Historicizing Intelligence

The project deals with the development and use of various techniques for psychological testing and measurement in Norway from World War I until today. It is founded by The Research Council of Norway.

The goal is to explore the extent to which and how these kinds of techniques have played a role in the development of pedagogy, psychology and psychiatry as research disciplines, university subjects and professions – and as providers of scientific expertise to resolve various societal tasks.

The project also aims to shed light on the emergence of “intelligence” and other concepts and categories that have been and are being used to conceptualise, describe and categorise people’s mental characteristics. Last, but not least, the project aims to investigate the correlations and interactions between these phenomena. Psychological tests and measurement techniques have been tailored to answer specific research questions and/or resolve specific societal tasks; but how have these techniques affected the experts’ knowledge of the human mind, and how has this knowledge affected society?

The project builds on source material related to the University of Oslo and focuses on developments in Norway, but the Norwegian material will also be contextualised in an international perspective. We are therefore aiming to establish an international network around the project.

The project emanates from MUV’s mandate, which is to manage, disseminate and research the historical legacy of the University of Oslo. As part of this activity, we collaborate with faculties and departments to identify historically valuable objects, establish and catalogue museum collections, make the collections available for research, and convey knowledge of these collections through exhibitions, etc.

“Historicizing Intelligence” is a strategic venture, as it seeks to connect all three tasks assigned to MUV, while being contemporary and socially relevant, and addresses issues that transcend disciplines, departments and faculties. The project focuses on the three disciplines pedagogy, psychology and psychiatry. Documents, publications and objects that have been used to measure intelligence at the University of Oslo will be identified. This material will form the starting point for research and dissemination. The idea is to develop a working methodology in which the curatorial management of objects, done in collaboration with departments and faculties, goes hand-in hand with historical research and dissemination online and in exhibitions.

This project is intended to be a long-term, comprehensive, flexible project. It will consist of several sub-projects, which can be developed over time based on the available resources, establishment of collaborative relationships with relevant departments and external partners, and access to relevant source material. The project is in the start-up phase, and as a first step we are currently in the process of launching a pilot project.

Pilot project (Jon R. Kyllingstad): Pedagogy, profession and measurement 1938–1970

The starting point for this project is a collection of test materials from the period 1930–1990 stored in a store room at the Faculty of Educational Sciences in the University of Oslo. Much of the material originates from the Pedagogical Research Institute, now the Department of Education (one of three former institutes that were merged to form the current Faculty of Educational Sciences) at the University of Oslo. The Institute was established in 1938 under the leadership of the psychologist and pedagogue Helga Eng. It underwent strong expansion in the decades following World War II under the leadership of Eng’s student Johs. Sandven.

An important driving force behind its establishment was the need for educational research that could provide a knowledge base for reform work and governance in the national school system. In his doctoral thesis, Kim G. Helsvig has explored the Pedagogical Research Institute’s relations with the teachers’ organisations, the school system and political authorities. He has also analysed the pedagogical ideas that underpinned the Institute’s research. The background for the establishment of the Institute is also discussed in Elisabeth Lønnå’s biography of Helga Eng and in Erling Lars Dale’s book Strategiske pedagoger [“Strategic pedagogues”]. [1] Helsvig has shown that the Institute achieved status as a kind of “test-service centre” for the school system in connection with the major school reforms in post-war Norway. These reforms were promoted by the dominating political movement of the era, the social democratic Labour Party, and entailed the introduction of a common nine-year basic education. This is probably an important background for some of the test materials in the Helga Eng Building. Some of the materials are even older and date back to Helga Eng’s era.

Test psychology thus played a relatively important role in the Institute’s interaction with the school system and school policy, in the department’s activities, and in Eng and Sandven’s research careers. Our project will be based on this collection of test materials and related sources. It will also build on the work already done by Helsvig, Lønnå, Dale and others, and explore a topic that so far has received only limited attention from historians, namely the development and use of psychological tests in pedagogical science and in the school system.

Initially, we will focus on one test, namely Sandven’s Norwegian version of the classic IQ test Terman-Merill’s Stanford revision of the Binet-Simon test, as well as on the “object” that this test was intended to measure, namely “intelligence”. What specific societal functions were such tests and measurement methods meant to fulfill? What explicit and implicit theoretical premises were this and other tests based on? What kind of ideas about reality were produced through this research, and not least, what kind of “work” did such tests do: how did they influence society, schools, teachers and students?

To shed light on these issues, the Norwegian material must be put into an international context. Much of the inspiration for the development of these kinds of tests, and the majority of the tests, came from the USA. IQ tests have probably had a much stronger impact in American society (including the school sector) than anywhere else in the world. But what happened to these techniques, theories and concepts when they were transformed and adapted to a new social context in Norway? As these tests have been imported and adapted to numerous countries around the world, it will also be of great interest to compare the Norwegian case with other countries at “the periphery” of the international world of science.

The pilot project will help explore the history of the collection and thus provide knowledge relevant to the management of the collection. The idea is to disseminate findings during the project in the form of a blog linked to MUV’s website. This will act as both a channel for public communication and a channel to get in touch with and communicate with potential informants and collaborators. The project will also result in research publications in the form of articles in peer-reviewed journals.


Tags: History of scienceUniversity history

Published Apr. 15, 2021 10:49 PM - Last modified Apr. 15, 2021 10:49 PM