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Call For Papers: One-Day Conference: Defining and defying the concepts of deviance and degeneration in the British Isles and North America in the 19th century

This one-day conference aims at exploring the definition(s) and contours of deviance and degeneration as it was conceived in the British Isles and North America in the 19th century. PhD students, postgraduate students and junior scholars whose research pertains to the study of deviant groups, whether self-defined or not, are particularly welcome to participate. Speakers will be invited to focus on the processes of definition of the standards of normality – whether religious, social, political, legal, medical or sexual – as well as what those processes entailed for those who were labelled ‘deviants’. The role of scientists, doctors but also political authorities is of considerable interest in this respect, as are the ways in which normative standards were circumvented and challenged.

Although the concepts of abnormality, vice and anomaly, defined as individual violations of the norm, date back to Antiquity, “deviance” and “degeneration” as crucial societal issues were arguably notions born in the early 19th century, when, for the first time, they were conceived as “social pathologies”. They conjure up images of Victorian lunatic asylums, American temperance societies, Irish Magdalene laundries for fallen women, and other institutions or organisations designed to curb and/or reform purportedly deviant tendencies; thereby redressing and redeeming the fallen women and feeble-minded men who yielded to temptation. Cultural, social, medical and penal spheres were tightly intertwined. Sexual deviants could be deemed criminal and imprisoned; convicts could be labelled as insane; while addicts, inebriates, the ‘feeble-minded’ and ‘fallen women’ ran the risk of being hospitalised, incarcerated, or even sterilised. Deviation from the norm prompted fears of degeneration in the context of eugenics, and simply being different could lead to forced ostracism, imprisonment or experimentation. Curing, and failing that, curbing the ‘degenerate’ population became a matter of national concern. Both the British Isles and North America faced this normative wave, which penetrated both popular and scientific discourse. However, despite these common elements, there was considerable variation in the way the issues were debated and the measures implemented, both between the two continents, and within them, revealing contrasting priorities and mentalities.

Topics may include but are not limited to (in no particular order of importance):

·      The border between deviance, immorality, decadence and sin: religious interpretations of deviance and the cult of respectability; 

·      Labelling deviants: who sets the norm? The part played by scientists, political authorities, religious groups, social movements, etc.; 

·      Deviance and disease: psychiatric and medical responses to world alcoholism & addiction, feeble-mindedness & madness; 

·      How were deviants considered to undermine the nation and/or contaminate society? And if so, how could this contagion be prevented?;

·      The scientific approach: physical or mental manifestations of deviance, phrenology, degeneration theory, eugenics, etc.;

·      Deviance and the legal system: were sentencing magistrates, judges and juries influenced by medical definitions of deviance? Did they have their own definitions?;

·      Deviance, gender and crime: prostitution, the Contagious Diseases Acts, refuges for the ‘fallen women’;

·      Sexual deviance: the borderline between ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ sexual practices;

·      Political deviance; 

·      Embracing deviance: nonconformists claiming their “difference”;

·      Saving the deviants? Philanthropy and deviance;

·      Institutions of deviance and the links between them: hospitals, asylums, prisons, refuges, reformatories, borstals, etc. 

Prof. Neil Davie (Université Lyon 2) will deliver the keynote speech. 

He is the author of Tracing the Criminal: The Rise of Scientific Criminology in Britain, 1860-1918 (Bardwell Press, 2005).  

Submission guidelines

Please send 400-word proposals to and / or by November 10th, 2015. The abstract should include a title, name and affiliation of the speaker, and a contact email address. Feel free to submit abstracts presenting work in progress as well as completed projects. Papers will be a maximum of twenty minutes in length. Proposals for suggested panels are also welcome.

This conference will be hosted on January 14th 2016 in the Université Lyon 2/ENS campus in Lyons, France.

Organising committee:  Alice Bonzom – Irène Delcourt – Mélanie Cournil