The Military-Social Science Interface

Ian Roxborough, Stony Brook University

If social scientists are to have a more effective engagement with the military we need to understand them better. It is not enough simply to produce research, package it, and hand it over to be used by the military. We should think about how it will be appropriated by them. Let me first argue the need for this and then make a concrete suggestion for how it might be done.

Social scientists who choose to engage with the military through their research sometimes experience an epistemological or cognitive slippage between the way we frame issues and the ways in which the military frames them. The reason for this is quite straightforward: like all epistemic communities, the military thinks about the issues of interest to it in ways that are subtly different from those of other epistemic communities, in this case academic social science.

If social scientists are to engage effectively with the military, they must first find out more about their uniformed interlocutors, sponsors and funders. In the frontier zone where military and academics encounter each other there is a need for translators: people who “speak the language” and are familiar with the culture and worldview of the other. We have not been good at this. We need to send some of our community over to them as amateur “anthropological scouts.” This is something we can all do: I am not suggesting a research program for anthropologists.

We tend to think of the military as a rather homogeneous and largely total institution. A significant number of serving military officers were born into military families, grew up on military bases, and have served all their adult lives in a notoriously enclosed set of institutions. (And, of course, there are professors who are children of professors and who have never worked outside of the academy.) The military are different from us in many ways, and part of this is that they often think about things differently. These differences arise from different formative experiences, from social location and organizational interest, and from the military’s own sense of what its role in society and its principal professional tasks are. Exactly what these epistemological differences are is a matter for another, lengthier paper. Suffice it to say that if social scientists are to effectively engage with the military, we will need some understanding of these cultural differences.

Any large organization like the military is bound to be quite diverse. We are likely only to engage with a very small section of the military. We are unlikely to have much to do with submarine drivers or helicopter pilots: we will primarily engage with military intellectuals. These people are engaged in their own intra-mural debates which we will often find esoteric. Military intellectuals have a different vocabulary, make different assumptions, have different methodologies and criteria for evaluation, different rhetorical strategies. We need to understand these. If we don’t, we will be blind to the ways in which our research is filtered and appropriated by the military.

There is a surprisingly large number of military intellectuals: officers whose primary task is intellectual activity of some kind. They work in the professional military education complex, in the training and doctrine commands, in headquarters units, preparing plans and policies, and in the interface between the military and the political system in Washington. They write for military journals like Joint Force Quarterly, Military Review, Parameters, the Marine Corps Gazette, the Naval Institute Proceedings, the Naval War College Review, Air and Space Power Journal, and many others. If you want to see what they argue about, check these out. Most of them are on the web.

The military educational complex is large: there are the three well-known service academies that provide a college education for aspiring officers: West Point, Annapolis and the Air Force Academy at Colorado Springs. There are the Command and Staff Colleges run by the services and by the Joint Staff to train mid-level officers. Then there are the War Colleges where senior officers spend a year, sometimes two – six of them: the Army, Navy, Marine and Air War Colleges, the Industrial College of the Armed Forces and the National War College. Each of these educational institutions is staffed by military intellectuals. Add up the numbers: there are a lot of them. Moreover, most of these educational establishments are host to one or more military think-tanks or research groups. The Army War College, for example, hosts the Strategic Studies Institute, the Command and Staff College has the Combined Arms Center, and West Point has the Combating Terrorism Center.

In addition, there are also less familiar institutions: the doctrine commands (in each service and in the Joint Staff) where military intellectuals attempt to distil the lessons of recent operations. Here there are teams of people focused on thinking about such things as social networks, command and control systems, the causes of political conflict, the future shape of the human world, etc. Then there is the Pentagon, a hot-house of staff officers seeking to influence the Washington political system. In short, there are many hundreds of military officers scattered about bases throughout the country doing what we would think of as social science research.

It is these people, the military intellectuals, with whom we will be in contact. They already know quite a bit about us: many of them have graduate degrees in history and the social sciences. In fact, they know more about us than we do about them. They have spent time amongst us, and we have (generally speaking) not spent much time among them. Analogically speaking, they are the anthropologists, and we are the tribe. The flow of knowledge is going largely in one direction. We cannot have a meaningful conversation if we only hold it on our territory; we need to send members of our tribe into their territory to learn more about them and engage them in locales where they set the frames for discussion.

Often, the contacts will be mediated by the organizational men and women of the military, the managerial types. They will inevitably think of social science research products in a technicist manner: as specific problem-solving tools that they can apply to problems as they, the military, have defined them. Many social scientists, however, will want to try to get the military to redefine problems, and to think anew about how best to utilize social science expertise. This will require long-term active engagement. This is where the “anthropological scouts” and “cultural translators” come in.

My concrete proposal is to establish a number of social science fellowships to place academics in military think-tanks and research institutes for one-year stints. Ignore, for the moment, the issue of funding sources: that can be discussed separately. The idea is to take genuinely civilian social scientists (i.e. not people who are already working with the military in a sustained way) and place them in a military research environment. From the point of view of the social scientist, this is a bit like a sabbatical: he or she would have to do some work, but it would be a change, hopefully a refreshing change. From the point of view of the military think-tank, this would be a net addition to their research staff. Everybody benefits in the short run.

The long run benefits are what interest me. On the one hand, this will give some of us an opportunity to immerse ourselves in a very different and interesting organizational environment. We can act as amateur anthropologists, learning how our military counterparts think about things, and the ways in which those thoughtways are different from our own. After our one-year tour in the military, we can then explain things to our colleagues back in academia. The long-term benefit will be the creation of a corps of social scientists who, after their immersion experience, have a good understanding of how their counterparts in the military approach issues of war and peace. It should enable us to engage with them more effectively. From the military point of view, it enhances the capacity of social science to usefully address questions that matter to them. With persistence we may persuade some of our military colleagues to reframe issues in ways that make more sense to us. Speaking perhaps immodestly, I think this would be a service to the world as a whole. It is better to have a smart military than to have a dumb military.

There are many details to be ironed out, and many ways in which such a program could be expanded. There will also be considerable resistance from within the military, particularly from those who scoff at the ability of ivory-tower academics to address themselves to real-world problems. It is precisely this sort of resistance that we need to overcome if we are to have a real dialog. Top leaders in the Department of Defense have asked for our help. We won’t know whether we can make the military into the kind of military we want unless we try. Now is the time to make the effort.

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