“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.
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. 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.
 I can, of course, provide examples of these and other academic organizational structures.