Gonzalez Traverses Human Terrain

By Tory Brykalski - From British colonial projects to U.S. combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, social scientists have often provided armed forces with strategic guidance and intelligence. This controversial complicity reverberates through contemporary social science. On October 15, 2015, at the invitation of the UC Davis Militarization Research Group, Roberto Gonzalez outlined one recent example: the U.S. Army’s Human Terrain System (HTS). A professor of anthropology at San Jose State University, Gonzalez explained that, though the program was shut down last year, its legacy persists.

Designed in 2005, the multimillion-dollar project had an intriguing premise: the sociocultural insights of academics embedded into U.S. armed forces in Afghanistan and Iraq could help commanders on the ground to defeat insurgents and cooperate with local communities. Most importantly, a better understanding of local cultures (the “human terrain”) could lead to more effective counterinsurgency efforts.

Criticism and debate

HTS attracted criticism from anthropologists in particular, inciting a report from the American Anthropological Association claiming that anthropology and military intelligence are fundamentally incompatible. “When ethnographic investigation is determined by military missions, not subject to external review,” the report says, “where data collection occurs in the context of war, it can no longer be considered a legitimate professional exercise of anthropology.”

After a slew of critiques and nearly a decade of heated debate—not to mention widespread reports of mismanagement and abuse—HTS was quietly shut down last year.

Willing collaborators

HTS is not exceptional, however. Programs like the U.S. Army's Global Cultural Knowledge Network and private contractors’ human terrain programs—as well as predictive surveillance systems like DARPA—continue to make use of social scientists. The persistence of these programs, Gonzalez suggested, is troubling. What is it about social science research that is so valuable to the U.S. Army? Why are social scientists so willing to collaborate with military operations?

For Gonzalez, HTS, its spinoffs, and recent efforts in sociocultural modeling and forecasting all raise questions about the social contexts that make so-called computational counterinsurgency not only thinkable, but desirable. These social contexts, he suggested, resemble other systems of domination and manipulation—healthcare, finance, energy, food production, and genetic engineering, to name a few—that also make use of social scientists.


Ultimately, Gonzalez explained, it comes down to funding and the structure of the university. When academic departments become separated to the extent that social scientists can no longer see the connections between, say, ethnography and the political economy of war, or between linguistics and the development of big data, the ability to adequately address, understand, and intervene in such systems is lost.

It is precisely here, however, in the interstices of departments and disciplines, that collaborative social scientists have an opportunity—and perhaps an obligation—to make a difference.

Learn more about Roberto Gonzalez and his work.