Exclusionary power of ‘acting normal’

By Maria Rast

Great sociologists such as Foucault, Bourdieu or Bauman claim that nowadays, power cannot be possessed, controlled and used to achieve certain outcomes. According to them, power works in more invisible, subtle and often unconscious ways. It resides in dominant images, taken for granted assumptions and prevalent discourses. Daily exposure to such prevailing ideas unconsciously affects individuals’ ability to think differently, thereby in a way brainwashing society. We all are convinced that democracy is the only just system, that education is important and that wealth is desirable. By being confronted with these ideas time and again, we start internalising them; we take them for granted and perceive them as ‘normal’. Accordingly, this process is called ‘normalization’ in Sociology. Foucault claims that all our knowledge is contaminated by such dominant ideas, which makes it almost impossible to choose a different path.

In the Netherlands, refugees are perceived in two different ways. On the one hand, they are pictured as a threat to Dutch society. Their culture is considered outdated, inferior to and incompatible with Dutch values. Often, this results in nationalist sentiments and aversion against the arrival of migrants in the Netherlands. On the other hand, refugees are perceived as poor, helpless and passive victims that are in desperate need of help. Since the so-called refugee crisis in 2015, this image has incited thousands of people to set up community initiatives to promote participation and inclusion of refugees in society.

However, considering the way power works in the Foucauldian perspective, including a group of people that is affiliated with the above-described exclusive images seems almost impossible. Can you become a worthy member of society if the majority of the people thinks of you as either a helpless victim or a threat? Can you develop a positive identity when you’re constantly reduced to your refugee background? Can you be open to new ‘norms and values’ if your own country, culture, religion and identity is time and again humiliated by stereotypical images? Through normalization, dominant exclusive images stand in the way of inclusion. The question emerges whether it is at all possible to resist such exclusionary mechanisms?

Flickr crazy
Ella Kester via Flickr.com

Ghorashi (2014) developed a concept called ‘interspace’. Interspace stands for a space in which people try to reflect on their assumptions and step back from their taken-for-granted positions. Through stepping back, an interspace emerges where people can meet each other in new ways. Ghorashi sees this process as a sort of dance; stepping back and meeting each other anew. According to this view, people’s ability to develop an interspace depends on their reflexive capacity. In the context of my own empirical research at BOOST Transvaal, a community initiative for and with refugees in Amsterdam East, I realized, however, that people can also engage in what Ghorashi calls a dance when they are actually dancing. During a party, I observed how people with various backgrounds learned each other’s dance styles. They then started mixing them, through which new, hybrid dance styles emerged. Inspired by this experience, I tried to identify similar situations in which people stepped back from their established roles and identities. A public event that was attended by many more guests than expected resulted in a somewhat chaotic situation in the kitchen team. In this chaos, members of the kitchen team were forced to let go of the task they were assigned beforehand and instead supported each other by taking up the tasks that lay right in front of them. This resulted in a new, organic way of working with each other. Although role allocations and schedules, that were as usually developed by a Dutch volunteer, were eventually abandoned, the kitchen team managed to finish even ahead of schedule. Finally, I could observe people stepping back from established positions more easily by participating in a theatre project. In the project Contained at BOOST, a group of locals, migrants, expats and refugees created a theatre play aiming to stimulate reflection on refugees’ societal exclusion amongst its public. During improvisational rehearsals, actors would constantly switch between playing either ‘guards’ or ‘people trying to get in’. Moreover, everyone shared their own experiences with similar real-life situations. The final script and roles were therefore developed in collaboration with each other. Moreover, unlike in real life, actors could choose which role they wanted to play. Consequently, playing theatre naturally facilitated stepping back from and switching between roles, thereby also shifting power relations.

What these three examples have in common is that people with various backgrounds shared the same passion. They were dancing, preparing food and playing theatre. Instead of rationally thinking about categorizing people, they acted on, emotion, chaos and passion. In this playful way, they let go of their daily roles more easily. Unfortunately, in daily life and in our workplace, we’re often required to act rationally and seriously, in other words, to act normal. In the Netherlands, the Prime Minister even refers to ‘the normal Dutchman’ as the ideal citizen. However, as this essay has shown, ‘acting normal’ without critical reflection about what you’re actually doing can be very dangerous. Acting normal unconsciously normalizes mechanisms of exclusion that work through dominant images that we all take for granted. The unconsciousness of this process, makes this the most insidious form of exclusion, since it reproduces exclusionary structures even when the intention is to include (also see Young, 2001).

To promote inclusion in society, we need to counteract normalization. I suggest that to resist the influence of dominant exclusive images and discourses that we all take for granted, we need to shake up things a little bit. Go dancing, make theatre, create chaos and force people to step back from their assumptions and positions. Don’t act normal. Act crazy!


Ghorashi, H. (2014). Routed connections in late modern times. In U. M. Vieten (Ed.), Revisiting Iris Marion Young on Normalisation, Inclusion and Democracy (pp. 49-67). Houndmills UK: Palgrave Pivot.

Young, I. M. (2001). Activist challenges to deliberative democracy. Political Theory, 29(5), 670–690.


This text is a translated version of a Dutch blog published on the website of KIS (Kennisplatform Integratie & Samenleving). 

Maria Rast foto
Maria Rast is Master of Law and Master of Science, currently working as a PhD candidate at the Sociology department and the Refugee Academy of VU Amsterdam, where she is conducting research on the role of engaged scholarship in promoting refugees’ societal inclusion.
Photographer: ©Lilian de Lange – Schlatter
Hair & Make-up: Julia Henzen


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