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27 April 2007

Interdisciplinary approaches in intelligence studies

We are amused to note the following critical commentary regarding our recent discussion of network analysis techniques within intelligence applications, with thanks to Zenpundit for providing the link and his own material of interest to spark the discussion. We are grateful for the anonymous writer’s time and effort spent cursorily Googling in support of his statements. We would like to point out, however, that human factors as usually expressed in academic research – and the cited searches – focuses largely on human computer interaction, design and usability, and related ergonomics issues, which is quite a different usage than found in the intelligence community (at least when referring to analytic tradecraft and key accounts).

We welcome the feedback, however, and might suggest that he who finds fault might find productive work – perhaps an annotated bibliography as literature review. We are certain that there are more than a few reputable journals which would be happy to publish such a piece. These options do presuppose the article will survive the process of peer review by those raised in the Anacapa and NIM tradition, or those grappling with difficult related visualization problems. If not, we might offer space in this humble forum if the material passes referent muster, although we always encourage other contributors to enter the online conversation with their own blogs.

The anonymous commentator’s criticism does unintentionally highlight one of the more enduring and difficult challenges of intelligence studies. While the intelligence community often borrows from other fields of study – and in fact can even be said to have been born from the bastardization of various social science disciplines – it lacks a great deal of the survey and validation processes that have marked adoption in other fields. As the above example illustrates, it often even lacks a common language which may be extended across the boundaries of individual agencies or organizational cultures, let alone to the wider academic and professional world outside of its boundaries. Whether any specific interdisciplinary approach has been utilized or not in analytic tradecraft application against key targets or accounts, the lessons learned from the attempt are often never captured, or in the rare instances where they have been captured, may not be well promulgated (for any of a variety of reasons.)

The work of intelligence is sufficiently different in most applications that interdisciplinary examples do not translate well in direct transfer, but rather require substantial transformative work to match first principals to desired outcomes. This can be very rewarding work, but it is by no means easy – particularly as the bulk of this labor must be done by those assigned to the account at the substantive level. While the contributions of the methodologists are key to these processes (when an entity is fortunate enough to have at hand trained and formally designated methodologists, itself not a given), it is the great lament of community professionalization since Sherman Kent’s first call for a literature of intelligence that the hard work of tradecraft building will always take second seat to the business of actually doing intelligence and responding to decision-maker needs. In part, it is because of that continuing dynamic that efforts such as this blog exists at all.

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