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Social Science Research Assists Navigation of ‘Human Terrain’

By Navy Lt. Jennifer Cragg
Special to American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 18, 2009 – The Defense Department is funding research to help warfighters learn and adapt to the social and cultural norms in their deployment areas, a Navy program officer said in a May 13 webcast of “Armed with Science: Research and Applications for the Modern Military” on Pentagon Web Radio.

“It's been a shift in the thinking of the Department of Defense away from conventional warfare practices to the asymmetric and irregular warfare environment, which requires our warfighters to interact with the native population at a much more intense level,” said Ivy Estabrooke, program manager for the human, social, cultural and behavioral sciences in the expeditionary and maneuver warfare and combating terrorism department at the Office of Naval Research.

This investment in social science research is driven by the current warfighting environment in Iraq and Afghanistan, which requires more direct interactions with the general population, said Estabrooke, who holds a doctorate in neuroscience.

“We are funding work that will enable the warfighter to learn cross-cultural skills more easily, more quickly, so that when they’re being sent to a new area of operations they can quickly learn what the social and cultural norms are and what appropriate and acceptable behavior will be in those areas,” Estabrooke said.

This research is part of a larger Defense Department initiative that includes the Office of the Secretary of Defense's human, social, cultural and behavioral modeling program; the director of Defense Research and Engineering; the Office of Naval Research, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research and the Army Research Institute.

Joining Estabrooke on the webcast was Elisa Bienenstock, chief human science officer at NSI Inc. and adjunct faculty member at Georgetown University, who said social science methodology is particularly challenging in the battlefield because gathering data often interferes with the environment being studied.

“The problems that we're dealing with are intrinsically hard, … even under the best of circumstances,” said Bienenstock, who holds a doctorate in mathematical sociology. “What makes it more difficult is that the answers were needed yesterday, not tomorrow.”

As a sociologist, Bienenstock has spent a number of years researching social network analysis to bring about a better understanding of how culture and communications affect the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. She said that as the conflicts developed, the Defense Department didn’t have the tools or expertise to understand the diverse communities and cultures.

“As a sociologist, I was being called on to try to figure out a way that the [Defense Department] could leverage some of the useful tools and methods and theories in the social sciences,” Bienenstock said.

Both women added that this type of research is multidisciplinary and requires a full range of researchers.

“We need to bring to the table sociologists and anthropologists and political scientists and computational scientists and modelers,” Estabrooke said. “Everyone speaks a different language almost, so bringing these teams together and getting them to work well together takes some time and some effort.”

Office of Naval Research officials hope to connect with a diverse pool of researchers through several outreach efforts. In June, ONR will release a broad agency announcement that seeks ideas for how to better address the challenges in the human, social, cultural and behavioral sciences domain. In August, the secretary of defense's HSCB Modeling Program will host a conference aimed at uniting current and prospective grantees, members of the operational community and a number of government agencies that fund social science research.

“[It’s] an opportunity for researchers, both at universities and from companies, from industry, to submit their ideas of how they can address the challenges in the human, social, cultural and behavioral domain,” Estabrooke said.

Bienenstock emphasized that these outreach efforts could play an important part in bridging the gap between social scientists and the military.

“To most effectively engage social scientists, it will require outreach that alerts the social science community about the existence of these funding and networking opportunities,” she said.

(Navy Lt. Jennifer Cragg serves in the Defense Media Activity’s emerging media directorate.)

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Armed with Science: Research and Applications for the Modern Military

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