Possibilities for Partnerships?

Victor P. Corona, Columbia University

Four years ago, Berkeley sociologist Michael Burawoy called for a “public sociology” that increased interaction between publics and sociologists.[1] The idea encountered both vigorous opposition[2] and support from researchers eager for activist roles. Commenting on the issue, SSRC President Craig Calhoun questioned some of Burawoy’s assumptions but agreed that the discipline should “engage and be informed by the concerns of many publics, shape debates in the public sphere, and demonstrate its public worth.”[3] Calhoun added that the discipline’s autonomy, “…can be pursued at the expense of relevance, interest, and exciting engagements with other perspectives. But it is not only pursued for bad reasons. Partial autonomy is the condition for transcending the mere play of opinions and clash of powers.”[4] Debate over the Minerva Initiative raises related concerns about professional autonomy and engagement with issues of pressing public concern. I fear, however, that social scientists may miss an opportunity to meaningfully affect how the defense community frames and addresses perceived security problems and its roles in non-traditional operations.

In a promising move, Minerva does not require that funded researchers be American citizens, encourages participation by foreign scholars, and sponsors research projects that are not classified. Minerva partnerships built on these premises will be important in light of a foreign policy agenda that has been persistently criticized for its narrow-mindedness and hubris. Given the consequences of those policies, I worry that Minerva will be quickly dismissed as an unviable and illegitimate avenue for the production of relevant findings on current tensions. Instead, social scientific knowledge can be deepened by a more thorough understanding of military organizations and their personnel, how they perceive and frame threats and missions, and how these framings might be refined. Demonstrations of our public worth will be strengthened by a sound understanding of the military as a profession in its own right and as a set of organizations subject to disagreements even among themselves.

Partnerships that have yielded such understanding already exist. Although the sociology of the military as a subfield is rather isolated from the rest of the discipline, there is a vibrant program at the University of Maryland (UMD) at College Park, which recently awarded a Ph.D. in sociology to an Army officer involved in the operation that led to the capture of Saddam Hussein. The dissertation’s sponsor, David R. Segal, directs UMD’s Center for Research on Military Organization, has testified before Congress on the subject of academic-military alliances, and received the American Sociological Association’s Public Understanding of Sociology award this year for his extensive work on the military. As the ASA award statement notes, “A key public that David’s work serves is the military establishment itself. In a host of ways, he has helped military leaders better understand the institution they lead and the individuals they recruit, train, and deploy.[5] According to his testimony before a House of Representatives joint subcommittee hearing, fourteen Navy and Marine officers are currently receiving M.A.-level training at UMD for their roles as company officers at the Naval Academy, in a partnership comparable to the educational alliances between West Point and Columbia’s Teachers College and between the Air Force Academy and the University of Colorado.[6] Since graduates of these programs go on to teach and train highly skilled members of the military’s officer corps, this is a clear and innovative way in which social scientific theory and method can inform the career experiences of future military leaders.

In another example, an alliance of Washington DC universities that includes Georgetown, George Washington, and Howard sponsors a fellowship program in which undergraduate and graduate students in the social sciences work at various defense research offices around the capital, including the Office of the Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Military Community and Family Policy and the Defense Manpower Data Center. These are competitively paid positions and official data have been used for theses. It was through this program that I, as a civilian graduate student in sociology with no military experience, spent the 2007-2008 academic year at the Personnel Assessment Unit of the U.S. Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences, where I was given a great deal of intellectual space in which to experiment with analyses of Army career data and observe at close hand the vast machinery that is Army personnel management. It might be added that the analytic product of that work was a co-winner of a graduate student paper award from an American Sociological Association section, while the other award recipient was an Army captain and participant in the aforementioned West Point-Columbia program.[7] As a civilian grad student, I can say that my own research on career mobility was greatly improved by open discussions with civilian researchers and retired officers and through analyses of officially collected data.

From the 1967-1968 controversy over Columbia’s relationship with the Institute for Defense Analyses to the conflict at Berkeley thirty years later over its contract with the pharmaceutical company Novartis,[8] academic collaborations with government and corporate entities have always carried the possibility of being highly contentious affairs. Some social scientists view the logics of such alliances, whether profitability or defense, as alien or distasteful terrain. But since any partnership implies a matching of interests and resources, it is valuable to understand the results yielded by extant collaborations like the two cases mentioned above. If social scientists, as both engaged citizens and professional researchers, want more reasonable heads to prevail in the complicated relationships with China, Iran, Iraq, Russia, and other nations, can we afford to prematurely condemn Minerva as either ineffectual or insidious? One can almost picture an alternative scenario in which researchers are energetically lobbying Congress or clamoring at the well-fortified doors of the Pentagon, demanding that they take into account the results of well designed research in shaping policy.

With the exception of those who view the military itself as nothing but an instrument of imperialist adventures, I wonder whether the suspicions of Minerva will remain as vehement under an Obama Administration. Yet even if that administration radically reorients American diplomacy, the military will remain a powerful set of institutions whose roles in disaster relief, intelligence gathering, and humanitarian aid delivery grow only stronger alongside its traditional combat roles. Social scientists thereby run the risk of losing a valuable opportunity to prevent further estrangement and mutual suspicion between the majority of the academy and military communities, a widening distance that is not healthy for a deliberative democracy. It would be a setback if the Defense Department’s public recognition that social scientists are well equipped to produce insights into complex security problems is immediately chastised as an act of intended cooption and complicity in the foreign policy failures of the Bush Administration.

Thomas Asher’s rich discussion paper quotes the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Policy Planning, Thomas Mahnken, as saying that he would like the Pentagon to have a more diverse range of disciplines represented in its personnel pool in the near future.[9] This statement by Mahnken, whom I met at a Columbia-sponsored workshop in 2006, reflects a desire for the incorporation of multiple disciplinary logics in defense policymaking, an attitude which should be welcomed. It should also be remembered that in addition to the military playing a central role in a wide array of missions, it will continue to be a significant source of social mobility for many Americans who will not attend elite schools or who face limited employment prospects. Rather than make pronouncements from afar, it is better that social scientists engage with leaders and scientists affiliated with these institutions and improve the channels through which security problems are defined and addressed.

Note: Views expressed herein are solely those of the author, although the essay benefited from helpful criticisms and comments by Allan Silver and Martha Poon.


[1] Burawoy, Michael. 2005. “For Public Sociology.” American Sociological Review 70.1: 4-28.

[2] See François Nielsen. 2004. “The Vacant ‘We’: Remarks on Public Sociology.” Social Forces 84.4:1619-1628, and Mathieu Deflem. 2004-2006. Save Sociology.

[3] Craig Calhoun. 2005. “The Promise of Public Sociology.” British Journal of Sociology 56.3:355-363. p. 356.

[4] Craig Calhoun. 2005. “The Promise of Public Sociology.” British Journal of Sociology 56.3:355-363. p. 356-357.

[5] American Sociological Association. David Segal Award Statement. 2008. Washington, DC.

[6] David R. Segal. “Testimony on the Role of the Social and Behavioral Sciences in National Security before the House Committee on Armed Services, Subcommittee on Terrorism, Unconventional Threats and Capabilities, and the House Committee on Science and Technology, Subcommittee on Research and Science Education.” Date: 24 April 08. p. 4.

[7] Jana K. Fajardo. 2008. “Unity, Division and Masculinity: An Exploration of the Total Institutional Methods of Madness at the United States Military Academy,” and Victor P. Corona. 2008. “Attainment Clusters in U.S. Army Officer Careers, 1979-2006.”

[8] Alan P. Rudy, Dawn Coppin, Jason Konefal, Bradley T. Shaw, Toby Ten Eyck, Craig Harris and Lawrence Busch. 2007. Universities in the Age of Corporate Science: The UC Berkeley-Novartis Controversy. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

[9] Thomas Asher. 2008. “Making Sense of the Minerva Controversy and the NSCC.” Social Science Research Council, p. 5.

One Response to “Corona”

  1. Dylan:

    How can we do ethnographies of the military with this money when the information we collect and write about will be too sensitive for full declassification?

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