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The Social Science of War

Briefly, here is a juxtaposition of posts worth looking at that portray war through the lens of the social scientist:

Rethinking SecurityThe Study of War as A Social Science

…Rather, it would be better to re-concieve the study of strategic affairs as a multi-disciplinary social science major combining sociology, international relations, philosophy, political science, cognitive science, economics, history, and “pure” military theory. This would be intellectually rigorous enough to banish forever the stereotype of the armchair general and the wargamer.

I see learning about strategy in itself as the key aim of such a curriculum–the goal would be to produce a student able to either apply his or her learnings in a think-tank or government, join the armed forces, come up with reasonable anti-war critiques as an activist, resolve conflict as a humanitarian, or apply strategy in the corporate world.

War as a social science akin to sociology or economics would bring empirical and quantitative rigor into the study of military history and affairs on the undergraduate level as well as a focus on the mechanics of war (tactics, operational art, strategy, and grand strategy) rarely seen outside of a Professional Military Education (PME).

SWJ Blog –  The Genetic Roots of the War on Terrorism

….In the article, titled “A Natural History of Peace,” Stanford Professor Robert M. Sapolsky compares and contrasts human aggressive tendencies with well-documented propensities for violence among several species of primates, and develops a case suggesting that human aggression of the kind that produces warfare mainly stems from the genetic impulses rooted in humans as primates (not a new suggestion of itself). But more significantly, he offers proof extracted from a now robust body of field work that even strong genetic tendencies for violence in certain species of primates can be mitigated by exposure to the equivalent of “cultural” forces. He singles out from the body of such observations the case history of one group of baboons (a particularly aggressive and violent species of primate) that he calls the Forest Troop, the intensely aggressive behavior of which was ameliorated after exposure to the more peaceful and tolerant “mores” of another baboon troop of an identical species with which the Forest Troop had come in contact. He concludes by asserting that “some primate species can make peace despite violent traits that seem built into their natures.” He goes on to muse, “The challenge now is to figure out under what conditions that can happen, and whether humans can manage the trick themselves.”

Sapolsky’s argument frames the issues associated with the current global conflict in which the United States is now engaged in a potentially very useful light: as a biological problem best understood and dealt with using means specifically tailored to deal with human genetic tendencies in order to promote cooperation and tolerance instead of competitive violence. This stands in contrast to the current approach which appears to assume that the conflict mainly results from a combination of cultural and economic factors that can be dealt with by a strategy that combines selected violence, targeted monetary investments mixed, and cross cultural messages through so called strategic communications.

The Social Sciences are a powerful but fractionating, reifying lens. Individually, they unearth certain aspects of large and highly complex phenomena albeit at the cost, at times, of distorting the proportional importance to the whole of the aspect that the social scientist chooses to study. The sociobiological perspective is a radical and controversial one but it is a position that is far more open to empirical investgation in a scientific sense than are many traditional components of strategic theorizing.  At Rethinking Security, Adam wisely tries to balance the heavy load of quantitative methods in his proposed program with at least a few qualitative disciplines; input from military practitioners and security experts would also be helpful to the prospective student in this regard as well.

12 Responses to “The Social Science of War”

  1. Tim Stevens Says:

    Which, of course, is the brief behind CTLab.

  2. A.E. Says:

    Yah, you Brits seem to have managed this problem much better than we have, what with UCL’s Complex Terrain Lab and King’s College War Studies.

  3. A.E. Says:

    Makes me positively jealous.

  4. YT Says:

    A.E. : The Brits love history. While the majority of youths in the US… well what on earth are they readin’ these days? News ’bout Lindsay Lohan & her girlfriend?

  5. Michael A. Innes Says:

    Ahem: I’m Canadian. Maybe that explains CTlab’s hybrid aproach.


  6. zen Says:

    Hi Tim – Fixed the link. not sure what’s going on – received a script error when I first edited the comment. Bizarre. Maybe a WordPress issue today.
    Hi YT,
    Public education in the U.S. is systemically hostile to the teaching of good history for a host of reasons. Though few reasons, outside of those given by PC ideologues, are anti-history per se. Mostly, we are now two generations removed from school administrators who had any kind of decent education in history themselves and as a result, they don’t prioritize it when hiring, purchasing books or writing curriculum. Or at times, even recognize it.
    Students in American secondary schools do very little serious non-fiction required reading of any kind outside of AP, IB or gifted programs and the heavily female teaching staff  ( running near 90 % on average) recoil from themes of conflict, war, heroism or politics outside of a watery multiculturalism in their book selections. Were it not for Shakespeare, average students might not get exposure to these things at all.  Obviously, I’m generalizing here, there are great examples of history teachers or of women in the English classroom who have their students tackle "difficult" books with "masculine" themes but they are very atypical these days. The institutional focus of public education under NCLB is entirely on basic literacy skills for the bottom quartile of students to pass standardized tests.
    CTLab is evolving very well IMHO – Mike and Tim are excellent stewards ( or perhaps shepherds is a better descriptor).

  7. tdaxp Says:

    AE’s post is just fantastic.  Exceptionally well thought out. 

    It would be interesting to see someone come up with a list of a fictional War Science curriculum! 😀

  8. zen Says:

    Hi Dan,
    In the 19th century, there was a heavy does of mathematics and geometry in military academies. Many impressive military leaders came out of the artillery, which required math ( Napoleon, Stonewall Jackson to name a few) – probably because it was the realistic opportunity for non-elite folks to receive some higher education/critical thinking. Most ppl simply weren’t going to be reading Plato or Virgil in the original languages but equations were there for them.

  9. A.E. Says:


    I’m actually in the midst of doing so.

  10. Tim Stevens Says:

    Check out ‘Fights of Fancy’ (http://www.amazon.com/Fights-Fancy-Conflict-Science-Fiction/dp/0820315338).

  11. Tim Stevens Says:

    Thanks for fixing, and cheers for the CTlab big-up. Cat-herding’s not too bad really.

  12. Seerov Says:

    First I want to say that Zen’s comments relating to history education in America’s schools is right on.  In one school district, high school kids were asked to name the 10 most famous Americas who were not President, and the results were horrifying. (1)

    Next, it seems as if military education as been very technology and engineering centric for a long time.  West Point requires a certain amount of engineering classes even for history or english majors.  I assume the logic here is that higher math and engineering thinking is optimal for problem solving?  This isn’t a terrible idea, but does keep out people who may be good officers but who aren’t good at math.  More importantly, the social sciences offer insight on human behavior, which is obviously something we need in the current threat environment. 

    Today we need officers who’ve conducted ethnographic research, just as much (or even more) than we need engineers.  This is easier said than done, as the anthropology community is probably the most closed minded academic field out of all the social sciences.  But the skills they offer are undeniable. 

    I’m still trying to figure out why there isn’t a think tank for tactical and operational studies?  There are strategic type think tanks which retired officers work in, but nothing for Company Commanders or SNCO’s.  This needs to change, as there needs to be studies conducted at Battalion level and lower.  There needs to be a mix of scholars and educated soldiers, using the social sciences to answer questions.  Managers and MBA folks should be heavily involved too. 

    (1)   http://www.usatoday.com/news/education/2008-02-03-most-famous-americans_N.htm


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