormality in the long nineteenth century, asking what the abnormal can tell us about long nineteenth century constructions of aberration, deviancy, and normality.


Topics may include, but are not limited to:

  • Measuring and/or quantifying (ab)normality
  • Abnormality as/and spectacle
  • Decadence, deviance and abnormal tastes
  • Degeneration of behaviour and race
  • Imperialistic perceptions of the ‘other’
  • Locating & segregating the abnormal


We invite proposals for 20-minute individual papers, or for 1 hour three-paper themed panels, from postgraduates of all disciplines and stages. Please send abstracts (individual papers 300 words / panels 500 words) including the title, all names, affiliations and a contact email address, as a Word or .pdf document, to the conference organisers at, with the subject heading ‘CNCS PG Conference: Abnormality’.

The deadline for submission is 16 January 2015.

This conference is organised by the Postgraduate Representatives for the Centre for Nineteenth-Century Studies at Durham University. For more information about CNCS, please visit our website or follow us on Twitter.

Contact, for more information about this event.