Small Wars Journal

Towards a Broader Definition and Understanding of the Human Dimension: Part 1

Tue, 09/03/2013 - 8:31am

Towards a Broader Definition and Understanding of the Human Dimension: Part 1

Michael L. Haxton

This is the first in a series of three articles that discuss analytics of the human dimension of conflict. Much is being written on the human dimension of conflict, but much of it is using differing versions of what is important. This first article focuses on defining the concepts for analyzing the human dimension of conflict.  Next, there is a growing reliance on analytics to understand the world around us, but caution must be exercised when applying analytics, especially in complex environments, like the human dimension of conflict.  The second article focuses on proposing a set of important principles for guiding analytics of the human dimension.  Lastly, the human dimension involves are wide range of disparate types, formats, and sources of data.  This involves significant and complex challenges for efforts to capture and organize it.  The last article discusses the types and sources of data that must be accounted for in the human dimension.

Human Dimensions and Philosophical Differences

Much has been written and done on analyzing the human dimension of conflict, including socio-cultural analysis, human terrain analysis, human geography, getting left of the bang, etc. Analysts are debating many important issues using different terminology, different brands, and different flavors of the same basic concepts. We need to cut through these minor differences and get down to the specifics of what matters and what is needed to ensure US security in the present and evolving international environment. Humans matter. During conflict, after conflict, and before conflict, the behaviors, decisions, and thoughts of humans matter to our national security. To move beyond the debates about tastes and brands, we must define our terms and understand the value of applying well-formed, rigorous analytics to the problem, and more importantly, define the types of analytics that are needed.

What is analytics of the human dimension?

Analytics of the human dimension encompasses a wide range of analysis processes that are designed to find answers to pressing questions in the realm of socio-cultural behavior, relationships, and dynamics (i.e., the human dimension).  For clarity and precision, let us first define the analytics portion of this concept, and then address the socio-cultural portion.  Clearly defining both is essential to devising and implementing the right analytic methods.

Some Common Definitions of “Analytics:”

  • Miriam Webster: “the method of logical analysis”
  • Wikipedia: “the discovery and communication of meaningful patterns in data”
  • Business “The field of data analysis”

At its most general, Analytics is simply “logical analysis,” but most definitions involve “data.”  For our purposes, Analytics is logical analysis based on observation.


Many public and private organizations are extolling the virtues of Analytics to facilitate more efficient operations and better solutions to pressing problems.  The key to Analytics is that analysis is based on observation or data.  In analytics, observation serves as the basis for inference and for finding solutions to problems.  This does not mean that analytics is, by definition, inductive; rather, analytics can be built either on finding and then interpreting patterns in data for general understanding (inductive) or on looking for specific patterns in the data that have been derived from general principles (deductive).  In analytics, observation is the source of insight, leading to data when that observation is rigorously conducted and aspects of it recorded consistently according to a predefined process.  How the observation is turned into data must be understood (to be discussed in more detail later), but rigorously turning observation into data is a must.

Other means of finding solutions exist, including expert judgment, red teaming, and various forms of abduction.  These other means of finding solutions provide useful insights in some circumstances, and can even be superior to analytics at times.  However, when there are valid means of getting observation and analytic techniques appropriate to the problem, few approaches can provide better or more enduring insights than analytics when properly implemented.  The application of analytics to problems in the human dimension of conflict can be powerful—more later in this series on how to ensure it is done appropriately. 

Human Dimension

Now, let us address the human dimension: it is the range of non-military human behaviors and dynamics that impact military matters; it refers to the micro-level human behaviors, macro-level dynamics and all of the meso-level relationships that connect them.  Socio-cultural data, intelligence, and analytics are all terms that are receiving elevated attention in the United States due to the long-running counter-insurgency efforts this country has been engaged in. LTG Michael Flynn, presently the Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, has written extensively on the need to understand the “human-socio context,” and in an article from 2012, he and his co-authors put the challenge succinctly,

“Simply stated, the lesson of the last decade is that failing to understand the human dimension of conflict is too costly in lives, resources, and political will for the Nation to bear (Flynn, Sisco, and Ellis, p.13).”

There are a number of distinct, but largely overlapping concepts that surround the human dimension of conflict.  The difference between these concepts is relatively minor. They all focus attention on human behavior, dynamics, and influences.

  • Human Terrain Analysis—“the social, ethnographic, cultural, economic, and political elements of the people among whom a force is operating.”[i] The focus here is on the human elements where “a force is operating.”
  • Human Geography Analysis—the analysis of the “patterns and processes that have shaped human understanding, use, and alteration of Earth's surface.[ii] The focus is principally on how humans have shaped and been shaped by their physical environment. This has strong overlap with Human Terrain, but (1) Human Terrain is focused on overlap with US forces and (2) it is focused on more than just the interaction between people and physical space.  As the US National Geospatial Intelligence Agency has implemented the term, human geography is much more closely tied to human terrain concepts.[iii]
  • Sociocultural Analysis—the sum of all learned attitudes and behaviors that influence how a person thinks and behaves; it involves accounting for how individuals sit in relation to their environment and the behaviors of others, including social interaction, social relationships, and culture. This involves no direct, explicit link to geography and space, but clearly it plays a role and is important to capture.[iv]

We must recognize that the question is not which of these concepts matters in the Operational Environment; the point is that all of them matter.  We need not distinguish between them as much as define the whole of the human dimension that does matter, ignoring the labels and artificial divisions.

What matters is the set of influences on human behavior and dynamics.  By human behavior, we mean the individual level and aggregated behaviors of people, what decisions they make and actions they take.  By human dynamics, we mean the sequences of behaviors and actions and their interactions among each other and the surrounding environment (both physical and social).  In terms of national security, we care about what people do, who they support and oppose, how and why they support or oppose them, and to a lesser extent, how they individually manage the risks in which they and their families live.  Behaviors and dynamics generally rise to the level of national security threats only when the people organize around a person or idea.  However, the dynamics of large-scale, self-organized individual actions can lead to national security consequences (e.g., consider the Arab Spring Movement, the dynamics of runs on banks, among many other examples), and these dynamics must be accounted for as well.

Within the human dimension across each of the concepts above, the three levels of analysis, micro, meso, and macro, are relevant.  The data and information we gather and develop will exist at each of these levels.  At the micro level, we collect data about individual persons, groups, organizations, ideas, etc.  Analytics at the micro level takes general principles and applies them to the specifics of the individual case to draw useful inferences, as in human factors analysis of specific leaders.  At the meso level, we collect data about individual persons, groups, organizations, ideas, etc. and the relationships between them.  Analytics at the meso level focuses on the structure of the relationships and individual things being connected, as in Input-Output modeling of an economy.  At the macro level, we collect data to represent aggregations of people, groups, organizations, etc.  Analytics at the macro level focuses on drawing inferences about these collections, as in models of political instability that rely on state or regional aggregations of data.  Analytics at each of these levels helps answer distinct kinds of questions, and analysts of the human dimension must be able to master each of them.

Analytics of the Human Dimension

Geography is an essential element at each the above levels of analysis, but it is not universally relevant.   We must keep in mind that many types of relationships matter in the human dimension, and often, they matter more than positions in geo-space.  Thus, human geography and terrain concepts include critical pieces of the puzzle within the human dimension, but we must recognize that relevant influences in a particular place or area always include factors that are located elsewhere.  The factors that make them relevant may only be discernible by understanding the non-physical connections, such as affinity or identity.  Such relationships offer no meaningful shadows in physical space, and thereby must be accounted for wholly through other means.  Analysis of the human dimension must account for both physical and non-physical factors wherever needed.

The array of influences on human behavior and dynamics includes the elements you see in the definitions of each of the terms above, the “social, ethnographic, cultural, economic, and political elements;” the “patterns and processes that have shaped human understanding;” and “how individuals sit in relation to their environment and the behaviors of others, including social interaction, social relationships, and culture.”  How people use the environment, technology, infrastructure, institutions, and their social connections (i.e., networks or social capital) to achieve their goals and objectives, both individually and collectively, is the part of “everything that matters” that we care about here.  All of these concepts are of critical significance for understanding the human dimension of conflict.

As analysts of the human dimension, we cannot fail to apply every tool and technique at our disposal to understand the human context in which the military operates and across all phases of conflict in which they operate, left and right of the bang.  The proceeding articles in this series seek to guide the application of analytic tools for conducting analytics of the human dimension to ensure the rigor that is needed to understand the socio-cultural behavior and dynamics at a given place and time accurately, efficiently, and with sufficient fidelity to be useful to planners and operators. These words are easier to write than they are to implement, but this provides the context and objective for what we seek to accomplish. The proceeding section conveys crucial principles in implementing analytics of the human dimension of conflict.


Flynn, M. T., Sisco, J, and Ellis, D. C.,“’Left of Bang’: The Value of Sociocultural Analysis in Today’s Environment,” PRISM 3, No. 4, pp. 13-21.

Canna, S., ed.,“Operational Relevance of Behavioral & Social Science to DOD Missions,” with Preface by LTG Michael Flynn, produced by National Defense University, available at

 “The Human Terrain System: A CORDS for the 21st Century,” by Jacob Kipp and Lester Grau. 2006.  Military Review (September-October): 9.

“Joint Publication 2-01.3, Joint Information Preparation of the Environment.” June 2009, p. xi.

National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, “Incorporating Human Geography into GEOINT: A Student Guide”, a training course for their analysts from September 12, 2011 and available at

The Cultural Landscape: An Introduction to Human Geography, 8th Edition. James M. Rubenstein, 2004. Prentice Hall.

End Notes

[i] See Kipp and Grau 2006.

[ii] See the College Board online description of the course on Human Geography, accessed on 8 April 2013 from website, For texts that review Human Geography, see Rubenstein 2004.

[iii] To understand the way in which NGA has defined the concept of human geography, see “Incorporating Human Geography into GEOINT: A Student Guide.”

[iv] This is a fundamental part of psychology, one of the three levels of analysis or approaches to psychology commonly referred to, the other two being cognitive and biological.


About the Author(s)

Michael L. Haxton, PhD, has worked in the defense and intelligence communities for 17 years advancing methods and tools to analyze the human dimension of conflict. He first joined the Joint Warfare Analysis Center in 1996 and then went to work for Booz Allen Hamilton in 2003, where he runs the firm’s Socio-Cultural Development Center and has supported a variety of Defense, Intelligence, and Civil sector agencies with social science-based analytics.



Thu, 09/05/2013 - 2:02pm

In reply to by G Martin

I have tried to address your questions and comments individually. If I missed any, I apologize.

Neither Human Dimension nor Human Domain are clearly and consistently defined. I am using Human Dimension as a general term to encompass the other terms and more. My point is that we need to focus on the elements that matter within a context.

There are issues with observing humans from many perspectives. There are human subjects issues (we must not harm the people we observe/collect data on), there are causal issues with the observation (as researchers, we must recognize the ways in which our observation may be changing the behavior itself; a la the quantum observer effect in physics), and there are research issues with how one does the observing so as to take into account the multitude of factors that influence behavior. All of these are real, acknowledged, and accounted for in research by well-trained social scientists. This is a positivist approach in that it does not seek to define the way things ought to be in the human dimension, only how they are and will be under specific conditions.

I have no reference for the assertion that rigorously turning observation into data is crucial. That is my assertion and is based on my academic training as a social scientist. Creating research and analysis that can stand the test of repeatability relies on rigorous data collection. That is not to say that squishy, exploratory observation is without merit. To the contrary, it is very useful in a number of circumstances (see my other comment herein).

There is no single approach to data collection and analysis that can consistently and robustly answer questions of interest in the human dimension. In one situation, field research with trained anthropologists could be the right approach, while in another situation, a largescale survey of a population using advanced statistical analysis modeling could be appropriate. In still other situations, a combination of the approaches could be ideal. The point is that depending the question, what the researcher knows or can find out from extant sources, and the potential use of the analysis, different methods and combinations of methods could be appropriate. This is not a simple or elegant approach; on the contrary, it is quite complex and difficult. However, doing this well does offer substantial advantages to doing it with simple solutions.

The behavior of humans operating as part of a military unit is fully captured by the other dimensions of military engagement and the operational environment. I am not seeking to redefine operational analysis. I am only discussing those aspects that are part of the Political, Economic, Social, and Informational portions of the operational environment (see JP 2-01.3 for more on this).

On the value of understanding the human dimension of conflict, I can say that we may not be able to point to evidence of improved decisionmaking, but some have pointed to the negative consequences of poor cultural, social, or political knowledge of a military situation leading to bad decisionmaking. It can be argued that the Vietnam Morale and Motivation Project is just such a situation. I recommend reading an interview of Malcolm Gladwell on this topic on BBC News’ website. There are many stories like this, but all are as controversial as the next. It is probably more important to point out that in the realm of military planning and targeting, a key element for these processes is identifying the intended and unintended consequences of the proposed actions. If we are not providing the absolute best assessment of these consequences on the human dimension, then we are falling short of the objective of the Joint Targeting Cycle (see JP 3-60). More importantly, if we fail to account for the human dimension effectively, the ability of US military planners to use force efficiently to have the tactical, operational, and strategic effects needed to achieve the commanders’ objectives is weaker.

On the difficulty of testing hypotheses of why people do what they do, it is absolutely true that is a profound challenge. The challenges of knowing the drivers of human behavior are well documented. However, there is much in human behavior that is predictable, having clear and highly consistent patterns in human behavior, and some patterns that are knowable, but not as clear-cut and easily discernible. My suggestion is that we use the best knowledge available to military planners on the cultural, social, political, and economic patterns and tendencies. That knowledge comes from a process that looks very much like the analytics I discuss in the series of articles.

I think you are absolutely correct in pointing out that humans were not left out of previous warfare planning and preparation. I have been involved in such planning exercises in the past and they long pre-date my entry into the fray (e.g., see the Marine Corps’ Small Wars Manual). However, what I am suggesting is that the data collection and analysis that has been used historically needs to be better designed, equipped, and executed.

G Martin

Wed, 09/04/2013 - 5:23pm

A few questions:

- what is the difference between this "human dimension" and "the human domain"? Sounds like here it is used interchangeably, but as I have heard it mentioned: the "human dimension" is "internal".
- Aren't there issues within academia with logic being applied to observation of humans? I wish we referenced our concepts and theories more- is this a "positivist" approach?
- when one says "rigorously turning observation into data is a must"- is there a reference for that assertion?
- Should we advocate using all known methods- or even all known and inventing some per each situation- as opposed to supporting only one (the analytic method)? So, for instance, some have argued for a more "multi-framed" approach when dealing with human phenomenon.
- Is "non-military" human behaviors a good way to define "the human dimension"? So, if I get this right- humans that are behaving "militarily" do not fit into the "human dimension"?
- LTG Flynn's quote seems to imply that if we had just understood the human dimension of conflict we would have "won". Such a broad assertion of an abstraction seems to me to be meaningless. It seems intuitive to many, but I struggle to think of what this profound insight would have offered any planning staffs from 2001 to today in Afghanistan. We have been imploring people to "understand humans" for at least since 2006- maybe the concept just doesn't offer much...?
- The mention of "artificial divisions"- isn't dividing domains into "human", etc.- or dimensions into "human", etc.- artificial as well?
- any references to the assertions that any analytics have helped avoid a problem by a decision maker? The problem as I see it is it would be very hard to prove a negative- that something good wouldn't have happened without the decision. Root causal issues and all...

<em>In terms of national security, we care about what people do, who they support and oppose, how and why they support or oppose them, and to a lesser extent, how they individually manage the risks in which they and their families live</em>

At some point we have to hypothesize why people do what they do- and testing this is very difficult- especially in terms of using that “knowledge” to “know” anything about human behavior in the future. It is one of the reasons the social sciences are different than the physical sciences- even though at the Quantum level the physical sciences are running into some of the same problems…

I guess I just struggle with this new emphasis on "humans". Asserting that humans were left out of previous warfare preparation and planning seems wrong to me. At the tactical level I think we mostly get the whole "human" thing- our guys are pragmatic and they get relationships for the most part. Where we seem to struggle is understanding ourselves and how we see the world (and how that affects our operations), understanding the bureaucracy we exist in and how that affects our operations, and trying to link what we do to strategic objectives. I don't think we'll change any of that- but we have to appreciate it more so that we can take it into account instead of looking around and wondering about all the paradoxes, ironies, and insanity.


Thu, 09/05/2013 - 2:09pm

In reply to by ScottNestler

I absolutely endorse the INFORMS definition of analytics. My definition was broad and perhaps overly so. My intention was to highlight the importance of observation in our endeavors.


Wed, 09/04/2013 - 7:39am

The author's definition of analytics is admittedly very broad (relative to other definitions) … "logical analysis based on observation."

In comparison, the definition of analytics developed by the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS) after much discussion and debate over a period of many months is, "the scientific process of transforming data into insight for making better decisions."

As Huxton points out, the key to analytics is that analysis is based on observation or data. His statements that "analytics can be built either on finding and then interpreting patterns in data for general understanding (inductive) or on looking for specific patterns in the data that have been derived from general principles (deductive)" and "rigorously turning observation into data is a must" make complete sense to me. I look forward to his promise of sharing "how the observation is turned into data must be understood."

For those interested, more information on the INFORMS take on analytics at: and the recently developed Certified Analytics Professional (CAP®) program at:…

NOTE: I am the Chair of the INFORMS Analytics Certification Board (ACB).


Thu, 09/05/2013 - 2:38pm

In reply to by JasonT

Thanks for your comment. I think you ask a key question for analysts and planners focused on the human dimension (or whatever one calls it). It is not a simple question. I think there are many factors that contribute to the cynicism.
1) There have been many "sellers" of socio-cultural analytics and related capabilities who are not legitimate. Many have oversold the potential of these analytic capabilities, passing them off as solutions to the problem rather than contributors to a whole solution. This happened previously in the 1970s and 1980s in the aftermath of Vietnam, when many tried to sell the magic of quantitative political science (event history analysis, game theoretic modeling, etc.). These were sold as replacements to existing capabilities, rather than complements. This was disingenuous or at least foolish. Social systems are far too complex for simple models or individual methods to provide robust predictions and answers. This is happening again today. Buyers beware.
2) There are parochial interests that could be against providing a growing share of a dwindling resource pool to improve analytics in this realm. I do not begrudge them this. This is a serious question that must be explicitly dealt with (bullets vs. surveys). However, I suggest that we should recognize the importance of both capabilities as decisionmakers determine where the resources should go.
3) There are people in the military (and beyond) who truly discount the value and rigor of social science research. An aerospace engineer never has to explain their design theory to a decisionmaker who has experience being a particle in a wind tunnel. The audience for the social sciences often have experienced the 'forces' we speak of, and everyone has formed biases and prejudices about what matters and what does not. Getting beyond this bias is not easy and I honestly cannot say that in 17 years I've ever convinced a naysayer that social science-based analytics is worthwhile. That may be a testament to my weaknesses, or it might be a fundamental constraint.

I think there are probably other forces at play as well. I once worked in an organization that specializes in engineering analysis in support of military planning. Once while there, I noted that when the engineers deliver their analysis, they are never challenged on the fundamentals of their endeavor. A fellow social scientist lamented that it was unfair. I replied that when we get as good at predicting meaningful events as engineers, then we can complain that it's unfair. The reality is that we are fundamentally constrained by the dynamic complexity of the systems we study. Certainty is not a luxury we can look forward to; if we work towards providing consistent, rigorously developed analyses based on robust data sources, we will be able to build inroads and get better credibility. That will certainly help...


thanks for sharing this succinct description.

Im often asked to develop security strategies and conduct security assessments such as the one I recently did in Uruzgan. Still today, those asking for these plans jump immediately to the physical security and mitigation of risks to ALARP and turn glassy-eyed when you start explaining the human dimension in the operating environment. Even when the human terrain assessment points to social and physical factors and interactions that may or may not lead to conflict or indirect/direct security threats, it is treated more as an opinion piece than primary data collected analysis.

Even the direct threats - by this time many cues have been missed or relationships broken down that now result in a direct threat.

Why do you think there continues to be cynicism of the human dimension when it comes to security assessment of the operating environment?