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The views and opinions expressed on this site and blog posts (excluding comments on blog posts left by others) are entirely my own and do not represent those of any employer or organization with whom I am currently or previously have been associated.

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Academic Version: Applying my personal experiences and academic research as a professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies to provide a more complete understanding of political, economic, and cultural issues and current events related to American race relations, and Asia/Asian America in particular.

Plain English: Trying to put my Ph.D. to good use.

December 12, 2007

Written by C.N.

Applying Social Science in the Combat Zone

This post does not relate specifically to Asian Americans per se, but nonetheless it centers on an issue that is certainly important to me and can have implications for all kinds of racial, ethnic, cultural, and religious groups.

One of my core principles as a sociologist and a social scientist is that I want my academic research to have some kind of relevance and application to the “real world.”

That is, instead of just conducting research and publishing it in obscure academic journals that few people outside academia read, I want to disseminate my academic knowledge to a wider, more popular audience and to use it to help address real world issues and problems. That is one of the reasons why I started this blog in the first place.

In fact and encouragingly, more and more social scientists feel the same way. But as Time magazine reports, one particular program of “applied social science research” is creating quite a controversy inside and outside of academia — using social scientists to help the U.S. fight terrorists in Afghanistan and Iraq:

Two years ago, the CIA quietly started recruiting social scientists, advertising in academic journals and offering princely salaries of up to $400,000. But . . . in September, Washington turned a pilot project called Human Terrain Teams into a full-fledged, $40 million program to embed four- or five-person groups of scholars — including anthropologists, sociologists and social psychologists — with all 26 U.S. combat brigades in Iraq and Afghanistan.

[S]ome preliminary reports are encouraging. From Afghanistan, the 4th brigade (82nd Airborne Division) reported a 60-70% drop in attacks — and a dramatic spike in capture of [suspected terrorists] after anthropological advisers recommended redirecting outreach from village elders to focus on the local mullahs. One mullah was reportedly so moved after being invited to bless a restored mosque on the nearby U.S. base that he quickly agreed to record an anti-Taliban radio ad. . . .

In the wake of the colossal mishandling of the Iraq occupation, this new partnership manifests the military’s renewed appreciation of the importance of culture. . . . Montgomery McFate, a Navy anthropologist, [was an] early advocate of what she says is best described as anthropologizing the military, not militarizing anthropology.

Yet many in the profession contend that any collaboration of this nature compromises their field’s integrity. Anthropology deployed under such circumstances will become “just another weapon…not a tool for building bridges between peoples,” argues Roberto Gonzalez, an anthropologist at San Jose State University and member of the Network of Concerned Anthropologists.

I spent some time thinking about programs like this and trying to decide whether I think they are a good thing or a bad thing for the academic disciplines involved and for American society in general.

On the one hand, I would say that it’s beneficial for social scientists to get involved in these efforts because they can fulfill the fundamental professional mission I mentioned above — using their expertise to address an important social issue and to produce the most benefits for the most people possible.

On the other hand, it would be a negative thing for social scientists to engage in if their efforts basically amount to a “more effective method of killing people,” to put it bluntly. That is, depending on how you choose to see it, their knowledge can basically be used for the purpose of perpetuating war and the taking of human lives.

So ultimately, when it comes to the question of whether programs like this are good or bad, I think my answer is that just like life in general, the final answer is not a simple binary of good/bad, yes/no, or moral/immoral. At the risk of sounding like a cop-out, there are both positive and negative aspects to it, like the rationales I just mentioned.

But if I had to pick one side of the argument over the other to support, at this point, I would agree with Prof. McFate’s position that I quoted above, that programs like this are about “anthropologizing the military, not militarizing anthropology.”

In other words, if used effectively and properly, the expertise of social scientists can indeed help people who may initially be on different sides of the war — U.S. troops and Afghan or Iraqi civilians or tribal/religious leaders.

The U.S. would get culturally competent knowledge about how to best relate to the native population in order to effectively communicate and build interpersonal connections with them. The native population could also feel that their needs, issues, and concerns are genuinely being heard, understood, and incorporated into the actions of the U.S. military operating in their neighborhoods.

Of course, like I mentioned above, critics would point out that the assistance of social scientists is ultimately just being used to promote war and killing. I respect that opinion, but I choose to see a more nuanced point — that terrorists who target the U.S. military, generally speaking, are likely not to have much concern for the native population civilians as well.

Therefore, if the terrorists see both of these groups as enemies or at least expendable casualties of war, the native population has a right to join efforts to oppose such terrorists. With that in mind, the U.S. military and the native population can work as allies, not in opposition or suspicion of each other.

After all, if sociologists say that we should use our expertise to help solve social issues, we have two very important social issues in front of us in this particular situation: (1) terrorism against the U.S. military and against Iraqi and Afghan civilians and (2) the U.S.’s tragedy of miscalculations in invading Iraq in the first place and multitude of failures in actually making life better for Iraqis thereafter.

If we as sociologists can lend our expertise to help address these two very real problems, I would say that it would be an appropriate opportunity to do so.

In the end, I know that people will have strong opinions on both sides of the issue, and I am not here to condemn anybody for what they feel or believe. At the same time, I hope people can respect my opinion that there are different ways in which social scientists can apply their expertise to help solve social issues.

Even if that means that some people will inevitably die, I would rather have those people be terrorists who indiscriminately target everybody who disagrees with them and who distort the doctrines of a just and honorable religion to suit their extremist views.

I might have generally liberal views but that doesn’t mean that I should overlook the fact that the question of whether terrorists have legitimate grievances needs to be separated from the manner in which they try to address those grievances. In other words, the ends do not justify the means.

That’s where sociologists and other social scientists can be useful — in helping different groups of people recognize that not everything is cut-and-dry, black-and-white. Instead, every question and every goal have their own subtle and specific points that need to be addressed respectfully, thoughtfully, and competently.

Author Citation

Copyright © 2001- by C.N. Le. Some rights reserved. Creative Commons License

Suggested reference: Le, C.N. . "Applying Social Science in the Combat Zone" Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <> ().

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