Cultural Anthropologists: IARPA Needs You!

Cultural anthropologists: your intelligence advanced research projects activity (IARPA) needs you!

If you thought the Human Terrain System (HTS) marked the extent of the DoD’s interest in “cultural terrain,” take a look at the latest IARPA request for proposals.

The IARPA, which is part of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI, which is in charge of the nation’s National Intelligence Program) will fund proposals that provide ways for a person to experience what it’s like to be another person, particularly one from another culture. This will be more than just controlling an indigenous character in a simulation, or translating another’s worldviews into your own. You must actually experience what it’s like to be “the other.”

Using the language of many an intro Anthropology class, emic and etic, the RFP states:

This Request for Information (RFI) seeks instead to explore new approaches or ideas that could complement these etic analyses by developing first-person cultural simulations whereby one can experience a situation or interaction as if they were someone from a different culture – or what the anthropologist Clifford Geertz called “from the native’s point of view” (7). This approach towards trying to understand a culture from the “inside-out” has often been associated with what cultural anthropologists call “emic”(8) analysis. As compared to etic approaches, emic analysis looks at behaviors or beliefs in terms meaningful to the cultural native and attempts to convey their perspective as a cultural insider in a way that is situation-dependent, derived from a rich, multi-sensory experience of the world, and is largely derived from implicit associations.

So if you’ve got ideas about how to build an “emic” tool for the intelligence community, the deadline is June 11. Shouldn’t be a problem, right? After all, we’ve come a long way from Geertz:

Whereas Geertz was pessimistic in 1974 about the possibility of ever truly perceiving what someone else perceives (saying that all that could be done was to “scratch surfaces…”)(9), in the 35+ years since his address to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, we have seen the advent of new technologies and new research that may help us move past scratching surfaces in trying to perceive the world from the “native’s point of view.” Examples include improvements in computing, massive data collection and aggregation, novel methods for data visualization, new graphic user interfaces, rich multi-sensory and immersive environments, as well as significant advances in the behavioral sciences, cultural psychology, neuroscience and psychophysiology. These advances may offer us new opportunities for developing tools that allow a non-expert to virtually (and temporarily) “embody” the perspective of another person from a different culture. This capability may allow them to more accurately grasp a native’s point of view on a particular situation, interaction, or decision – and potentially lead to a reduction in interpersonal and/or intercultural misunderstanding and miscalculation.


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