Operationalizing the Science of the Human Domain


This article was based on research completed this year for the 2019 Special Operations Research Association Symposium. How can CA improve strategic performance in the Human Domain? Dr Nesic and Lt Col David make some bold assertions and recommendations below.

Originally published by Small Wars Journal here.

Operationalizing the Science of the Human Domain

The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn. - Alvin Toffler

Woven through contemporary debate are threads of different schools of thought that cross but lack a central thread which closes the seam. One school of thought sees a return of great power competition and argues for an emphasis on lethality and warfighting competency. Another sees a change in the character of conflict and competition where adversaries pursue their ends in the space between peace and war. Above all, and critical to stitching multiple paradigms together, is the one which is eternal in all war and immutable—the human domain. War is always a political act done by humans. Regardless of which school of thought gains the most currency in national security debates, Special Operations Forces (SOF) must continue to build capability and capacity to scientifically understand, accurately interpret and effectively influence human behavior. It is the SOF operator who will be on the ground early, working with an indigenous populace, learning to understand a given situation in order to provide critical context to both civilian and military leadership. SOF must be able to navigate complex social systems and operate at a speed that creates critical decision space while ensuring their actions don’t make matters worse.

Recent history in Iraq and Afghanistan have illuminated critical gaps in this capability. In his book No Good Men Among the Living, Anand Gopal points out special forces’ activity early on in the war that not only helped the wrong people, but rather, perpetuated a deep sense of injustice that fueled an insurgency and undermined the mission.[1] With a poor understanding of the local dynamics between families and tribes, SOF were manipulated in targeting different warlord competitors and not real threats to the state. The mere mention of Al Qaeda and a target packet was built to action the next period of darkness. In The Thistle and the Drone, Dr. Akbar Ahmed, concluded that many times these targeted groups or actors may have been mislabeled as terrorists when in reality they were actually championing peace and fighting repression.[2] Ahmed attributes the failure of the United States and Pakistan to deal with transnational terrorists to their ignorance of tribal lifestyles, patterns of behavior, and customs.[3]

SOF performance improved over the years but shortfalls in training and education remain. The current level of understanding in the complexity of the human domain lacks true scientific depth and application. Education in the emerging multidisciplinary science of the human domain will enhance SOF’s ability to gain indigenous knowledge and enable improved performance in the conduct of warfare in the 21st century across all domains and throughout the spectrum of conflict.

This article highlights the essential components of the science of the human domain currently in development and lays out an analytical framework that SOF can use to develop these new skills. It begins with (1) methods to analyze the operational environment by leveraging both big and thick data to map human geography then (2) reviews ways to navigate a kaleidoscope of complex psycho-social and cultural landscapes, and (3) concludes that these new skills from conflict science to assess complex social dynamics among people cannot be sacrificed for the pursuit of the changes only in the physical domains. While many in the defense department continue to chase technological panaceas, scientists and scholars have declared that the social sciences are the science of the twenty-first century.[4] One general warns that we are entering an epochal shift where the controlling amplification of competition and conflict will be human and biological rather than organizational or technological.[5] The essence of complex modern warfare continues to occur among the people and will continue to be driven by the people. As such, SOF will always need the scientific ability to understand, work with, and influence, people.

Big Data or Thick Data?

Information is exploding. The amount of information available exceeds human capacity. Enter big data. The in-vogue concept of big data appears to be the solution to many problems facing business, industry, and the military. Big data may be useful but alone is insufficient to address the complexities of the human domain. Scholars and development practitioners find an “eclectic combination” of diverse theoretical perspectives and research methods improve the chances of revealing hidden connections and dynamic patterns not visible with a single theoretical lens.[6] Improved explanatory power is the result of using both big data and thick data.

The world is entering an age of data driven decision-making. An increasing surplus of digital breadcrumbs are becoming more available for analytical consumption.[7] These large data sets of patterns, preferences, and other variables enable an examination of society in more fine-grained detail.[8] Moreover, the combination of data and machine learning is drastically improving predictive analytics. The choices of groups and decision mechanisms of masses help explain human behavior and at times, forecast emergent trends. Pentland claims this collective intelligence is behind dynamic social effects that influence our individual decisions and drive economic bubbles, political revolutions, and the internet economy.”[9] In the Merriam-Webster dictionary big data is defined as an accumulation of data that is too large and complex for processing by traditional management tools.

From predicting teenage pregnancies to stopping the spread of diseases, big data is rapidly changing the world in a significant way.[10] The effects of these changes are yet to be fully recognized. In 2012, the World Bank declared the “pace at which mobile phones spread globally is unmatched in the history of technology.”[11] In studying areas of limited statehood, scholars found that the information communications technology (ICT) is filling voids in governance.[12] The use of ICT and the spread of information prevented governments from controlling the narrative. For example, Moscow was unable to cover up the crisis of the 2010 wildfires given the publics’ awareness of mortality rates and the ubiquitous communication mediums to share this information widely. ICT enabled a non-state collective response and undermined the state’s attempt to present a rosy account of the situation.[13]

In addition to mobile phone and ICT, the proliferation of other sensors, provides a torrent of data and enable collective action. Web connected cameras, bio-sensing devices, and the confluence of other technologies aid in the collection of critical data which have aided in the accountability of government to reduce corruption, limit abuses of power, conduct crisis-mapping, strengthen civil society, and improved responses to humanitarian crises.[14] Big data is a powerful tool to understand what has been happening through quantitative explanation but thick data is a complimentary method to explaining the why.

Thick data is qualitative information that provides insights into the everyday emotional lives of people. It goes beyond big data to explain why people have certain preferences, the reasons they behave the way they do, why certain trends stick and so on.[15] Thick data is derived from experts adept at observing humans’ behavior and underlying motivations. They span the fields of anthropology, ethnography, and must grow to include SOF. Analyzing thick data illumines emergent human dynamics not immediately visible with big data alone.[16] Military forces can be more effective by understanding the emotional and visceral context in which indigenous populations interpret their activities if they are educated and trained to operationalize the conflict science which will enable them to properly collect and analyze this enormously complex context of human dynamics.

Just like in business, organizations want to build stronger ties with stakeholders and they need stories to connect. Stories contain emotions and narrative.[17] No large quantitative data set can deliver this context. It takes specialized and patient applied researchers to provide this critical insight which allows units and organizations to adapt as circumstances change. SOF need this capability.

The outsourcing or ceding of complex problems to machines renders an incomplete sight picture. Multi-method approaches using thick data and big data empower successful strategies. The table below shows the characteristics of both kinds of data approaches.

Thick and Big Data

Leveraging thick and big data unlocks explanatory power leading to detailed causality and a richer quantitative and qualitative understanding of the human narrative. Christakis and Fowler assert the linking of the study of individuals to the study of groups help explain the human experience.[18] Their research reveals how social networks drive and influence virtually every aspect of our lives, many times in a subconscious way. Understanding the implications of these connections and networks are becoming more important for both civilian and military organizations. Most importantly, it is becoming abundantly clearer that successful use of these data approaches will require increased cooperation and engagement across the enterprise and with unusual partners.

In her book, Peers Inc., Robin Chase emphasizes the value of cooperation and engagement amongst non-traditional partnerships forming a new collaborative economy.[19] She explains how the best of corporate power (industrial capacity and resources to scale) combines with people power (localization, specialization, and customization) to harness resources in new ways and creates new rules for value creation. Chase’s company Zipcar and Uber are examples of these types of businesses. Cooperation is key.

The talent and skills to effectively harvest the vast oceans of data is not immediately available or evenly distributed across defense. Hence, engagement and cooperation with external elements is crucial for future interventions and requires mutually beneficial relationships. There must be incentives for outside agencies to partner with DoD and this leads to a key recommendation. SOF must leverage every opportunity to connect and collaborate in open source mediums with civilian and military organizations to gather the data needed to foster a deeper understanding. It is this leve