Social networks and counter-insurgency

The New Yorker has a fascinating article on a new generation of anthropologist military strategists, such as David Kilcullen and Montgomery McFate, who argue that social networks, not ideologies, are key to understanding terrorist campaigns.

Like Kilcullen, [McFate] was drawn to the study of human conflict and also its reality: at Yale, where she received a doctorate, her dissertation was based on several years she spent living among supporters of the Irish Republican Army and then among British counterinsurgents. In Northern Ireland, McFate discovered something very like what Kilcullen found in West Java: insurgency runs in families and social networks, held together by persistent cultural narratives…

Similarly, Kilkullen has drawn on his own military experiences and research on the role of social groups in insurgencies, and is now responsible for writing counter-insurgency guidelines for deployed soldiers.

One of the most influential sociology papers ever written was Mark Granovetter’s The Strength of Weak Ties (review article at this pdf) which looked at how people were connected in social networks and how this facilitated information exchange, and, consequently, individual goal attainment.

Granovetter demonstrated that ‘strong ties’ (i.e. family and close friends) were actually less important in social networks for getting things done than ‘weak ties’ (i.e. acquaintances) because ‘weak ties’ tend to be people who have different and diverse resources that aren’t in the immediate social group.

This led to the realisation that group structure was important, and, crucially, that these could be analysed using the mathematical tools of graph theory.

Social network theory is now an important and growing area of social psychology and understanding how information flows through social network is thought to be key for making sense of how groups work, co-operate, expand and influence others.

Importantly, this has meant the individualist approach of traditional social psychology (‘how do social groups influence the individual’) and the computational approach of social network theory (‘how does social structure influence information flow’) can be powerfully combined.

Kilkullen argues that terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda need to be understood in terms of how their information strategy is being implemented through their social networks, and how they are attempting to recruit collaborators to further their routes of communication.

The article discusses how this has affected US counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency strategy – from global policy to field manuals for company captains.

Perhaps, one take-away message from the piece is just how important social science is becoming to military forces of all persuasions as they increasingly fight through communities rather than for them.

Link to New Yorker article ‘Knowing the Enemy’.

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