Military Sociology

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Military sociology has been a relatively minor field in American sociology. Few sociologists conduct research and write on military topics, and few university departments offer courses of study in this field. To the layperson this circumstance may seem rather curious, given the sheer size and complexity of the military enterprise and the effects of war on individual societies and on the world order as a whole. The Vietnam War of the 1960s and the Persian Gulf War of 1991are reminders of the impact that military institutions and operations have on American society.

There is no single reason for this lack of emphasis. One reason may be ideological aversion to military matters. Most sociologists fall on the liberal side of the political spectrum, which has tended to emphasize the peace rather than the war aspect of international relations. Another reason may be that support for most military research requires clear policy applications, and applied research is of less interest to the majority of sociologists. Unlike other social sciences, sociology has not developed a sizable cadre of practitioners who conduct research and policy studies in those nonacademic settings where most military research takes place.

There are notable exceptions. One is the classic work of Samuel Stouffer and colleagues during World War II, The American Soldier (1949). Its studies of cohesion, morale, and race relations among combat units made critical contributions to both sociological theory and military personnel policies. The work of Morris Janowitz on organizational and occupational changes in the military is also a significant exception to the rule (Janowitz 1960). Charles Moskos at Northwestern University and David and Mady Segal at the University of Maryland are upholding this tradition today, and their universities are among the few that offer courses on military sociology.

In recent years most of the studies that could be classified as military sociology have been carried out in private research institutes or in military agencies, such as the Rand Corporation, the Brookings Institute, the Human Resources Research Organization (HumRRO), the Army Research Institute, and the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Study teams are generally interdisciplinary, with the fields of psychology, economics, political science, and management frequently represented. While these studies have a sociological complexion, they are not limited to sociological concepts or theory, and they usually have a military policy focus.

Much of the published work in this field consists of reports from these various organizations and agencies. No journal is devoted specifically to military sociology, although there is an American Sociological Association Section on Peace and War. Armed Forces and Society is an interdisciplinary journal that focuses on social science topics in the military, and Military Psychology, published by the Division on Military Psychology of the American Psychological Association, also covers topics of sociological interest.

This review emphasizes contemporary issues and studies in military sociology, most of which focus on the American military. For reviews that include historical perspectives the reader is referred elsewhere (D. R. Segal 1989; D. R. Segal and M. W. Segal 1991).


Without question the most significant issue in American military sociology following World War II is the shift from conscription to voluntary service in 1973. Indeed, many contemporary issues in military sociology—recruiting policies, social representation, and race and gender concerns—flow directly or indirectly from this change in the basis of service.

The notion of voluntary service is not new; indeed, compulsory military service has been the exception rather than the rule in the history of most Western societies, although the meaning of "involuntary" and the nature of service has changed over time. Until the Civil War, U.S. military manpower was raised through state militias, which technically encompassed all "able-bodied men" and hence might be thought of as involuntary. The raising and maintenance of militia was left to the discretion and policies of individual states, and they varied greatly in their representation and effectiveness. Although the desirability and feasibility of national conscription has been debated since the beginning of American history, until 1948 it was employed only during the Civil War and during the World Wars I and II. At all other times enlistment was voluntary (Lee and Parker 1977).

The peacetime conscription adopted in 1948 was a significant and historic departure for U.S. military policy. It was prompted by a combination of factors, including Cold War tensions with the Soviet Union, the critical role being played by the United States in defense alliances, and a perception that America had been inadequately prepared for World War II. These conditions led to proposals for a large standing, or "active-duty," military force that most believed could not be maintained by voluntary methods. The policy was supported by the American public at that time, and it was consistent with the longstanding value that all "able-bodied men" should serve their country. The end of the peacetime draft occurred in 1973 at the end of the Vietnam War. The debate over draft policies had been intensifying during the 1960s, particularly over the issue of equity. Given the growth in the American youth population (from the post–World War II baby boom), not all men were needed for the military, and a succession of draft-exemption policies—college, occupational, marriage—fueled the debate over the fairness and equity of the draft. Not only were all able-bodied men not serving, but those exempted from service tended to be from more affluent classes. In an attempt to solve the equity problem, nearly all exemptions were eliminated during the late 1960s, and a national lottery system was adopted in 1969. These changes did not quell the debate; indeed, they probably doomed the draft, since they coincided with one of the most unpopular and unsuccessful wars in America's history. Ending exemptions for college students at a time when college students were leading the movement against the Vietnam War simply fanned the flames of opposition.

On the other side of the issue, most defense and military leaders, including many members of Congress, initially opposed ending the draft. The conditions leading to a large peacetime military force (over two million active-duty personnel) were unchanged and were not under debate. If such a large force was maintained by voluntary means, it was argued, it would be either (1) a mercenary force lacking patriotic motivation, which might be either adventuresome or ineffective in large-scale combat; or (2) socially unrepresentative, thereby placing the burden of combat on minorities, the poor, and the uneducated; or (3) too costly and therefore unaffordable (D. R. Segal 1989).

The shift to voluntary service followed definitive recommendations from a presidential commission, known as the Gates Commission, which concluded that a large peacetime force could be adequately maintained with an all-voluntary force (AVF), provided that basic pay was increased to be competitive with comparable civilian jobs. The commission argued that paying enlisted personnel below-market wages not only was unfair but entailed "opportunity" costs in the form of lost productivity of persons who are compelled to work at jobs they would not voluntarily perform. If military pay and benefits were competitive, the commission's studies concluded, a volunteer force would be socially representative and would be as effective as a drafted force. Although some attention was given to the social costs of the draft, there is little question that economic analysis and arguments formed the central basis of the commission's report (President's Commission 1970).


The AVF seemed to work well for the first several years, and the dire predications of those who opposed ending the draft did not materialize. Enlistment requirements were met, and neither quality nor representation appeared much different from draft-era enlistments. The predictions of the Gates Commission seemed to be valid (Cooper 1977).

During the late 1970s, however, this positive picture faded. Military pay and benefits did not keep up with the civilian sector, and post–Vietnam War antiwar attitudes contributed to a generally negative image of the military among youth. The number and quality of new recruits began declining, and the services were forced to enlist more applicants with low aptitude scores and without high school diplomas. To make matters worse, a misnorming error was discovered in the military aptitude test (the Armed Forces Qualifying Test [AFQT]), and the quality of personnel was even lower than had been thought. By 1980 the Army was severely affected, with enlistments falling significantly below requirements and with the proportion of low-aptitude recruits—those reading at fourth- and fifth-grade levels—reaching 50 percent (Eitelberg 1988).

Some claimed that the Gates Commission had been wrong after all, and called for a return to the draft. Others, including the Secretary of the Army, proposed eliminating the aptitude and education standards that had been used since the draft era, arguing that they were not important for military job performance and were potentially discriminatory. Yet others argued that both the AVF and quality standards could be maintained but only by increasing pay and benefits to enable competition with the civilian sector. Critical to this third argument were the policy studies led by the Rand Corporation showing a relationship between aptitudes and military job performance and the feasibility of economic incentives for enlistment (Armor et al. 1982; Polich et al. 1986). Substantial increases in pay and other benefits in the early 1980s, as well as changes in recruiting techniques including advertising, had a dramatic impact on recruiting success. By the late 1980s, all military services, including the Army, were not only meeting requirement quotas but setting new records in the quality of personnel, surpassing even the draft years in the proportion of recruits with high school diplomas and with higher aptitudes. Most military leaders, many of whom had been skeptical about ending the draft, became strong supporters of the AVF and claimed that morale and skills were at all-time highs and discipline problems were at all-time lows. Although this success did require significant increases in the military personnel budget, both the Congress and the public seemed prepared to pay this cost (Bowman et al. 1986).

The one argument against voluntary service that had never been tested empirically was the combat effectiveness of a market-motivated military. The dramatic success of the American forces in the 1991 Persian Gulf War put an end to any doubt about the ability of a volunteer military to operate successfully. Although high-technology weapons systems received much of the publicity during the war, most military leaders gave as much credit to the skill and morale of their troops, especially in comparison to the poorly trained and demoralized Iraqi soldiers.

Two major events, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the U.S. budget deficit crisis, combined to force major reductions in the size of the active military, which also meant fewer new recruits needed to sustain the smaller force. In spite of lower recruiting targets, recruit quality began edging downward again after the Persian Gulf War. The main causes were thought to be a combination of less positive attitudes toward military on the part of youth, and an increase in the proportion of youth deciding to attend college (Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense 1998). Although some concerns have surfaced in the military community about these downward trends, by 1998 overall recruit quality was still similar to the successful levels seen during the late 1980s. A mitigating factor is the trend in the number of 18-year-olds, which declined between 1980 and 1992 but has been increasing since then and is expected to continue to grow until 2010.


Social representation is the degree to which an armed force represents the population from which it has been drawn. Although representation has been a longstanding issue in the United States, concerns were heightened during the AVF era, especially since that era happened to coincide with increasing emphasis on ethnic and gender diversity throughout American society. Racial representation was an issue in both the Vietnam War and the Persian Gulf War, when some civil rights leaders alleged that African Americans were overrepresented in armed forces and hence carried an unfair burden of casualties. Gender representation has developed as a major issue in concert with the women's rights movement, generating major policy changes concerning the participation of women in the military. Finally, with the election of President Bill Clinton and his campaign commitment to overturn the military ban on gays and lesbians, for the first time the issue of sexual orientation became the focus of a major military policy debate.

Debates about social representation usually divide over positions on three basic principles: equity, effectiveness, and responsiveness. The equity principle has two aspects. One is the equity of obligation, meaning that the burden of service and the risks of combat should be borne by all segments of the citizenry. Since a national military force defends the interests of an entire country and entails the risk of casualties, this obligation should be shared uniformly by all citizens, or at least all able-bodied persons. Placing this burden unequally upon certain socioeconomic or racial groups not only violates the canons of fairness in democratic societies but also potentially undermines troop morale and motivation if they perceive the disproportion as unfair (Congressional Budget Office 1989). The other aspect is the equity of access, which often means that racial minorities, women, and homosexuals should be allowed to serve in the military according to their abilities and interests, without artificial restrictions or ceilings.

The principle of effectiveness is raised because most military experts believe that the quality of military personnel in terms of education and aptitude directly influence training and combat effectiveness, and therefore a force that underrepresents quality personnel will be less effective than a representative force. Although the armed services have attained their quality goals since the late 1980s, there is no guarantee that they can always do so, particularly if military pay and benefits do not keep up with civilian compensation. The effectiveness principle is also invoked by some military experts as a counterargument to the equity position, arguing that allowing women in combat units or open homosexuals in any type of unit will undermine unit morale and cohesion, thereby reducing military effectiveness.

Finally, a representative armed force is sometimes seen as a requirement for military acceptance of civilian control as well as respect for democratic values and institutions. A military force that overrepresents particular social strata or groups (not necessarily lower strata) might place parochial interests or values over the interests and values of the society as a whole. A force drawn proportionately from all major sectors of a society—all regions, races, and social classes—is viewed as one most likely to respect and advance the shared values and goals of the total society.

Racial Representation. One of the most frequently expressed concerns about representation during the AVF era has been the overrepresentation of African Americans and lower socioeconomic groups in the armed services, especially in the Army. Given the early experience with the AVF, this concern is not without some justification, although the situation improved considerably during the 1980s.

Table 1 shows the percentage of black recruits for selected years since the end of the draft in 1973. Black overrepresentation reached its peak in 1979, before the aptitude misnorming error was discovered. Black representation declined during the early 1980s after the military corrected its screening test. It edged back up during the late 1980s, but it declined again during the early 1990s, when recruiting was scaled back in response to the smaller permanent force. Even during the draft years, black representation exceeded the black proportion of the youth population, due in part to higher voluntary enlistment and—prior to the Vietnam War—in part to college exemption policies that applied disproportionately to white youth. During most of the 1990s, black representation in the total active forces was only a few points higher than a comparable civilian population, although the trend was moving upward again toward the end of the decade, particularly in the Army.

It should not be inferred from these data that black soldiers have a risk of death or injury in combat that is disproportionately higher than that of white soldiers. In fact, black enlisted members in the active-duty forces tend to be underrepresented in combat occupations such as infantry, gun crews, and combat ships and overrepresented in administrative, clerical, and supply occupations. As a result, black casualty rates in wartime are in rough proportion to their share of the general civilian population. For example, in the Vietnam War black fatalities were approximately 12 percent of all American fatalities (Moskos and Butler 1996).

Some argue that these differences in representation present a policy problem, although there is no consensus on what, if anything, should be done about it. While some see black overrepresentation as a problem of burden, others see it as an opportunity for advancement in one of the best-integrated occupational sectors in American society. Higher black representation reflects a greater interest in military careers among African Americans, and any attempt to limit black enlistments could be viewed as a denial of equal opportunity. Indeed, the military in general, and the Army in particular, has been held up as a model for racial integration that should be emulated by other institutions (Moskos and Butler 1996).

Women in the Military. Another topic that has received considerable attention from military sociologists is the role of women in the military. Until 1967 women's participation in the military was limited to 2 percent by law, and most military jobs were closed to women. Even after the restriction was lifted by Congress, the representation of women did not change until the AVF policy and the opening of more noncombat jobs to women. After 1973 the percentage of women enlistees increased steadily, reaching a plateau during the 1980s of about 12 percent. Following major policy changes regarding combat restrictions in the early 1990s, the percentage of women recruits rose again, reaching a second plateau of about 18 percent during the late 1990s. This representation of women in the U.S. military is the highest among all NATO countries (Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense 1998; Stanley and Segal 1988).

Table 1
percentage of black recruits, active forces
fiscal yeararmynavymarine corpsair forcetotal active forcesu.s. population,ages 18–24

The growing participation of women in the military reflects several forces, including the need for manpower in the AVF era as well as the increased demands for equity in the treatment of men and women in the workplace. Although all military services recruited more women to help alleviate shortfalls during the 1970s, the Department of Defense has also been pressured by Congress and various interest and advisory groups to enlarge the opportunities for women. The primary barriers to expanding the role of women were statutory restrictions on the assignment of women to combat units and missions. These statutes were repealed by Congress in 1993, and by 1994 the Department of Defense had substantially modified combat restriction regulations. All combat aircraft and combat ships were opened to women (except submarines, for privacy reasons), and the only units that could be closed to women were those that involved "direct ground combat" such as infantry, armor, field artillery, and special forces (Armor 1996).

In spite of the increased participation of women, gender representation continues to be a topic of debate. Arguments against allowing women in combat jobs include physical and emotional differences, privacy and sexual behavior, impacts on unit cohesion and morale, and a basic moral position that women should be protected from the high risk of death, injury, capture, or torture faced by those in ground combat units. Proponents of opening combat jobs to women counter that (1) women should be evaluated individually and not as a group for physical and emotional suitability for combat; (2) experience with women in noncombat jobs has shown no serious adverse impacts on unit cohesion or morale; and (3) women currently serve in jobs and units that are exposed to increased risks of death, injury, or capture, thereby rendering the moral argument moot and in conflict with current policies (M. W. Segal 1982). Consistent with this latter view, recent reviews on the integration of women in the military report substantial progress (Harell and Miller 1997).

A second major issue involving women in the military is sexual harassment. This problem is obviously not unique to the military; it continues to be an issue throughout American society. It may be more acute, however, in a traditional male institution like the military where women constitute small minorities in many types of jobs. Little hard evidence was available on the extent of sexual harassment in the military until a comprehensive survey was conducted at the request of a 1988 Task Force on Women in the Military. The results indicated rather serious levels of sexual harassment; altogether, 64 percent of women experienced some form of sexual harassment during a one-year period, and 5 percent reported actual or attempted rape or sexual assault (Martindale 1990). These rates of harassment were considerably higher than those found in surveys of federal civilian employees, and they presaged several serious incidents during the 1990s involving sexual harassment or other sexual improprieties in three of the four services: the 1991 Navy Tailhook incident; the 1996 Army Aberdeen Proving Grounds scandal; and the 1997 Air Force dismissal of Kelly Flinn, its first female bomber pilot, for adultery with the husband of an enlisted woman.

A follow-up survey on sexual harassment was conducted in 1995 after the military services had tightened regulations, clarified policies and practices, and increased training with regards to sexual harassment. The new survey showed some improvement, but rates of sexual harassment were still high, with 55 percent of women reporting some form of unwanted sexual behavior or advances and 4 percent reporting actual or attempted rape or some other form of sexual assault (Bastion et al. 1996).

These high rates of sexual harassment may be due to a number of factors, but are most likely associated with the increased presence of women in a traditional male workplace, and a workplace where a traditional "male" culture may be insensitive if not hostile to women. Another factor may be the attitudes and actions of military leaders and supervisors. Only about half of the women responding to the 1988 survey believed that the senior leadership of their service and their installation made "honest and reasonable" attempts to prevent sexual harassment, and only 60 percent said their immediate supervisor did so. In 1995 these rates had increased by only a few percentage points. Whether or not these figures truly reflect the behavior of military leaders, there is a perception among many military women that the military leadership is still not giving enough emphasis to the problem of sexual harassment.

Policies on Sexual Orientation. Since World War I, persons who acknowledge homosexual status or behavior have been excluded from U.S. military service, either by antisodomy provisions of the Uniform Code of Military Justice or by explicit Department of Defense regulations. This policy was challenged by President Bill Clinton in 1993, who directed the secretary of defense to prepare a "draft of an Executive Order ending discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in determining who may serve in the Armed Forces" (Rostker and Harris 1993, p. 1). Most senior military officers opposed the change, expressing beliefs that open homosexuals would hamper maintenance of good order and discipline and would undermine unit cohesion and combat effectiveness. Various studies were commissioned, including a major study by the Rand Corporation which concluded that, based on experience in other countries and on certain U.S. police and fire departments, the homosexual ban could be lifted without serious adverse effects on unit cohesion and military performance (Rostker and Harris 1993). The Rand study also noted that nondeclared homosexuals had always served in some number in the United States and foreign militaries without undue consequences.

The center of the debate shifted to Congress, and particularly to Democratic Senator Sam Nunn, Chairman of the Armed Services Committee, who had made it clear before the 1992 election that he was skeptical about this change and would hold hearings on the matter. Based on these hearings, including testimony from both civilian experts and military leaders, a compromise proposal was crafted, which became known as the "Don't ask, don't tell" policy; this proposal became a federal statute in 1994. The statute states that sexual orientation is a private and personal matter, and is not a bar to military service. It prohibits routine questions about sexual orientation on recruiting forms, but also says that engaging in homosexual conduct is grounds for discharge, and that a voluntary statement by a person acknowledging a gay or lesbian orientation is considered homosexual conduct (Office of the Under Secretary of Defense 1998).

Needless to say, gay and lesbian activists were not satisfied with this compromise, and especially with the provision that service members continue to be discharged for merely telling someone that they are homosexual (Rimmerman 1996). The "Don't ask, don't tell" policy has been challenged in federal courts, but with the exception of several cases where a discharged gay or lesbian has been reinstated because information was obtained improperly, the statute itself has been upheld by several appellate courts.


There are a number of other topics that are studied by military sociologists or that raise important sociological issues. While they have not received the same degree of attention as the topics reviewed above, they deserve mention.

Sociology of Combat. A major focus of The American Soldier studies during World War II, the sociology of combat deals with the social processes involved in combat units, such as unit cohesion and morale, leader-troop relations, and the motivation for combat. Recent works include studies of the "fragging" incidents in the Vietnam War and the role of ideology in combat motivation (Moskos 1988).

Family Issues. The proportion of the military personnel who are married increased from around 40 percent during the draft years to 57 percent by 1995. The current active force also has a higher proportion of career personnel than the draft-era forces (50 percent compared to 25 percent), which means more families and more family concerns. Much of the increase in military benefits is related to families—housing improvements, medical insurance, overseas schools, child care. Family policy issues include the role and rights of spouses (especially officer spouses) and the issue of child care when single-parent members are deployed in a conflict (M. W. Segal 1986).

The Military as Welfare. Somewhat at odds with the social representation issue, some argue that the military should provide opportunity for educational and occupational advancement to the less advantaged in society. The most dramatic example was Project 100,000, begun in 1966 as part of President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty, whereby 100,000 men (mostly black) who did not meet education and aptitude requirements were offered enlistments. According to recent follow-up studies of this group as well as a group of low-aptitude recruits who entered the AVF during the misnorming era, military training and experience do not appear to offer advantages when compared to civilian experiences (D. R. Segal 1989).

Military Social Organization. Given changes in military organization at several levels—from draft to AVF, from combat-intensive jobs to technical and support jobs, and from leadership to rational management—some have argued that the military is changing from an institution or "calling" legitimized by normative values to an occupation legitimized by a market orientation (Moskos and Wood 1988). While some of these changes apply to the military as well as to many other American institutions, others suggest that the role of institutional values and traditions is still a dominant characteristic of the American military (D. R. Segal 1989).

War and Peace. The most profound impacts of national security policies and their associated military forces are on the relations between whole nations. There is very little sociological work at this level, although some of the issues would seem to be fairly critical for sociological theory (e.g., the effectiveness of deterrence policies during the Cold War; the role of effects of military alliances; the consequences of war for societal changes). One of the few sociological discussions of these broader issues is found in D. R. Segal (1989).

Comparative Perspectives. As in many other fields of sociology, comparative studies of sociomilitary issues across nations are relatively scarce. Exceptions are some comparative studies of whether the military is an institution or an occupation (Moskos and Wood 1988) and of women in military forces (Stanley and Segal 1988).


Although military sociologists are few in number, it is not a small field. The military is the largest single government agency, and it truly represents a microcosm of the larger society. The types of military issues that can be addressed by social scientists have important ramifications for military policy as well as for the development of sociology as a discipline. On the one hand, sociological concepts and perspectives have contributed to rationalizing the basis of service, studying the problems of social representation, and improving the role of women in the military. On the other hand, studies of the structure and processes of military institutions and policies can enhance sociological understanding and insights about important forms of social behavior, thereby contributing ultimately to advances in social theory.

(see also: Gender; Race; Peace; War)


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David J. Armor

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