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The Imperfect Child in Early Twentieth-Century Russia

Byford, Andy

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The article discusses the role that conceptualisations of child ‘imperfection’ played in the rise and fall of Russian ‘child study’ between the 1900s and the 1930s. Drawing on Georges Canguilhem’s ideas on ‘the normal’ and ‘the pathological’, the article analyses practices centred on diagnosing subnormality and pathology in the Russian child population in the late tsarist and early Soviet eras. It first examines mutually competing normative regimes that framed categorisations of ‘imperfection’ among Russia’s children in the context of the empire’s accelerated, yet ambivalent modernisation during the 1900s–1910s. It then charts the expansion of this diagnostics in the first decade or so of the Soviet regime, following its shift in focus from the early-1920s’ ‘delinquent child’ to the late-1920s’ ‘mass child’. The article concludes with a discussion of the emergence, over this same period, of the Russian field of medicalised special education known as ‘defectology’. It argues that defectology’s disciplinary specificity crystallised in 1936 around a purposely restrictive concept of ‘imperfection’, understood as individualised and clinically established pathological ‘impairment’. The latter conceptualisation became fixed at the height of Stalinism as a strategic counter to the expansive flux in which the diagnostics and conceptualisation of child ‘imperfection’ had otherwise been over the first three decades of the twentieth century in the context of the remarkable rise of child study during this period.


Byford, A. (2017). The Imperfect Child in Early Twentieth-Century Russia. History of Education, 46(5), 595-617.

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date May 16, 2017
Online Publication Date Jun 28, 2017
Publication Date Sep 3, 2017
Deposit Date May 16, 2017
Publicly Available Date Jun 28, 2017
Journal History of Education
Print ISSN 0046-760X
Electronic ISSN 1464-5130
Publisher Taylor and Francis Group
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 46
Issue 5
Pages 595-617


Published Journal Article (Advance online version) (1.6 Mb)

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Copyright Statement
Advance online version © 2017 The Author(s). Published by Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group.
This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (
licenses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

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