Military Sociology Research Paper

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The study of armed forces is somewhat of an anomaly in the sociological discipline. Although possessing an extensive and cumulative literature, the sociology of the military is rarely included in the university curriculum. Moreover, discipline boundaries for students of the armed forces have been exceptionally permeable. Sociologists of the armed forces have long relied on the work of other students of military in such allied disciplines as political science, psychology, and history. In recent years, there has been an increasing overlap with peace studies and national security studies. Beyond academia there is a larger group— variously, present and past members of the military, defenders and critics of military organization, and journalists—who both give insights and serve as a corrective for professional sociologists of the military. Indeed, few substantive areas in sociology have such a diffuse and broad constituency as does the study of armed forces and society.

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One readily observed trend in the sociological study of military phenomena is its widening purview. Where earlier accounts saw the military as a self-contained organizational entity, contemporary accounts regard the military and civilian spheres as interactive. The sense of the broadened scope is captured in the contemporary preference for the term ‘armed forces and society’ with its more inclusive connotations, as opposed to the more delimited ‘military sociology.’ Precisely because the study of armed forces and society has become so overarching, it is convenient to present the extant literature by discrete topical constructs: (a) the professional soldier; (b) the combat soldier; (c) the common soldier; (d) the citizen soldier; and (e) organizational change.

1. The Professional Soldier

The basic referents for discussion of military professionalism are to be found in two landmark studies that first appeared in the interwar years between Korea and Vietnam. Samuel P. Huntington, The Soldier and the State (1957), and Morris Janowitz, The Professional Soldier (1960), shared a common perspective in that they eschewed negative stereotypes of the military officer. This was in contrast to the contemporaneous thesis of C. Wright Mills (1956) characterizing military leaders as ‘warlords’ wielding enormous influence in the ‘power elite.’

Huntington and Janowitz also agreed that the complexities of modern warfare and international polices required new formulation of military officership. They differed, however, in their conceptual and programmatic portrayal of modern military professionalism. For Huntington, military efficiency and political neutrality require a form of insulation from the values of the larger and more liberal society. Janowitz, on the other hand, proposes that military professionalism should be responsive to, but not overwhelmed by, external conditions such as managerial skills, civilian educational influences, and emergent social forces. Subsequent studies of the professional officer have been strongly influenced by these contrasting ideal types.

A hardy perennial in the professional soldier literature has been the examination of the social origins of career officers and socialization at military academies. Research on this subject has been as notable in European military sociology as in the USA. The general conclusion is that professional self-definitions are much more shaped by anticipatory and concurrent socialization than by social background variables.

In the USA, media attention in 1999 was focused on studies that presented evidence of a ‘civil-military gap.’ The overall finding was one of a growing social conservatism within the officer corps that was increasingly alienated from the social values of the larger society (Feaver and Kohn 1999). At the same time, however, public opinion surveys reported that the armed forces were accorded the highest evaluation among US institutions.

If research on military professionalism in the USA, Western Europe, and other advanced democracies was becoming more notable in the contemporary period, studies of military officers in other areas followed a different pattern. During the 1970s the literature on the military in Third World countries was quite extensive, but has since declined. The literature on military officers in underdeveloped areas was marked by two quite opposing schools, one seeing the armed forces as ‘moderinizers,’ the other as ‘praetorians.’

2. The Combat Soldier

Any discussion of the combat soldier must use as a benchmark the surveys of World War II reported in the volumes of The American Soldier by Samuel Stouffer and his associates (1949 Vol. II). These studies reveal a profoundly nonideological soldier. The key explanation of combat motivation was seen as a function of the soldier’s solidarity and social cohesion with fellow soldiers at small group levels. Shils and Janowitz (1948) reported similar findings based on interviews with German prisoners of war. The overriding salience of the primary group became an accepted tenet of military sociology.

Moskos’ (1970) observations of US combat soldiers in Vietnam, however, indicated that the concept of primary groups had limitations. The combat soldier in Vietnam had a more privatized view of the war fostered by the one-year rotation system in contrast to his World War II counterpart who was in the war for the duration. Moskos’ Vietnam research, moreover, found that although the US soldiers had a general aversion to overt patriotic appeals, this should not obscure underlying beliefs as to the war’s legitimacy, or ‘latent ideology,’ as a factor affecting combat performance and commitment.

The increasing use of armed forces in peacekeeping missions starting in the 1990s has focused attention on the contrast between soldiers as ‘warriors’ or ‘humanitarians.’ One the one hand, the conventional wisdom is that ‘operations other than war’ undermine combat effectiveness. Field research, however, indicates that many soldiers themselves view peacekeeping as conducive to overall military effectiveness (Miller 1997). In any event, the peacekeeping literature has become another genre in military sociology, replacing to a major extent the earlier interest on the combat soldier. Much of this was anticipated by Janowitz’s (1960) earlier formulation of the emerging ‘constabulary’ role of the military.

3. The Common or Enlisted Soldier

The benchmark referent for any discussion of the common or enlisted soldier (‘other ranks’ in British terminology) is again the volumes of The American Soldier (Stouffer et al. 1949, Vol. I). Never before or since have so many aspects of military life been so systematically studied. These materials largely revolved around the enlisted culture and race relations as well as combat motivation. These issues continue to interest military sociologists, with the more recent topical additions of gender and sexual orientation. A lacuna in the military sociology of enlisted personnel has been the near absence of studies of sailors, airmen, or marines.

The overriding finding of The American Soldier (Stouffer et al. 1949, Vol II) was the pervasive enlisted resentment toward the privileged status of officers. The centrality of the enlisted–officer cleavage was further corroborated by other sociologists, who described the military from the vantage of active-duty participation in World War II. Starting in the Cold War period, another distinction in the military structure appeared. The college-educated draftee is described as far more alienated from his enlisted peers of lower socioeconomic background than he is from officers with whom he shares a similar class background. In the Vietnam War, the most significant cleavage was between single-term servicemen and career servicemen, cutting across ranks (Moskos 1970). In the post-Cold War era, yet another cleavage has appeared, that between soldiers serving in combat units and those in support units.

One of the most celebrated findings of The American Soldier was the discovery that the more contact white soldiers had with black troops, the more favorable was their reaction toward racial integration (Stouffer et al. 1949, Vol. II). Such social science findings were used to buttress the arguments that led to the abolishment of racial segregation in the armed forces. By the early 1950s this integration was an accomplished fact, resulting in a far-reaching transformation of a major US institution. Following ups and downs in race relations during the 1960s and 1970s, the armed forces by the 1990s were viewed as model for black leadership in a racially integrated institution. One key finding, however, was that blacks consistently take a more negative view of race relations than do whites.

If race relations, relatively speaking, were positive in the armed forces, the interactions between men and women were viewed as more problematic. By the 1990s, the role of women had greatly expanded in the US armed forces to the point where women were in nearly all positions excepting direct ground combat. Much public and media attention was focused on recurrent scandals involving sexual harassment and adultery in the military. Indeed, between 1995 and 2000 more books were written on gender than on any other topic in the armed forces. One key finding is that enlisted women and women officers were not in accord on the role of females in the armed forces, the former favoring a more limited role than the latter (Miller 1998).

4. The Citizen Soldier

A running theme in American military life has been the juxtaposition of the professional soldier and the citizen soldier. The notion of the citizen soldier raises the twin issues of the extent to which military life affects civilian sensibilities of noncareer soldiers and civilian input affects the military system. Although topics such as reserve forces and officer training programs on college campuses are directly related to the concept of the citizen soldier, these topics have not been objects of major research by military sociologists.

The controversies over conscription during the Vietnam War did relate conceptual issues and empirical findings to the sociology of the citizen soldier. Even with the end of the draft in 1973, sociological interest in the citizen soldier remained strong (Segal 1989). The policy debate on the all-volunteer force and military recruitment has largely become one between sociologists and economists.

5. Organizational Change

A major paradigm for understanding change in the military organization is the institutional–occupation thesis (Moskos and Wood 1988). Where an institution is legitimated in terms of values and norms, an occupation is based on the marketplace economy. In an institution, role commitments tend to be diffuse, reference groups are ‘vertical’ (i.e., within the organization), and compensation is based on rank and seniority. In an occupation, role commitments tend to be specific, reference groups are ‘horizontal’ (i.e., with like workers external to the organization), and compensation is based on skill level and labor market considerations. An ideal type formulation, the ‘I O’ thesis has served as a basis for much subsequent research in Western military systems outside the USA. The overarching thesis is that contemporary military organizations are moving away from an institutional format to one more resembling that of an occupational one.

In the wake of the end of the Cold War, even more momentous changes are occurring within armed forces of Western societies. The modern military that emerged in the nineteenth century was associated with the rise of the nation-state. It was a conscripted mass army, war-oriented in mission, masculine in makeup and ethos, and sharply differentiated in structure and culture from civilian society. The ‘postmodern’ military, by contrast, loosens the ties with the nation-state, becomes multipurpose in mission, and moves toward a smaller volunteer force. It is increasingly androgynous in makeup and ethos and has a greater permeability with civilian society (Moskos et al. 2000).

At the turn of the new century, military sociology has yet to find a significant niche within the academic community. Yet military sociologists are increasingly being noted by the media and policy makers.


  1. Feaver P D, Kohn R H 1999 Project on the Gap Between the Military and Ci ilian Society. Triangle Institute for Security Studies, Durham, NC
  2. Huntington S P 1957 The Soldier and the State. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA
  3. Janowitz M 1960 The Professional Soldier. Free Press, Glencoe, IL
  4. Miller L L 1997 Do soldiers hate peacekeeping? Armed Forces and Society 23: 415–50
  5. Miller L L 1998 Feminism and the exclusion of army women from combat. Gender Issues 16: 333–64
  6. Mills C W 1956 The Power Elite. Oxford University Press, New York
  7. Moskos C C Jr 1970 The American Enlisted Man. Russell Sage Foundation, New York
  8. Moskos C C, Wood F R 1988 The Military More Than Just a Job? 1st edn. Pergamon–Brassey’s International Defense Publishers, Washington, DC
  9. Moskos C C Williams J A Segal D R (eds.) 2000 The Postmodern Military. Oxford University Press, New York
  10. Segal D R 1989 Recruiting for Uncle Sam. University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, IN
  11. Shils E A, Janowitz M 1948 Cohesion and disintegration in the wehrmacht in World War II. Public Opinion Quarterly 12: 280–315
  12. Stouffer S A et al. 1949 The American Soldier. Vol. I: Adjustment During Army Life. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ
  13. Stouffer S A et al. 1949 The American Soldier. Vol. II: Combat and its Aftermath. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ
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