My Resume


 

The time has come for me to take things up a notch and write about something that most of you will find more important than dressage. I’ll save the dressage follow up as a recovery act for what follows here, to wit, a near rant about the job I am about to lose.

“So,” you ask, “what do you do?” The elevator version of my reply is a few mumbled phrases about  socio-cultural research and the Army in Afghanistan. “Really? How fascinating,” you reply, your curiosity piqued while you try to pigeon-hole me into whatever categories you find most helpful in organizing people in your life. “Well, what do you think about ________?” I usually reply that what I think is often irrelevant in whatever it is that I do.

Who says I have to stay inside the lines?

BIG FAT DISCLAIMER: The ranting below IN NO WAY represents the views or opinions of the Human Terrain System. They are MY IDEAS and MINE ALONE (unless some of you actually agree with me).

Many of us have read, and perhaps written, those sophomoric essays that begin “Webster defines ____________ as _______________.” They set us up for a debate in which the author is already committed to a definition when what is called for is intellectual engagement. Rather than resort to sources (which must be cited), I will make this up as I go, i.e. wing it on paper (I will also use the first person pronouns, something I normally eschew except while blogging). The goal is to arrive at a concept of Social Science that the reasonably prudent person (a legal standard, I know) can accept and employ- or at least talk about.

The degree of difficulty in organizing this discussion will be increased by the fact that not even academic institutions are able to agree upon a definition of Social Science and its practitioners. Some universities house their departments according to the degree to which its members apply quantitative methods to their research. Others need to balance distribution of credit hours and faculty lines, and so designate disciplines such as History to Liberal Arts or Humanities, or Social Science, depending on the need.[1] To my knowledge, no one gets a Ph.D. in Social Science.

So, what is a Social Scientist? I stated up front that I was going to provide a framework, not a definition, and my intention is to honor that. I do not wish to argue about it, though I suppose I must at some point. We have more definitions to guide us right now that we can possibly use. Some of these definitions support good Social Science and support our ability to provide operationally relevant research results to people who need it. Others confound us at every turn. By learning to live with contextually dependent definitions, we can, through the continued exchange of ideas, loosely describe (as opposed to define) ourselves and those portions of the world with which we come into contact.

Before being hired by Human Terrain System (HTS), I did not consider myself a Social Scientist. I am a Historian by training. I have also spent a considerable amount of time studying and practicing leadership, whatever that is. Maybe one day I’ll get it right. I usually enjoy doing what I do, and I am able to comfortably switch from staunch defender of the Liberal Arts and Humanities to proud practitioner of some Social Science methods in order to try to be of use in this world. I definitely prefer application to theory. Sadly, these days I find that neither a degree on a wall nor a patch on a uniform can be taken as evidence of ability to perform Social Science research in a combat zone.

Having a job in a certain field can be indicative of what one actually does. Those of us who have tried to explain HTS to the reasonably prudent person who has no military context upon which to draw will understand why I say ‘can’ in the previous sentence. I also find that, despite great strides in the educational field, those parts of the military with which I have had direct experience remain too concerned with the rigid categorization of people, places, and things. To be fair, we can also see such activity in some branches of the Social Sciences.

Despite the assertions of some branches of the Social Science tree, I maintain that the abilities to teach, do research, and learn are akin to the ability lead. These skills are not instantly found within certain disciplines. If I have no ability at all, then no amount of remedial education is going to bestow upon me the ability to do anything well. Putting me in a situation in which I must learn by doing would be equally dangerous because of the potential harm to those must attempt to learn with/from me. HTS tries to identify people who have some abilities already and equip them to go into a war zone to “do” good Social Science. Since I assume that a teacher is a subject matter expert (I’ll go so far as to say that a trainer should also be a SME), as opposed to someone who has read a lesson plan, I cling to the hope that HTS will come up with a way to engage real experienced teachers/trainers who will be able to provide some depth to the classroom experience that is now HTS Training. We will not find these people within the halls of TRADOC or schools of education. Rather, these SMEs will come to the HTS schoolhouse with a successful deployment and the ability to share that with others.

One way in which civilian and military institutions bolster their legitimacy is through publication of research in peer-reviewed formats. This gives tangible evidence to others that we do what we say we do. The more publications we have, the better we are… or so the line goes. Yet, in the age of globalization and democratization, we are all authors, and everybody knows everybody. As with resumés and rank, a long list of publications can signal many things to the reasonably prudent person. I recently had a conversation with a Social Scientist who claimed to be the “top producing Social Scientist in Afghanistan.” No mention of quality. This person is “good,” but the system has defined success in terms of how much we produce because we are afraid to make judgement calls.

HTS is in a position that many would find envious right now: the ability to set a few, hopefully flexible,  boundaries. In order to make the most of this situation, we must all be aware of as many layers of context as possible in order to make good decision. Social Scientists do not operate inside intellectual vacuums. Just listen to some of the conversations in which we engage. We would prefer to wrestle with intellectual issues rather than PowerPoint. This includes the best way to prepare others to go ply their form of Social Science downrange. We resent what we perceive as busy work that keeps us from being able to practice our form of our craft. We resent not being trusted to do our jobs (as we understand them?) in order to serve not only a greater good, but our own collective and individual curiosities, and yes, even our personal interests (more loosely defined concepts).

So what, inexactly, do Social Scientists do? We ask questions. We are curious to the point of skepticism; sarcastic to the point of irreverence; and respectful to the point of dogged devotion to people who are “good.” We continue to ask questions even if we are unable to provide answers. In whatever context we find ourselves, we are driven to identify, if not understand, the layers of meaning that constitute what may be called culture, life, ___________ (fill in the blank). We have extensive education and/or experience to help us form our questions, to strive for intellectually honest answers, and effectively present them to our audience. Our methods and talents are as varied as the topics we study.

I suppose that we must at least acknowledge that the title Social Scientist, as opposed to Social Investigator, or Social Theorist, does entitle people to some expectations. I would also like to address the expectations of those to whom we provide the results of our work. The reasonable person should be able to expect that we are able to ask “why?” and provide credible hypotheses (answers?).  HTTs may have the luxury of testing their own answers. More often, they will not. Others may, and in fact will, generalize from our localized findings. HTATs may try to do so as well, but in Afghanistan anyway, this approaches the bounds of futility.Over there, our “research” is mostly short term.

Social Science is a grand endeavor. To limit it to the village level limits its immense potential unless there is some larger goal, yet our current version of Social Science has hamstrung itself by promising “scientific” answers to local questions whose solutions may not be applicable beyond the local level to a customer who doesn’t understand that generalization beyond the local level is still a dangerous practice. Starting small is but one way to grab some turf in a debate. It works in Afghanistan, but we must also keep a big picture in mind. Who gets to draw that picture? You tell me.

 

 

 

 


[1] I can, of course, provide examples of these and other academic organizational structures.

Borders, and Tribes, and Affairs! Oh My!

Some words of introduction here: When I was in Afghanistan, I kept a journal. I wrote down lots of things ‘as they happened’ or ‘the way I remembered them! Now that I am home again, those entries have been placed in an already existing file of writings that I call “Skeletons” because they need to be fleshed out. Maybe I should call it “Bones” because some of them need connecting as well!

 

I recently attended another meeting at the Ministry of Tribal and Border Affairs (MoBTA). My understanding of my task was that I was to offer some guidance to fourteen Afghan guys who would be conducting surveys around the country to find out what folks (tribal leaders) think about Reintegration and Reconciliation (R2). Aside from the irony of me training Afghans on how to get information from their own people, I was skeptical from the start.

My  RM was wearing her Afghan costume. The only other woman there was an English Army person. She wore her civvies and a cute yellow scarf. Neither she nor the RM said a word the entire meeting. This was clearly another case of “Meg’s in charge. Let’s just sit back and watch.”  I chose to wear my ACUs that day but took along a lovely pink and green silk floral scarf just in case (Luckily for all of us, I can’t find that picture! Will keep looking.). It’s a good thing I did because the room was filled with all sorts of tribal elders from down South and representatives from various GIRoA ministries. The imbed over at  Ministry of Borders and Tribal Affairs (MoBTA) was not known for his organizational or communication skills, but this took the cake, or the naan, or whatever they take over here. It was one big interpretive dance (presenting a train heading for a cliff) from the moment we entered the room until we left.

The Afghan gentlemen, were not quite so reserved. In fact they were quite animated at times, like when they argued for ten minutes about the wording of a particular question that they had already decided was stupid.  By the time this argument flared up I was contemplating the best way to go about painfully attracting my interpreter’s attention  because he was joining in the discussion instead of keeping us abreast of things!! The non-Afghans in the room had no clue what was going on and no way to stop it!

This argument only saw the light of day because we had to go through each question one by one and let everybody “vote” on it. I would say the question number then the Minister of Mustaches would read the question in Dari and Pashto. It is safe to assume that some, if not all, of the fantastically dressed Elders couldn’t read (another fashion note: One Elder had a hideous cold and was using a huge silk Hermes scarf that he was using as a hanky. Made quite a show of it too!).

Hermès Hanky

The Elders were not rude- they just weren’t cordial. The more urban dudes had no issue with the  presence of women in the room or the fact that I was (supposedly) running things. Well, things were getting out of control, and the guys weren’t going to take ‘shushing from any woman- not even one in an Army uniform. My mind was racing, trying to figure out how to salvage some semblance of order when I recalled an article that I had read about the Jirga and how men are honor-bound to listen when women speak for peace. Desperation can lead us to take risks. So… I took a deep breath and started talking (I had managed to make my interpreter recall his job for the moment)  The minute I/he said ‘peace’ the room was silent. I owned that meeting for the rest of the afternoon…or maybe they just let me think that, but we had a great discussion about surveys, PEACE, reintegration, PEACE, reconciliation, PEACE, even the Taliban and Pakistan, and PEACE.

Buying Sunglasses in Kabul

They never did say what they think the role of women is in the R2 process, but THEY are the ones who brought up the question (or maybe that’s just what I let them think), and I put my hand on my heart and thanked them. Smiles almost all the way around.

 

Well, I never!

I never thought I would own a beautiful PRE horse. I never knew what one was until I went to Spain and learned that a PRE is a Pura Raza Española (pure Spanish horse). Back here in the USA, most folks refer to them as Andalusians (when they refer to them at all). As it was explained to me, any horse from Andalusia or the Iberian Peninsula can be called an Andalusian. Only special ones get to be PRE.

I went to Spain by way of Afghanistan. Not wanting to travel all the way back home at the mercy of military travel, I went to Spain instead. Make sense? By the way, I also just listed several other things I never thought I would do. Watching that horse get off the trailer on a cold February night was definitely a high point worthy of pictures and another post.

Fast forward to last week. One of the things that makes a PRE so special is the disposition. Nothing really phases them. Well, they do not have horse flies the size of hummingbirds in Spain. I never thought I would fall off of my horse, but I did last week. I made it past the eight-second count, but that horsefly was as determined as I was to hang on. I did a spectacular face plant in my (yes, my– another I thought I’d never) arena after bouncing on my side. Just to make this more fun, my PRE is also tall (16 hands 3 inches; one hand = 4 inches; that’s 67 inches tall at the withers, that ‘bump’ in front of the saddle).  I thought I would never catch my breath. When I tried to get up, I thought I would prefer never to do so. I had bruised multiple ribs. My dear horse was watching me writhe in the sand, unfazed by his induction into the Mother Bucker Club.

Last Wednesday’s tumble added insult to an already injurious day. I never, ever thought I would be let go from a job, especially one at which I am (not quite was) way better than average even on my off days. My ribs, my ego, and my self-esteem have taken quite a beating in the past week, and I have been asking myself where all my hard work, loyalty, and  devotion to “the mission” have gotten me. Obviously, they’ve gotten me quite a lot in terms of material things, but what do I have to show for myself in other realms?

Now I am testing the waters with you- trying to decide just how serious I can be in the blogosphere. Sure, it’s my blog (there goes another one!), but I’d like to have a few loyal readers. I am a great fan of sarcasm, so I had to stay away from the keyboard for a few days (even after I could remain sitting) for fear of launching an all out attack on some people and institutions who/which, however deserving they may be, are entitled to  a more thoughtful assault. And yes, this reflexiveness has to be turned on yours truly as well.

I’ll be coming back to this topic in the near future, so either stay away or chime in. For me, it was hard enough to get to this place.

It’s not just about the hair.