Friday, October 5, 2007

Knowledge of the Social World Considered Strategic

At the end of August, I wrote a post entitled "Knowledge of the Social World Considered Dangerous," which had grown out of a series of posts concerned with the dangers of enterprise software ignoring (or, worse yet, misunderstanding) the social world. The primary danger I was exploring had to do with being careful what you wished for; or, to invoke one of my favorite concepts, thinking about the consequences before figuring out how to make your wishes come true. Today David Rohde filed a story for The New York Times from the Shabak Valley in Afghanistan, which throws an interesting light on this whole matter of wishes and consequences; and, if one comes away from this story without any sense of a resolved conclusion, then at least one has learned how complex the issue is. (Those familiar with Plato may recognize that this is the lesson of his "Theaetetus" dialogue, which begins with the quest for a definition of knowledge and ends with Socrates' reassuring Theaetetus that, even if they could not find a satisfactory definition, their time was far from wasted.)

Let's start with the wish, which probably can be traced back at least as far as the Vietnam War, if not further. As the discontent with our involvement in Vietnam grew, it was fueled by the voices of social theorists (most of which were speaking from their metaphorical armchairs) grousing about out blatant ignorance of the social context in Vietnam and therefore our failure to understand just who the "actors" were, let alone the nature of their motivated interpersonal actions. This armchair theorizing is arising once again; and this time the theorists have two contexts to fuel their grousing: Afghanistan and Iraq. For a while in Iraq, it seemed as if General David Petraeus was taking some of this theorizing to heart and trying to develop strategy around his own anthropological understanding, which, while it may have been amateur, was not without merit. Afghanistan, however, has received less attention, at least while we were able to sustain the "mission accomplished" myth that we had eliminated the Taliban and would soon be able to do with same with bin Laden and Al Qaeda. Then the word began to leak out that, for all of their extremism, the Taliban was winning more hearts and minds than the "legitimate" government was, probably because so much of the population was perceiving that government as hopelessly corrupt (and may have been right in their perceptions).

This brings us to today's Times report, based on the following background paragraph:

In September, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates authorized a $40 million expansion of the program, which will assign teams of anthropologists and social scientists to each of the 26 American combat brigades in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since early September, five new teams have been deployed in the Baghdad area, bringing the total to six.

In other words the Department of Defense has decided that it is looking for a few (or more) good social theorists who are willing to get up out of their armchairs and see how well their theories stand up to practice under fire (literally, not metaphorically). Since the Times story was filed from Afghanistan, it concentrates on the impact of this new strategy in dealing with the Taliban problem:

Tracy, who asked that her surname not be used for security reasons, is a member of the first Human Terrain Team, an experimental Pentagon program that assigns anthropologists and other social scientists to American combat units in Afghanistan and Iraq. Her team’s ability to understand subtle points of tribal relations — in one case spotting a land dispute that allowed the Taliban to bully parts of a major tribe — has won the praise of officers who say they are seeing concrete results.

Col. Martin Schweitzer, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division unit working with the anthropologists here, said that the unit’s combat operations had been reduced by 60 percent since the scientists arrived in February, and that the soldiers were now able to focus more on improving security, health care and education for the population.

“We’re looking at this from a human perspective, from a social scientist’s perspective,” he said. “We’re not focused on the enemy. We’re focused on bringing governance down to the people.”

On the surface this seems to be good news. Social theory really can stand up to practice. However, some of theorists who are still in their armchairs disagree:

Yet criticism is emerging in academia. Citing the past misuse of social sciences in counterinsurgency campaigns, including in Vietnam and Latin America, some denounce the program as “mercenary anthropology” that exploits social science for political gain. Opponents fear that, whatever their intention, the scholars who work with the military could inadvertently cause all anthropologists to be viewed as intelligence gatherers for the American military.

Hugh Gusterson, an anthropology professor at George Mason University, and 10 other anthropologists are circulating an online pledge calling for anthropologists to boycott the teams, particularly in Iraq.

“While often presented by its proponents as work that builds a more secure world,” the pledge says, “at base, it contributes instead to a brutal war of occupation which has entailed massive casualties.”

This is where the story turns to that problematic confrontation between wishes and consequences. To invoke an Asian metaphor, Professor Gusterson sees this as a camel's nose getting under the tent; and the rest of the camel just not have the sorts of humane values that Colonel Schweitzer is currently extolling. Here is an even more critical voice:

Roberto J. González, an anthropology professor at San Jose State University, called participants in the program naïve and unethical. He said that the military and the Central Intelligence Agency had consistently misused anthropology in counterinsurgency and propaganda campaigns and that military contractors were now hiring anthropologists for their local expertise as well.

“Those serving the short-term interests of military and intelligence agencies and contractors,” he wrote in the June issue of Anthropology Today, an academic journal, “will end up harming the entire discipline in the long run.”

What does all this mean and to whom does the meaning signify? While Professor González is right to raise a red flag over activities that serve short-term interests, I feel that the exploration of new strategies for our interpersonal relations, both in war and in peace and particularly on an international scale, is just as important for the long-term needs of living in a peaceful world as it is for the short-term objective of getting us out of the messes in Afghanistan and Iraq. I also believe that both these short-term and long-term goals are more important than whether or not the discipline of anthropology will be "harmed." Is Professor González worried that theory will change as a result of bumping into practice? If so, then I fear he has a potentially dangerous fundamentalist view of theory. His concern about abuse is more to the point. However, abuse of any knowledge is always a problem, whether in anthropology or physics; but whether or not that abuse harms the discipline is ultimately determined by those who study and practice that discipline.

As a result, I would say that the argument will involve the opposition of two positions. On the one hand we have those who flat-out distrust anything that our current Administration does; and, given its track record, they have every right to be suspicious. On the other hand there are those who see this as a step towards making the world a better place and feel that giving this new approach a try is better than wallowing in our current messes. I tend to side with the latter camp but with the proviso that, as I have previously discussed, there is a fundamental "tragic flaw" in utopian thinking. The truth is that we are always going to be in some mess or another, just because life is like that. This is not the boulder rolling back on us when we finally get it to the top of the hill. It is that we have the capacity to solve problems and there is no reason to assume that such a capacity will ever become as vestigial as our appendices. So I would like to applaud the efforts of the Department of Defense to find value in social theory, recognizing that I am a member of neither our armed forces nor any academic department in the social sciences!

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