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Social Science in the Service of Counter-Insurgency

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I’m in the midst of reading FM 3-24, the new counter-insurgency manual for the Army and Marine Corps. While I expected a sophisticated document, the degree to which the manual draws on work in the modern social sciences is really impressive. On culture:

3-37. Culture is “web of meaning” shared by members of a particular society or group within a society.
Culture is—

  • A system of shared beliefs, values, customs, behaviors, and artifacts that members of a society
  • use to cope with their world and with one another.
  • Learned, though a process called enculturation.
  • Shared by members of a society; there is no “culture of one.”
  • Patterned, meaning that people in a society live and think in ways forming definite, repeating patterns.
  • Changeable, through social interactions between people and groups.
  • Arbitrary, meaning that Soldiers and Marines should make no assumptions regarding what a society considers right and wrong, good and bad.
  • Internalized, in the sense that it is habitual, taken for granted, and perceived as “natural” by people within the society.

3-38. Culture might also be described as an “operational code” that is valid for an entire group of people. Culture conditions the individual’s range of action and ideas, including what to do and not do, how to do or not do it, and whom to do it with or not to do it with. Culture also includes under what circumstances the “rules” shift and change. Culture influences how people make judgments about what is right and wrong, assess what is important and unimportant, categorize things, and deal with things that do not fit into existing categories. Cultural rules are flexible in practice. For example, the kinship system of a certain Amazonian Indian tribe requires that individuals marry a cousin. However, the definition of cousin is often changed to make people eligible for marriage.

And on identity:

3-39. Each individual belongs to multiple groups, through birth, assimilation, or achievement. Each group to which individuals belong influences their beliefs, values, attitudes, and perceptions. Individuals consciously or unconsciously rank their identities into primary and secondary identities. Primary identities are frequently national, racial, and religious. In contrast, secondary identities may include such things as hunter, blogger, or coffee drinker. Frequently, individuals’ identities are in conflict; counterinsurgents can use these conflicts to influence key leaders’ decisions.

This is, of course, simultaneously reassuring and disconcerting.

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