David Kilcullen, what counterinsurgency has to teach science studies…

June 29, 2009

“Politics is alchemy. It’s not an engineering project. You can’t build it step by step through benchmarks to a solution. It takes people to feel comfortable and to be ready to work together and to feel confidence. We all know this from domestic politics.”  David Kilcullen speaking to Charlie Rose, October 8, 2007 [inteview, 18:05].

The quote above struck me if only because the way Kilcullen describes politics as being the opposite of engineering.  Yet listening to him describe how counterinsurgencies should be dealt with reminded me – not of the opposite of an engineering project – but of precisely the kind of description of engineering that science studies seeks to capture in which technical projects are profoundly bound up in the delicacies of partisan politics…

(Note: Kilcullen is a counterinsurgency expert who has advised General Petraeus on the troop surge in late 2007.  He’s is, perhaps, the prototype of the kind of on the ground terrorism anthropologist the DOD’s Project Minerva sought to promote. A controversy over this initiative erupted since the support was to be channeled through Department of Defense rather than the regular channels of social scientific funding – i.e. NIH, NSF – much to the consternation of the American Anthropological Association [see the AAA’s letter of response])


2 Responses to “David Kilcullen, what counterinsurgency has to teach science studies…”

  1. Dani Lainer-Vos Says:

    Good point. But do you really want to follow these guys in action?

  2. marthapoon Says:

    Hi Dani,

    Sure. Following (financial) engineers in action strikes me as good idea. If these techniques work for dealing counterinsurgency they should generation avenues for dealing with financial crisis as well.

    Of course, there are other positions that are uncomfortable with the idea of academics producing knowledge that is seen as participating in furthering military or economic agendas.

    Kilcullen has discussed this point; he took a stand that the war in Iraq was ‘stupid’ but once it was started his pragmatic objective as a social scientist was to participate in unraveling the situation on the ground.

    Kilcullen’s pragmatic stance is attractive: The technical infrastructures of contemporary finance are already in place. If they are the material location where action is being generated, then they are the place where reform must be addressed…


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