Academics and Research / Magazine Feature

Research aims to improve military, civilian interface

From the start, the U.S. military’s Human Terrain Team program, which assigns anthropologists and other social scientists to units in Iraq and Afghanistan, has been controversial.

Proponents say that the cultural insights provided by the teams help prevent conflict and contribute to more successful initiatives; critics consider the program an exploitation of social sciences for political gain.

Peter Van Arsdale, a cultural anthropologist and senior lecturer at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, acknowledges the program’s flaws but believes the military can ethically utilize social science.

For two years, Van Arsdale has been working with a team assembled by eCrossCulture, a Boulder-based cultural-consulting firm, to improve methods of ethnographic data gathering.

The team’s funding comes from the Office of Naval Research. The office’s interest in Human Terrain Teams prompted them to grant awards to four U.S. research groups.

“This is a great opportunity for us to make a contribution and maybe make Human Terrain Teams work better or come up with something that will replace them,” Van Arsdale says.

Since receiving the “phase one” award last spring, the eCrossCulture group has worked to determine the most effective combination of rapid assessment procedures. The procedures allow researchers to determine the important ethnographic features of an area in a short period of time.

To test the team’s theories, Van Arsdale recruited Angie Bengtson and Jon Chu, second-year international development master’s students at the Korbel School.

Bengtson and Chu spent a month in Ethiopia during the winter interterm conducting water-related research in separate villages. They used rapid assessment procedures such as key informant interviews, participant observation and focus groups.

“By looking at how people manage water, you get an insight into how politics work, how villages work, how patronage systems work and how formal and informal communication channels work,” Van Arsdale says.

Although Bengtson and Chu didn’t receive credit for their research, they consider the experience invaluable.

“The Office of Naval Research has obviously made a significant commitment to investing in this kind of research and improving their practices in this area,” Bengtson says. “I thought that it was really worthwhile and exiting to be part of.”

The eCrossCulture team will apply for a “phase two” award from the Navy this spring. Once secured, Van Arsdale hopes to send two more DU students overseas to complete similar research.

By providing the military with the necessary tools to understand and engage indigenous cultures, Van Arsdale hopes the human costs of conflict can be reduced.

“We’ll always have militaries, for better or worse,” Van Arsdale says. “We’re trying to make them better and more sensitive in these areas. That’s really the ultimate goal. To try and make that entire situation better and more humane.”

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