This talk explores how the opinion poll, that staple of American consumerism and mass media, became a pervasive, near-universal, way of knowing about society and politics in the second half of the twentieth century. Discussing the survey studies that the Israel Institute of Applied Social Research – the first independent polling organization in the decolonizing world – conducted in the late 1940s and 1950s, Arbel examines the postwar circulation of public opinion research, the indigenization of this scientific practice and culture in a conflict-ridden Middle East, and the role of surveys in identity formation and social change. She posits that the growing reliance of Institute clients – policymakers, the army, commercial entities – on mechanically produced social facts undermined local epistemic norms and gave rise to a new sensibility about the sources of knowledge and demand for impersonal modalities of evaluation and judgment. However, while statistical methods gained ground, turning to personal experience, ideological commitments, and familiar people for guidance continued to frustrate the reign of scientific objectivity. The talk thus seeks to challenge a unilinear understanding of globalization and contribute to contemporary discussions on the tension between expertise and common sense, including the crisis surrounding the status of facts in public discourse.
Tal Arbel, Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Chicago