Cornell University

Distributing Norms: Notes on the Normal Distribution from Quetelet through Kinsey - Jennifer Johnson-Hanks, UC Berkeley

Friday, April 12, 2019 at 3:00pm to 4:30pm

Warren Hall, B73

Speaker: Jennifer Johnson-Hanks, Sociology, UC Berkeley

Abstract:This paper is about denominators, exposure to risk, and selection into and out of social categories. It begins with an early genealogy of the Normal Distribution in the social sciences in the work of Adolphe Quetelet and Francis Galton, and then turns to the fact that most social distributions are not in fact Normal, contrary to popular assumption. Most social things, and perhaps especially those that are embarrassing, inconvenient, or immoral, are remarkably stable in their distributions, but those distributions are rarely Normal. The last part of the paper explores how popular assumptions of statistical normalness matter through an analysis of the two most important surveys of American sexual practice of the 20th century:  the Kinsey and the Laumann. The central point of the paper is that although we as social scientists are careful to distinguish statistical from social norms, the Normal Distribution has come to so dominate the popular imagination that social norms are sometimes indeed reflections of statistical ones.

Presented by the Department of Development Sociology Seminar Series

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Event Type

Lecture, Seminar


Department of Development Sociology (DSOC), Development Sociology


dsoc, devsoc



Contact E-Mail

Contact Name

Sarah Day


Jennifer Johnson Hanks

Speaker Affiliation

UC Berkeley

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