National Security Research and the Geopolitical Context of Knowledge Production

Thinking about Hugh Gusterson’s “The U.S. Military’s Quest to Weaponize Culture” prompted me to consider some current developments, as reported by various news agencies and one think tank, as indications of new conditions of knowledge production and the kinds of pressures and constraints orienting social science research toward specific ends. For some these are “constraints,” and of course for others they are “opportunities.” For those who like to envision strategies of resistance within the system, even the constraints may provide the means for the undoing of the constraints — I confess that I do not see what this would like as it might be imagined in the minds of some. I am, however, reminded of Audre Lorde’s statement that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

Over the past year we have seen the institution of the Human Terrain System which seeks to embed social scientists within counterinsurgency. Following that, building on it, as a “Take Two” (in the words of a private correspondent) on HTS, we see the Pentagon’s Minerva program, which in some respects calls for the creation of global surveillance data by fieldworkers with an ongoing presence in local communities, while others will be analyzing Iraqi documents seized and taken out of Iraq. Then, as seen in one of today’s previous posts, the National Science Foundation has established its own national security research initiative, with Pentagon funding. In the United Kingdom, we have heard of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and its “Global Uncertainties: Security for All in a Changing World” program which both predates the Pentagon’s Minerva Research Initiative and serves as a predecessor, but with slightly more room for self-criticism around the issue of national security:

1. How do individuals and communities develop their ideas and beliefs about security and insecurity?
2. Why do some ideas and beliefs lead to conflict, violence or criminal activity? What lessons can we learn from a) above that provide the basis for countering those ideas and beliefs that reinforce conflict, violence and crime?
3. How do issues around the cycle of knowledge production and use interact with the creation, management and resolution of insecurities?
4. How are risks and threats communicated, constructed, represented and received by key actors and communities, using different media and cultural forms for different audiences, including the use of language, images and symbolism?
5. Is there an acceptable balance between national security needs and the protection of civil liberties and human rights? If so, can one be secured? And how do we balance local needs against global responsibilities within a security context?
6. How should institutions with responsibility for different aspects of a broad security agenda, including security forces themselves, evolve to meet new risks and threats?

(It sounds like a new take on “deviance”, added to moral panic, and just plain panic.)

On the blog of the UK’s Association of Social Anthropologists one post addresses the ESRC’s “radicalization program” noting its narrow reduction of issues of poverty and ideology to violence, informed by a detectable Islamophobia which has gained far greater currency throughout the West. That same blog post notes that there are a number of security-oriented research programs being funded in the UK, and some excitement at some universities that are eager to attract those funds. Some are objecting of course to the way that the notion of radicalization is pinned to Muslims, without a discussion of imperialism or an analysis of how Western interventionism has provided fertile ground for militant opposition. Moreover, the research programs reintroduce state-centric research framed by broader Western geopolitical interests. (Let me add that a number of other posts on the same blog discuss all of the issues we have seen on anthropology blogs on this side of the Atlantic, concerning anthropology in warzones, ethics of embedding, etc.)

We might need to keep close watch on how similar developments might emerge in Canada and Australia, as well as in other European nations beyond the UK, and already at least one researcher is undertaking a cross-national study of this sort. In Canada we seem to have, at least in terms of objective conditions, all of the necessary ingredients, waiting to come together: we have military colleges, troops in Afghanistan, a domestic spy agency (CSIS), collaboration with the U.S. in Guantanamo interrogations, mass mediated allegations of “terrorist” cells in Canada, growing anxiety in the national media over immigrants and militant Aboriginal protesters (some with avowed past military ties to Libya) — and so forth, all ripe and ready for our own Minerva or HTS program. Many of the same objective conditions obtain in Australia.

I believe we are heading toward a cold war in the research world of not just strong polarization among social scientists within the West, but their eventual banning from a number of “target” nations, and “nations of interest.” Some nations require research visas, and were already rather strict and careful not to issue them without question. Others have no research visas, and may require them soon, but in the meantime can severely harass any researcher on a long-term stay as a “tourist” when engaged in un-tourist-like activities. Where anthropology was already banned from forming part of new universities in the “decolonized” world, the arrival of outside anthropologists was not always welcome, even in “good” times.

Now we come to some very current news that could cement all of the main tendencies noted above. The RAND Corporation, in a recent news release, argued:

In looking at how other terrorist groups have ended, [our] study found that most terrorist groups end either because they join the political process, or because local police and intelligence efforts arrest or kill key members. Police and intelligence agencies, rather than the military, should be the tip of the spear against al Qaida in most of the world, and the United States should abandon the use of the phrase “war on terrorism,” researchers concluded.

The study referred to is titled Coordinating the War on Terrorism. It is essentially pressing the case for intelligence activities as part of a more subtle and insidious counter terrorism that does not involve B-52 cluster bombings and artillery poundings of the shock and awe variety that we have seen devastate parts of Iraq and Afghanistan, with a high local body count. (See also RAND’s “How Terrorist Groups End: Lessons for Countering al Qaida” or a research brief of that same report here.) RAND is also arguing that conventional military force may be a blunt and ineffective instrument, and the U.S. should rely more on local police and military forces. Development is also being reintroduced into discussions, 1960s style, as a mechanism of counterinsurgency, with issues of poverty being (wrongly) linked to radicalization.

Furthermore, Robert Gates, the U.S. Secretary of Defense, regardless of the waning days of the Bush regime, has announced within the last 24 hours what is being touted in the media as a major new policy initiative. Gates is speaking of a “long war” against “extremism” (the Other is always the extremist, which ironically is itself an extremist formulation that defies the media’s lack of questioning) that involves “irregular” and “asymmetric” warfare. Gates announced that the strategic environment the U.S. faces for the foreseeable future “will be defined by a global struggle against a violent extremist ideology that seeks to overturn the international state system.” More room is opened for “counter terrorism” that does not rely on regular warfare, and works through local allies.

The irregular counterinsurgency approach emphasizing gaining local knowledge/intelligence and working through local networks, is likely not to vanish from U.S. policy soon. In the video below you can watch (starting at roughly the 28th minute) Sarah Sewall from Harvard, who has Barack Obama’s ear on just the sort of approach that Gates is endorsing, backed up by Montgomery McFate who also appears with Sewall. (Indeed, it would not surprise me if Gates continued in his post in a “new” regime, or to see Sewall promoted to a position in an Obama cabinet — pure speculation by an outsider of course, I am simply saying that it should not be surprising.)

It may be that we will see decline of the Human Terrain System in favour of much broader, and deeper forms of supportive academic engagement as laid out in Minerva. As the prevailing geopolitics of knowledge production begin to weigh more heavily, it may be that those who are conscientious objectors to the militarization of social science, and those ethnographers who find themselves locked out of a range of countries given the suspicion that we are all under already, will find a limited number of fall back options for continuing ethnographic research: research at home with individuals and groups not of interest to the national security state (i.e., more ethnographies of shopping malls); cyberspace ethnography, in Second Life for example; working with home-based NGOs or partaking in radical action research as we see in the cases of David Graeber and Jeffrey Juris; or, the even more “radical” alternative: becoming an anthropological collaborator with insurgents by penetrating Western institutions of governance as a covert researcher, as a counter-spy. Whatever the case may be, it will be more than the just the face of anthropology that is in for some serious change, and challenge.

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7 thoughts on “National Security Research and the Geopolitical Context of Knowledge Production

  1. Pamthropologist

    One wonders how these new agendas will play out in an African context. Will the next wave of anthropologists in Nigeria be dispatched to the Niger Delta to track the activities of MEND and their relations with local communities to advance the corporate interests of Shell and Chevron?

    I feel sick.

  2. Maximilian Forte

    Interesting that you mention that. Montgomery McFate spoke several months ago about the extension or application of the Human Terrain System under the U.S. military’s “Africa Command.” A quick search of their site reveals that they are speaking of “human terrain analysis” in a “new” vision for AFRICOM: read their article here.

  3. Marc Tyrrell

    Really good post, Max. I think you have pulled our quite a few threads here that are, IMO, quite probable.

    I do disagree, somewhat, with your comments about the factors for a Canadian HTS equivalent. You are correct about a lot of the factors, but did you know that there isn’t a single Anthropologist at RMC?

    From what I have seen, there just doesn’t seem to be much interest on the part of the CF in getting on the HTS bandwagon.

  4. Maximilian Forte

    Ah, there isn’t a single anthropologist at RMC…yet. Just kidding, I have no idea what plans RMC may have. It’s hard to explain why something doesn’t exist, so one should understand that my listing of “ingredients” available in Canada is pretty limited analytically. But if it happens, then I will boast, “I saw it coming” (lol).

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