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Culture as a basis for new intelligence practices.


Since 9/11, socio-cultural awareness is receiving increased attention within government circles. This awareness has been applied to many dimensions of national security, including threats, capabilities, intentions, preventive, protective, and predictive strategies. This article explores reasons for this increased attention as well as the ethical considerations and concerns as the significance of socio-cultural analysis increases among the Intelligence Community (IC).


Throughout history, cultural knowledge and language capabilities, along with deception and disguise, have provided outsiders with the ability to interact with, and even blend into, local populations in order to gain crucial knowledge of the thoughts, intentions, and capabilities of others. (1) In more recent times, the British use of these techniques, as played in "the Great Game" across Central Asia, became legendary and was immortalized in fiction such as Kipling's novel, Kim. (2), (3)

During the Cold War, socio-cultural awareness was overshadowed by concerns about economic power, political and military dominance, and technological superiority. (4) This by no means meant that socio-cultural perspectives were entirely ignored. The development of Soviet studies, and other areas of study and specialties, increased the capacity to analyze and interpret the multiple cultures of the Communist Bloc and provide context for interpreting ideological, political, and strategic precepts and actions. (5), (6) The concept of "strategic culture" also developed through strategic studies and gained currency in foreign policy and international relations.


The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the Soviet collapse in 1991, and the end of the Cold War to a large degree eliminated the political threat posed by the Soviet Union. While the emergence of China as a "new" peer competitor continues, the Chinese strategic threat remains far below that of the Soviet Union in its heyday.

Socio-cultural analyses also took a back seat post-1991 with emphasis on technical developments within the IC, both in terms of visibility and resource allocation. But with the end of the Cold War and the rise of asymmetric terrorist threats in the late twentieth century, the need for socio-cultural awareness increased. (7) Absent this singular (Soviet) focus, in the post-Cold War environment the IC struggled to reestablish its identity and purpose in what had become a world of multiple crises and transient threats. (8)

These new threats and crises were rising from regions and cultures around the world less familiar to Western analysts. Emerging terrorist ideologies were generally less transparent than the well-documented and established philosophies that made up Communism. Moreover, as retrospective analyses of the intelligence failures leading to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 have shown, there was an over reliance on "technical collection systems with little acknowledgement of the political/cultural context." (9)

The need for socio-cultural analysis also became a major theme in comments from military personnel returning from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Officers cited their practical experience on the ground dealing with nontraditional warfare, local populations, and inadequate cultural and linguistic knowledge. (10) A growing body of testimonials and studies citing lessons learned and recommendations for change, provided additional validation of the need for socio-cultural awareness. (11) Discussions produced ways in which intelligence support for operations (and analysis) could be improved and also generated a proof-of-concept program to place teams of cultural and "human terrain" specialists in theater to provide direct support to brigade commanders. (12), (13)

Author's Note: In this article, the phrase "socio-cultural data, analysis, and approaches" is intended to encompass both the analysis of socio-cultural data or scenarios and the employment of socio-cultural perspectives in the analysis of any type of data or scenario to gain intelligence.

The Significance of Culture in Intelligence

The term "cultural intelligence" is used frequently in the IC. Included in the meaning are three underlying tenets:

* Includes, or is informed by, socio-cultural data and their analysis.

* Must be actionable in the sense that it can be used in decisionmaking.

* Includes perspective, theory, and method derived from the social and/or behavioral sciences.

Culture as a Framework for Understanding

Many in the IC now recognize that understanding culture helps establish a context for human activity and provides key insights into the potential meaning and significance of actions. It helps analysts understand the "Why" and the "So What" of behavior. In this way, applying a socio-cultural perspective provides a framework for understanding. The ability of social and behavioral sciences to contribute to the predictive capabilities of intelligence is related to the critical factors shaping how leaders make decisions in different contexts, and which criteria should be used to select methods and circumstances for inter-group negotiations.

Understanding Intent

It is, perhaps, not the notion of cultural intelligence that is new, but its relative emphasis. It isn't al-Qa'ida itself that's the problem, it's the ideology. It seems that the threats in today's world can be defined more by intention than by capability. The difficulties in countering improvised explosive devices which are relatively crude technologically, and suicide bombers, whose lethality stems not from the sophistication of the weapon but the intensity of the bombers' commitment and our lack of understanding of the dimensions of that commitment, strongly illustrate this point. Highly motivated and focused individuals can be a significant threat without sophisticated technology. Even sophisticated technology has a social dimension. In either case, technology is knowledge put to use, and there can be no technology without technologists (people). Thus, we must turn our focus back to socio-cultural factors. During the Cold War, our adversaries' motivation and intention were well-studied and well understood. A comparable understanding of the socio-cultural context of current national security threats is just as critical to decisionmaking today.


This new focus on socio-cultural perspectives requires a different kind of data than that of interest during the Cold War. Socio-cultural data can be significantly different in kind than data collected about capabilities, technologies, or artifacts. This clearly falls into the realm of human intelligence. Some of this discipline's most valuable assets are individuals who can visually and behaviorally blend into that neighborhood.

The emphasis on human intelligence raises interesting questions about the data and associated analytic tools. Cultural data most often collected are narrative and qualitative in nature. (14) If analytic tools are computational, data may need to be translated into a form that can be processed. While this is often possible, analysts need to be aware of the limitations and constraints of such translations and understand the costs and benefits of these types of approaches.

The question arises as to whether data must be quantifiable. Computational models, because they must use quantified data, often use surrogates for qualitative data. However, surrogates may have varying levels of validity according to the standards of different social science disciplines (for example, the number of times one goes to the mosque is not necessarily a valid measure of intensity of religious belief) and users of these models and their outputs must consider these issues and their potential impact on analyses. The growing interest in cultural intelligence highlights the need to examine underlying assumptions about the value, utility, and interpretation of both qualitative and quantitative data.

It is clear that collection of qualitative data is labor intensive. This methodological issue is a challenge that should be addressed by training and the development of collection protocols, such as interview guidelines.

Cultural data also have a temporal dimension. Collectors spend a great deal of time establishing socio-cultural baselines in communities. Establishing these baselines allows collectors and analysts to recognize significant change over time. Understanding the cultural context of these changes is what allows them to grasp the significance of the change.

There is also a spatial dimension. Socio-cultural data collection and analysis should be driven not only by intelligence requirements, but also by an assessment of local contextual factors. Communities do not live in isolation and individuals can move in and out of communities. Moreover, social structures, such as kinship relations or tribal identity, can have significance across community and geographical boundaries. Once again, a holistic systems view must encompass both these socio-cultural dimensions.

The Path Forward

In its 2003 report, the Defense Science Board Task Force on Discriminate Use of Force concluded that we need a "comprehensive, long-term, and coherent effort to understand adversaries in a systemic way," and that this would require models that account for not only physical dimensions, but "softer" social and cultural dimensions as well. The Task Force also noted that our capabilities in this area are immature. (15) The Defense Science Board's 2006 Summer Study on 21st Century Science and Technology Vectors places social science foremost among the four operational capabilities and enabling technologies needed to support future military missions, and emphasizes that:
 Perhaps most central is to gain deeper understanding
 Of how individuals, groups, societies and nations
 Behave and then use this information to (1) improve
 the performance of U.S. forces through continuous
 education and training and (2) shape behaviors of
 others in pre-, intra- and post-conflict situations. Key
 enablers include immersive gaming environments,
 automated language processing and human,
 social, cultural and behavior modeling. (16)

Ethical Considerations

Several social science disciplines have raised ethical concerns about the collection and use of socio-cultural knowledge in the national security environment. (17) The American Psychological Association, for example, has issued a formal statement on the ethics of the use of psychology and psychologists in interrogations. (18) The American Anthropological Association has established an adhoc commission to investigate the implications of its members' participation in national security activities, and a heated internal debate is underway. Members of business and non-governmental organization communities, as well as private citizens, have also raised concerns regarding ethical issues resulting from policies and activities affecting local populations. (19) The IC needs a more sophisticated understanding of the history and context of ethical issues as they apply to national security, and to remain informed about new and evolving developments in this arena.


There is keen interest in, and need for socio-cultural data, analysis, and approaches in a wide range of critical national security endeavors. This need is increasingly recognized in many government circles. However, issues that need to be resolved are those regarding tools, including the development and use of computational models; methods, including issues relating to data collection, analysis, and dissemination; ethics; and the development of cross-community and interdisciplinary ties. Methodological rigor, development of best practices, engagement of a wide variety of disciplines, and interaction with open-source communities are also essential issues to pursue.


(1.) R.M. Sheldon, R.M. Espinage in the Ancient World: An Annotated Bibliography of Books and Articles in Westenrn Languages (Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, Inc, 2008).

(2.) Peter Hopkirk, The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia (New York: Kodansha International, Ltd., 1994).

(3.) Rudyard Kipling, Kim (New York: Doubleday, Page, and Co., 1901).

(4.) Benjamin Frankel, Ed. Roots of Realism (Portland, OR: Frank Cass, 1996).

(5.) Victoria Bonnell and George Breslauer, "Soviet and Post-Soviet Area Studies," The Politics of Knowledge: Area Studies and the Disciplines, Ed. David L. Szanton (Berkeley: University of California Press/University of California International and Area Studies, 2004), 217-61.

(6.) Jeffrey Lantis, Strategic Culture: From Clausewitz to Constructivism, prepared for the Defense Threat Reduction Agency Comparative Strategic Curriculum (October 2006): 3-12.

(7.) Austin Turk, "Sociology of Terrorism," Annual Review of Sociology 30 (2004): 271-286.

(8.) Richard Kerr, Thomas Wolfe, Rebecca Donegan, and Aris Pappas, "Issues for the US Intelligence Community: Collection and Analysis on Iraq," Studies in Intelligence 49, 3(2005): 152-161.

(9.) Ibid.

(10.) David Petraeus, "Learning Counterinsurgency: Observations from Soldiering in Iraq," Military Review (January-February 2006): 2-12;

(11.) Sarah Archer, "Civilian and Military Cooperation in Complex Humanitarian Operations," Military Review (March-April 2003), 32-

(12.) Jacob Kipp, Lester Grau, Karl Prinslow, and Captain Don Smith, "The Human Terrain System: A CORDS for the 21st Century" Military Review (September-October 2006), 108-111.

(13.) Paul C. Nutt, "Comparing Public and Private Sector Decision-Making Practices," Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory 16 (2006): 291-315.

(14.) Russell Bernard, Research Methods in Anthropology (Walnut Creek, CA: Alta Mira Press, 2001).

(15.) Report of the Defense Science Board Task Force on Discriminate Use of Force, Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, July 2003, 1-48.

(16.) 2007 Report of the Defense Science Board 2006 Summer Study on 21st Century Science and Technology Vectors (Volume 1, Main Report), Office of the Secretary of Defense, February 2007, 15.

(17.) Olivia Moorehead-Slaughter, "Ethics and National Security," Monitor on Psychology 37, no. 4 (Washington: American Psychological Association, 2006), 60-66.

(18.) American Psychological Association, "Report of the American Psychological Association Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security," June 2005 at

(19.) See recent issues of Anthropology News.

(20.) Asian Peoples Security Network, "Human Security, not National Security-A Call to Action, Declaration of the Regional NGO Workshop on Democracy and Security of the People of the Asian Region," Nakhon Nayok, Thailand, August 2002, 23-25.

by Boshra El-Guindy, PhD

Boshra El-Guindy earned his MA and PhD in Applied Linguistics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Illinois. He also holds an MA in Education and Psychology from Ain Shams University in Cairo, Egypt and Graduate Diplomas in ESL from the American University in Cairo, Egypt and Colchester English Study Centre in Colchester, UK. His interests and expertise are in language testing and assessment; cross-cultural communication; bilingualism and bilingual education; English as an international language, and comparative discourse.
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Author:El-Guindy, Boshra
Publication:Military Intelligence Professional Bulletin
Date:Jan 1, 2012
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