An extreme aspect of the norm: the troublesome standardization of human hearing

Speaker: Prof Graeme Gooday # University of Leeds; Speaker: Dr Annie Jamieson # University of Leeds

16th Mar 2015

15:30 - 17:00

Room 1.06, Old Surgeons' Hall, High School Yards


The history of audiometry could be characterized as a series of efforts to establish what constitutes ‘normal’ hearing. A new profession of audiologists in the twentieth century sought to construct such a ‘norm’ in order to calibrate audiometers and audiometric tests. By that means they could differentiate a distinct group of human subjects as having ‘impaired’ hearing, and thus (allegedly) needing audiological intervention to manage their hearing loss.

By examining episodes in the standardization of hearing by means of so-called ‘pure tone’ audiometry, this paper will show how the current audiological measures of ‘normal’ hearing have been constructed. Drawing on the work of Mara Mills and others it will show how the standardization of hearing has been driven, not by the clinical interest of subjects, but rather by technological and financial imperatives. In particular it has been informed by two key factors. On the one hand, since the early 20th century the burgeoning telecommunications industry had sought to reduce human speech and ‘normal’ hearing to a convenient parameter in the analysis of telephone network operations. On the other hand, clinicians have needed efficient technology to handle the increasing claims for financial compensation for hearing damage by those who had served in industry and the military, especially those who lost their hearing on an unprecedented scale in the Second World War.

However, running counter to this normalizing tendency in the audiological profession, there has also been more ‘subjectivist’ school of thought on hearing standards. The paper will thus conclude by considering this alternative perspective, illustrated by the work of Australian music psychologist, William G. Noble, especially in his book Assessment of Impaired Hearing: a critique and a new method (1978). In this work, Noble critiques the concept of ‘normal’ hearing, assuming instead a natural dispersion of human auditory capacities. He argues for more personalized interventions, based on an understanding of the individual as a hearing being located in a specific context and environment rather than as a deviation from any fictitious norm. The implications of this for a deindustrialized vision of audiology as personalized care for hearing, rather than industrial batch processing of the ‘impaired’, are significant.

Speakers' biographies