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Jon Lindsay | Tribal Engagement Starts at Home: The Ethnography of Information Practice in War

September 16, 2020

Jon R. Lindsay is an Assistant Professor at the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy and the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an M.S. in Computer Science and B.S. in Symbolic Systems from Stanford University, and he has served in the U.S. Navy. He is the author of Information Technology and Military Power (Cornell University Press, 2020) and co-editor of Cross-Domain Deterrence: Strategy in an Era of Complexity (Oxford University Press, 2019) and China and Cybersecurity: Espionage, Strategy, and Politics in the Digital Domain (Oxford University Press, 2015).


A Confessional Tale: Experience in Special Operations Task Force

Professor Lindsay discussed the research process and methodology used in his book, Information Technology and Military Power. The book focuses on military information systems in combat operations. His long-standing working experiences as a targeting analyst and intelligence officer in the Special Operations Task Force (SOTF), primarily a SEAL (U.S Navy Sea, Air, and Land) team, made him both a participant in and an observer of processes of how confidential information is packaged in different military organizations. Professor Lindsay’s research is therefore a “confessional tale” (Van Maanen, 1988), presenting a researcher’s own experience and perspective within what was studied.

The general argument of the book is that organizations are building their epistemic infrastructures that allow them to interpret and understand the operational reality, but there is divergence in the representation of reality among organizations. The representation often does not match with what is happening in the real world.  To build more clear representation, the U.S. military had to interact with local people and do amateur ethnography. As a “nonlethal effects officer” in the SOTF, Professor Lindsay was able to travel around lots of different units and was put in charge of “tribal engagement.” He discovered that different ideas and resources with peculiar subcultures in the U.S. military shaped distinct information practices.



Challenge and Opportunity in Participant Observation within a Combat Zone

Professor Lindsay turned to outlining both the challenges and opportunities of participant observation fieldwork in a combat zone. He argued that it is basically impossible to conduct wartime ethnography for several reasons. First, intelligence and special organizations are highly classified organizations with confidential sources and operations, so researchers cannot take the information for writing academic books. Second, in a classified environment, recording, interviewing, and notetaking are off the table. Third, it is demanding to be a full-time participant and observer while having full-time military duty. Forth, working with a very insular SEAL community and proving to be a bona fide researcher are tough tasks to balance.

However, Professor Lindsay was possible to overcome such challenges because of an unusual alignment between what he wanted to observe and how the participants behaved. The subject of his research is information practice, so he was able to be a both participant and observer while always looking at the system and figuring out how people are talking and what they are doing. Staff officers also jot a lot of notes by visiting many camps, so he naturally wrote about the information practices. Besides, tacit behavior is not codified in classification manuals and he focused on generic social processes rather than specific operations. Lastly, he emphasizes that his research agenda made him a better staff officer.



Abductive Autoethnography

The core methodological technique that Professor Lindsay used was abductive autoethnography. Ethnography is using induction as a way of making the better deductions. When ethnographers go into the field, they find that theory and reality do not quite fit and there are tensions between them. Theory informs practice and practice informs theory, so through these reiterative and complicated abductive processes, eventually scholars settle down with a finding that is stable. Professor Lindsay argued that this method of abduction is information practice. Thus, science is information practice.

Lastly, Professor Lindsay suggested five tips for abductive autoethnography for researchers: (1) embracing an individual’s particular experience and networks to enable unique fieldwork and informant opportunities; (2) generalizing an individual’s trajectory by reading widely; (3) being cognizant that interpretive tensions highlight opportunities for reinterpretation; (4) recognizing that the usual social science heuristics still apply; and (5) understanding that ethnography is better for theory discovery than theory testing.