Conflict ethnography and the biggest picture

9965225773_d0a69d7876_zThe conflict in the Middle East is producing a new kind of ethnography.

The creator is David Kilcullen, a former Australian Army officer, now seconded to the United States State Department.  Dr. Kilcullen earned his Ph.D. studying guerrilla warfare in Southeast Asia and East Timor. He’s since studied counter-insurgency operations in Afghanistan and iraq.

Kilcullen calls it “conflict ethnography.”

The bottom line is that no handbook relieves a professional counterinsurgent from the personal obligation to study, internalize and interpret the physical, human, informational and ideological setting in which the conflict takes place. Conflict ethnography is key; to borrow a literary term, there is no substitute for a “close reading” of the environment. But it is a reading that resides in no book, but around you; in the terrain, the people, their social and cultural institutions, the way they act and think. You have to be a participant observer. And the key is to see beyond the surface differences between our societies and these environments (of which religious orientation is one key element) to the deeper social and cultural drivers of conflict, drivers that locals would understand on their own terms.

What I like about this is that it captures that holistic impulse that is, I believe, the first intellectual reflex of the anthropologist.  It seeing things in context, in relation to the other bits and pieces that defines the anthropologist’s data set.  This holistic inclination is there in Boas, in Malinowski, in functionalism and in structuralism. (It departs the field only with the advent of the postmodernism.  But then so does everything else that makes anthropology useful for the study of the real world.)

Now it would be self-dramatizing of this ethnographer to compare what we do in the study of North America to what is happening in the mind of a counterinsurgent in real time with conflict flaring and lives on the line.

But there is a similarity.  Too often the “value add” of ethnography is said to be its ability to capture what is going on in the heart, mind and life of the respondent.  And this is so.  But what anthropology also brings to the table is the ability to show how all the data fit, one with another and each with the whole.

It is this second function that cannot be delivered by the ethnographic pretenders who are now legion in the world of marketing.  All they can do is ask questions, take pictures, and submit invoices.  They do not know about the life of the consumer writ large, or the life of a culture, writ larger still.

But anthropology has yet to make good on its holistic impulse.  It is not comprehensive enough.  No, what we do are lovely, little water colors of ships in the harbor and it remains for McKinsey to supply a map of shipping lines, and a sense what goods are moving in what volume, from and to which ports, and how all of this makes a regional economy hum.  This is truly holistic and most of our client cannot live without this biggest picture.  It would require of anthropologists a strategic intelligence we do not cultivate, quantitative skills we do not normally master, and a methodological multiplicity that we for some reason believe to be unbecoming.

When does the field grow up…and into it’s birthright?

References

Anonmymous.  n.d., David Kilcullen.  Encyclopedia Entry in Wikipedia.  here.

Kilcullen, David.  2006.  Twenty-eight articles: fundamental of company-level counterinsurgency.
here.

Kilcullen, David.  2007.  Religion and Insurgency.  Small Wars Journal Blog.  May 12, 2007. here.
(source for the quote)

O’Grady, Stephen.  2006. The World’s Moved On: What David Kilcullen Can Teach us.  Tecosystems.  December 22, 2006.  here.

Packer, George.  2006.  Knowing the Enemy: Can social scientists redefine the “war on terror”?  The New Yorker.  December 16, 2006.  here.

Acknowledgments

Peter McBurney, thanks for the head’s up

Announcement

The conference of professional ethnographers is meeting again this year in October.  I can’t make it, but it looks like a great line up. www.epic2007.com

9 thoughts on “Conflict ethnography and the biggest picture”

  1. Your lament suggests that the full range should inhere in one discipline/person:
    “lovely, little water colors of ships in the harbor and it remains for McKinsey to supply a map of shipping lines”

    Dubious. I suspect there are sets of skills and personality tendencies that favor one or another product in a given individual or even sub-discipline.

    Perhaps the ethnology of anthropology’s “quantitative other half” is worth some attention. The birthright would appear to be buried in the art/science of emerging collaboration that would allow a “package” for the client. Do the “McKinsey”s admit any lacunae in their approach? Do the “McKinsey”s’ clients long to ponder the watercolor elevations as context and inspiration?

    What size project would you, yourself, need to snag in order to put anthropology in the driver’s seat and tap McKinsey as a willing subcontractor for systematic, quantitative, and other modules lying in their expertise?

  2. Grant —

    If we look at the wider culture (or the ecosystem) of large western corporations, much of their activities are driven by Wall Street. Unfortunately, The Street is ridden with quant-jocks, and so their concerns and their biases become those of the corporate chieftans they fund. The quant-consultants, such as McKinsey, simply serve those masters.

    I think the comparison between commerce and the US military is apt at another level. From the time of McNamara and Vietnam, the US DoD has focused on things it could measure; that which could not be measured easily did not get managed or even ignored completely. Worse, the people collecting the statistics from the field, the US military, were the very same people charged with implementing the strategy, a conflict of interest which left numerous possibilities for the massage of data — eg, drawing the target diagam after the arrow has landed. The same failures to see the whole picture (quant favoured over qual) and organizational structure (conflicts of interest in reporting) seem to be in place in Iraq.

  3. in ‘management’ vs ‘design’ you find the same structural difference as between quantitative and qualitative research. — management divides one objective into a number of controllable subtasks — whereas design takes exactly the opposite perspective. design looks at all the needs and at all the loose ends and tries to pull all of them together in one consistent and compelling picture. – where management tries to identify all the single elements that can be manipulated in order to optimize an outcome, design then strives for the one solution that answers all those single questions and that makes all traces of management complexity disappear.

    two things: however much we may feel that the quantitative paradigm has reached its limits, it is far too strong, too practical, and in itself also far too beautiful (remember it is the only language that allows communication and coordination regardless of department barriers, cultural barriers, individual barriers etc.) to ever totally make way for the subjective and qualitative.
    and then: i personally think that both approaches are so completely and essentially different, that it would be a terrible waste of time and talent to try to turn a grant mccracken into a mckinsey-man.
    it is what we learn in couple therapy: no silent assimilation but looking at the differences and the different strengths and then build a system of interaction on the basis of mutual respect…

    in other words: keep on painting these watercolors!
    be foolish, be “unprofessional”, be intuitive — and always become better at it. let the colors shine brighter, make the contrasts harder, and the brush strokes bolder. paint pictures so intense that the crews on their crusades will never forget your stories when they are out there on the water.

  4. Jens —

    I have to express my profound disagreement over your statement that quantitative languages allow communication and co-ordination regardless of cultural or individual barriers. Despite their appearance of objectivity, numbers embed culture to an amazing degree.

    To give one example I have encountered frequently in my educational and professional life: mathematical probability theory encodes a particular, modern and western, view of the world, a view in which alternative possible futures stretch out before us. People from a different cultural background may have great difficulty understanding this view, and accordingly interpret the numbers differently to those who developed them, if they can understand the numbers at all. For example, if you think the future is pre-determined (to a greater or lesser extent), as many Confucians and Buddhists do, or is subject to hidden causal forces beyond any individual’s control, as most traditional African communities do, then what sense does it make to talk about alternative futures?

    Western managers (at least those who have MBAs) have no trouble understanding and interpreting alternative forecasts of the same market under different assumptions. But several times in my professional life I have presented the results of scenario analyses and multiple alternative forecasts to Japanese and Chinese clients, and each time I have failed to communicate at all.

    I don’t think it is a coincidence that mathematical probability theory was developed in one place in one decade (Western Europe, 1660-1670).

  5. thanks peter. — at least for the department of the treasury and for multinationals it usually seems to work somehow. — so it seems that ‘objectivity’ is largely a question of convention too. and of course i would not oppose to that.

  6. Great post, Grant! I ran across the theme of contemporary Western military anthropology some time ago (http://kinshipstudies.org/?page_id=109) and pondered the fact that, as a result of Vietnam War, anthropologists abandoned their participation in government, the military or business, although some of our illustrious intellectual ancestors such as Gregory Bateson had had no qualms parachuting into the hot spots of Southeast Asia. (GB was a genius, I have to say.) Participant observation proclaimed was accompanied by withdrawn observation in practice. But may be if you want to change something in government or business practice, the best thing to do would be not to sit on an academic fence but be a part of government, the military or business. Also I have always been amazed at how Western anthropologists can so verbosely criticize capitalism, while having no ethnographic or work experience in the industry.

  7. As a practicing consumer anthropologist, working in “marketing”,I find this discussion interesting.

    It’s true, anthropology often does not deliver on it’s promise of both getting into the head, hearts and lives of consumers as well showing “how all the data fit, one with another and each with the whole”.

    That’s why i am so adamant about defining the practice of consumer anthropology as the collaboration between ethnographic / participant observation methodologies as well as other traditional qualitative methodologies AND quantitative.

    I also stress the importance of customization of approaches based on the unique objectives of each project.

    at Trend Influence (www.trendinfluence.com), where i am the Director of Knowledge and Insight, our philosophy is that in order to create sustainable brand growth, it is imperative to understand the confluence of Cultural context, Individual consumer behavior and Marketer / business realities.

    on a side note, i’m also interested in this concept of “Conflict Ethnogrpahy”. I had the benefit of an undergraduate education in anthropology and gratuate studies in applied sociology, and Conflict theory in general was an interesting macro theoritical space for me…especially in the degree to which it translates into cultural consequences.

  8. As a practicing consumer anthropologist, working in “marketing”,I find this discussion interesting.

    It’s true, anthropology often does not deliver on it’s promise of both getting into the head, hearts and lives of consumers as well showing “how all the data fit, one with another and each with the whole”.

    That’s why i am so adamant about defining the practice of consumer anthropology as the collaboration between ethnographic / participant observation methodologies as well as other traditional qualitative methodologies AND quantitative.

    I also stress the importance of customization of approaches based on the unique objectives of each project.

    at Trend Influence (www.trendinfluence.com), where i am the Director of Knowledge and Insight, our philosophy is that in order to create sustainable brand growth, it is imperative to understand the confluence of Cultural context, Individual consumer behavior and Marketer / business realities.

    on a side note, i’m also interested in this concept of “Conflict Ethnogrpahy”. I had the benefit of an undergraduate education in anthropology and gratuate studies in applied sociology, and Conflict theory in general was an interesting macro theoritical space for me…especially in the degree to which it translates into cultural consequences.

    Posted by: | Aug 7, 2007 7:22:59 PM

  9. Also, speaking about “holistic anthropology” – very appropriate, very timely (see Unwrapping the Sacred Bundle, edited by Yanagisako and Segal, 2004), very insightful. Paradoxically all these applauses are due to a very simple and elementary proposition that what Grant calls “postmodernism” once so arrogantly called into question. Why would people fight with “holism” if keeping it well and alive is simply parsimonious?! Application to the industry? Very direct – culture writ large produces the consumer, not the other way around.

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