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The Mental Test as a Boundary Object in Early-20th-Century Russian Child Science

Byford, Andy

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This article charts the history of mental testing in the context of the rise and fall of Russian child science between the 1890s and the 1930s. Tracing the genealogy of testing in scientific experimentation, scholastic assessment, medical diagnostics and bureaucratic accounting, it follows the displacements of this technology along and across the boundaries of the child science movement. The article focuses on three domains of expertise – psychology, pedagogy and psychiatry, examining the key guises that mental testing assumed in them – namely, the experiment, the exam and the diagnosis. It then analyses the failed state-bureaucratic harnessing of mental testing in early Soviet attempts to manage mass education, discussing the peculiar dynamics of the (de)legitimation of testing, as it swung between black-boxing and instrumentalization, on the one hand, and scandal and controversy, on the other. The article argues that mental testing thrived in Russia as a strategically ambiguous and flexibly interpreted ‘boundary object’, which interconnected a highly heterogeneous field, enabling the coexistence and cooperation of diverse occupational agendas and normative regimes.


Byford, A. (2014). The Mental Test as a Boundary Object in Early-20th-Century Russian Child Science. History of the Human Sciences, 27(4), 22-58.

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Feb 6, 2014
Online Publication Date Apr 8, 2014
Publication Date Oct 1, 2014
Deposit Date Feb 15, 2014
Publicly Available Date Apr 22, 2014
Journal History of the Human Sciences
Print ISSN 0952-6951
Publisher SAGE Publications
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 27
Issue 4
Pages 22-58
Keywords Boundary object, Child science, Mental test, Russia, USSR.


Published Journal Article (Advance online version) (600 Kb)

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Copyright Statement
Advance online version This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License ( which permits any use, reproduction and distribution of the work without further permission provided the original work is attributed as specified on the SAGE and Open Access page (

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