Ethnographic research in the intelligence community: opportunities and challenges

Bridget Nolan

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This article considers lessons learned from conducting research inside the intelligence community. Drawing on a year of ethnographic field work and interviews at the National Counterterrorism Center, I show that “boundary personnel”- people who navigate between the worlds of academia and national security - provide value added in the form of tacit knowledge that outside researchers would not be able to deliver. At the same time, these people face delays, challenges to freedom of information, and ethical considerations that are unique to their positions. Despite setbacks, social scientists must continue their engagement with national security organizations to further our understanding of how these powerful institutions operate.
Original languageEnglish
Article number5
Pages (from-to)1-31
Number of pages31
JournalSecrecy and Society
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2018
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Version archived for private and non-commercial use with the permission of the author/s and according to publisher conditions. For further rights please contact the publisher.


  • Central Intelligence Agency
  • CIA
  • counterterrorism
  • ethnography
  • Intelligence Community
  • National Counterterrorism Center
  • NCTC
  • organizational culture
  • sociology
  • tacit knowledge

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