Engineering Dis/Abilities

“Engineering Dis/Abilities” in a Modern Society – the System of Children’s Homes in Socialist Czechoslovakia (1945/48–1989)

Research project at the University of Kiel by Frank Henschel

Drawing on the concepts of “social engineering”, “biopolitics” and “dis/ability”, this project examines ideas of “a/normality” and “dis/ability” in relation to children, childhood and families in socialist Czechoslovakia between 1945/48 and 1989. Adopting a comparative, transnational perspective, it focuses not only on discourses of actors from the fields of health science, pedagogy or politics, but also on childcare institutions. The structure and development of the system of children’s homes for both “normal” and “disabled” children are described as a politically and scientifically motivated project of normalising and directing children’s growing up and family life via the introduction of collective care regimes and permanent educational institutions. This aim was characterised by many ambivalences and tensions arising from the conflicting discourses and practices of the various actors, political-ideological and scientific demands, and institutional reality.

Combining the perspective of “social engineering” with the heuristic and analytical lens of “biopolitics” opens up an extremely innovative approach to describing children’s homes as a mirror of ideals, concepts and realities of scientifically supported socialist care and educational work in the general context of family and social politics aiming to maintain qualitative population characteristics such as productivity and ideological and moral loyalty. In particular, repressive moments come to light when experts and the state draw on the ideas of eugenics in taking hold of children of the underprivileged or of “gypsy families”. Regarding these intersectionalities, the perspectives and concepts of “dis/ability history” provide a nuanced and systematic analysis of ideas of “ability” and “disability”, “normality” and “anormality”, and “conformity” and “deviance”. This research design not only examines attributions of physical, mental and sensory “disability”, but also expands the focus to the classification of and ways of dealing with mental, emotional, temperamental, habitual – in short, “social dis/ability”. Its classification and treatment was closely related to the central aims of socialist education policy, namely readiness for education and school, education towards work and integration into professional life and, not least, education towards parenthood. The findings available here thus go far beyond the narrow phase of “childhood” and promise new insights into the functioning of politics, science and power in a modern socialist society.