Whatever happened to military sociology?

Whatever happened to military sociology? February 6, 2012

There’s a graduate student I know who has a significant interest in what’s called military sociology. Never having studied it, I can’t comment a great deal on what its boundaries are. I just know that it’s not exactly a thriving sub-discipline within American sociology. That’s a little strange, given that we’ve fought two wars that have spanned the past decade and Iraq and Afghanistan are never out of the news. So far as I can tell, military sociology would be located within the ASA section on Peace, War, and Conflict—also not a large section (I suspect—I’m not sure).

Charles Moskos was considered the finest military sociologist of his era, although he’s probably only known broadly for coining the term (and the now-defunct doctrine of) DADT: don’t ask, don’t tell. Apparently he was a fan of restoring the draft, which he believed would fashion a sense of common purpose among diverse groups, as compulsory military service appears to do in Israel. I suspect it’s not been considered closely because it’s not been necessary, and because a very large standing army is too expensive to maintain. And if your odds of being drafted are relatively poor, the “shared sense of purpose” becomes shared rather narrowly, thus probably defeating the point.

A veteran himself, Moskos traveled to numerous areas of conflict for research purposes. I know there have been professional anthropologists who’ve been embedded, at different times, with the US Army in Afghanistan. But I’m not aware of any sociologists who’ve done the same. (Again, I could very well be wrong—it’s rather difficult to keep track of an entire discipline, especially one you’re not a member of.)  A 2009 New York Times article suggests the embedding business wasn’t too popular with the AAA, the American Anthropological Association. A report investigating the Pentagon’s Human Terrain System “cited insufficient training to prepare scholars for work in the field, concern about confidentiality and obtaining informed consent from the local population, and the possibility that collected research could be used to select military targets. Scholars are supposed to refuse to hand over any data they suspect will be used for choosing targets.” While I recognize that the crossover appeal of embedding oneself with military forces is the best way to get data, I’m not surprised that the true independence of the researchers and their data would be at stake and potentially compromised.

Back to military sociology—why is it so Spartan, so under the radar (pardon the puns)? The answer, I presume, lies in professional self-selectivity. Sociology, as you may know, isn’t known for its conservativeness. (As if you didn’t already know, it tends to attract people who wish to change the world—in certain directions.) And the military remains one of the more conservative organizations in the U.S. It’s not that the military takes political sides. (In a democracy like ours, that is a wonderful thing.) It’s that people who join the military are more apt to be political conservative, especially in the officer corps. I’m not talking Tea-Party conservative, necessarily, just plain old conservative. So interest in the military, and weapons, and combat, and the details and logistics of global conflict just tends to be something that sociologists aren’t known for.

Insofar as questions about the military concern issues and topics more commonly located within sociologists’ purview—like ones of race and gender—then we’ll see more sociological studies of the military. (I recently considered pursuing a study of deployed families and their marriages, but didn’t move forward with it.) But even so, there still doesn’t seem to be a lot going on. Minimally, a sociological study or two of how nixing DADT is working out seems merited. Sandwiched here in Austin between the military hubs of Fort Hood and Joint Base San Antonio (two Air Force bases and an Army installation), you’d think there would be some significant military sociology going on in central Texas. But I don’t think there is. That strikes me as unfortunate. One of my colleagues, John Butler—a Vietnam veteran himself—has written on military sociology at various times during his career, including a book with Charles Moskos, and actively supports this student. But he’s typically busy running other things these days. So I’m just struck, and disappointed, that there aren’t more sociologists out there studying the military and human interaction during conflict. I get the dangerous part, but it’s still unfortunate. Here’s to more in the future.

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  • ASA section sizes are available: http://www.asanet.org/sections/Final2011Counts.cfm Peace, War and Conflict isn’t big, but it is bigger than 7 others.

    I’m currently aware of two dissertations underway that would fit under some aspect of “military sociology.” So maybe it’s making a comeback. Or maybe it just happens to be who I know…

  • Remi

    If you’re interested in finding specific names, then you can check out Armed Forces and Society (either the journal or the annual conference) to discover contemporary scholars, including sociologists, who study the armed forces. Some examples include: University of Maryland has the Segals, West Point has Ender, University of Texas has Burke, and there are other sociologists that study the military. But I agree the subfield of military sociology remains a small one, and some of your theories for why that is the case seem persuasive.

  • Mary Kniskern

    Military is a small, but thriving, community within the discipline of sociology.
    Point your graduate student friend toward the Inter-University Symposium on Armed Forces & Society, the organization behind the journal Armed Forces & Society. The University of Maryland hosts the Center for Research on the Military Organization, under the direction of Dr. David R. Segal.
    Military sociology did struggle a bit following the Vietnam War, but has been much more active in recent decades. Unlike many other specialties within the field of sociology, military sociology has an active component that speaks to policy concerns of military and civilian leaders.