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Cultural Topography: A New Research Tool for Intelligence Analysis

Jeannie Johnson and Matthew Berrett

American decisionmakers have shown a need for help in isolating and understanding the complexity, weight, and relevance of culture as they consider foreign policy initiatives.

In the third edition of his “History of the World,” J.M. Roberts notes that “Historical inertia is easily underrated… the historical forces molding the outlook of Americans, Russians, and Chinese for centuries before the words capitalism and communism were invented are easy still to overlook.” The authors of this article offer a variation on Roberts’s view: Cultural inertia is easily underrated, and American decisionmakers have shown a need for help in isolating and understanding the complexity, weight, and relevance of culture as they consider foreign policy initiatives.

The view we bring to this discussion is not an anthropologist’s but that of intelligence analysts—one who left the field for academe and one who has continued in the field as an economic analyst and as a senior manager of analysts of all disciplines for a decade. My analytic and management positions have repeatedly brought me into indirect and sometimes direct interaction with top-level US decisionmakers including several US presidents. As I witnessed these decisionmakers in action and tried to help deliver insights they needed, I came to conclude that the “inertia of culture” was often underrated in their assessments of opportunities and obstacles, in part because few if any of their information sources offered a systematic and persuasive methodology for addressing this inertia and its implications for their policy options. I also came to conclude from direct observation and some readings in the academic field of strategic culture that America’s cultural view features the notion that Americans can achieve anything, anywhere—including going to the moon—if they just invest enough resources.

This notion is understandable but perhaps hazardous. America’s remarkable history of achievement includes being the first nation actually to go to the moon, but the we-can-do-anything part of American self-identity also leads some to argue still that US failures in Vietnam were not the consequence of a poorly managed investment; they were the consequences of investing too little. How many resources and over what period would have been sufficient to strike “success”—particularly if success would have required changes in Vietnam at the cultural level? I have rarely seen American policymakers ask “Will our desired foreign policy outcome require change over there at the cultural level? Over what period and with what resources is such cultural change achievable?”

The more I observed the policy-intelligence dynamic, the more I perceived a need for an analytic construct designed exclusively to illustrate clearly and persuasively the inertia of culture. Cultural influences are typically touched on within US Intelligence Community (IC) analyses as peripheral factors, described with passing references, and often in general and superficial terms. Although the IC is full of world-class expertise on foreign peoples, places, and organizations, this industry rarely isolates and illustrates culture as a factor deserving its own sophisticated and thorough treatment.

To remedy this deficiency, I teamed with Jeannie Johnson—now with Utah State University—who had brought her academic training in strategic culture to a pursuit similar to mine. For some time she had been amassing training ideas in the area of cultural analysis for IC experts, and our combined efforts, along with significant input from other members of my office, 3 trial runs of intelligence products, research, and continued refinements over the past four years have resulted in a process we call “Cultural Mapping.” This process, or methodology, is designed to isolate and assess cultural factors at play on issues of intelligence interest and to distinguish the degree to which those factors influence decisionmaking and outcomes. Mapping exercises done across time, spanning multiple issues, and on diverse groups within a society may aid in understanding that society’s “Cultural Topography.” We describe the process below.-mtb

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All statements of fact, opinion, or analysis expressed in this article are those of the author. Nothing in the article should be construed as asserting or implying US government endorsement of an article’s factual statements and interpretations.


Posted: Jul 06, 2011 07:01 PM
Last Updated: Jul 06, 2011 07:01 PM