Special INS Issue: Understanding and Improving Intelligence Analysis by Learning from Other Disciplines

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The journal Intelligence and National Security has published a special issue on "Understanding and Improving Intelligence Analysis by Learning from Other Disciplines."

The other disciplines compared to intelligence analysis include: social science, history, policy analysis, medicine, and others.

Authors include: Erik Dahl, Richard Aldrich, Michael Warner, Stephen Coulthart, Patrick Walsh, Aaron Frank, Mark Phythian, Efren Torres, and Jeff Tang.

Abstracts for all articles are copied below, with link to all articles here:



Steve Marrin

James Madison University


Abstracts for All Articles

Stephen Marrin: Understanding and Improving Intelligence Analysis by Learning from Other Disciplines

Intelligence organizations acquire, evaluate, assess, and disseminate information to support national security and foreign policy decision-making. It is part of a government’s efforts to get as close to complete information as possible about both the operating environment as well as other actors. The methodologies employed by intelligence analysts are similar to yet different from those used in many other academic disciplines and professional fields. This discussion about methodology?a form of comparative applied epistemology?can be used to better understand intelligence analysis as a function of government and improve the performance of intelligence analysts.


Patrick Walsh: Improving Strategic Intelligence Analytical Practice through Qualitative Social Research

This article explores whether qualitative research methodologies can help improve strategic analytical processes and products. Currently, in many intelligence agencies cultural and organizational barriers restrain development of better strategic intelligence. An emphasis on current intelligence is rewarded over longer term strategic assessments. However, the demands of an increasingly number of complex emerging threats can only be partially met by current intelligence. Decision-makers also need a revitalized strategic analytical capability to help with policy planning. This article investigates whether further consideration should be given to improving strategic analytical skill sets by a greater adoption of qualitative social research methodologies by the intelligence enterprise.


Erik Dahl: Getting Beyond Analysis by Anecdote: Improving Intelligence Analysis through the Use of Case Studies

In response to complaints about the lack of rigor in intelligence analysis, the American intelligence community has attempted to increase the use of scientific techniques and methodology. But surprisingly little use is made of one of the most common analytical methods in social science: case study analysis. This article argues that a greater understanding of how case studies are used by political scientists can help improve the quality of intelligence analysis and help the intelligence community assist policymakers as they attempt to understand the threats and challenges of today’s world.


Aaron Frank: What Computational Social Science can Contribute to Intelligence Analysis:

Computational Social Science is an emerging, interdisciplinary approach to the study of social systems. This chapter provides readers with an introduction to Computational Social Science, and discusses why examining the behavior of individuals and groups in social systems from an algorithmic perspective provides new and exciting analytic opportunities for the Intelligence Community and analytic tradecraft. Through the use of artificial societies, commonly referred to as Agent-Based Models (ABMs), intelligence analysts can improve strategic intelligence assessments by capitalizing on the scientific and tradecraft merits of computational simulation.


Mark Phythian: Intelligence Analysis and Social Science Methods: Exploring the Potential and Explaining the Limits of Mutual Learning

This article considers the parallels between social science approaches to research and the practice of national security intelligence analysis. Just as it is important for policymakers and citizens to understand the limits to what intelligence can deliver, so it is important to recognize the limits to what social science methods can offer intelligence analysis. Moreover, it is at least equally important to recognise crucial differences in the environments in which mainstream social science research and national security intelligence analysis are conducted. A clear understanding of these is essential to thinking about the utility of social science approaches to intelligence analysis. Hence, the chapter begins by setting out what qualitative social science can offer and then goes on to explain why the straightforward application of social science techniques cannot of itself be regarded as a ‘silver bullet’ for the challenges confronting intelligence analysis.


Michael Warner: Intelligence Analysis and History‐‐History and Analysis: A Search for Common Goals and Standards

History is something far from storytelling about the past; it has its own methods, discipline, techniques, and value. The same can be said about intelligence analysis, which is a comparative newcomer to the professions. Like historians, analysts seek to gather information, evaluate their sources, create meaning from disparate bits of evidence, and impart significant findings. These considerations make it important for analysts to learn their history and how the discipline of history functions. A greater “historical sense” can make analysts more rigorous in their work, and less likely to be frustrated by the situations they see around them.


Richard Aldrich: Strategic Culture as Constraint: Intelligence Analysis, Organizations and Social Learning

Academics working on intelligence failure are famous for their pessimism. This paper is more optimistic and sees strategic culture as helpfully constraining the likely options of our enemies. It suggests that there is a wealth of innovative work here that we might exploit here to assist with strategic estimates and argues that it is puzzling that we have not tried to harness it before in a more programmatic way. It examines sets of different but related ideas about notions of strategic culture, historical analogies and social learning that have been developed by leading political scientists and then asks what they might contribute to improved intelligence analysis.


Efren Torres and Stephen Marrin: Improving How to Think in Intelligence Analysis and Medicine

Common thinking strategies can be used by both intelligence analysts and medical doctors to improve decision-making and produce positive outcomes. Best practices can flow in both directions between professions since medicine shares strong parallels with intelligence analysis. Improving performance in both fields involves an assessment of key problems and current efforts to overcome them. Perhaps the most important issues affecting both fields are related to cognition. In medicine and intelligence analysis, errors are often triggered by cognitive biases that appear during the decision-making process. Identifying and preventing these errors would contribute towards improving performance and results in both fields.


Stephen Coulthart: “What’s the Problem?: Frameworks and Methods from Policy Analysis for Analyzing Complex Problems”

The importance of problem structuring? the activity of making sense of problems? has been grasped by scholars of policy analysis, a profession that shares much in common in form and function with intelligence analysis. This article imports the lessons, frameworks and methodologies of problem structuring to intelligence analysis from policy analysis. The concept of a Type III error is introduced, the analytical mistake of misunderstanding a problem, along with several methodologies designed to help analysts structure problems. One such methodology from policy analysis, called boundary analysis, is demonstrated on a national security case, the 2014 Syrian chemical weapons destruction process.


Jeffrey Tang: How Do We Know?: What Intelligence Analysis Can Learn from The Sociology of Science

Despite the appeal of correctness batting average as a metric for evaluating analysts, such an approach may be fundamentally misguided. Scholarship in the sociology of scientific knowledge demonstrates the inherent difficulty of determining what “actually happened.” Knowledge in intelligence is socially constructed by practitioners and experts, just as it is in science. Thus, the “truth” about what happened in a particular circumstance is what a group of credential experts say happened. Intelligence studies might benefit from insights gained in science and technology studies to illuminate practices and modes of operation that have thus far gone unexamined.