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Social, Spatial, and Cultural   Topologies of African Villages





Principal Investigators: Minerva Fellow Dr. Makame Muhajir, Kate Coronges, Diane Ryan, Andy Lohman, and Jon Malinowski

USMA has strong academic programs in the social and behavioral sciences along with several active research centers that have the potential to address the Minerva topics exceptionally well. Research conducted at USMA benefits from of its unique access to difficult to reach populations and has the ability to collect data sets that can be readily shared with researchers.The West Point faculty has a successful history conducting research and publishing findings and recommendations for DoD agencies, which has resulted in improvements of DoD education systems. The Minerva Fellow would strengthen the bridges between West Point, DoD, and academe in the social sciences, and would capitalize on our resources to achieve our common goals.


USMA’s Minerva project focuses on areas of strategic importance to US national security policy. Develop intellectual capital in the social sciences to enhance our ability to address future challenges by future leaders of our nation and military, both faculty and cadets; Build bridges between USMA, DoD, and the academic social science community; Support and develop basic social science and area studies research on our topic, “Social, Spatial and Cultural Topologies of African Villages,” under the overall Minerva interest area of “New Approaches to Understanding Dimensions of National Security, Conflict, and Cooperation.”


Through this initiative, USMA will connect the university-based social science research community with members of the Defense community.The USMA Minerva Fellow will perform research, enhance collaboration with DoD, teach, and manage the Minerva project.

This project will investigate social, spatial and cultural topologies of African political entities through a project entitled “Social, Spatial and Cultural Topologies of African Villages.” This research addresses the Minerva topic “New Approaches to Understanding Dimensions of National Security, Conflict, and Cooperation.”The connectivity of people, information, and resources through social, cultural and spatial systems lays the foundation for community stability and prosperity. Understanding the characteristics and evolution of these systems, as well as the interactions between local networks, such as clans and tribes, and larger regional or global networks, will provide insight into how stable structures develop and are maintained. This research will pay particular attention to roles within communities that may be overlooked in a reductionist framework that considers only tactical outcomes. For example, relationships among women within a community may play a significant role in coordinating the flow of resources throughout the community and thus contribute to the long-term quality and stability of education, healthcare, and technology.

Furthermore, this research will investigate how group behaviors develop and how leaders emerge out of communities. Analyzing how social and cultural topologies arise will help military leaders better understand wider issues of culture that challenge meaningful military engagement and conflict resolution. So far, these human dimensions have been under-evaluated in military contexts. Socio-cultural elements can be examined to determine how values are developed and shared, and how dynamic behaviors can be explained and predicted in order to better understand conflict and cooperation in Africa. The project will emphasize understanding these cultural roles and relationships to the stability of countries and regions – for example, the role of overlooked village issues with significant impact on national and regional stability.

Including the spatial aspect of these social and cultural dynamics within societies builds upon current research that investigates how ideas, people, and resources diffuse – or spread – across territorial space. This work can enhance cross-cultural competence among military personnel for activities such as security force assistance, civil affairs, theater security cooperation, and understanding social contagion processes. Development strategies play a critical role in addressing national security challenges. Central to such strategies is an understanding of the issues people face in the areas where they live and work, particularly in regions of interest to the United States. This interdisciplinary research seeks to enhance our collective understanding of social and spatial dynamics within and between communities and inform decisions on how and where to collaborate on effective development strategies.

This research will be supported through the combined research interests of a faculty group from the departments of Behavioral Science and Leadership, Geography & Environmental Engineering (Division of Human Geography), and Operations Research and through the research management of West Point’s Network Science Center (NSC). The recent challenges that confront the United States and its allies have demonstrated the significant need for the military research community to be able to apply methods designed for understanding culture and human behavior while increasing regional understanding and expertise.Many of the most pressing national security challenges, to include terrorism, stability operations, and counterinsurgency, demand an understanding of social science methodology, literature, and theory in order to produce sound and robust support to decision makers.The West Point NSC embraces multidimensional approaches to solve complex social problems and supports projects that involve interdisciplinary social science research for defense and national security applications. The social science methods needed for this study include qualitative and quantitative data collection and analyses used to understand and evaluate social behavior at all levels of political systems.

One method with great potential in evaluating social, spatial and cultural systems is social network analysis (SNA). This social science research tool has emerged as a relevant interdisciplinary approach capable of evaluating complex interactions by encompassing sociological, psychological and communication science perspectives. The analytic focus is on relationships between individuals instead of traditional analyses that center on the attributes of individuals. SNA can be used to map the adoption and spread of specific attitudes and activities; identify social positions that are more susceptible than others; and pinpoint ideological tipping points within a group. Similarly,geographic perspectives seek to understand people and their socio-cultural, economic, and political activities within the context of their environment.Ultimately, this research will contribute to rethinking our longer-term relationship and military strategies in Africa and other vital regions of our world.


In summary, USMA’s Minerva Fellow would contribute to the DoD culture as a collegial, effective, and practical social science researcher meeting the needs of DoD by leveraging civilian academic expertise to further national and global security priorities.