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25 April 2007

Network analysis in historical contexts

We have long been proponents of social (and other) network analysis techniques for selected accounts and targets, especially given our usual focus on transnational issues and other targets which are inherently network-based.

We have struggled however to adequately capture the mature professional’s understanding of target networks in key current incarnations – particularly those related to covert structures of criminality, terrorism, and of the illicit markets – in order to convey the skillset necessary for new analysts to interpret dynamics and events within those networks.

There have been a number of excellent studies into the subject from a variety of perspectives, which have tended to produce some unique and often counterintuitive results regarding specific targets. Among these is Dr. Sageman’s Understanding Terror Networks. (In particular, the author’s summary presentation, frequently given in professional circles in the area, is not to be missed.)

However, for as good as much of the current literature relating social network analysis methodology to intelligence applications is when regarding specific targets, there is a distinct paucity of material which examines and evaluates the tradecraft itself. What work has been done focuses on mathematical theory and computer sciences aspects – critically important in its own context, but less than useful in helping analysts assigned to pol-mil, human factors or tactical / operational support roles. (The best of the computer science research in the area may be found at Carnegie Mellon’s CASOS.)

In a way, it is helpful that the next generation of analysts and officers will have emerged from an intensely network social environment, and are intuitively familiar with mediated interactions and group dynamics. However, this is a very specific milieu, and helping these analysts achieve a wider basis for understanding of similar behaviors in other contexts - free of cultural and other cognitive biases - will remain a challenge.

Thus we are grateful to see the following insightful comment by COL Lang regarding the social dynamics of the current security surge in Baghdad. We do note based on our experiences in theater that the influence of the mukhtar has been pervasive for far longer than has been recognized during recent operations, but it is good to see the intellectual constructs for analyzing the sources and limits of that influence propagating more widely. The lessons here of history pose a useful line of inquiry for those seeking to comprehend alternative viewpoints regarding social and political constructs for security and support in unstable and conflict area environments.

It is perhaps for this reason we have seen medievalists (even literature majors) do so well in selected intelligence units, when their more traditionally trained political science counterparts fail. After all, the interpretation of events and personalities of Renaissance Europe, or the Three Kingdoms period in China, demands very similar skills and awareness.

In any event, the application of this kind of analysis goes far beyond Iraq, and will be one of the core competencies demanded of new analysts in the remainder of the Long War and in future wars to come.

h/t John Robb, who cites this a supporting example of the breakdown of the Westphalian ruleset

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