Copyright Sociological Research Online,

Questions of Competence: Culture, Classification and Intellectual Disability

Richard Jenkins (editor)
Cambridge University Press: Cambridge
0521626625 (pb); 0521623030 (hb)
ú14.99 (pb); ú40.00 (hb)

Order this book

Questions of Competence, edited by Richard Jenkins, is a timely contribution to debates on the social construction of intellectual disability (also known as îmental retardation╣ or îlearning difficulties╣). One of the themes of the book is that notions of incompetence are culturally and contextually variable: at different times, different percentages of people (and different kinds of people) are defined as socially incompetent.

One of the most interesting Chapters in this edited collection is by Mark Nuttall, who examines the differences between indigenous and Western concepts of incompetence in Greenland. Indigenous beliefs in the full social inclusion of disabled people contrast markedly with Western medical practices which tend towards segregation. Nuttall stresses that the harmful effects on indigenous culture of separating certain îintellectually incompetent╣ people from the natural supports of the indigenous community.

Patrick Devlieger also presents a fascinating cross-national study of the social construction of incompetence. He compares American concepts of │mentally retardation▓ with quite divergent understandings of incompetence in two central African societies: the Songye of Ziare and the Shona of Zimbabwe. He found that local models of incompetence in these African countries bore little resemblance to Western ideas. Similarly, Susan Reynolds White╣s studies of incompetence among the Nyole of Uganda suggest that social competence is a reflection of social relations, rather than an individual trait. Again, this is a very different understanding of incompetence than the Western medical approach.

Another interesting Chapter is by Sylvia van Maastricht, who compares different responses to îincompetence╣ in Greece and Wales in order to highlight the influence of local values on the life options of people defined as îincompetent╣. She identifies significant cross-cultural differences in relation to the labelling of people, as well as levels of community involvement and the level of îcreated╣ dependency.

Charlotte Aull Davies╣ study of learning difficulty in South Wales continues the theme that such categories are arbitrary social constructs, rather than reflecting any genuine intellectual abilities or disabilities. And yet she demonstrates that such arbitrary constructs can have very detrimental effects on the life options of people given that label.

Michael V. Agrosino also argues that people defined as │mentally disabled▓ in America are a heterogeneous group of people, │drawn together in an arbitrary social label that emphasises their marginal social position▓ (page 29). His Chapter points to both the acceptance and contestation of such labels and focuses on individual coping strategies which help people deal with their marginalised social position.

In their Chapter, Tim and Wendy Booth examine the social factors which affect the development of children whose parents have been labelled as having learning difficulties. Rather than emphasising the vulnerability of these children and relating this to the parents learning difficulties, they suggest that whether children cope with the challenges of their upbringing is greatly influenced by the balance of risk and protective factors within their wider social network.

Nancy Lundgren╣s chapter on children in Belize takes a wider view of incompetence than the other authors in the book. She argues that │In the contemporary world, incompetence has many names: woman, Black, Indian, Arab, Chicana, Creole, working-class, poor, and there are others▓ (pages 195-196). She argues that in Belize, incompetence is determined by school performance. She uses a neo-Marxian approach to understand the construction of incompetence: │The standard for competence, the information needed to achieve it, and the forms of measurement, are all created by those who have control of capital and therefore control also of the labour process▓ (page 204). While Lundgren╣s emphasis on the stratification of notions of competence based on class and ethnicity was interesting, the fact that she relied on a broader notion of incompetence than the other authors, as well as her emphasis on (fairly undefined) notions of class, made this Chapter a little incongruent with the rest of the book.

Overall, this book makes a timely and interesting contribution to our understanding of what it means to be îcompetent╣ and îincompetent╣ in various social contexts. The strength of this book is that it contains research into competence and incompetence in the United States, England, Wales, Greece, Greenland, Uganda and Brazil. In this regard, it fills an important gap in the literature. Such cross-cultural studies of the social construction of disability are indeed rare.

Mark Sherry
University of Queensland


Copyright Sociological Research Online,