Relationships with God and Community as Critical Nodes in Center of Gravity Analysis

The formalization of systems-thinking into doctrine is a good step to help joint planners and strategists visualize and make sense of an increasingly complex and interconnected world. That said, failing to account for relationships with a god and community often results in inadequate center of gravity analysis. Social network analysis further hampers strategists’ ability to account for these significant relationships in people’s lives by only accounting for concrete nodes and links. Strategists should be unbound by academic restrictions and develop a formal accounting for subjective perspectives of religion and significant relationships with community and god that is separate from the current black box of social and cultural analysis. Relational Models Theory is one particular framework for analysis.

Systems Thinking in Doctrine

There is a blind spot in U.S. joint doctrine that continually hinders operational planning and strategy development. This blind spot is a failure to account for critical relationships with a person’s conception of god and their community, and how these relationships impact the operational environment. Without rehashing all of the Command and General Staff College coursework, U.S. joint doctrine defines systems perspectives as “relationships between all aspects of the system” (JP 5-0, III-10) and uses them to help commanders take a holistic approach to the operational environment. A common framework for analyzing the operational environment is the political, military, economic, social, information, and infrastructure framework, taking a concrete view of the operational environment and focusing on elements that can be quantified and measured. Doctrine defines the operational environment as a set of “conditions, circumstances, and influences that affect the employment of capabilities and bear on the decisions of the commander.”[1] Critically, it encourages a systems perspective in order to consider all of the relevant relationships at play in a specific operational environment.

That relationships are important is not under debate, and relationships are a fundamental part of everyday life. Social networks research within sociology has a well-established field of study and offers support for the doctrinal emphasis on taking a systems approach. Relationships are important predictors for influencing risky behavior, health, educational outcomes, and access to good jobs.[2] Relationships also influence political beliefs and attitudes through people’s networks.[3] Yet the consequences of these relationships for people’s behavior appears to be only moderately considered as a potential center of gravity, instead focusing on military forces as an easily identified and quantifiable target. This is understandable—the military is designed to attack military targets with hard power. Understanding religion and society’s role in enabling a society’s use of military force is inherently more difficult than counting the number of weapons systems an enemy has at its disposal. That said, ignoring the people aspect of Clausewitz's trinity results in an incomplete analysis.

Social Network Analysis

Social network analysis has benefited from an explosion of data research and techniques. It also benefits from having a relatively well-worn theory from which to build. What social network analysis brings to the doctrinal discussion of systems is the predictive power of patterns of relationships between concrete social ties.[4] It should come as no surprise that something measurable and clearly delineated is an attractive tool for those in the military seeking to quantify a complex system of relationships.

Fundamentally, social network analysis promises the ability to account for people’s behaviors without accounting for culture or psychological makeup. However, more recent research has demonstrated that culture may not be entirely discounted.[5] As with joint doctrine, social network analysis fails to account for a critical relationship that the vast majority of the non-WEIRD (western, industrialized, rich, democratic) world attributes fundamental importance.[6] By drawing a map of social life that deliberately excludes relationships to g/God(s), social network analysis is arguably hampered by the same fundamental limitations of doctrine.[7]

PMESII: Analyzing Society the WEIRD Way

The political, military, economic, social, information, and infrastructure framework is a fundamentally WEIRD approach that ignores the critical role that some form of religion, as a source of binding individuals to their groups, plays in every society.[8] One could argue that religion is accounted for in of the doctrinal framework under the social domain.[9] This domain isn’t well fleshed out, though, and is limited to the broad hand wave of "social issues."[10] Joint Publication 2-01, Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield fares little better by lumping everything from the “cultural impact of past wars” to “religious affiliations between groups” into the social subsystem.[11] Even with that overly broad definition, there is scant attention paid to how individuals attach to their groups through these social ties.[12] Additionally, failing to account for the fundamental role that people’s beliefs play in their lives imports western, rational assumptions into our analysis of the operational environment that may have little to no validity outside of western cultural norms.

Western, industrialized, rich, democratic society in general has a difficult relationship with god and the supernatural. In the post World War II world, vast numbers of people gained access to education in an unprecedented societal shift, and as education has increased, gods and religion have been reduced or eliminated as a causal explanation for people’s actions.[13] Secularization theory posits that religion is dying off as a cursory glance at the evidence such as the rising incidents of nones—those individuals with no religious preference—seems to indicate.[14] This has led vocal critics of religion to argue religion is not only dying as a form of public participation but is possibly unnecessary for a good society to exist.[15] This ignores the sociological fact that every society needs something to bind it together in order to exist.[16]

Social analysis at the doctrinal level regularly imports western assumptions into distinctly non-western frameworks. The underlying assumption in doctrine is the belief in the rational actor: that people’s choices are rational and thus based in maximizing self-interest.[17] This is fundamentally individualistic and anchored in western worldview, but, critically, it is focused on this world. Any attention paid to beliefs in the afterlife are typically hand-waved, and there appears to be limited discussion of how these beliefs motivate people's behavior in this world. 

Islamic State militants parade in Tel Abyad, near Syria's border with Turkey. (Yaser Al-Khodor/Reuters)

Consider The Atlantic's startling acknowledgement that we don’t even understand the idea of the Islamic State, let alone how to combat it. Indeed, “much of what the group does looks nonsensical except in light of a sincere, carefully considered commitment to returning civilization to a seventh-century legal environment, and ultimately to bringing about the apocalypse.”[18] The idea that a group of people living in today’s world could honestly, deeply, and truly want to bring about an end times judgment day battle seems ludicrous to many living in the West. That is until you consider that somewhere around 40% of Americans believe they are living in the End Times.[19] It’s fine to argue people’s religious beliefs have consequences, but how do we capture this in doctrine and enable better analysis of the operational environment? And how do we adequately capture the role of beliefs in a relationship (with a god/God) that is fundamentally impossible to quantify and yet has real consequences for people’s actions?

The Moral Ties that Bind

The role of culture, values, morals, and religious belief is not without controversy, and discussing it often defaults to a black-box hand wave. Because we cannot say how it works, we tend to focus on the things we can account for,such as basic economic and physiological needs. However, sociological analysis offers some insights into how strategists and planners can better account for these invisible ties.

In an unpublished paper, Duke Ph.d. candidate Nicholas Bloom argues that people’s relationship with God constitutes a concrete network tie and that it should be included in social network analysis. People’s stated beliefs in God and in future spouses who do not exist yet offer causal explanations for outcomes.[20] For example, a person who responds when she is seventeen that she believes her future spouse will want her to be a virgin on her wedding night is significantly more likely to make choices that result in retaining her virginity.[21] This envisioning of a future relationship impacts this person’s choices because it fundamentally shapes her view of what it means to be a good wife, not only in her mind but also in the mind of a future husband. This conception of a future relationship can be captured and measured in social network analysis. That said, it does broaden the generally accepted academic scope of what constitutes a concrete tie.

Relational Models Theory supports the argument that people’s perceived relationships (such as relationships with g/God) have real consequences for their behavior.[22] People’s conception of themselves as a participant in a social relationship, even if that relationship is imaginary or nonexistent, offers explanation for actions which, from the outsider’s point of view, would be fundamentally immoral or irrational.[23]

Furthermore, people’s participation in these relationships informs their sense of identity, thus offering insight into how individuals bind to their community and their gods. For example, there are stories of the wives of Islamic State members releasing their husbands’ sex slave prisoners. Marxist gender theory argues these women should feel solidarity with the women abused by their husbands.[24] However, these women report releasing the slaves because their husbands were spending too much time with their slaves and not having sex with them.[25] Their identity as good wives was predicated on the relationship with their husbands and that their husbands should be having sex with them, not their slaves. Conversely, the husbands’ ideas about what it meant to be a good man (in relationship to their perceived Islamic community and their relationship with Allah) meant treating their wives and slaves according to their perception of how their community—not a global community—expects them to act. This has little to do with the actual teachings of Islam, and applying reason to the debate misses the fundamental reality.

IS fighters praying (

Relational Models Theory constitutes a framework of analysis that enables planners and strategists to understand and evaluate a moral element to centers of gravity analysis that must be effectively analyzed, understood, and taken seriously. For example, if we assume that men who join the Islamic State merely want jobs, we are making assumptions about their relationship with their community based on western ideas about work and the perceived value of people in an economic system. There is no job that can compete with the power the Islamic State gives these men, unchecked by modern systems such as the rule of secular law and women’s rights.[26] They are granted authority and thus power over the people around them through the moral force of pseudo religious declarations. They have moral authority and power over the women who are their wives and slaves, and their actions are morally justified as what men should do and be.

A social analysis that concludes the men drawn to the Islamic State want jobs misses the critical relationships that inform their identity. A job that offers a wage without status does not and can not meet the same fundamental needs. A monetary transaction for a mere wage doesn’t even come close to offering the sense of status and prestige offered by the Islamic State. Thus, focusing on their ability to fight does nothing to attack their belief that fighting is the right and moral thing to do because it is what is expected by their community.

The Social Center of Gravity

Center of gravity analysis is designed to identify those factors that enable the enemy to fight or impact their will to fight. Any social analysis should focus on those ties that bind the group together. Understanding the source of cohesion—regardless of how irrational it may seem—is fundamental to understanding critical requirements and vulnerabilities. Framing this analysis through a western lens often means ignoring or dismissing the impact of a relationship with both g/God and community as a critical requirement in center of gravity analysis.  

To ensure that the center of gravity analysis accurately targets the correct center of gravity—the one that actually breaks the enemy’s will to fight (and not necessarily their ability), the social analysis of any operational environment should answer a question: What binds individuals to their group? Planners cannot and should not use western assumptions about what it means to be a good member of the community and instead need to understand these relationships from the point of view of the community they are analyzing. That means taking seriously people’s relationships and how those relationships inform an individual’s sense of self. 

Considering people’s network ties from their point of view is a paradigm shift in a framework that seems to be dominated by a rational choice theory based on assumptions. Viewing their relationships with g/God and community as a desired function—no matter how distasteful the functions may appear—alters the assumptions planners make when evaluating the operational environment. Social network analysis that accounts for invisible-yet-concrete ties can better frame the social aspect of the operational environment and thus more accurately assess critical requirements and vulnerabilities in center of gravity analysis instead of only focusing on military targets.  

Jessica Dawson is an assistant professor at the United States Military Academy and holds a Ph.D. in sociology from Duke University. She has published numerous fiction and nonfiction works about soldiers returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. She is currently a fellow with the Modern War Institute. he views expressed in this article are the author’s alone, and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: An engraving of the Battle of Ascalon by C.W. Sharpe (Wikimedia)


[1] “Joint Publication 5-0: Joint Operation Planning,” III-8.

[2] Kreager and Haynie, “Dangerous Liaisons?”; Khan et al., “Shared Identity Predicts Enhanced Health at a Mass Gathering”; Harding, “The Cultural Context of Disadvantaged Neighborhoods”; Rivera, “Hiring as Cultural Matching”; Lizardo, “How Cultural Tastes Shape Personal Networks”; McPherson and Ranger-Moore, “Evolution on a Dancing Landscape.”

[3] Vaisey and Boutyline, “Belief Network Analysis: A Relational Approach to Understanding the Structure of Attitudes.”

[4] White, Boorman, and Breiger, “Social Structure from Multiple Networks. I. Blockmodels of Roles and Positions.”

[5] Vaisey, “Motivation and Justification”; Lizardo, “How Cultural Tastes Shape Personal Networks.”

[6] Gray and Keeney, “Impure or Just Weird?”

[7] Bloom, “Imaginary Ties.”

[8] Durkheim, The elementary forms of the religious life.

[9] From JP 5-0 Operational Planning: political, military, economic, social, information, infrastructure

[10] “Joint Publication 5-0: Joint Operation Planning,” C-2.

[11] “Joint Publication 2-01: Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield.”

[12] Durkheim, The elementary forms of the religious life; Haidt and Graham, “Planet of the Durkheimians, Where Community, Authority, and Sacredness Are Foundations of Morality.”

[13] Meyer, “The Effects of Education as an Institution”; Parsons, “The School Class as a Social System Some of Its Functions in American Society.”

[14] Ecklund, Park, and Veliz, “Secularization and Religious Change among Elite Scientists.”

[15] Harris, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Morality; Edgell, Gerteis, and Hartmann, “Atheists as ‘Other’: Moral Boundaries and Cultural Membership in American Society.”

[16] Durkheim, “The Elementary Forms of Religious Life”

[17] Kraus and Coleman, “Morality and the Theory of Rational Choice.”

[18] Wood, “What ISIS Really Wants - The Atlantic.”

[19] Unger, “American Rapture”; Boyer, When Time Shall Be No More.

[20] Bloom, “Imaginary Ties.”

[21] Vaisey, “What People Want”; Vaisey, “Motivation and Justification”; Vaisey and Miles, “What You Can—and Can’t—Do with Three-Wave Panel Data1.”

[22] Fiske, Rai, and Pinker, Virtuous Violence.

[23] Fiske, Rai, and Pinker, 17.

[24] Grusky, Ku, and Szelényi, Social Stratification.

[25] Moore, “ISIS Document Reveals Group’s Policy on Sex Slaves”; Callimachi, “Freed From ISIS, Yazidi Women Return in ‘Severe Shock.’”

[26] Fiske, Rai, and Pinker, Virtuous Violence; Giner-Sorolla, Leidner, and Castano, “Dehumanization, Demonization and Morality Shifting: Paths to Moral Certainty in Extremist Violence.