Point Science Based Field Research Could Address the Roots of Terrorism
by Dr. Scott Atran
Counterpoint Embedded Anthropologists Threaten Military Security
by Gabriel Tourek
Senators, I appreciate your letting me, an anthropologist, relate my views on the U.S. government’s strategy and efforts to counter violent extremism and radicalization and the military’s role in these efforts. I’ve been with would-be martyrs and holy warriors from Morocco’s Atlantic shore to Indonesia’s outer islands, and from Gaza to Kashmir. My field experience and studies in diverse cultural settings inform my views.
We are fixated on technology and technological success, and we have no sustained or systematic approach to field-based social understanding of our adversaries’ motivation, intent, will, and the dreams that drive their strategic vision, however strange.
On the intelligence side, the Christmas Day bombing attempt was a deep failing, caused in part by too great a reliance on technology to the detriment of social intelligence. Computers, and the stochastic models and algorithms they use, are not well suited to pick up the significance of the almost unimaginable effort and anguish it took for one of the most respected men in a nation to swallow his pride and love of family and walk into an American embassy to say that his son was being dangerously radicalized. Widgets — for which there are billions of dollars-cannot do the job of socially sensitive thinkers — for whom there is relatively little concrete support — in creating alliances, leveraging non military advantages, reading intentions, building trust, changing opinions, managing perceptions, and empathizing (though not necessarily sympathizing) with others so as to understand, and change, what moves them to do what they do.
On the military side, career advancement in the armed forces privileges operational prowess and combat experience, which are necessary to gain victory in battles. But different abilities may be necessary for winning without having to fight, or for ending a war in Lincoln’s definitive sense of destroying enemies by making them into friends. As George Marshall understood, this is what American efforts at democratization abroad are ultimately about. Soldiers should be adequately trained and rewarded for the political mission they are now being asked to carry out, which requires cultural and psychological expertise at being social mediators, managers, and movers.
If you want to be relevant in dealing with the radicalization problem — and successful in the long run in stopping the next and future generations of disaffected youth from finding their life’s meaning in the thrill of taking on the world’s mightiest power — then you have to understand the pathways that take young people to and from political and group violence. Knowing these pathways, you can do what needs to be done.
The concept of science-based field research - embedded in potential hotspots and open to public verification and replication, with clear ways and means to falsify what is wrong - is often misunderstood in Washington. Most legislators and policy makers think we have a great deal of this type of research being undertaken and funded. We don’t.
The concept of science-based field research...is often misunderstood in Washington. Most legislators and policy makers think we have a great deal of this type of research being undertaken and funded. We don’t.
With assistance from the Defense Department and the National Science Foundation, ARTIS puts interdisciplinary teams in a conflict region to explore the nature of the conflict with leaders, community members, and youth. We follow up with an experimental design — which allows ready replication of initial results or falsification of our hypotheses — to understand pathways to and from violence.
The main security concern now isn’t from any organization, or from well-trained cadres of volunteers. The main security concern is from a Qaeda, an inspired viral social and political movement that abuses religion in the name of defending Muslims. This is particularly contagious among youth who are increasingly marginalized — economically, socially, politically — and in transition stages in their lives: immigrants, students, in search of friends, mates and jobs.
The popular notion of a “clash of civilizations” is woefully misleading. Violent extremism represents a crash of traditional territorial cultures, not their resurgence, as people unmoored from millennial traditions flail about in search of a social identity. Individuals now mostly radicalize horizontally with their peers, rather than vertically through institutional leaders or organizational hierarchies: in small groups of friends — from the same neighborhood or social network — or even as loners who find common cause with a virtual internet community.
Lack of economic opportunity often reliably leads to criminality. But given half a chance to take up a moral cause, some petty criminals become hyper-altruists ready to give up their lives for comrades and cause. This is one indication – our research reveals others – that economic opportunities alone may not turn people away from the path to political violence. Rather, youth must be given hopes and dreams of achievement, and plausible means to realize such hopes and dreams.
While it seems that anthropology has a rightful place among all scientific disciplines in determining proper action and intelligent decision-making, I think we can definitively say that, in military issues, pragmatics matter most. This is not to say an anthropologist could never offer useful insight into practices that constitute some of the most momentous our government will make – to take the lives of those who threaten ours – but that in the majority of circumstances anthropological reflection on military ops can do more harm than good.
Certainly, we must be clear about the function of the “embedded anthropologist” about whom we are speaking. This social scientist studies, records, removes herself, and philosophizes into the ever growing Word file that will eventually become her doctoral thesis. This seems uncontroversial: journalists have traveled with the military since the time of Herodotus, publishing their observations far and wide, with significant implications for how future battles and wars are conducted. For the most part, these are what current embedded anthropologists are like – working with the military as part of a research project, returning home, and submitting, eventually, recommendations to concerned parties. What frightens me, however, are proposals to incorporate social scientists into the daily planning and strategy operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Military operations are about quick response, communication along the chain of command, and – let us be clear – cold, unflinching violence. We can care about the victims of war in an abstract sense, but the truth is that we as a society have made a decision to fight when there is a pressing need. The moral status of the decision to condone violence is exigent circumstances is a separate question; what is at issue here is whether we should allow social science perspectives to influence how our military apparatus carries out its assigned duty.
...We cannot jeopardize our military’s ability to target...and destroy.
To be blunt, we simply cannot jeopardize our military’s ability to target, smash, and destroy. Gun battles with insurgents should be about simple troop movement, strategic missile targeting, and coordination with local forces. The unaccounted-for assumptions of our military model do, no question, carry terrible implications for how we are fighting our wars, but fighting has always been about the balance sheet: wiping out the enemy while sustaining the least damages possible. Our military machine is doing its job; it is killing the bad guys. Admittedly, this seems to any liberal arts student an unsettling justification. Yet could we imagine war being conducted in a good way? Wouldn’t anthropologists simply help the military to be more efficient, to incorporate social observations into the calculating model that spits out death and destruction.
What could a social scientist even contribute in an immediate sense?
What could a social scientist even contribute in an immediate sense? Let’s consider the nature of our war in Afghanistan. Drone attacks operated out of the Western United States constitute a significant portion of military action. Soldiers not on the ground, removed from context, are killing our targets. Drones are not without efficiency and ethical problems, but we are using them, and it seems that “linguistic interpretations of Taliban metaphor-making in religio-ethnic ritual demonstrations of nationalism” can add little to the job of the man or woman who sits at a screen, points and clicks.
Finally, anthropological recommendations seem more properly situated as reflections, as evaluations of collected data and, most significantly, as comparisons of projections to the actual results of war. We can only affirm the value of anthropological reflections on military operations after the fact. Proposals to include anthropologists in military strategizing conflate the work of anthropology with the eagerness of its proponents to fix the problems they see in the world. The rigor of scientific work, moreover, depends on its non-interventionist stance: how can one observe and reflect upon an event when s/he is affecting the outcome? When we are dealing with people with bombs and guns, attempting to “understand the situation in context” and change the direction of military deployment not only makes for bad research but may delay action, cost lives, and jeopardize security.
About the Issue
Point author: Scott Atran, Ph.D., is a visiting professor of psychology at the University of Michigan and Directeur de Recherche, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris. His comments are an adaptation of his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Emerging Threats & Capabilities on March 10, 2010.
Counterpoint author: Gabriel Tourek is a senior in the Ford School of Public Policy. He is the former managing editor of Consider.
Edited by: Trisha Jain
Cover by: Miriam Svidler