The growing work of anthropologists with the military parallels the evolution of design anthropology – 15 years later…

Lord knows I would welcome much stronger examination of the credentials of people that claim to be social scientists / anthropologists that are working in the military. There is the potential for the development of an excellent sub-discipline of anthropologists doing direct applied work for various forms of the federal government and the military (which for all I know already exists, I am new to this arena). I have no doubt there have been anthropologists working in all levels of Government/Military/Intel worlds for many years, but they may have not been/are called anthropologists in most official job titles I suspect. (note: I say it this way as I have not actually tried to find out, therefore it is assumption based on my past professional experience). This is not to hide anthropologists, but in my corporate experience, getting HR systems to create of a new kind of position description and title is something that requires so much red tape you used to wind up being called a “Staff Scientist” or “Human Factors Engineer” or “Analyst”. Never confuse institutional bureaucracy, ineptitude, disinterest and glacial speed of change with conspiracy, things that seem to be confused often.

With programs like the HTS the role of anthropologists has become much more visible to people outside of the government and military worlds (including higher visibility to those in anthropology). This is ironic given that very few people in the HTS have any background in anthropology at all, much less appreciable experience in ethnography. (A curious waste of self-righteous resources to focus on an organization with so few anthropologists actually involved. Not to mention the little academic cottage industry of publications it has spawned has certainly profited the critics CV’s as well as bringing them to an audience they were unknown to before. But these are mysteries to be plumbed later.) But with this visibility, it also means the time is ripe for pulling a number of fragmented efforts together, but also this visibility and boomlette in the military hiring “social scientists” also leads to the hiring of numerous unqualified among the qualified individuals. To me, this development has interesting parallels to the boom, bust and then stability of the practice of ethnography and anthropology in the corporate world. And as in the corporate world, if the military and federal government sees enough value in the work provided long-term, anthropology/ethnography can survive the current fad and shake out the charlatans on the way to a more robust sub-discipline.

I was one of the people that started working in the corporate world using anthropology to inform product and services development, strategy and business innovation in the 90s, the boom years, and until 2008. The uproar that currently exists about anthropologists working with the military world parallels with the uproar I recall that existed about anthropologists “selling out” to industry. Back in the mid 1990’s there were also calls in the AAA to ban all forms of proprietary research primarily as a way to devalue what anthropology could bring to the table in industry, since no company wants its business strategy research made public for competitors, and certainly not going to hire someone that won’t honor a non-disclosure agreement. As that discipline, often referred to now as Design Anthropology, grew (despite the AAA mind you) we also saw the rapid growth of hiring ethnographers/anthropologists. By 1996-97, “Ethnography” was the go to business fad of the moment and the more prominent ethnographers/anthropologists in the industry were getting written up in high profile publications such as Fast Company, Business Week, The NYT, Wired and more. I remember getting calls from companies that wanted to hire me to be an anthropologist but had no idea why they wanted one. All they knew was their competitors were hiring anthropologists and so they figured they should check out “what dinosaurs had to do with product development.” That is nearly a direct quote from one conversation that shows just how much in the infancy it was at the time.

So the next thing you knew in the boom there was a massive uptake of anthropologists into industry to do User Experience Modeling (sometimes referred to as UA or UX), strategy, business consulting of all kinds. Many were unqualified due to lack of experience, unable to make the adjustment to the corporate world, unable to provide clients with understandable and actionable recommendations, and the many outright charlatans with dubious backgrounds but since they talked to people in their homes, it was “ethnography”. A lot of little consultancies grew then later crashed and burned as the never-ending faucet of money dried up with the dot-com bust and people started asking the really hard questions: What exactly are we getting out of having an anthropologist hanging around here anyway? Something more universities need to do as well, but I’ll save that for another day.

Mind you, design anthropologists, like me, were not the first anthropologists working in the corporate world; many had been there for years, often referred to as Organizational Anthropologists studying the internal culture of the corporations. But with anthropologists taking a more active role on the profit creation side of the industry, actively working to make product recommendations, develop strategy and in may own case working as an inventor as well as strategy and product innovation, where was even a schism in that little niche.

To start with, there were those that felt doing organizational analysis was OK, but actively working to develop new products based on interviews with people was not. Then even within the field then there was an academic/applied argument: Those that saw themselves as academics first and the need to make the material actually be of value to the needs of the corporate culture a distant second. Then the camp that saw themselves as academically trained product developers, strategists, experience modelers, and all kinds of buzz words that we frankly created as we tried to fit in someplace. Over time, those that saw themselves just as academics that happened to work in industry (and apologetic about it) were weeded out and went off to do something else. Over time, the major companies that had been doing working with, and in many ways helping to shape the field for a while, became more educated about not just how to work with anthropologists, but what to expect from them and most importantly, what crap research looks like. So many of the outright charlatans, though still around, have also been weeded out at this point in 2009. Mind you for those of us that have been in that discipline from since then (I chose to make a career shift last year), we went through the lean rebuilding years, which also required asking just what value we provide and to who, taking responsibility for informal standards and the creation of honored competitors. It improved the quality of the work and the services that companies receive and therefore increased the confidence and stability of the field.

Perhaps that’s the point of this note: Applied anthropologists working in the military and other areas today are at the early stage of a discipline arc that Design Anthropologists experienced 15 years ago. Today, over a decade later, you can find anthropology programs that are actively working with students to pursue careers in industry, working in all kinds of capacities. To be sure, there are still those that don’t approve of such work for anthropologists, but I think they are not winning a lot of converts because, simply, the jobs aren’t there in academia and people often find Design Anthropology an interesting field to pursue. Many people in academic world are putting up a valiant struggle to make cultural anthropology relevant to more people that just anthropologists. Without those people, and if they don’t succeed, cultural anthropology could well become some academic backwater (I think it’s already well on the way) that is viewed as an interesting part of the evolution to a more robust and useful field that will be inter-disciplinary in nature. There is already a conference that embraces that group of strugglers called EPIC that attracts anthropologists, designers, human factors folks, engineers and others that consider themselves all part of that community. Oh, and the AAA and NAPA also help to sponsor EPIC, ironically in some ways, given the issues with proprietary research people would like to see addressed in the code of ethics.

So, perhaps this argument about anthropologists in the military, as poorly crafted as it often is, is just a symptom of the potential development of a sub-field growing in visibility, and in some cases, not unlike coming out of the closet. Just as Design Anthropology did in the corporate world, this is an evolution of anthropologists going from writing about the culture of the military to actively and visibly working with the military to affect change on a host of levels. Just as in the corporate world, these applied anthropologists are taking a very active role in shaping directions of inquiry, how the military can approach cultural issues and in some cases shaping policy.

But, taking that kind of active role is problematic, no question. Look, applied anthropology is messy and doing applied anthropology for the military or an NGO in a war zone / refugee camp / oppressive regime is going to be messier still from an ethical stand point, if you can’t deal with that, then perhaps being an applied anthropologist is not for you. You can’t take a one size fits all approach to ethics, it is counter-productive, naive and certainly does not prepare someone for the on the fly decisions that have to be made in the field. This is why long and vigorous discussions about ethics are paramount before going into the field. Not because you need to have the answers going in, but because you are always going to be in that situation you don’t have a clear answer for and it hopefully provides a firmer foundation to make those leaps from. At some point you have to quit wringing your hands and actually do something, and in turn take the risk of making a little, or very big awful mistakes. And yes, they have real world consequences. In the corporate world, if you are working at a higher level, your mistakes can cost people jobs, homes, health insurance. You go someplace where people’s lives are teetering on the brink, the stress of your choices is hardly reduced. There is no tenure, no do-overs, no intellectual jousting in journals trading quotes from dead French philosophers. People get fired, lose lives, put resources in the wrong place with all the follow on effects that can last for years and all manner of other problems.

But for some of us, this inherent messiness is not a showstopper, it’s part of the work that you have to take into account and worry over as your try to move forward. Stop trying to convince those that disagree, it only takes up valuable time and holds back the development of and substantive arguments needed for this nascent field.

10 thoughts on “The growing work of anthropologists with the military parallels the evolution of design anthropology – 15 years later…

  1. you mean “ethics” not “ethnics” (ha).

    I think that all of these concerns are in fact dealt with in the struggles Applied Anthropologists from all sub-fields (that would be the Big Four) have with their ethical position. There may be specifics to the HTS or Design situations that are unique, but really, there is no “pure” anthropology, even outside of applied work, because working with people is, by definition, messy.

  2. Thanks John-

    Thats the big question, isn’t it? I’ll ponder that one and toss it up on a post later today… (Then I will follow up with fixing the global financial crisis, solving health care and the big finish: reviving Lindsay Lohan’s career.)

  3. I don’t know…Correlation doesn’t always imply similar results. The big difference it seems to me is that the nature of the military and government and its military is fundamentally different than the private sector. The military seems to like the idea of anthropology, but not at the cost of changing the very nature of how armies are organized.

  4. You are right Tony. Finally, the military sees the benefit in consulting with cultural experts prior to going into a country and during operations and peacekeeping. We are shifting our military culture from “go in and break things” regardless of the consequences, to looking at non-lethal ways of of getting a message across. One way to do this is through what we call “Information Operations” which involves informing and influencing the local population to support the local government and discredit the terrorists. The only way we can win the information war against the terrorists is with the help of cultural anthropologists, human geographers, linguists, etc. This is an academic field that is highly applicable to us in the military and in much demand.

  5. To say that using anthropology as part of the military is “messy” is just a slight understatement.

    While I understand the comparison you are making between the history of Design Anthropology and applied anthropological work in a military setting, I think that there is a HUGE difference between commercial applied work and using anthropology as a tool in modern warfare.

  6. Hi Benef:
    I am glad to see that the military is switching from the “go in and break things” mode, to one which recognizes the importance of working with local people in a more anthropological fashion.

    But, the military also has a unique culture emerging out its need for discipline, etc., which it needs when it goes out and breaks things. My broader question would be, though, is this the best culture for establishing development projects? My guess it is not; but then there is the next question, which is how do you mix both a military culture, with one from anthropology which values consultation and sensitivity. And how do you do this in a situation where security is uncertain?


  7. Hi there – I’m currently on USNS Comfort as part of Continuing Promise 2011. I’ll be on the ship a total of four months, completing an ethnography for the Navy related to the development of “Measures of Effectiveness.” In my opinion the best way to approach this design question is to first understand what I’m working with, which is a very complex mission involving a variety of military services, partner nation military members, NGO volunteers, and USG Civilians on and off the ship. Working as an anthropologist wiithin the military does not necessarily mean healping in the war-fighting effort but can reflect much of the design ethnographer’s role as recognizing and assisting with internal challenges to improve overall delivery of services. In this case, humanitarian assistance and medical stability operations…

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