IPFW anthropologist keeps an eye on ISIS

How would you describe what you do as an ISIS analyst for the Department of Defense and how does that relate to what you do as an anthropology professor?

The discourse analysis or thematic analysis research I do involves a systematic way of analyzing ancient text or modern video. I identify themes and rhetorical devices – ways of using language that amplify a message.

The themes are chosen by who ever the speaker, writer or messenger is, and the rhetorical devices are used to emphasize the theme.

I can break down a 3,000-word speech, for example, and use statistical analysis to identify the themes and find out how often key terms are used. This tells me what matters to the speaker and how much it mattered.

Several years ago I did a project on the Taliban and compared their use of language with that of the Afghan Mujahideen that supported resistance of the soviet invasion.

I’ve applied this to a lot of different settings, but most of my work deals with speeches of modern day leaders of state like Iran and Iraq and of non-state groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS.

It helps research arms for the Department of Defense understand the issues that matter for the different groups they need to understand, and how strongly those issues matter to them.

The most recent things I’ve done have been in relation to ISIS and the willingness of groups to fight them. By looking at the kind of language leaders have used, I’ve helped get a sense of their willingness to fight.

The Kurdish group and Shia militias have expressed great resolve to fight them. The groups less willing to fight are the state governments: Saudi Arabia, Iraq even the Assad regime of Saudi Arabia. They don’t speak very emotionally about (ISIS) or express the resolve to fight them.

How is statistical analysis of a speech better than just listening to it?

When we listen to something we don’t hear everything that’s there and we also interpret a lot and sometimes we misread – that’s very common.

In my approach we actually code every phrase that has meaning and in that way we capture everything that is said and we look at statistically everything that has been said.

When someone is writing something or giving a speech, they draw on a lot of their background knowledge and are influenced by their own motivation, but they’re not always aware of it.

A statistical evaluation of a speech can bring awareness of that and sometimes give great insights into underlying meanings a speaker is conveying, even though he doesn’t realize that.

How did you arrive at what you’re doing now?

I did research on tribal societies in both South America and North America and found that violence and competition were very important to understanding anything you wanted to look at in a society.

I developed some methods of analyzing social status and being able to predict, based on a person’s social status, who was more likely to be willing to fight. People who are in between social statuses are the ones more likely to take risks, and that’s the thing I was able to predict.

One way to take risk is to engage in violence and rebellion, and we were able to predict very accurately the kind of people willing to join terrorist groups and groups like Hamas and the Islamic Jihad.

We did look at specific regions. Two of us did some work on Palestine. The method involved doing some computer simulations on where problems would arise.

We developed some interesting case studies, and based on that research IPFW teamed up with Northrop Grumman in the early 2000s and started doing research and development work for the Department of Defense.

That was my introduction to doing national security work. I was invited to start doing a lot of anthropological analysis and eventually start analyzing speeches.

What is ahead for your work?

I’ll be continuing to do the same work I’ve been doing during the past two years on ISIS, monitoring their speeches and looking for changes in them that might indicate changes in the organization.

I support and sometimes take part in war games the Pentagon does to explore what ISIS might do and what we might do to counter them.

When big things like the Paris attacks happen, the organizations I work for, they’re asked to take on another project. No one calls me immediately and asks me to tell them what just happened, but it does eventually influence what work I do.

The way my work dovetails with duties at IPFW is I’m able to publish a lot of that and that’s an important part of what we do at the university.

I have found that my work for the military has involved me in different kinds of anthropology and frequently use my work to illustrate how anthropology is useful in the wider world – I talk about that a lot.

What do you like about this work?

The problems are very, very interesting and very, very challenging. They’re very hard problems to work on and very important.

I always work on large teams and I really enjoy getting to work with top-notch people who are very energetic and bright. And I very much like doing work on behalf of my country.

What are some of the moments that stand out in your career development?

I was briefly detained in Guatemala, then dumped at its border during its civil war, and I remember realizing after release how difficult it must have been for people to move beyond the borders of their own ancient city states or tribal territories due to conflict.

Other pivotal moments in my career would include Dr. James Hatch at Pennsylvania State University taking an interest in guiding my research as an undergraduate; working on a team that discovered the earliest human habitations and ceremonial sites in the Andean highlands, and engaging in the controversy over science in anthropology with my book, “Reclaiming a Scientific Anthropology.”

What advice have you found particularly helpful in the development of your career?

Always be open to doing something new; always be humble about what you think you know and always be willing to learn from others.

And there’s something I always tell my students: Never be surprised at what you wind up doing. I never really intended on doing anything like this; it just kind of happened.

By Doug LeDuc. To suggest a Career Path, email dleduc@kpcmedia.com or call (260) 426-2640.

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