Articles - Security Science Journal
Anthropology in Security Science
(Vol. 1 No. 2, 2020: Security Science Journal)
31 Dec 2020 02:10:00 PM

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Received: November 20, 2020

Accepted: December 26, 2020

Review Paper

Katarina Stoláriková 
Research Fellow, Institute for National and International Security  

Keywords:  security, culture, anthropology, interdisciplinary approach, operations  


Security is in general closely linked to any activity of individuals and society as a whole, and bound to social relations, which are always decisive in shaping the security strategies of individual states. Security is one of the most important values of society and culture. Security and conflict resolution should be an object of the interdisciplinary approach. Socio-cultural anthropology applied in security studies is a valuable and effective source of knowledge protecting all actors. Only with a proper understanding of the operational environment with its variables and elements, it is possible to assure effective and human use of power and military decision-making tools and methods. While this paper brings the ideas of many authors, sociocultural anthropology is not that widely used in the military.


Society is constantly changing in the sense of the growing importance of knowledge, which is considered to be the driving force of its development. However, according to Hofreiter, “social progress does not remove the dangers to the existence of mankind, society, state.” (HOFREITER 2006:13)

On the contrary, it constantly creates new threats. Modern society is influenced by technological progress, the development of information and communication technologies, and the growing importance of knowledge and information. It was the advent of information and communication technologies in everyday use and their global spread that brought new threats threatening people much more intensely than in the past.

Developed countries are not threatened only by wars but by natural disasters and environmental problems, because "the growth of human domination over nature is also accompanied by increasing threats to humanity." Nature and technology can become dangerous only through human activity, not by themselves because no living creature can endanger itself in the same way as a human. Man is both source and object of the threat. (ŠKVRNDA 2009: 2, 4; HOFREITER 2006: 13, 21)

Security is in general closely linked to any activity of individuals and society as a whole, and bound to social relations, which are always decisive in shaping the security strategies of individual states. With the gradual development of human society security no longer concerns the struggle for survival in nature, but the struggle for survival in society, which is a struggle for power and wealth and also a struggle for moral or ideological superiority. This fight produces threats to national and international security. 

Conflict resolution is a social activity that consists of identifying the sources of conflict and their transformation aimed at changing the relations between the actors of the conflict in conjunction with the establishment of rules and preventive measures against the emergence of a new conflict. Conflict legitimization does not defend the existence of conflict, but officially acknowledges the existence of a problem that needs to be addressed. Resolving a conflict requires an objective supply of information on the state of negotiations and the results achieved, and in particular the responsiveness of the actors. (HOFREITER 2008: 134-159) 

The operational environment is dynamic, its elements can also act as factors of key changes but also threats. They form a mixture of conditions affecting the use of military force and the decision-making processes of commanders. 

In each operation, it is necessary to identify and analyze the individual elements and relationships between them, the structure of the crisis environment and the communication process, the relationship between them and their interdependence, to design measures and tools that minimize or eliminate internal and external risks and factors negatively affecting steps of operation and operability as well as communication channels.


“Security is a complex dynamic set of social phenomena and processes, which is part of larger phenomena and processes associated with life, actions, and behavior of various entities. Security is a set of social relations regulated by law, and especially security is a universal phenomenon” (HOFREITER 2004: 15; ŠKVRNDA 2009: 3), which affects entire human society across its stages of development.

Security is a systemic phenomenon, as it no longer includes only the military aspects but also emphasizes other strategically important areas of the state and society interests. (SKLENÁR 2008: 1)

For these reasons, it is necessary to perceive the activities of the military in a society-wide context and to bring knowledge and skills from the perspective of other scientific disciplines to the issue of security.

Social Sciences are a set of disciplines that examine the social activities of human beings. In other words, they examine such human activities that take place exclusively in human groups, as opposed to the activities that a person can perform as an individual. “Sociology of Science” is an empirical discipline that examines particular, real scientific practices in their social context. (KANOVSKÝ, 2005)

However, some social sciences are holistic - they try to explain social phenomena as a whole, without reduction. Sociology and Social Anthropology are holistic social sciences because their research object is all social activities.

Cabalza emphasizes four strengths of anthropology that can be related to the object of study of national security, which is universality, integration, adaptation, and holism. The study of the anthropology of national security is universal because all of us belong to one dominant single human species. It is also integral because all aspects of life in all societies are interwoven to form a social whole. Adaptation needs to be studied for the reason for the massive influx of migration and diaspora around the world and how adaptation to various environments affects culture and society. Holism lies in its multi-disciplinal approach whereby one studies panoramic phenomena using different bodies of knowledge. (CABALZA, 2015:76)


Didier Bigo poses the question of whether it is possible to connect the different bodies of knowledge and to enrich considerably the literature on critical security studies. (BIGO, 2014: 1) 

Since security is a collective value, usually shared within a group or community, affecting human beings it is more than reasonable to study it also from the anthropological perspective. 

Goldstein considers the relationship between “security” and “culture,”. The question of anthropological engagement with security concerns is a present issue given anthropology’s potential utility for military action on foreign terrain and the role that anthropology’s signature concept – “culture” – plays in this relationship. “Rather than understanding culture as an impediment to security, however, culture may alternatively be understood as complementary to security, with security seen as necessary to culture’s maintenance.”(GOLDSTEIN, 2010: 126, 130)

“Security is a universal aspiration of human beings that is present at all times and in all cultures. Anthropology is a knowledge that must inevitably address this topic insofar as it examines those issues related to people’s concerns and interests.”  (MUNÁRRIZ, 2013)

Moreover, Anthropology’s role in the military can fill the “culture slot,” providing a general sense of “enemy culture” for military operations to become led more effectively to achieve foreign policy objectives. “Culture here is seen as a variable, part of a larger scenario of engagement with non-Western societies that must be accounted for before and during foreign operations.” Cultural knowledge is viewed as a resource, important for the creation of “culturally literate soldiers”, a fighting force possessing “cultural intelligence”. This kind of cultural intelligence (or “ethnographic intelligence”) is particularly critical in “the ‘cultural’ phase of the war” when understanding the “cultural proclivities of the enemy” has taken on greater importance, given the inability of traditional military approaches to managing the insurgency. (GOLDSTEIN, 2010: 129)

Nature and the context in which military operations are conducted today (as well as social attitudes to war) have changed radically since we live in a period of asymmetrical warfare that pitches conventional armies against armies that use guerilla warfare. “Western-led armies are engaged mostly in environments that are non-Western in culture and these different cultures need to be understood. The instruments we use to analyze asymmetrical wars must be different from those we used for the symmetrical wars of the past.” (RAMAZZOTTI, 2013: 199) 

Hurtado and Ercolani link Anthropology and Security with Neo-Colonialism following by ethnic and identity-based discourses. These struggles (fights for power and resources) can be associated with “we” and “other” (HURTADO, ERCOLANI, 2013: 25-45) concept which forms one of the basic anthropological theories and is strong evidence of the connection between Anthropology and Security. 

Following the anthropological concept of “we” and “other”, the logic behind a military deployment of anthropological knowledge, according to many anthropologists, rests on the notion that one must know one’s enemy to defeat “him”. But the logic should primarily protect civilians and human conflict resolution. 

The anthropological work in the security area can only be seen as “relevant” if it somehow serves the state’s security apparatus. The shift from traditional anthropology to its “potential contribution to human struggles around the world” is also mentioned as an “engaged,” or “activist” anthropology. (GOLDSTEIN, 2010: 133, 134)

Applied anthropology optimizes the processes of groups that manage, support, and evaluate programs aimed at influencing human behavior (educational, medical, urban, rural, and economic environment), thus minimizing the risk of threats arising from their impact. Applied anthropology solves the problems that have arisen, manages the process of effective change and development towards improving the quality of life of human societies, and is therefore involved in the creation of domestic and foreign policies.

Anthropologists who work in interdisciplinary research teams may provide specific cultural information sensitizing troops (and others) to cultural features that might be misread in specific encounters and have an opportunity to introduce the complex anthropological ethos - curiosity, respect, and relativism balanced with critique - to the people with whom they work. The presence of an anthropologist can be particularly valuable in the context of a multinational force, where cultural differences among institutions and states can quickly undermine the cooperation required for successful peacekeeping. Moreover, anthropologists have assisted peacekeeping forces in establishing productive relationships with local communities. (AAA, 2007: 17-23)

Anthropologists can analyze and understand a conflict from both sides (including the side of the offended party). Ramazzotti believes that “scientists and anthropologists have a moral and scientific duty to analyze, understand and make public the reasons for a conflict, who is right and who is wrong, and to favor a solution to the conflict.” (RAMAZZOTTI, 2013: 200)


Anthropological methods are open and unrestricted, they consist of immersing themselves in the life of the community for a longer period (e.g. participant observation, asking questions, etc.), where the researcher observes phenomena not based on his initiative. Therefore, informants behave naturally, resp. much more natural than with other methods. Unlike anthropological ones, experimental methods are "directed" by a researcher who observes people in specific modeled situations that do not create a natural environment for informants.

The encounter between critical security studies and anthropology may be misleading if anthropology is reduced only to ethnographical methods and if critical security studies are reduced only to the linguistic approach of critical security studies. The anthropologists have to be aware of the debates and formulations of controversies in critical security studies and look at the little differences between the approaches with attention. On the other hand, the critical security researcher has to learn what a critical anthropological perspective does to a research project and means in terms of the art of writing, to understand the variety of anthropological styles of research, and the powerful controversies that exist. (BIGO, 2014: 5)

The divergence between the anthropological and military conception of security research lies in the attention to objects and the direction of processes. 

While Anthropology leads the “bottom-up” ways in which security is conceptualized and lived, Security and International Relations Studies use “top-down” practices and discourses of state and global systems. “An anthropological approach also demands a consideration of broader social and historical contexts within which state practice and discourse must be situated.” Critical, comparative anthropology of security (with its tools to assess security and insecurity as situated lived experience) can explore the multiple ways in which security is configured and deployed, not only by states and their official voices but by communities, groups, and individuals in their engagements with other local actors and with the state itself. (GOLDSTEIN, 2010: 128)

The research methodology is aimed at revealing new causal connections or patterns. It is a contribution to the systematic positive knowledge of new facts and their scientific synthesis and at the same time theoretical discourse on selected issues.

In general, the anthropological methods can be divided into two broad groups: quantitative and qualitative. While quantitative methods use statistical procedures and data processing, mathematical modeling, and operational research, qualitative methods use rather an participant observation, ethnography, and interpretation.

Since military intelligence is particularly based on HUMINT (Human Intelligence), proper knowledge of human societies, communities, individuals - their patterns of actions, behavior, and beliefs - as a result of anthropological research is necessary.

American Anthropological Association (AAA) formed the Commission on the Engagement of Anthropology with the US Security and Intelligence Communities, which recognizes both opportunities and risks to those anthropologists choosing to engage with the work of the military, security and intelligence arenas. “Cultural” knowledge generated by anthropologists is perceived in some sectors of the military, intelligence, defense, and security communities as a valuable source of information for everything from intelligence analysis for identifying nascent terrorism networks, to nation-building efforts, to counterinsurgency operations. (AAA, 2007: 4)

The author (with both anthropological and military education) found anthropological methods as very useful in the research of CIMIC (Civil-Military Cooperation) during her doctoral studies. 

It is only by combining the Anthropological lens with the Security Studies global vision that we can arrive at a more sophisticated, emancipatory analysis, and cosmopolitan outlook of the ‘multiple stress zones’ and their ‘crisis management’ in a globalized context. Ercolani adopts a position in which the Civil-Military Co-operation Doctrine is considered as an anthropological space. (HURTADO, ERCOLANI, 2013: 48)

In the research of military-based and state-sponsored cyber-operations (including cyber-attacks and cyber-espionage), the author used anthropological methods of gathering and analyzing data, mostly the domain, componential, and taxonomic analysis. 

 When it comes to ethics during the research, there are various levels such as personal, towards informants, sponsors, colleagues, academic community. A new responsibility derives from the direct and to a certain extent exploitative relation with informants. Therefore the biggest responsibility one has towards them. Data protection (also in publication) should be kept in mind in all stages of research from accessing the field to publication.


Present and near future influenced by rapid technological progress and impending or actual ecological disasters bring turbulent changes not only in geopolitics but also in the perception of society, values, and security. Now, more than ever, security as one of the most important values of society needs an interdisciplinary approach. Anthropology is one of these disciplines.

Military operations will be conducted in an uncertain future, with rapid change and new trends such as economic development, demography, globalization, information technology, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, science and research. These facts will require a new approach and the application of new rules in future operations, such as focusing on goals, exploiting knowledge, gaining benefits, addressing asymmetries, ensuring access, and sustainability.

“Many issues that have historically preoccupied anthropology are today inextricably linked to security themes, and anthropology expresses a characteristic approach to topics that today must be considered within a security rubric.” Therefore Goldstein calls for the emergence of a critical “security anthropology,” one that recognizes the significance of security discourses and practices to the global and local contexts in which cultural anthropology operates. (GOLDSTEIN, 2010a: 487)


Author Biography 

Katarina Stoláriková, Institute for National and International Security 
Research Fellow


Katarína Stoláriková, PhD.

Naučni saradnik, Institut za nacionalnu i međunarodnu bezbednost



Bezbednost je generalno usko povezana sa bilo kojom aktivnošću pojedinaca i društva u celini i vezana za društvene odnose koji su uvek presudni u oblikovanju bezbednosnih strategija pojedinih država. Bezbednost je jedna od najvažnijih vrednosti društva i kulture. Bezbednost i rešavanje sukoba treba da budu predmet interdisciplinarnog pristupa. Socio-kulturna antropologija primenjena u studijama bezbednosti vredan je i efikasan izvor znanja koji štiti sve aktere. Samo uz pravilno razumevanje operativnog okruženja sa njegovim promenlјivim i elementima, moguće je obezbediti efikasnu i lјudsku upotrebu moći i alata i metoda vojnog odlučivanja. Iako ovaj rad donosi ideje mnogih autora, socio-kulturna antropologija nije toliko široko korišćena u vojsci. 


Klјučne reči: bezbednost, kultura, antropologija, interdisciplinarni pristup, operacije



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