Anthropology & Business

It has been an interesting experience becoming involved with entrepreneurship, business, and learning the do’s and don’ts of this type of environment in contrast to the skills and information I have learned in the social sciences. It seems as if there really are two vastly different types of thinking in these two worlds. I’ve come to realize that it is possible to learn the traits valued within each discipline and to ‘wear’ them when the situation calls for it.

With the study of anthropology, we learn to be trained observers. We also learn to be careful about knee-jerk judgments in order to be sure that we’re seeing the entire picture (or as much of it as possible) and not simply placing our own opinions or values onto the others. The research process focuses on the importance of analyzing the data carefully and being sure not to draw conclusions that are unfounded. In business and entrepreneurship, on the other hand, quick decisions and risk taking are necessary. This field calls for constant innovation and a trial-and-error type approach in order to move the venture along as quickly as possible. More than one entrepreneurship teacher has used the slogan “If you are going to fail, fail fast”, and then move on to the next idea.

Although these two different disciplines seem so very different, and in many ways are, common ground can still be found in some aspects. Anthropologists and business people must both step outside their comfort zones often and must be able to gain strangers’ trust. The anthropologist must gain the trust of his or her informants or research subjects, the business person must gain the trust of his or her customers. The anthropologist steps outside their comfort zone in order to submerse themselves within a completely new environment and culture, and are often confronted with beliefs, practices, or actions that conflict with their own values. The business person steps outside their comfort zone by doing what it takes to make the networking connections necessary for the success of their venture.

Personally I have found it a valuable learning experience becoming so actively involved in another discipline. When I first began last September, I was only able to see the differences between the two disciplines. A much deeper understanding has evolved since I am now able to see the commonalities.

A response to the recent Newsweek article on Human Terrain System.

As a long-standing professional rule, I do not comment on or talk about my direct professional work here on Clients get a bit touchy about the sort of thing. Long-time readers will note that since joining the Human Terrain System project that I no longer write about it. I can (as can any one in the HTS) blog about my work as much as I care to if I wish. But as most of my professional life as been under Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) in the corporate world, not blogging about it is a habit I keep. But in light of the recent Newsweek article and Donna’s recent post, I feel its in bounds to post one of the official responses and as always, people can make up their own minds.  Please note, this letter to the editor was found at the Wired Danger Room Blog, and attributed to the Newsweek letters to the editors.

Dear Editors,

Having long been an admirer of Newsweek, I found your failure to fact check the story by Dan Ephron & Silvia Springs entitled “A gun in one hand, a pen in the other” (21 April issue) completely shocking. One naturally expects more from Newsweek than such sloppy journalism.

Below you will find a list of factual corrections and some more general points about the article.


1) “the idea is to recruit academics whose area expertise and language skills” – Incorrect. In fact, the goal of HTS is to recruit social scientists with the appropriate research skills and methodological approaches. There are very, very few social scientists in the US who have the requisite knowledge of Iraq or Afghanistan, since these countries have been closed to research for many decades. However, if the social scientist on a team is not an Arabic speaker, other members of the team possess the requisite area expertise and language skills.

2) “only three speak Arabic” – Incorrect. Each team in Iraq and Afghanistan has members who speak the local language, although this person is not necessarily the social scientist. As of 14 April, there are 38 HTS personnel in Iraq distributed among 5 teams (slightly higher than normal, since we are in transition and executing some individual Reliefs in Place). 8 of those personnel are Social Scientists. 13 of those personnel speak Arabic,of which 2 are Social Scientists and 11 are Human Terrain Analysts or Research Managers.

3) “Johnson served in Afghanistan on a pilot Human Terrain team last year” – Incorrect. Tom Johnson was never a team member, but merely visited theater for two weeks.

4) Tom Johnson is a “Pashto speaker”, and “spent much of his time there interviewing Afghans in their homes” – Incorrect. According to Tom Johnson, he has no idea where this information came from — “surely not me.”

5) “Omar Altalib was one of only two Iraqi-Americans in the program” – Incorrect. Actually the program currently has about 20 Iraqi Americans.

6) Social scientists earn “$300,000″ a year – Overstated. This is true only if hazard pay, overtime, and danger pay are included. The base salary is a low six figures.

7) “Steve Fondacaro………..a retired Special Forces colonel..” – Incorrect. COL Fondacaro (ret’d) has never been in Army Special Forces. His experience as Special Operations Force (SOF) officer was exclusively with 75th Ranger Regiment and higher Headquarters.

8 ) “Fondacaro says overseers had to rush through the start-up phase because Pentagon planners wanted the terrain teams in Iraq quickly” – Incorrect. The requirement to put teams in country was in response to the Joint Urgent Operational Needs Statement (JUONS) that came from the units in the war zone. Pentagon planners actually slowed the process down to carefully analyze and validate the need.

9) the contract “was handed to British Aerospace Engineering (BAE) without a bidding process” – Overstated. BAE is the omnibus contractor for TRADOC and for a start-up program, this was a normal process. Once HTS becomes a program of record, the contract will be bid out.

10) “The rest are social scientists or former GIs” – Incorrect. Actually, much of the manpower is made up of US Army reserves.

11) “the anthropologists sent to Iraq…” – Incorrect. Not all of the social scientists on teams are anthropologists.

12) “the relationship between civilian academics and military or ex-military team members was sometimes strained” – Incorrect. The environment in the training program is very different than a year ago, which is the period the quoted sources were familiar with.

13) “40-year-old expert on trash” – Incorrect. Actually, Dr. Griffin is an anthropologist with an interest in food security and economics.


1) The main input to the article came from two individuals who were terminated, and whose knowledge is outdated.

2) The article’s main premise is that the majority of HTS social scientists are not Middle East specialists with fluency in Arabic. Fair enough, but Human Terrain Teams include personnel with language, regional, and local area knowledge in addition to social scientists. The teams are not just the lone social science advisor that the media has tended to focus upon. As teams, they include a variety of individuals uniquely suited to understanding the social, political, economic and cultural aspects of the population in question — both military and civilian.

3) In the article, the significance of research methods was downplayed in favor of language and culture area skills. Certain subfields require formal area studies training, but as whole, social scientists are trained to apply their knowledge of analytical frameworks and research methodologies across different locales, based on the premise that the dynamics of human behavior exhibit certain universal features. This does not mean that social scientists cannot be area experts: many are, given their past research. However, what social scientists bring to the table is a way of looking at the social world, studying it, and analyzing it in a way that is distinct from the way the military approaches these issues.

4) That soldiers on their second- or third- tours possess inestimable knowledge about the area in which they are operating is undeniable. Yet, as currently organized, combat brigades do not possess the organic staff capability or assets to organize this knowledge and look at the broad questions that HTTs are concerned with. While civil affairs soldiers are the closest to such an organic asset, along with information operations, these assets are mission-focused and often lack the manpower to engage in the sort of question-formulation and asking that HTTs can. Nor do these assets always include personnel trained in social scientific analysis. Therefore, it is the job of HTTs to take the knowledge these soldiers have gleaned, to examine the information already being gathered on the ground on a daily basis, engage in original research, and consider this information in terms of broader issues from a different perspective in order to add to the brigade commander’s situational awareness of the social, economic, political, cultural and psychological factors at work in the environment.

5) All this was explained to both Dan Ephron & Silvia Spring, but none of it is reflected in the article.

GEN Wallace, the commander of TRADOC, has written a letter to the editors of Newsweek regarding this article, which I hope you will consider publishing. You may also consider this email as a ‘letter to the editor’ and publish any or all of it.

I hope in the future that Newsweek will hold itself to a higher standard of journalism.

Warm regards,

Montgomery McFate, JD PhD

On the Cover of the Rolling Stone

Well, not really.  Not on the cover, anyway.  And not in Rolling Stone.  But I love that song!

But hey hey, anyone see this? HTS makes it into Newsweek, and I’m intrigued all over again. Seems it’s not being as valuable a program as it could be, at least in part because the social scientists who would be most equipped to help the military in Iraq—think: those who speak relevant languages and/or have spent significant time in the Middle East, or (gasp!) both—are under suspicion from the military, and so are unable to be as effectively embedded in troops as those whose prior research experience is among less relevant groups, like goths in the U.S. The military seems to think that knowing the methodology of anthropology is enough, that content knowledge will come as it’s necessary, and that interpreters can “fill in the gaps.” Now, even those of us who are doing applied work, or short-term work, need to have some background. There is something to be said for ethnographic authority. It is not just about the methodology. It’s about the commitment to a deeper understanding of a place, and Yes, about being in that place long enough to start to Get It.  And even if not all of the social scientists working with HTS start off as experts, you would think that actively driving off those experts who are willing to work within the program was Not a Good Idea.

If this program is to be done (and that’s a whole ‘nother ethical discussion, still hanging over us from the 2007 AAAs), it should at least be done well, should be done so that it is effective, and it doesn’t appear to be, at least, not yet—and I wonder, if ever. With the military’s determination that those with experience in the Middle East are also irrevocably stained with their association with same, and therefore untrustworthy, it’s hard to imagine just how they propose to use anthropology and anthropologist in truly constructive ways in Iraq (or anywhere else).

Marcus Griffin, still in the field (and with his blog under construction), is quoted in the article, as well as Matt Tompkins, who has now returned from Iraq, and whose fiancée, Zenia Helbig, was not only one of the academics whose background in the Middle East made her suspect to the military, but also one of the scholars who addressed the AAA meetings about HTS last fall.

I particularly like this bit at the end:

“Thomas Johnson, an Afghan expert at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. Johnson served in Afghanistan on a pilot Human Terrain team last year. A Pashto speaker, he spent much of his time there interviewing Afghans in their homes. “If you don’t have a good knowledge of the actual country and language, all the methodology can go for naught,” he says. Johnson was shocked to hear Human Terrain had received a huge funding increase while other military programs face cuts. He says it shows just how much faith Pentagon planners have in the idea that real experts can help America win the war in Iraq. If only someone would make the effort to find them.”

How to Cite in an academic paper

I added a section called about to the site. It also includes an example of how to cite posts from in print papers.

Here is an example of how to cite an entry in an academic paper:

Waters, T. (2008, April 4). The Battle for Kosovo on the Internet.
Retrieved April 11, 2008, from

Just to satisfy all you people that have been rushing to quote us in Scientific American.

News feed is broken… trying to fix it.

Hello everyone.  The anthropology news feed is a very popular feature on, but something has happened on the provider side, and we’re not sure what yet.  We are trying to locate someone to help us fix it.

Until then, read up on a few old travel posts… they might be fun.