Tag Archives: David Kilcullen

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?


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

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

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.


Peter McBurney, thanks for the head’s up


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