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24/11/2019: The American Soldier in Jerusalem: How Social Science Travels / Dr. Tal Arbel Tel Aviv U

The lecture tells the story of pioneering efforts, among the first to be carried out in the Middle East, to precisely measure subjective phenomena such as attitudes, preferences, and feelings. It focuses on an American-led and designed survey-based study of troop morale, which took place among Jewish militia fighters in Jerusalem prior to and during the 1948 Palestine War. Using rare archival materials, memoirs, and reportage on life in the besieged city, I trace the difficulties involved in measuring individual attitudes and laying claims for statistical certitude in a politically foreign and often hostile setting, and the kinds of adaptations they engendered.

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 as a way of knowing in military affairs. The institutionalization of this scientific practice in the nascent Israeli army was due primarily to individual initiative and personal charisma (the ability to turn emergency conditions into a research opportunity, to garner the trust of military leaders, to mobilize locally available resources), 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, behavioral science concepts and claims have often been reframed and infused with local patterns of reasoning, or appropriated to promote other ends. The result was a hybridized military modernity and soldiering experience.

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