Definition and Application

Geography, and for that matter one of its sub-disciplines, human geography, is not a scientific discipline defined on the basis of the content of analysis. Geography—human and physical—is a scientific discipline defined on the basis of the method of (spatial) analysis.

What separates geographers, a small group within the Intelligence Community (IC), and their tradecraft from others is how they study and analyze topics and regions, not what they study. The effectiveness of a skilled geographer correlates with his/her ability to analyze and articulate distributions, patterns, and interactions as they pertain to earth’s human and physical features. To achieve that and be most efficient in support of his/her customer, a geographer must employ deductive analytical reasoning (top-down logic).

A geographer with such ability can substantially lift the quality of analysis and production line for an entire organization. He/she breaks down a spatial system (region) into small interrelated pieces and illustrates their relevance to each other and to the system as a whole.

Yet, the IC has continuously emphasized human geography as a content discipline; i.e., the one that requires inductive analytical reasoning (bottom-up logic), an exercise in putting pieces together into a whole, then trying to figure out what the whole means. This is a counterproductive approach which, ultimately, produces results equal to those of the medieval Flagellants’ fight against the spread of bubonic plague—a belief of accomplishments overcomes the reality, hence an illusion becomes a reality in the Flagellants’ minds. Allow me to explain how and why.

Content Management: Another Acronym in the Wall

Military, the main supplier of current and future analysts and managers for the Intelligence Community, is one of the culprits behind the institutional emphasis on content and inductive reasoning over method and deductive reasoning. During their development, the servicepersons studying people and places are exposed to a plethora of training tools and modules known for their acronyms. The underlying theme is a notion that an accumulation of facts leads to an individual’s expansion of knowledge, which, in turn, should somehow miraculously transform into an understanding of concepts.

Among the best known acronyms for such—frequently computer-based—training are ASCOPE (Area, Structures, Capabilities, Organizations, People, and Events) and PMESII (Political, Military, Economic, Social, Infrastructure, and Information systems). This approach also supports another aspect of training the armed forces seek to achieve—across the board standardization measurable through testing and performance.

From Leavenworth, Kansas to Kabul, Afghanistan, I have witnessed ASCOPE and PMESII’s application in a classroom as building blocks of a wall of cultural and geographic knowledge. It was a paint-by-numbers type of experience. The students filled the categories with content in anticipation of seeing a colorful final product. It was like learning to cook by strictly following the recipe, yet possessing no grasp of how the ingredients interact with each other, while hoping to create a single edible form at the end.

When all the categories were filled with content, as were the students’ brains, the instructors deemed an exercise successful. In Leavenworth, I asked the visiting instructor about PMESII’s value and if he could tell me which scientific discipline already teaches people how to connect the dots in a similar yet superior manner. Much to my surprise he answered “Yes, geography.” “Then why not teach them the geographic method?” I followed with another question, just to hear that “The Army likes the PMESII model because it is easier for students to grasp; it teaches them what [emphasis mine] to put in each category.”

And there it was in front of me, the organized process of building a wall of deception in emphasizing content over concepts, inductive rather than deductive reasoning, and a flaming desire to standardize testing format and performance. For students who did not know any better this was an approach superior to everything they have previously seen. As I looked around, I noticed a belief of accomplishment spreading through the classroom. In students’ minds the system worked. They learned how to analyze and put the content together in different categories. It should not come as surprise that people exposed to a content management system, but no alternatives, would embrace this approach as they move along.

When human geography came around—as if it was just recently invented as a discipline—and became the latest catch term within the IC, the practitioners of the content management system locked in the ownership and applied their preferred analytical model. Paradoxically, instead of (human) geographic deductive analysis taking over the content management, it was the content management approach that took over geography. The method became a hostage of the content. For the IC, geography suddenly transformed into a content discipline, and geographic knowledge rested on the accumulation of content (facts), rather than employing a method to analyze and articulate content. Topics (facts) became themes (concepts).

This transition was observable when National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) began the work on Human Geography standards. To illustrate the transition let us examine NGA’s thirteen Human Geography themes compared to academic geography’s five themes. It is imperative, however, to mention that the five themes of geography have been in use for decades prior to NGA’s work on their Human Geography program. Each year millions of students at secondary and tertiary education levels learn geography from textbooks that include the five themes. One would assume that academic geographers know what they do, thus accepting their themes would seem as a natural progression into the IC HG world. Yet exactly the opposite happened.

Devil is in the Themes

NGA HG themes: Demographics and Population, Language, Religion, Ethnicity, Education, Medical and Health, Political Affiliation and Ideology, Economy, [Land Use, Cover, Ownership], Transportation, Water Supply and Control, Communications and Media, Significant Activities

Five themes of geography: Location, Place, Interaction, Movement, and Region.

[In addition, five themes of cultural geography are: Region, Diffusion, Interaction, Ecology, and Landscape]

Note the difference between the two approaches. NGA’s themes are, in fact, topics (content) of study not the actual themes (concepts). These “themes” are designed for content management, for data collection and accumulation. They identify what to study, which data to accumulate, and what to put together in that familiar inductive manner.

Academic geography’s five themes, on the other hand, are the concepts that must be employed in order to spatially analyze any topic of study (e.g., population diffusion or religion interaction); i.e., how to study specific topics (content). In terms of outcomes, it is an approach exactly the opposite from inductive; hence, it is unacceptable for NGA’s agenda.

To further illustrate this dichotomy, the impact on the IC and warfighters, I refer to an example from my professional experience.

From the Halls of Montezuma to the Halls of Marine Corps University

When I was working at the Center for Advanced Operational Culture Learning (CAOCL)—affiliated with the Marine Corps University—a new Commanding Officer for the Marine Corps University’s Expeditionary Warfare School (EWS) learned that a geographer was with CACOL Operations. He and I shared something: both were educated as geographers and had previous deployment experience in Asia. Soon after, I received a request from the Director of CAOCL to create a product on geography of Bangladesh. It was to be used as a form of our human geography capability—that is, an example of what we could do to support EWS.

With the customer’s need in mind—EWS students are Captains (O3-level) from our and foreign militaries—I designed a product that underscored an understanding of geographic concepts and need for deductive reasoning as applicable to military planning and operations. The format, a 36X36 inch poster with accompanied list of references, could be used in a classroom to stimulate critical and independent thinking. It included three integral parts: maps, photographs (landscape analysis), and an analytical narrative.

Note the concepts listed in the introduction and the end of the analytical narrative:

“Prior to providing assistance to a host nation—in the form of Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Relief (HADR) or Theater Security Cooperation (TSC)—U.S. Marine Corps planners and operators can benefit from cultural geographic analysis of Areas of Operation. In Bangladesh, this includes an emphasis on regional differences that, identifiable in the form of spatial patterns and distributions, indicate the location and magnitude of potentially destabilizing factors. Individually, destabilizing factors can range from short-term environmental issues to long-term social, religious, and political conflicts. Collectively, they form an intertwined cultural geographic system [emphasis added]. Change in one aspect (e.g., food assistance to one group as opposed to another in an ethnically or religiously mixed area) can generate instability in the entire system. As more entities operate in the same space unsynchronized (e.g., host nation bodies, UN, NGOs, or USAID), Marine Corps’ efforts can be disrupted and instability increased…. To synchronize efforts for a tactical-level operation, applications of geographic concepts of scale and distance provide essential means of analytical assessment. Pre-deployment analysis, which may focus on smaller scale (large area), does not necessarily correlate with the continuously changing conditions on the ground in a disaster-affected small area (large scale), as the landscape photographs illustrate. Access to and isolation from instability-affected areas depends on the ability to immediately change the geographic scale of operation.”

1Figure 1. Cultural Geography of Bangladesh product. To receive the full benefit from what it offers, one needs to think deductively (and be briefed by me). [Those who are interested in obtaining a print-quality copy can contact me via LinkedIn.]

After we sent it to the University, the Commanding General of the Marine Corps University forwarded it to the Marine Corps Forces Pacific (MARFORPAC). Meanwhile, EWS CO received the product, but never received my brief; rather, someone else, a non-geographer, presented it as “our” product. My concerns about providing EWS CO a disservice by having an unqualified person presenting and briefing the product were left unanswered. Still, the product alone left an impression strong enough that, for the first time, CAOCL was allowed to participate in EWS curriculum development by designing a series of regional briefs for each COCOM. After a sample brief would be provided to EWS, and if format and content were acceptable, the rest of regional briefs would be integrated for the following year’s curriculum.

[Each desk was tasked to provide briefs to CAOCL Operations Chief (Except for the EUCOM desk, of which I was the acting officer at the time). The EUCOM region was not considered as important for future American military engagement despite my suggestions to create briefs on cultural geography of the Black Sea region for this purpose. Incidentally, this episode occurred in December of 2013, only a few months prior to the war in Ukraine and Russian annexation of Crimea.]

The format of the initial and subsequent briefs, revolving around the five themes of Operational Culture (Figure 2)—turned into the exact opposite of what I presented. The initial brief was an encyclopedic collection of facts waiting for the EWS audience to connect them into a meaningful whole. An instructor who presented the initial Power Point slide brief, a brilliant expert on cultural content of his respective region and a seasoned intelligence officer, was deficient in one category—an advanced spatial comprehension and analysis. His brief, despite my modest participation in the first draft, reflected that deficiency; the feedback from EWS recommended a return to the drawing board.

EWS CO expected to see the spatially intertwined concepts presiding over facts and deductive over inductive reasoning; in essence, he wanted human geographic analysis of each region. He did not receive it. The reason was simple. Yet again, content prevailed over method and we experienced another instance of the Flagellants curing the Black Death.

Considering that the format revolved around the five themes of Operational Culture, designed by anthropologists, nothing else could have occurred. All five themes of Operational Culture are, unsurprisingly, topics that are magically expected to be inducted into a meaningful whole.


Figure 2. Five themes of Operational Culture. Note how the creators expect them to overlap somehow somewhere [in space and time, of course, how else would they overlap?]. It is almost like learning all the parts of an automobile engine, yet never trying to learn how the internal combustion works or the purpose of an automobile in the first place.

Industrial Light and Magic

Considering the definition and application of human geography within the IC and the Military, it should not be surprising that the industry supporting them has not deviated from this approach. A brief review of companies that claim to offer bespoke human geographic analysis as their main service—and there are quite a few of them in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area alone—is enough to confirm that. They appear as clones of each other and replicate the content management approach, rather than providing spatial methodological analysis more advanced than mapping and superficial descriptive reporting.

[Mapping does not correlate with understanding. For more on this topic please read my post Making Maps and (Not) Understanding Geography: Implications]

A potential customer can confirm that by asking two simple questions:

  1. What is geography?
  2. Show me the methodology that you use to solve customers’ problems?

Their struggling response will revolve around geography being a content discipline and that they use the latest technology to solve your problems. Except that the technology (GIS, etc.) is not a method of analysis; GIS and similar “methods” are, in fact, techniques. This is an important distinction.

To further confirm the capabilities of a company offering human geographic analysis for the IC/Military, look at the professional background of its leadership and management. A significantly high number of them will have a background in engineering or computer science, with very few possessing a background in geography. Then ask to see the resumes of their human geographers on staff. It may be a challenge to find a bona fide geographer who is not focused on GIS and other techniques. Geographic “analysis” in such companies is frequently done by people with a background in other social science disciplines (they tend to ignore physical geography), from sociology and anthropology to political science, who employ inductive reasoning and have a difficult time relating to the geographic concepts of distance and scale in particular.

An arrangement like this ultimately creates products of inadequate quality. But when such standards are already present in the Military and the Intelligence Community, it should not be surprising that the companies, too, are measuring quality of work and success based on their own perceptions of reality like those once held by the medieval flagellants.

Fascinating, but also unsurprising, is that in such an environment a superb geographer who employs deductive reasoning and treats geography as a methodology, is actually out of place. The milieu treats him as a stranger, a person who does not fit into the current system created behind the aforementioned wall of deception. In the world of flagellants the most difficult persons to be around are those who can show that whipping does not prevent the spread of plague. They do not want them to do so, to crush the Flagellants’ illusion of reality.


At the end, the readers may, rightfully so, ask “How can we really know if the method vs. content and deductive vs. inductive approach really works?” The best way to answer is with evidence from another episode in my professional experience. While working in Kabul, Afghanistan, I utilized this very approach. Among many briefs I delivered to various customers, the one to ISAF’s military intelligence General Officer, perhaps, is most memorable. This was a man with a long career in military intelligence and not in his first tour to Afghanistan when we met. Half way into nearly an hour-long brief on human geographic aspects of Kabul and Afghanistan, he became visibly angered and said “Why haven’t I seen this before!” At the end of the brief, he looked down to the table full of maps, then raised his head, then looked down again and said “I just realized I don’t know anything about Afghanistan.”

The customer confirmed that even if we hand out all available spatial data and content in the world to people, they cannot organize, integrate, and analyze the data on their own. It can only be accomplished if a geographer, through deductive reasoning, is capable of explaining it in such a way that the user can make the most effective decision for the mission. Only when this approach takes over, and becomes the standard for human geography in the Intelligence Community, shall we depart from the Dark Ages.


The Flagellants and the Black Death: Intelligence Community’s Zeal for Human Geography