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'The American soldier' in Jerusalem: on measurement, travel and translation

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The paper examines the cross-cultural migration of scaling, a technique of measurement that revolutionized social psychology in the 1930s and 1940s, and found multiple applications in education, government and industry in the United States. It focuses on an American-led and designed survey-based study of troop morale, which took place among Jewish militia fighters in Jerusalem during the 1948 Palestine War. Using rare archival materials, memoirs and reportage on life in the besieged city, the paper traces the difficulties involved in measuring individual attitudes and laying claims for statistical certitude in a politically foreign and often hostile setting.

Joining global historians of science who have rejected unidirectional narratives of cultural export and influence, I demonstrate that there was nothing inevitable or obvious about the eventual adoption of sample surveys. The institutionalization of this scientific practice in the nascent Israeli state was due primarily to individual initiative and personal charisma, and to the successful rendering of expertise intelligible in the vernacular. Yet, highlighting the ‘iterability’ of science in translation, I also show that embedded in officer reports, personnel selection procedures and field manuals, behavioural science concepts and claims have often been reframed and infused with local patterns of reasoning, or appropriated to promote other ends.

This talk is part of the Twentieth Century Think Tank series.

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