By Liz Warren-Pederson
In military theaters including Afghanistan and Iraq, there is increasing emphasis on completing U.S. Department of Defense missions and strategic objectives without the use of force, through cooperation and collaboration with local populations.
“We can equip soldiers with the best technology there is, but if they don’t understand the cultural environment and the people, they will make mistakes,” said Judee Burgoon, professor and director of human communication at the Center for the Management of Information.
The military has supported a variety of programs devoted to understanding the influence of social and cultural factors on human behavior, but no one modeling framework has been broadly adopted.
Burgoon recently chaired a subcommittee of the National Research Council’s Board on Human-Systems Integration that convened researchers in an attempt to do just that.
“What we did was bring together top people in a variety of fields to discuss the issues and spark new avenues for research,” Burgoon said. The conference included practitioners and researchers in anthropology, sociology, criminology, communications, modeling, and neural, cognitive, and social psychology.
Specifically, the workshop sought to identify the types of data needed to provide a complete picture of the cultural terrain of a given region, the frameworks and databases in use by the military in analyses of sociocultural behavior, and methods and tools that can be used to aggregate sociocultural data from disparate sources into a meaningful whole.
For example, Burgoon explained, one method the military has tried is to provide soldiers with cards that summarize key phrases and important cultural background about a place. Another method imbedded sociologists or cultural anthropologists with troops on the ground. But these methods haven’t been enough to tackle the complex, interrelated issues troops face in theatres of war—let alone when they are working on humanitarian assistance or disaster relief efforts.
Burgoon and her committee developed an agenda of workshop presentations, which the interdisciplinary group in attendance then interpreted on the basis of potential
application to long-term strategic national interests and immediate crisis needs in Iraq and Afghanistan.
McClelland Professor of MIS Hsinchun Chen was among the panelists at the event. His presentation focused on how to identify dark networks of criminals and terrorist organizations—the type of challenge the military faces in a wartime environment in which the lines between civilian and combatant are blurred. The research is part of Chen’s Dark Web project in the Artificial Intelligence Lab.
A complete report from the two-day conference, held in Washington, D.C., in August is now available online (requires completing an online form to access).