Sunday, July 25, 2010

Human Terrain and Project Minerva

Posted by Chris at 6/10/2008 1:13 PM ...

There have been a lot of new developments on the HTS & the Department of Defense's Project Minerva in the past month, and I've now got a large backlog of pages to digest - sort of like Londonstani over at Abu Muqawama.

The most recent item is Tim's review of Roberto J. Gonzalez' work decrying the Human Terrain System and historical associations between anthropologists and the United States military.  While Gonzalez raises important issues about the relationship between social scientists and the military in both operational and intelligence gathering, as Tim argues, his absolute insistence that any cooperation between academia and the military is inherently evil hamstrings Gonzalez' attempt to discuss the broader concerns.

Gonzalez and other anthropologists frequently cite ethical concerns in how "research" is done in discussions of what they see as the problematic relationship between social scientists and the military.  The key problems are in being open with members of the cultures studied about the purposes of the study, doing no harm, and whether the DoD could (or would) provide effective oversight in terms required for peer reviewed research publications.  From the job announcements at the HTS website, the DoD does understand that publication is a key motivation for academics, but this argument seems to sidestep the actual argument.  One question we need to ask in all of this is whether either HTS or Project Minerva really include the mission of creating publishable research, or whether they are intended for just what they seem to be on the tactical level?

I would argue that HTS is not a research venue, and probably should not be.  If some good journal articles and better understanding of Iraqis and Afghans comes out of it, so much the better, but we would all be better off if proponents and opponents of HTS can get beyond this issue come to an honest discussion of the core argument - the relationship between academia and the military.  If nothing else, we need some objective discussions of why this is such a partisan and heated debate, and what the origins of the rift are, much like Marc Tyrell's ruminations on the topic, but with an American flavor to them.

It appears that at least the Society for Applied Anthropology recognizes the difference in its recent motion that "expresses grave concerns about the potential harmful use of social science knowledge and skills in the HTS project. The SFAA believes that social scientists can be helpful to the military by offering training, analysis, and evaluation so long as these activities are compatible with this organization’s code of ethics."  This stance both recognizes the problematic participation of social scientists in previous Department of Defense initiatives, while acknowledging the need for the military to have access to the knowledge and methods available to anthropologists.

Even the American Anthropological Association seems to recognize the fundamental difference between HTS and Project Minerva.  In a letter to the DoD, it recognized the need for study of terrorism and insurgnecies, but urged that it be funded trough the National Science Foundation rather than the DoD.  Other than a reflexive distaste for things military, AAA president Setha M. Low, argues that the NSF and affiliated agencies already have an understanding of both anthropology and peer-review structures in place.  It is informative that the Pentagon is already discussing (without attribution) close ties with the NSF for Project Minerva in terms of peer-review, or providing peer review through Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative.  There are also indications that the work of Project Minerva's academics would not be classified, and, therefore, publishable in scholarly journals or discussed at conferences.

More to follow on information operations and the Project Minerva blogger roundtable.

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