After several years of government service, Professor Sandra Grady joined the SSP community in fall 2018. She has formerly taught “African Security Challenges” and currently teaches “Disinformation and Security.” GSSR caught up with her to discuss her career, her background in anthropology and folklore, her love of fieldwork, and more.
The transcript of this interview, conducted by Freddy Ludtke, has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
How has teaching in the Zoom era treated you so far?
It has been a mixed experience. I miss being able to see my students while lecturing. On the other hand, I don’t have the pressure of getting to campus, finding parking, rushing from office hours across campus to get to class on time. I like that I can start calmly and, when it is over, I am already home.
Could you give us a 2-3-minute overview of your life and career to date, starting with where you grew up through to today?
I am from Toledo, Ohio and grew up there. I am a product of sixteen years of Catholic schools: grade school and high school in Toledo, and then college at the University of Dayton and the American University in Cairo. After graduation, I took a position in the resources office of a religious community doing outreach to women in a crisis pregnancy and environmental preservation work in Eastern Africa. They had started trade education programs with sexually exploited teenagers in a vast slum area in Nairobi (Mathare Valley and Eastleigh, if you know the city), and that expanded into co-educational efforts, a nursery, and a revolving loan fund to encourage job placement. Then another brother started a reforestation program Malawi. My job was in human and financial resource development to support these and future efforts, and it was there that I first started teaching as a substitute for months while one of our schools searched for a new school head and needed help for the class she would ordinarily teach. She took maternity leave at the very start of her term, so I was substitute teaching for about a year in total. It was a great way to learn about the lives of our students. After almost three years working for this group, I returned to the United States and worked in curriculum development and corporate training for a few years, which gave me experience with the official church and, later, the private sector. I returned to graduate school after a decade out in the world and pursued a degree at the University of Pennsylvania in Folkloristics because it gave me a way to look at the history and tradition of groups without a long, documented history. I was also reluctant to do a regional studies degree and thought a wider disciplinary lens was a better approach.
Could you speak a bit about your M.A. and Ph.D. work? What originally drew you to anthropology?
My experiences in East Africa led me to Anthropology/Folklore. I became very interested in cultural history and the expressive culture of marginalized people, and this field seemed to offer me a way to contribute to the body of knowledge about them. I also saw a lot of people in the program who were not in the Academy—they were out in the world too doing their work. So that was compelling.
How did you end up deciding on your dissertation topic? How did you choose to study Somali refugees?
I would love to give you a super academic answer, but it was a pragmatic choice that enabled me to support my personal life. My graduate studies were interrupted twice by family illness. I took a year off to accompany my mother through her battle with pancreatic cancer, which we always knew she would lose. When she passed away, I inherited my father, who was in the midst of cognitive decline. He joined me in graduate school and, as he declined, I could not take him for fieldwork in East Africa as previously planned, so I had to change my dissertation focus. One of my mentors was a prominent Somali historian and he mentioned there was this group of non- ethnic Somalis, descendants of the nineteenth century slave trade, who had been marginalized by the Somali government so very little research had been done on them. A large group of them (14,000 at that time) were being resettled in the United States at that time. I started cold-calling agencies all over the United States to find a population large enough to study, and it was clear the resettlement agencies were in crisis mode. The group had been in refugee camps in northern Kenya for decades and were ill-prepared for life in the US. I got some funding from the Library of Congress to do initial research and began meeting people in Louisville. I found I was playing this intermediary role between U.S. healthcare, education, and resettlement professionals trying to support the community and the East African families I met and visited with. I became interested in how the teenagers were navigating the cultural expectations of their parents and their teachers. The group has a rites of passage approach to the life course, and their teachers have a Western model involving extended adolescence. These kids had to navigate this divide and, because they were in schools and acquiring English more quickly than I could acquire the five or so languages spoken in the community, they became the focus of my study. In the end, I was delighted by this new focus for my research because it was more emergent and allowed me to look at migration and refugee issues but still have a regional focus in my work.
Could you reflect a bit about the experience of conducting fieldwork? What advice would you give to students interested in conducting fieldwork of their own?
Fieldwork is probably my favorite thing to do in the world. What I love about it is that I go into a situation where I am completely culturally incompetent and my whole job is to have them explain things to me. The smallest child is more expert than me and, if people know you are not there to judge or change them, they are generally happy to explain what and why they do things the way they do. I describe my role in that housing project where I did the bulk of my fieldwork as like a strange aunt. They think I’m just kind of daft and explain things to me that should be obvious. It’s freeing to just be learning about interesting things.
In terms of doing the work, my advice would be: be patient with it. You have to run down some dead ends at the beginning and, even if you do not think you are making progress, you are building relationships of trust that will pay off eventually. Keep trying. And then, as you are getting the material, stay on top of your field notes. The field day is exhausting, and it is tempting to push them off for later, so find a way to incorporate them into your field day. I used to dictate mine into a small recording device as I drove from the field site home to my father’s house 2-3 hours away, where I was caring for him as he declined. I was trapped in a car for hours, so my field notes were robust. You can process your thoughts as headnotes later, but you need to build your data as you go. I guess, if I were going to offer a final bit of advice, it is that ethnographic fieldwork should be discomforting as you are putting yourself in a strange environment and it takes a long time to build relationships. But people are trusting you with their stories, and the relationships and that trust will keep you motivated to keep writing when there are many things that can distract you.
How did you originally enter into government service? In what ways has your anthropology background informed your work as an analyst?
When I completed my PhD, the Great Recession was at its peak and the academic market was very limited. I went to a job fair and got in line for FBI to see if my foreign language skills may be of use as I waited for the academic market to improve, and when I started talking about my research, I was advised to consider applying as an analyst. So I did. Interestingly, despite being hired for that position, I wound up working in the Foreign Language Program because that was the need when I started. Later, at NCTC, I joined the Africa Branch as an analyst. There, I brought cultural and historical background to a team that included a variety of other skills. We all worked well together as a team because we knew we were stronger that way and could seek out advice from each other based on our different backgrounds and experiences.
Could you give readers a sense of what your work at the FBI and at NCTC entailed?
At FBI, I was responsible for developing training solutions for personnel in the Foreign Language Program. I was not providing foreign language instruction because FBI language analysts bring advanced foreign language skills to the job. I worked on training for various skills needed to do their work successfully and under the legal authorities that frame FBI work.
At NCTC, I researched and wrote analytic products that supported the counterterrorism mission of the U.S. government in East and Southern Africa. Later, I worked in strategic and operational planning related to homeland counterterrorism efforts.
In your view, what are some of the best ways analysts can gain a cultural understanding of the part of the world they cover?
Well, I suppose if it is a brand new region to cover and you do not have any foreign language skills from the region, seek out news coverage from sources you trust that are capable of deeper coverage. If there are local publications in English, get into a pattern of reviewing them regularly. I would look for a film or novel or television show from the area as well, but do some research about who is doing the writing and producing so that you can frame their perspectives too. As you get through those, consider reading more deeply in scholarship about the region. The most useful would be to understand the cultural factors that impact leaders there, traditional alliances and adversarial relationships, the kinds of internal conflicts/divides and how that impacts the security environment. It will inform your own assessments as you accrue expertise.
What are your views on the ethics of anthropologists working for the military and/or within the national security apparatus?
I think the national security apparatus and military need to be culturally informed to be at their most effective. I felt this way about the medical, educational, and resettlement professionals I worked with back in the day, and I feel this way about the warfighter, policymaker and intelligence community. Effective intelligence can prevent or shorten conflict and violence, and my training may enable me to help further relationships of trust between security personnel and local communities. These roles benefit both these communities and the national security apparatus. I believe that anthropological knowledge should be applied and this is one more sector where it adds value. What gets trickier is when one is using one’s anthropological fieldwork to directly feed operations and not being open about it with the community that you study. I think this is where you have to decide where to draw a line. I am enough of an academic still to see the production of knowledge as a good in itself—not everything is about the production of analysis or national security assessments. My fieldwork is part of the production of knowledge, and when I participate in that enterprise, I am bound by the ethical boundaries that comes with that effort, which includes the informed consent of my research subjects/partners. My questions may be shaped by my experience in security, but my methodology and scholarly ethics were hardened by my scholarly training. I respect that my colleagues in the national security apparatus may have other aims in their work in communities but, if it’s my research site, the best I can do is broker relationships in a transparent way and then keep a separation between what I do as fieldwork and what others do. Increasingly, given my research interests there, my approach to Columbus includes local security officials (state, local and federal law enforcement) just as it included educators originally. But, in this domain, they are part of the overall research environment and are due the same disclosures as my partners in the Somali community.
From where did your interest in studying disinformation originate? To what extent does your time spent studying folklore influence the way you think about disinformation? Do you feel that it gives you any kinds of advantages over others who do not have your background?
Toward the end of my time at NCTC, the 2017 National Security Strategy was released. It was clear that the national priorities were moving from the counterterrorism fight to Great Power rivalries. I had been frustrated since the 1990s by the increasing polarization of political discussion in the United States and the fracturing of media that furthered it. I also felt that what I was hearing about disinformation narratives was fairly shallow given what I have experienced as part of the folklore world. There are long histories to some of the stories that circulate, theories about how cultural forms adapt over time, and ways to break down and analyze narratives that do more than just summarize or react to them. I think that what my folklore studies provide is the ability to see long-standing tropes and to situate narratives in an information environment that is shaped by culture. I don’t know if would use the word “advantage” over other scholar/practitioners. I think the problem set involves a lot of factors, so we need approaches that come at it in a variety of ways. My focus is on ways narratives (like Conspiracy Theories, Rumors, and Apocalyptic tropes) circulate, why they are effective, and what we can learn from them. I don’t expect people wholly interested in algorithms or public policy to bring that. But I don’t think they bring something less. The problem set needs all of us.
In your opinion, what is the most misunderstood aspect of disinformation?
Perhaps that it is somehow imposed from outside and can be easily solved by debunking it. It is a multi-faceted problem that requires solutions from a variety of sectors because, while our adversaries are using it to weaken us, our own divisions and open information environment are giving them something to target, even while they remain foundational to our democracy.
Are there any non-American disinformation case studies (past or present) that you find particularly instructive?
The literature is evolving and approaches are developing. At this point, my favorite studies are a study from the Atlantic Council from 2019, Disinformation in Democracies: Strengthening Digital Resilience in Latin America. I also think that the study from Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy authored by Claire Wardle and Hossein Derakhshan from 2017, Information Disorder: Toward an Interdisciplinary Framework for Research and Policymaking is really useful about the problem as a whole. It works from the European experience. These references may change by next year as more people are publishing more work on this problem set.
SSP students have dozens of classes to choose from. What is your pitch for why they should take Disinformation and Security?
Because it is the existential struggle of their generation. Since the Russian efforts in 2016 provided an example, adversaries have moved more aggressively into this space and the barriers to entry are low in comparison to traditional warcraft. The course is designed so that students can explore information warfare and operations in any region in their projects, so it is also a great space for exploring the question within a geographic specialization as well as gaining generalized knowledge about disinformation and major players like Russia and China.
What is your greatest fear on the disinformation front? What potential disinformation threat that few people talk about today keeps you up at night?
I have two thoughts on this. One is that—based on how the American people were caught off guard by the Russian efforts in 2016—that our media and press will not find dependable ways to deconstruct deep fakes fast enough to mitigate the circulation of them in a way, so the deep fakes will further damage our democratic systems and exacerbate internal divisions. I think the other thing I fear is a future in which we weaken our intelligence community to the degree that it no longer can be trusted to speak truth to power. Historically, this is how empires fall, when the national security apparatus cannot provide accurate information and its leaders rely solely on what they want to hear.
What skills—either hard or soft—have you found most important throughout your career?
I did not start my career planning to be in education, but I find that it is the consistent thread of my career. Probably since primary school I have been figuring out how to break things into digestible pieces and how to make learning as effective as possible and, when I have needed to make changes to my career, I have almost always found a way forward through teaching. I have also been grateful for my breaks from it, but it has been an important skill. I also think good writing skills are invaluable and are can be developed—in fact they require regular maintenance. I also think that the ability to listen and empathize is rare and key to being able to strategize effectively as well as conduct ethnographic research effectively.
What has been the highlight of your career so far?
I don’t have one highlight. I am happiest about any work I have done that has made a contribution to the quality of life around me. I always love being published and I was delighted when my book came out because there is something to leave behind from that experience. I will admit that it is never a bad day when I hear that a former student is rocketing forward in their careers too. I am just grateful for being able to contribute and continue to grow.
Are there any books or texts that have been particularly foundational to the way you see the world?
This is a tough question. Too many options and too many facets of my life to consider when thinking about foundational texts and how I see the world. I suppose, off the top of my head, I think Anne Fadiman’s 1997 The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors and the Collision of Two Cultures because it articulates a number of things I care about in one work. It was written by a journalist but demonstrates sound ethnographic effort, demonstrates how cultural and linguistic difference can be dangerous (in this case medically), has become a required text in the ethics instruction of medical professionals when it was not written to be that at all, and it is compellingly written in engaging and beautiful prose. So it involves culture, fieldwork, ethics, and great writing. I’m not sure if it is foundational or if it crystalizes the way I see the world, but it’s a great book. There are likely many others if I think long enough, but let’s stick there.
What general advice do you have for graduate students, particularly during the COVID era?
Graduate school is never easy. It is hugely demanding under the best of circumstances. But the demanding nature of it is part of your conditioning. When I was applying for dissertation funding, I realized that the demands of coursework at Penn—which I often found unrelenting— had conditioned me to compete for funding and to scope and plan to accomplish the work in ways that would not have been possible if I had not been conditioned to it. Despite all the reasons the environment is sub-optimal, keep hitting your marks. I stopped my graduate studies twice to take care of terminally ill family members. In the lunch with my committee members after my dissertation defense, we all admitted that we never thought I would be the one to complete the degree. The reason I got there was because I found a topic I cared about enough to finish. So, find something to care about for your research and writing projects. And, unless there is some kind of exceptional impediment, keep on top of them. Graduate school is a firehose, but it will shape your ability to accomplish a high volume of work in whatever career you choose. And the thing about a firehose is that it does not stop, so there will be another deadline on top of you after this one so keep meeting them and moving forward. One day, it will be over!
Any fun facts you’d like to share with the SSP community?
I am aiming to start a new research project that examines violence reduction efforts among the refugee community I studied for my dissertation fieldwork. I have had to keep postponing it for the last three years and may have found a way to take it up again in the near term. Stay tuned.
The views expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government