Towards a social theory of mental handicap
Traditionally, medicine and psychology have characterised mental handicap as an objectively diagnosable condition of the individual, in no way affected by society. Sociologists have reacted against this dominant paradigm by developing labelling theory accounts of how individuals and state agencies can create and maintain the category of handicap by stigniatization and differential denial of social resources, and there have been attempts to see the category as a functional one for industrial societies. However, these ahistorical accounts do not add up to an adequate sociology of retardation. Tracing the history of the condition, as the core of this thesis does, we find that it was not identified as a distinct 'social problem' in the West until the development of industrial capitalism. The key event appears to be the introduction of compulsory education, which presented to a state committed to universal education a group of children. The reactions to this discovery, however, must be construed as part of a whole culture and ideology, and the thesis traces the parallel development of scientific conceptualistions, popular attitudes and treatment provisions in the light of economic relations. (The historical analysis necessarily confounds industrialisation with the growth of capitalism, but limited cross-cultural material suggests the latter as the crucial variable.) The main aim of the thesis is to illustrate the importance of history for sociological theory. The thesis also considers the necessary role of microsociology and psychology in building a social theory of mental handicap which accounts for the experience of individuals aswell as the structures of society, and Chapter 7 describes three studies illustrative of what could be done. However, microsociology cannot provide a sociological understanding without a historically informed macro-sociology within which to locate it.