Sociological Methods in defence studies

Gregor Richter

Conceptions of defence and defence policies have been changing during the last decades. Defence and security politicians as well as military practitioners whose task it is to adopt military organizations to new economic, social, political, and cultural conditions are facing diverse and unknown challenges. Sociological and social science research in general, especially quantitative research like surveys among soldiers or public opinion research, are increasingly becoming an indispensable resource for shaping the adoption process and decision-making processes in the military field, for instance in the area of recruitment and retention of service personnel. The article gives an overview on (empirical) sociological methods in defence-related research. Since the classical studies on “The American Soldier” in the end of World War II, the military and defence organizations are – compared to other social institutions – often object to social research and quite well investigated. The reasons therefore will be shown up in this article. While sociological research methods in the military field in a narrower sense do not substantially differ from research methods in general and in other social fields (like for instance organization studies), defence research of course has some peculiarities concerning access to the field, collaboration between principals and agents in research projects, and last but not least the utilization of the results. The characteristics of this research are elaborated in the article, too.


Almost all classics  of sociology  have expressed their view  on the  subject  of war, military and society in monographs or longer statements. Hans Joas and Wolfgang Knöbl (2013) presented a comprehensive review of the scholarly literature and chose the  starting  point of their analysis  in the  17th  century  beginning  with  Thomas Hobbes. The considerations in sociology  in this field after the end of the Cold War, however,  the  two authors  see  and  deplore  the  prevalence  of a “monothematic approach” (Joas and Knöbl  2013: 252) in most of the outlines of theory. For instance, the debates over the “new wars” are shortened to marketization and privatization: “It is always one particular macrosocial  process that has guided the analysis of wars and their  possible  cessation”  (Joas  and Knöbl 2013: 252, emphasis  in  original).   The assessment according  to different sociological thought about war, military and society is often narrowed  in a specific way and is insufficiently  supported  by social theory. What the two authors do not pronounce, is the fact that sociology too often confronts this topic in the form of macro-sociological  theory with the emphasis on  macro- sociological  processes. At least since Robert K. Merton’s criticism of “grand theories” (Parsons) one should be familiar with the weaknesses of such theoretical  conceptions: Either the conclusions have a high degree of generality and lead to trivial statements, or hypotheses cannot be tested empirically due to their high level of abstraction.

The reference point for an overview  of sociological  methods in defence  studies are therefore reasonably micro-sociological  theory concepts in the 1940s, more specifically, the entry of the US into World War II in 1941 and the launch of the Research Branch of the US War Department under the direction of Samuel A. Stouffer one year later. The result of this three-year mammoth project was over 200 reports based on hundreds of thousands  of interviews  with soldiers.  The studies  on “The American  Soldier” (Stouffer  1949; Merton  and Lazarsfeld  1950) not only fertilized military-sociological research for years to come, but they were also trendsetting the development of methods in the social  sciences in general. This initial  phase can be characterized  by a high degree of practical relevance – the research should increase the knowledge  base on the motivational foundations of US soldiers – and from today’s perspective by an aston- ishing high level of transparency in dealing with the research results. A newsletter with selected  survey  results titled  “What the Soldier  Thinks”  was  issued by the Morale Service Division in the US War Department monthly and distributed to overseas mili- tary executives from December 1943 shortly until the end of the war.

“The American  Soldier” showed  impressively  the potential  “for examining  the interplay of social theory and applied social research” (Merton  and Kitt 1950: 40). The well-known theory of reference groups, for example, was developed  in dealing with the data of the Research Branch of the US War Department and is considered a prime  example  of the division  of labour and the fruitful  interplay of theory and empirical evidence until today. Sociologist Robert  K. Merton, himself a member of the working group around Stouffer, was able to work out his conception of “theories of the middle range”  with the theory of reference groups. Likewise, the core of the theory of relative deprivation may be well explained  using the example  of soldiers. Dissatisfaction with one’s own situation, for example the current career, is not merely the reflection of objective  circumstances, but relative, and depends on the standards of comparison used by the individual, i.e. the reference group chosen by him or her. Provided with the survey data only, it was not easy to interpret, at first glance, that in US  military  units, where  promotions  were relatively  more frequent  than  in  peer groups,  subjective  satisfaction  with career  opportunities  among respondents  was relatively low.

Merton  extended the theory of relative deprivation to a general theory of reference groups, in which non-membership groups become the reference point for the assess- ment  of living conditions  and career development.  In this context,  the  notion  of anticipatory  socialization  was formulated,  which has meanwhile  found  its way into everyday usage. Claims to research and methodology  in the sense of an incremental understanding of the progress in science and practice should therefore be to develop military-sociological  theories step by step:

Systematic empirical  materials help advance social theory  by imposing  the task and affording the opportunity for interpretation along lines often unpremeditated, and social theory, in turn, defines the scope and enlarges the predictive  value of empirical findings by indicating the conditions under which they hold. (Merton and Kitt 1950: 40)

How such empirical material is systematically collected is part of the methodology that forms the starting point for the following  remarks on sociological methods in defence studies. Before that, it is necessary to delimit the field of research:

Defence  studies is a multi-disciplinary field examining how agents, predominately states, prepare for, prevent, avoid  and/or engage in armed conflict. (Galbreath  and Deni 2018: 1, Introduction)

This definition, taken from a recent textbook on the topic, should also be the refer- ence point for the chapter at hand. Defence  studies are difficult  to define from a neighbouring  branch of research, i.e. military  studies (Soeters et al. 2014; Soeters 2018). Even  if the research topics  and especially  the traditions  of military studies differ from the here examined research field, there is no reason to conjure boundaries at the level of methods and research techniques. According  to Soeters (2018) military studies can be found in the works of classics of sociology such as Marx,  Durkheim, Weber, Simmel, Elias, and Goffman. The research field of the defence studies, on the other hand, has fewer classics, but can be characterized with its very interdisciplinary orientation:

[…] defence studies is naturally an inter-disciplinary  area of scholarship that tou- ches  on political science,  sociology,   economics,  international  relations,  social anthropology, human geography and organisational studies. (Galbreth  and Deni 2018: 1, Introduction)

Following  earlier work (Richter 2017) I assume, that defence organizations  and civil organizations must  not be treated  fundamentally  different.  In the  case  of military research, the repertoire  of sociological  methods and research techniques should not deviate from that of research on other types of organizations,   such as corporations, churches or universities. According  to my present knowledge, the opposite position had not yet been formulated. For example, if you look in the relevant anthologies (Soeters et al. 2014; Carreiras and Castro 2013; Carreiras et al. 2016), you encounter the major social science standard methods and research techniques. In the field of military psy- chology an  analogous  situation  can  be observed (Laurence  and Matthews  2012). Regardless of this, a position in military sociology  is advocated  that advises us to take into account the respective “state of aggregation”  of the organization,  i.e. empirical results found in so-called in-extremis situations are not transferable to the routine area under peace conditions  and vice versa (see Kolditz 2006). As with any sociological research, the same applies to defence  studies. The choice of the appropriate  method should be made against the background of the specific research problem and environ- mental parameters.

In what follows does not deal with sociological  methods and research techniques in detail, such as survey research, experimental  designs, qualitative  interviews, etc. There are numerous textbooks available for this purpose (for instance Babbie  2016; Bryman 2016; Marsden and Wright  2010; and with a focus on organization research: Liebig  et al. 2017). Nor will I recommend which method is best suited for researching a parti- cular topic. Rather, the focus is on the particular institutional framework  of defence studies.1 This includes, as we will demonstrate in the second part of this chapter, the dominant organizational  integration of research facilities, the generation  of research issues, the access to the field, specific requirements for the researcher and the handling of the research results. Some  of these specifics can be explained by specifics of the military organization in our first part.

Characteristic  features of the organization type military

The characteristic  features  of military  organizations  include  distinctive  forms  of recruitment and socialization,  a high importance of symbols and rituals in everyday military life, military-specific  camaraderie, the principle of command and obedience, and the attribution of the military as a “total institution” in the sense of Erving Goff- man (1961). All attempts, however, to want to award the military a sui generis status, run dispassionately into the void.  Even the danger to life and limb that soldiers may have to face can’t be claimed as a unique proposition when one considers the often life- threatening conditions  in organizations such as a fire brigade or the police.  In this sense, the  military  and other  organizations  that operate  under high risk  and live- threatening circumstances constitute a special type of organization and a new research field known  as “High-Reliability-Organizations”  (Weick  and Sutcliffe 2007). Instead, defence organizations are to be characterized by some contingent features which are relevant according to sociological research.

On the one hand, this contingency is to be understood in a military-historical way; for example, if one looks at the different structure of early-modern mercenary troops and the barracked mass armies of the 19th and 20th centuries. It can be understood cross-sec- tionally to note the gradual differences between defence organizations and other types of organizations on the other hand. Although economic objectives (budget compliance, effi- cient use of material resources, profit, etc.) play a role in defence organizations they are not, as is the case with private companies, the top organizational  goals.

Four of such  contingent   features  of defence  organizations  must be highlighted. Firstly,  the special relationship  of military organizations and their environment  can admirably be described by the notion of “dilute feedback”:

Numerous features of the military organization are explained by the fact that it has fewer possibilities of success control  compared  to economic  enterprises and fewer possibilities  to objectively  check  the  functional  adequacy  of its  structure,  its equipment, its training methods, and its action programs. (Geser 1983: 145, translation by the author)

Whether  structures and patterns of action make sense usually only turns out in serious or warlike conditions, which are objectively  the rather seldom state the organization  is in. This is different  for example in businesses organizations,  which  are continuously receiving feedback from the environment as result of sales and customer reactions.

Closely related to the diluted  feedback,  secondly, is the particular  uncertainty for military  organizations:   even  the  best  peacetime  planning  and the  most realistic manoeuvres  can  only conditionally  anticipate  future uncertainties of war or other endangering scenarios. The Prussian officer and military intellectual Carl von Clause- witz puts this fact in a nutshell in his famous metaphor of the “fog of war”. The high degree of formalization and ritualization of actions compared to most other organiza- tions and the pronounced hierarchical centralization may be interpreted as a compen- sation attempt for such uncertainty.

Peculiarities of force-related organizational  research, ranging from methodological problems,  questions of access to the field, the appropriate time of collection of data, and research-ethical considerations, thirdly, result from the “Janus-face” of the military. It is most of the time in the so-called cold state of aggregation, in which the daily work in military  staffs and departments hardly differs from other governmental or private organizations.  Then administrative  issues, the billing  of business travel,  and budget planning are in the foreground. On the other hand, in the so-called hot state of aggre- gation, that is under conditions of combat for example, organizational communication and decision-making processes can radically shift. Hardly  any other type of organiza- tion unites two such different  states of aggregation, which are activated according to changes in environmental factors.

A fourth peculiarity  of military  organizations  concerns the relationship between individual and organization. Upon  joining most organizations,  as Chester Barnard (1938) depicts it, a momentous “indifference-zone” is created, which can be interpreted as a blanket agreement of the new member of the organization to obey to commands, accept regulations and instructions from superiors. It is a peculiarity of military orga- nizations that this initially  unspecified general obedience  can in due course receive a broad interpretation, ranging in extreme cases to the use of one’s own life in pursuit of organizational goals.

Institutional framework of defence studies

The organizational embedding of research institutions

Defence organizations  and the military  are among  the best studied organizations worldwide.  This has  less  to do with  a fixed  anchorage  of military-sociological research in  civilian  universities,  but  with  the  many  research institutions  that  are either part of the armed  forces  or financed by those at least. The  Social Science Institute  of the  Federal  Armed  Forces  (SOWI)   in Germany,  for example,  was founded in 1974  as  part of a general  academization  of the armed  forces  by the social-liberal federal government. It originally  had the task to develop the curricula for the  two newly  established  universities  of the German Armed  Forces, where military  cadets  should  undergo  an  undergraduate  academic  study  (Langer and Pietsch 2013: 33). Later the SOWI was converted  into an in-house research facility and should contribute to the democratic control of armed forces as part of society. In the USA the armed forces were forced  to build their own research facilities,  as the academic world  distanced itself from the US Armed Forces in reaction to the Vietnam  War (see  Ben-Ari  2016: 24). The  initial  close cooperation  between the military  and independent social science research, as it was practiced in the context of “The American Soldier”, became increased brittle. Although  nation-specific tra- jectories  can  be found  in today’s  military-sociological   landscape, so  is the trend towards insourcing of defence studies owed to the special conditions of research on the military:

In fact, given the potential risks represented by external academic actors it is not surprising that armed forces around the world are typified by the establishment of ‘in-house’ research arms and at times a wariness of publishing their findings out- side of it. (Ben-Ari and Levy 2014: 13)

Scientific standards of the armed forces research institutes are primarily  embedded in international  contexts,  i.e. in the  International  Sociological  Association,  Research Committee  01 (ISA RCO 01), the European Research Group on Military  and Society (ERGOMAS) and the Inter-University Seminar on Armed Forces & Society (IUS). For example in the case of Germany one hardly  finds an exchange between established research in military  institutions and academic sociology  in universities. This can be recognized in the fact that the national sociological  association in Germany  (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Soziologie  – DGS) still does not have an independent platform  for military sociology.

The institutional embedding of social science research in the military organizational structures must be assessed ambivalently.  From the perspective of the researchers, it would be advantageous if their work is funded  basically,  i.e. resources are available regardless of specific project financing. In the case of the SOWI,  respective its successor organization in the Center  for Military History  and Social  Sciences of the German Armed Forces, a remarkable part of the scientists is working  as civil servants. Funding and organizational  integration may cast doubt on the independence of research insti- tutions. The dependence of in-house research institutions may have the result that the Ministry of Defense (MoD) has influence on the research question, the methods used,

and even on item formulations  in questionnaires. On  the other hand, intervention options are just as present when a contractor of a research project, for example an independent polling  firm, is forced to accept a research contract  for economic rea- sons  even  if its  own scientific  standards  are threatened. In  reality, the level of intervention via contract  control  is likely to be even  higher  than via researchers, who do not have to fear great sanctions by the MoD and therefore experience more freedom  in their professional  decisions. Moreover,   in  addition  to academic  and military-bureaucratic  mechanisms,  modern  societies  are  media societies  and the public  sphere thwarts  encroachments  of political  and  non-scientific  interests into research activities. In the case of the Federal Republic of Germany, Article 5 of the Basic  Law guarantees freedom  of scholarship. The  article can be invoked  if the coordination  between research institution and the ministerial client about the design of a scientific study turns into an exertion  of influence on the theoretical work and the use of methods.

In many cases, the commissioning  of social science research projects serves legiti- macy purposes. Typically,  internal employee surveys, on topics such as job satisfac- tion, management  culture and working  environments also reflect the efforts  of an employer to take care of employee concerns. This is also the case in defence organi- zations. Much undisguised interference with the freedom  of scientific research of in- house institutes undermines the credibility  of research results, especially when inconceivable positive values are reported to the public. A behaviour like this defeats the purpose and misses the legitimacy  function of social science studies for military leaders and defence politicians.

Generation of research questions

Which research questions are pursued and which topics do not receive any attention, have a variety of reasons that are to be found in the interests of the researchers, in the interests of decision-makers or in academic considerations. Sociological research, for example,  had in the 1960s and 1970s (in the spirit of a social-technical understanding of science) its starting point often in social problems (material pov- erty, lack of education, etc.). If one ignores the social and political  causes for the research project for the time being and focuses on the scientific reasons, in the field of defence  studies two triggers are identified,  each based on a specific handling of existing theoretical knowledge.

First, general sociological  theories can be applied to the specific case of the military.

The aim of this strategy  is to broaden the scope of application  and thus the informa- tional content of general theories or to obtain new insight into the military or defence organizations with the new theoretical views. One can find both, for example, in Soeters (1997) and his study of military academies in 13 countries. In his empirical  survey he applies the cultural concept developed  by Hofstede  and notes that national cultural differences – along  the four cultural dimensions “power distance”,  “individualism”, “masculinity”, and “uncertainty avoidance” – can be identified in defence organiza- tions as well. Nevertheless, he identified areas of a general military culture, which also can be detected in all 13 academies and are overlaying  the national cultures. Soeters succeeds in this way to produce scientific evidence of the existence of an international military  culture. Likewise,  research in the military  context may lead to irritation of previously accepted theories. This is the case, for example, in Richter (2018), where a leadership study in a multinational  headquarters shows that the level of participation of followers in decision-making  processes had no effect on central military-relevant variables, such as organizational  commitment.

Second, research questions may arise from theories that had been developed specifi- cally for the case of the military and to some degree are validly applicable only in this field. A prime example is Charles Moskos’  well-known I/O-model. In his seminal work, he conceptualized the theory of military identity on a continuum ranging from institu- tional to occupational orientations:

An institution  is legitimated  in terms  of values and norms,  that  is, a purpose transcending individual  self-interest in favor of a presumed higher good. […] An occupation is legitimated in terms of the marketplace. Supply and demand, rather than normative considerations, are paramount. (Moskos 1988: 16)

His original focus was to provide a theoretical framework for the analysis of changes in the US military under an all-volunteer force. The model, originally formulated in the 1970s  for the  case  of the  US military,  is still proving  to be fruitful  in analysing dynamics of defence organizations (see Richter 2020).

The systematic reasons why research projects emerge may be the same in other socio- logical  research fields. More  specific is the special interplay between the interests of the researchers and the interests of decision-makers (in the MoD). The above-average inten- sive research on military organizations compared to other types of organizations can be explained by the consequences of specific features of the organization  itself, namely the high level of uncertainty, the need for special knowledge in politics, and by the need to demonstrate the effectiveness and efficiency of the organization:

[…] government-based research to the military (as governmental organization) can be understood  as a manifestation of a will to constantly rationalize political deci- sions, make political  leadership processes more effective  and extend institutional attempts for order and control.(Langer  and Pietsch 2013: 40)

This also has implications for the choice of research methods. The following  assertion has a certain charm: The preference for “numbers, data, and facts” expressed in technical reports based on opinion and survey research is a reaction to the specific uncertainty to which the military – in a volatile  organizational environment – is continuously  is exposed.  This uncertainty can be at least partially compensated the rationality of “hard” measurements. This may explain the methodological  preference for survey research in the defence sector:

Surveys are ever-present and expanding in their use in society. So too, the military has increasingly  used surveys to gather information from soldiers […] for purposes of informing the development and implementation of policies.(Griffith  2014: 191)

Experience  shows that it is the search for the appropriate sociological  method for a defence  study that sometimes evokes  different  positions. Clients  prefer  quantitative methods,  and the  social  researchers  often prefer to use  qualitative   methods.  For instance, nearly all social research projects launched by Germany’s MoD in the last 20 years were  questionnaire-based  studies. An almost  inflationary  use of survey studies conducted in the armed forces on all sorts of issues must be assessed critically  (Richter 2017: 667). This has negative consequences for sociological  research in defence orga- nizations, for example, if declining response rates are to be complained of:

For example, in the U.S. Navy,  the top three reasons for non-response were a belief that surveys have no impact, general apathy towards surveys and survey length. Studies have also indicated the following  reasons as pertinent: over surveying; the size and formal  structure of the organization,  high work demands; and lack of perceived benefit to respondents.(Davis  et al. 2013: 161)

Interview  fatigue  as a result of ritually  conducted employee  surveys without  defined follow-up  processes and without concrete recommendations can not only be found in the defence sector, but in many other areas, too. For instance, a considerable internal ques- tionnaire-based study on leadership behaviour and its perception by soldiers and civilian employees was conducted by the Center for Military  History and Social Sciences of the German Armed Forces in 2016. The report had not been published until 2019, and if any consequences were drawn from the research results by the MoD at all, they were not communicated to the participants of the survey in a systematic follow-up process.

Access to the field

Reasonably two aspects of access to the field are to be distinguished:

Gaining  access to the field of military  studies implies two types of entrées: the organizational or institutional kind that involves being admitted into a large-scale bureaucracy  and the  epistemological   one of encountering  a certain  field of knowledge.(Ben-Ari, Levy 2014: 10)

In the case of the German  Armed Forces,  for example, the organizational  type of entrées is clearly regulated by law and includes all types of empirical surveys, in parti- cular interviewing in the cold and the hot state of defence organizations. The central service regulation (Zentrale Dienstvorschrift – ZDv) on “Empirical Studies on Attitude, Opinion and Behavior Research in the Bundeswehr”  (A-2710/1) regulates the condi- tions under which personnel interviewing can take place. For example, the prescriptions stipulate that an official  empirical study may only be carried out if it has received  a registration  number from the responsible branch in the MoD after the consultation with the respective military command units that are involved in the study. This number must be shown on the survey documents. The approval process often leads to revised study designs and survey instruments according to ministerial guidelines.

Private individuals and external research institutions may also be allowed to conduct surveys for research  purposes.  They undergo  the same approval  process as federal researchers. Applicants  are obliged to submit  the results of the investigation  to the MoD before publication. In special cases, the MoD reserves the right not to agree to publication  of the  results, or only in part. From an academic  point of view such restrictions are to be regretted, especially if political rationality criteria do not allow the pursuit of a certain military-sociological  research question. In general, however, field access in practice is, despite the formal  approval  process, not a particular hurdle in relation to the usual research obstacles in other public and private organizations. The barriers for surveys, for the access to the field and for the publication  of results are, according  to my experience,  dependent  on the  political  leadership  of the  defence ministry currently in office.  Nevertheless, it is true  that  the  “gatekeeping problem” characterizes the research field “defence organizations”  in relation to civilian organi- zations as at best contingent if one disregards the fact that in the case of surveys in civil organizations often alternative possibilities exist if a requested enterprise denies field access. The research question then may  be examined in another organization of the same branch. Military  organizations, on the other hand, are monopolies;  alternatives to surveys among soldiers do not exist if the MoD refuses the conduct of interviews or the distribution of questionnaires.

The epistemological aspect of field access is closely linked to the researchers’ specific roles and their disciplinary backgrounds; this will be discussed in the next paragraph.

Specific requirements for the researchers

The challenge that researchers face in the area of defence studies can best be summed up in “Gaining entry while maintaining distance” (Ben-Ari and Levy 2014: 16). Any social science research is not just a collection of information about social reality, but an interaction process between researcher and researched subjects and requires a high degree of reflexivity (see Carreiras and Caetano  2016). Claude Weber  (2016: 132) analytically  distinguishes four types of interaction  relationships: “complete partici- pant, complete  observer, observer as participant,  and participant  as observer”. The possibilities to keep aloof and objectively confront the subject of research are as good as none existent in the case of the “complete participant”. In practice, this case can occur, for example, when military cadets carry out their own empirical surveys in the circle of comrades within  courses in sociology at military  academies. At the other extreme on the continuum, the role of “complete observer”, interaction does not take place in the true sense. One could think of document analysing, for example of pro- tocols from missions abroad.  In particular, the two hybrid forms, i.e. “observer as participant” and “participant as observer”, are more typical and theoretically more relevant at this point.

Because of a relatively high degree of embedding of social science research in the defence organizations, the hybrid forms are relatively common. The role of an observer as participant  is similar  to that of a researcher who has received  his education  at a civilian university and conducts sociological  studies in and about the military without having a military  rank him/herself. The role of the participant as observer corresponds to a social science-educated  staff   officer, who goes through  an  assignment  as  a researcher in an  in-house  research  institute.  This role requires  a high level of self- reflexivity to avoid the pitfalls of “going native”. In any case, experience shows that the hybrid types are not only common but also adequate for conducting defence studies: “The very position of dual membership in military and civilian organizations carries great potential for research”  (Ben-Ari  2016: 30). Claude Weber highlights the advan- tages of one of the two hybrid  types, too: “To be a participant  observer  is a very attractive position […] because it allows the researcher to be in a direct and ‘official’ contact with the studied group” (Weber 2016: 135). Overcoming  access barriers to the field is  then  easier  and stakeholders  can  more easily  be convinced  of the  mean- ingfulness (and even the sincerity) of a study – especially if the research is based on an order from the MoD.

Firstly, a researcher in the area of defence  studies must therefore  be particularly sensitive to his/her understanding  of one’s role and to the interaction process with the research subject. He or she is therefore  confronted  with what is discussed as the “insi- der/outsider dilemma”  (Deschaux-Dutard  2018: 42). Secondly, a particular sensitivity for the point of time of the collection  of data, for both qualitative and quantitative studies, should be emphasized. Here is an example from the literature. Particularly in the case of military-specific  research questions such as combat motivation  and morale, the method and especially the timing of a survey is to be chosen with particular care. In the leading academic journal Armed Forces & Society (AF&S), a critical debate was conducted  on a field study on the morale  of Iraqi and American  soldiers during Operation “Iraqi Freedom”  in 2003 (Wong et al. 2003; MacCoun  et al. 2006).  In addition  to the  debate  over the  suitability  of quantitative  or qualitative  research methods it was critically questioned to what extent self-information from Iraqi prison- ers  of war allow valid statements about  their mission motivation.  The problem of socially desirable responses is certainly particularly explosive in in-extremis situations: the researchers were promptly  told by the interviewed  Iraqis in American  war captivity that they had only fought under duress on the part of the Iraqi army and by no means shared the war aims of dictator Saddam Hussein. The debate in the AF&S has led the military-sociological  community once again to be aware that military-related  surveys have to reflect point-of-time of data collection, the very condition of its object,  espe- cially the mentioned above “state of aggregation” (cold or hot?). The starting point is the debate in the classic essay by Shils and Janowitz (1948), which referred to a survey of Wehrmacht  soldiers  in British  war captivity.  Understandable  from the  specific situation, the soldiers stated that their motivation  to endure to the last was not based on being convinced of the mission and the goals of Hitler’s war. Rather, the morale was based on a sense of attachment and social cohesion to the comrades they did not want to abandon.

Dealing with the research results

Social Science research in the defence field raises an inherent dilemma for the researcher in the profound aim of his research: accessing military  discourse, which  is traditionally supposed to remain confidential and surrounded by secret, comes up against the purpose of research: disclosure and publishing of the collected data. (Deschaux-Dutard  2018: 45)

For many cases, this assessment is unequivocally  correct. Nevertheless, a differentia- tion is necessary. The  interests of the scholars are  rather uniform.  The  scientific community  is interested in the research results in order to expand the theoretical and empirical knowledge of military sociology; for scholars, the publication of their work is indispensable  for professional and financial reasons (“publish or perish”), because the academic  reputation  is normally  linked  to a long list of own  publications. In practice, results from  defence studies are prepared for two different  addressees. The technical  reports  drawn  up  for the  client  from military  and politics  are  rather practice-oriented and recommendations are added. In addition, the results of defence studies are often prepared for publications in scientific journals, which are theoreti- cally better founded. It goes without saying that the style and wording  of the two publication formats often differ.

Often  less uniform  are the interests of military  and politics, which should not be thought of as a monolithic block with regard to dealing with research results. My own experience with several  applied  contract  research projects  shows that, for example, critical  results from internal  surveys  on satisfaction  with working  conditions and accoutrement are pressured to be published as quickly as possible by the military side, while politicians in the MoD are blocking  the release of research reports. With still other topics, the positions can be exactly opposite. The publication of most defence studies, including  those of in-house research agencies, is in the end guaranteed, albeit with an often-not inconsiderable delay.

The assertion that military-related contract research has no effect on politicians and military   leaders  is  rather  a prejudice  among  the  interviewed  soldiers and civilian members of the armed forces, as a volume with an overview  of research in the now defunct SOWI showed (see Dörfler-Dierken and Kümmel  2016). The contributions from politicians, representatives of the armed forces and researchers represent a picture according to which the scientific results have not seldom influenced political  and mili- tary decision-making  processes. For instance, a former member of the defence com- mittee  of the German  parliament, Winfried  Nachtwei,  reflects on SOWI-research reports and how they were utilized in the meetings of the committee. As is known, the impact of social  science  research  is  more hidden  and indirectly conveyed  through awareness-raising processes and thus not always directly attributable to a specific study, its  results  and its specific  recommendations.  Positive  attitudes towards  surveys and interviewing and a consequently higher willingness to respond arise when the respon- dents receive feedback  and see the consequences from  the research results (see Foster Thompson and Surface 2009).


Conceptions of defence and defence policies have been changing during the last dec- ades. Defence  and security politicians as well as military  practitioners whose task it is to adopt military organizations to new economic, social, political, and cultural condi- tions are facing diverse  and unknown  challenges. Sociological   and social science research  in general,  especially  quantitative  research like  surveys among  soldiers or public opinion  research, are getting increasingly an indispensable resource for shaping the adoption process and decision-making processes in the military field, for instance in the area of recruitment and retention of service personnel. Since the classical studies on “The American Soldier” in the end of World War II, the military and defence organi- zations are – compared to other social institutions – often an object of social research and are quite well investigated. The reasons therefore  have  been shown up in this chapter. While  sociological  research methods in the military field in a narrower  sense do not substantially differ from research methods in general and in other social fields (like for instance organization  and military  studies), defence research of course  has some peculiarities concerning access to the field, collaboration  between principals and agents in research projects, and last, but not least, the application of the results.


1  Another  limitation is the focus on the “internal” perspective, that is, methods of defence stu- dies that are applied primarily  within the organization,  for example research on recruitment and retention, soldiers in general (including veterans, see Schulker 2017) and internal organi- zational  structures. For the “external” perspective, for instance public attitudes about defense and security or strategic cultures, see Biehl et al. (2013), Giegerich (2018), and the chapter by Steinbrecher and Biehl in this volume.


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SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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