October 3 (Week 7): Fit Citizens? Disability and the Nation-State

This week we will focus on the relationship between disability and nation-states: how disability has been used to define the character and boundaries of the nation-state and how disability history may shed light on the relevance of the nation-state to transnational history.  We will also look at a more recent historiographic article on the field of disability history.

Please use the comment function to post two discussion questions about this week’s readings by Thursday at 2 pm.  Focus on intriguing or controversial points in the readings that you think will spark discussion.  Strong discussion questions are open-ended, engage with major points in author(s)’ arguments, and are not factual in nature.

Please also post one of the following:

  • a short description (1-3 sentences) of your “muddiest point,” that is, what important point of the author’s argument did you have trouble grasping
  • your “most interesting connection” for this week’s reading

If you refer to a specific point or quote in one of the readings, please provide the author and page number.



Defining Disability History (Redux)

1)     David Turner, “Disability History: Looking Forward to a Better Past,” History Workshop Journal 71, no. 1 (2011): 283-287 (MavSpace)

Quarantining the Nation

1)     Examples of “ugly laws” from Susan M. Schweik, The Ugly Laws: Disability in Public (New York University Press, 2009), pp. 201-206 (MavSpace)

2)     Douglas C. Baynton, “Defectives in the Land: Disability and American Immigration Policy, 1882-1924,” Journal of American Ethnic History (Spring 2005): 31-44 (MavSpace)

3)     Daniel Bender, “Perils of Degeneration: Reform, the Savage Immigrant, and the Survival of the Unfit,” Journal of Social History 42, no. 1 (2008): 5-29 (MavSpace)

4)     Diana Obregón, “Building National Medicine: Leprosy and Power in Colombia, 1870-1910,” Social History of Medicine 15, no. 1 (2002): 89-108 (MavSpace)

5)     Sandy Sufian, “Mental Hygiene and Disability in the Zionist Project,” Disability Studies Quarterly 27, no. 4 (2007) (available at http://dsq-sds.org/article/view/42/42)

Measuring Citizens

1)     John Carson, “The Science of Merit and the Merit of Science: Mental Order and Social Order in Early Twentieth-Century France and America,” in States of Knowledge: The Co-Production of Science and Social Order, ed. Sheila S. Jasanoff (London: Routledge, 2004), pp. 181-205 (MavSpace)

9 Responses to “October 3 (Week 7): Fit Citizens? Disability and the Nation-State”

  1. Dalton Boyd says:

    Question 1: In John Carson’s article, Carson discussed intelligence and aptitude tests and mental health and how these tests were used to gauge social order in both the United States and France, during the early twentieth century. These tests were, and still are, used to measure students’ IQ and their readiness for college work. These tests are also supposed to help the government decide how funds are to be distributed for education. These test results can cause some confusion because society wants to reward its best, but a democratic government does not condone creating a hierarchy. Should these funds be distributed by necessity or merit? Also, should IQ tests and college aptitude tests still used or not? If not then what should be used to measure merit and help decide the distribution of funding for schools?
    Question 2: In Daniel Bender’s Perils of Degeneration, Bender discussed how reformers planned on how to fix society by “civilizing” “savage” immigrants and the working class. Bender discussed eugenic ideals about the superiority of predetermination through the genetic pool and also the idea about that the environment is very influential in the shaping of young people in society. So which aspect is more important in shaping young people to the expectations in both conforming and improving society, environmental or genetic influence?
    Muddiest Point: Susan Schweik gives several examples of “ugly” laws. Do these laws apply to military veterans that are wounded in battle?

  2. Matthew Speight says:

    1. As we examine the literature in migration and disability, it is clear that cultural transfers are occurring. Our class is designed to examine the field in relation to the Atlantic World and Bender clearly presents the idea that theories and methods of social reform are being passed across the Atlantic. While the early U.S. settlement houses are borrowing from the British theories on settlement houses, at other times ideas are not transferring across. Sophie Fuko appears to have been a functioning member of society in Hungary , fit for citizenship and the workforce, but upon her arrival in the U.S she no longer qualified as a fully functioning person able to support and contribute to society. How are we as historians to view what ideas transfer across the lines of nations and which ideas do not?

    2. This week seemed to have the state as a major actor in the articles we read. In regards to the Obregon piece, and other cases of quarantine and segregation, at what point does the government have the right to interfere because of a national health crisis? Is it problematic that the government and medical actors were not held accountable for their actions or census?


    As I have read in this class and the border class that I am taking, I have come across vaccinations and forced medical treatments. How much can the government require of the citizens and visitors of a nation? Is this part of the social contract that all citizens “agree” to or is this a power struggle that the government and chief medical personal are driving?

  3. Cory Wells says:

    In Baynton’s “Defectives in the Land,” he discusses the barriers put up to immigrants to the US based on their physical appearance and perceived disabilities. Probably because of the periodization, Baynton’s focus in on immigrants from southern and eastern Europe and Asia Minor, but it would be interesting to know if the “whiter” races of northern Europe were barred from entering based on physical traits in the same way. It seems obvious that, for instance, an Englishman might not be as readily singled out for inspection, but what about those who arrived with “obvious” disabilities?

    Sufian’s article about the idea of a shared “mental disability” in the Jewish Diaspora was interesting, and I wonder if the same framework could be applied to other groups. Obviously, it depends on your definition of “diaspora,” but if we are to use the definition that implies shared exile from a homeland, it would be interesting to look at other diasporic groups, like the Irish, African-Americans, or Armenians, to see if the model works.

    A larger question that I have based on all of the readings for this week would be whether there Is a dialogue between whiteness historians and disability historians. There seems to be similarities in the types of questions they ask, especially with who is allowed to participate in citizenship, and who represents the “norm” in regards to appearance.

  4. Jacque Tinkler says:

    1. The John Carson article, “The Science of Merit and the Merit of Science” offers an interesting discussion of the debate generated by the development of scientific methods to test intelligence, and therefore classifying individuals for their potential role in the American democracy based on objective, neutral criteria. By the second decade of the 20th century, the test had been revised and improved and due to the resulting enhanced legitimacy was used by educators, “workers, and applicants for employment or admissions.”(191) However, reservations surfaced questioning whether these decisions determining an individual’s merit were undermining the nation’s basic democratic principles of equal opportunity. Discuss the arguments developed by the various sides in this debate.
    2. In “Perils of Degeneration: Reform, the Savage Immigrant, and the Survival of the Unfit” Bender describes the philosophy and the work of the progressive reformers with the urban immigrants in the early 20th century. By the disciplined application of scientific, biological knowledge to those they identified as “good racial stock” they were shaping the evolution of the race and finding off possible degeneration of the lower classes. There was a strong belief in the importance of environment, seen as a key component of hereditary traits. An important part of their work involved the elimination of street gangs, regarding them as “akin to savagery.” Discuss the work of the Playground Movement, boys’ clubs, and the role of the vaudeville shows in this setting.

    Muddiest Point: Although Sandy Sufian’s article “Mental Hygiene and Disability in the Zionist Project” was quite interesting and gave insight into activities and concerns of the Jews of which I was unaware, I found she assumed knowledge of Zionism on the part of the reader that at times rendered the article confusing. Historically, Zionism dates back more than two thousand years and has had a very complicated progress. Modern Zionism, which began in the 19th century, is equally complicated. What exactly does she mean by Zionism? Is she speaking of policies developed by the government after the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 or is she referring to earlier trends?

  5. Jacob Jones says:

    1. Two major factors in the perception of disability have been the state and the medical/scientific community. This has been covered throughout the semester and is the acute focus of this weeks readings. A few central issues, in my mind, have emerged. To what extent have these organizations and communities worked in conjunction with each other in regard to disability? Which has played a more important role in the discrimination against people with impairments, or are they both essential and complementary steps in the process?

    2. Continuing on the role of the scientific and medical community and the nation-state, defining impairment and aptitude or utility seems to have been an impetus for both. Why was progress turned into a process of elimination during this period? Why was the assistance of the less fortunate seen as a drain instead of a capability of an advanced society?

    Interesting connection
    Throughout the semester, and especially this week, we see disability used to argue for and against discrimination. Interestingly, the subject is often not impairment or disability. More often the argument arises in terms of race, gender, education, and labor.

  6. Bryan Garrett says:

    1. As I was reading Baynton’s article on immigration restrictions I constantly had in the back of my mind the role of transportation liners and ticket agents in the transnational spread of categories of desirability initiated by the nation-state. Baynton concludes his work with a brief listing of the relationship between private enterprise and government function. For instance, the US government held transatlantic carriers economically responsible for the passengers they transported. If these individuals were deemed undesirable or liable to become a public charge, then the company had to return them to their society of origin (which in many cases they were merely taken somewhere else in the Americas). We are given a window into migrant lives when they come into contact with the institutions and power structures of the nation-state, but is their another way to get at their experience afterwards?

    My muddy point is related to the above question. I find it a little misleading that Baynton included this at the conclusion of his article, just after discussing the implications of US immigration legislation written in 1924. This seems to place the idea linking private enterprise and nation-state at the end of a relatively chronologically driven paper. Yet as the author attests in the notes, these were considerations rooted as far back as 1882. Would it have made a difference if the author included this discussion at the beginning of his paper rather than the end?

    2. I find it interesting that in the previous weeks we discussed the creation of certain spaces for different bodies in the public sphere. Exhibitions and freak shows made these displays safe for public consumption. Bender claims a distinctive shift in cultural discourse from philanthropy and reform to eugenics, partly in relation to the imperial project and both racial perfection and racial exclusion, with each race representing some degree of evolutionary atavism. Does this explain the emergence of “ugly laws” from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth century?

  7. Lydia Towns says:

    One of the things that really stood out to me in the readings this week is how much our perception of mental instability has changed in the last century. As Baynton points out, the criteria for mental instability expanded in the early part of the 20th century to include not only medical conditions such as epilepsy but also such conditions as abnormal sex instincts. It makes me wonder what our impression would be of the majority of people who were turned away at Ellis Island due to mental defect, and what the impression would be of those immigrant officials of the early 20th century of our society today. The definition of mental defect is truly reliant upon the society that enforces it.

    Statistics play a large role into the research of disability history as it allows the historian to get a feel for society and the impact the disabled had on society. After reading Baynton’s piece this week I see a major problem with the use of statistics. If immigration officials were randomly determining who was truly “disabled,” and turning people away because of a supposed disability when there really wasn’t one, then the statistics of how many people with disabilities were turned away is flawed. If people were turned away for such things as being associated with a mentally deficient group or because a child is delayed in developing speech then I wonder how many people who were turned away actually had some form of disability.

    Muddiest point: When looking at Carson’s piece on the development of the IQ test I am first of all surprised that it was embraced in America more than in France. I also wonder how much one’s culture and prior education influenced the results of the test. The early forms of the test do not seem to have a way of dealing with these factors and it was not yet set up as a universal measurement. So how would that be dealt with?

  8. Robert Caldwell says:

    1.) Modern nation-states imagine a community of “normal” citizens and seek to isolate, exclude, or rehabilitate those who fail the test. Is this an internal contradiction with the logic of the nation-state or a foundation upon which it rests?
    2.) Sandy Sufian’s article challenges readers to examine the development of Zionism between the period of the Balfour Declaration and the early 1940s. Most importantly, she illuminates the fact that those with a variety of disabilities were disallowed to emigrate during the Mandate period. In cases where those had escaped immigration inspection or had become ill afterward, they were deported, even to Germany as late as 1939. Examples on eugenic practices and “mental hygene” are usually attributed to German, U.S. and British (or British-colonial) examples. Eugenic ideas in the development of Zionism are rarely examined concurrently. Does the long shadow of world-changing events like the Holocaust/ HaShoah prevent us from creation of more complex history (disability history or otherwise) that allows the nuance that would help us “understand better the mechanisms of oppression” (Turner, 287)?
    I now see an interesting connection between science, Zionism, and the medicalization of vagabonds in the modern state. In The Jewish State (1896), Theodor Herzl predicted the Jewish State would be “peculiarly modern structure on an unspecified territory.” He goes on to use the Transvaal of South Africa as an example of how the state might advance utilizing modern “scientific” principles:
    What is gold-digging like in the Transvaal today? Adventurous vagabonds are not there; sedate geologists and engineers alone are on the spot to regulate its gold industry, and to employ ingenious machinery in separating the ore from surrounding rock. Little is left to chance now.

  9. Michael Deliz says:

    1) The list of “ugly laws” – presented as an Appendix to Schweik’s The Ugly Laws: Disability in Public – are primarily tied to the act of begging (panhandling) and specifically municipal in nature (with the singular exception of the 1891 Act of the State of Pennsylvania). Was this primarily an urban concern? Perhaps a consequence of increasing urbanization bringing more people into contact with deformed bodies, and or industrialization’s effect on home care forcing many unto the streets? In the case of Manila, the item notes that if apprehended punishment can include forced labor in the public street – a contradictory notion at best within the body of the presented laws. This raises the question whether it was begging that acted as the primary target of policy or if it was the unsightliness of the “ugly”.

    2) In Obregon’s essay on leprosy in nineteenth-century Colombia, the disease is treated as a point of analysis through which the contestation of power in the construction of the nation is disambiguated through the push for “national medicine.” Though what seems glossed over in the article is the extent of the chaos that surrounds Colombia during this period. At each turn where the actions of the government seem to be limited or short-sighted there is a repeated indication that government resources and funding are greatly limited. This is not to say that Obregon’s argument is without merit, but that there is a layer of underdevelopment in the institutional capacity of the government that needs to be addressed but is repeatedly dismissed. That bothers me, because it speaks to the extent to which the will and voice of the ill, which Obregon considers to be especially ignored, must be considered in relation to the whole of society.

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