Military Sociology: Definition, History, Society-Military Relations

Military Sociology: The Intersection and Interdependency of the Military and the Society

The military has been an essential attribute of sovereignty and has been an honored function of nations for decades. Since the earliest emergence of civilizations and societies, there has been a consistent need for armed forces to defend the state, in need of security. Moreover, throughout history, the military and war have led to epochs of social change that continue to affect all aspects of life. Even to this day with relative peace, violent conflict and indirect/direct wars continue to be ubiquitous, leading to nations continuing to have their armed forces. With a more realist approach, we can acknowledge that human beings are prone to conflict as the existence of intersectional societies and the need for resources for survival continues to fuel the ongoing conflict in today’s world. Additionally, just like any society, the military has also developed norms, and rules that create a multifaceted relationship that not only affects the individuals within the organization but also the society as a whole. The centrality of the military to any society makes it a crucial subfield within the scientific study of society, i.e. sociology. Essentially, Military Sociology is the sociological study of the military that examines aspects such as military recruiting, minority representation, military families, military social organization, war and peace, public opinion, retention, civil-military relations, and veterans (Crossman, 2019).

What is Military Sociology

Definitions: Military Sociology

Hobbes defined a “social contract where security is exchanged for the citizens duty to obey laws of the sovereign power.” Sun Tzu stated that “if it is not in the interest of the state, do not act” and “In war, the general receives commands from the sovereign.” Clausewitz dictated that “war is the continuation of politics by other means (Shields, 2020).” These are some of the definitions that have been stated throughout the time but the essence of the study of the military and society captures and examines policies and issues, and it highlights, “armed forces, as a political, social and economic institution, and the society, state or political ethnic movement of which they are a part (Forster 2005).” The field of Military Sociology is state-centered and highlights the overlap between military and society, and also aims to understand the underlying issues of a state. Some examples that capture the essence of the field are veteran employment, response to base closures, civil and military cooperation in peacekeeping, coups in failing democracies, deployed soldiers and the use of social media, military culture and women’s representation in combat units, post-deployment issues, public support and public opinion (Shields, 2020).

Historical Background

The study of armed forces and society is dated back to World War II and the Cold War. The study was interdisciplinary, consisting of political science and its subfields of international relations and security studies that highlighted civil-military relations and the military’s function in a democratic country. Through The Soldier and the State by Samuel Huntington (1957), the idea of “objective control” is defined, where civilian leaders had the authority of dictating the political and policy objectives, through which, the military had to implement to promote security. This idea reinstates the importance of balance and civilian control as the civilians can manage their affairs by having a say in what is needed for the citizens of the nation. Furthermore, from a sociological perspective, Samuel Stoffeur (1949) surveyed 500,000 Americans about their experiences and opinions of World War II and wrote the American Soldier that talks about ideas such as combat performance and social control, which supplemented the Military Sociology field. Morris Janowitz’s Professional Soldier connected the soldier and the state by highlighting a citizen’s obligation to society and their duty to serve. “This provided a robust, normative, theoretical orientation to view the many interdependencies and interactions between military and society (Heinecken, 2015).”

Furthermore, the scholarly focus of military and society began during the Cold War when high threat democracies were prevalent, especially within western democracies. For example, the September 11 attacks and the following wars in Afghanistan and Iraq clearly showed the nation’s shifting interests and also tested the ties between the military and society. Further internal and external conflict’s consequences like climate change, mass migration, and cyberattacks affect the interaction and alliance between the military and society.

Also Read: Sociology of WAR

Sociology of the Military

The 1990s marked widespread changes to military organizations where the service had become immensely subdivided, with short-term and condition employment. On the contrary, military personnel have moved towards being more receptive to defending their fundamental rights and not necessarily blindly responding to authority. Moreover, growing intersectional societies has led to diversity in the military group and sociologists. They specifically highlight that:

  • Diversity in terms of race and gender surged in the military
  • The interaction of civilian personnel and troops from different nations
  • The need to learn the specific cultures to be able to live and interact with the society

The current times have especially proven that the military and society need to be closely studied as based on the political, cultural, ethnic influences of a certain society, military personnel are presented with widespread issues. Phillip Manigrat addresses diversity in the military environment and also highlights the need for “intercultural competence by military personnel on peace missions (Heinecken, 2015).”

Civil-Military Relations

The relationship between civilian (political) and military (operational) functions put forth by Samuel Huntington underlies the literature of civil-military relations (Shields, 2020). Civilian Authority is ensured by strong institutions with developed democracies that withhold the use of force decisions but a public divergence or a military authority can easily undermine civil-military relations. Samuel Huntington and Peter Feaver (2009) developed a theory that depicts civil-military relations as a tactical exchange where civilians rely on the military for policy directives and when their views are aligned, certain orders are fulfilled. When views are not aligned though, the military has clear power over civilians which leads to undermining civilian directives. Dale Herspring (2005) developed a theory on civil-military relations that studies the relationship between military leaders and elite civilians specifically as civilian leaders rely on military authorities in the geopolitical environment. The differing perceptions on security threats can worsen the conflict and deteriorate relationships between nations and even societies, so the need for a strong civilian leader who looks up to the military culture would be the best option to keep these conflicts at a minimum, states Herspring.

Women’s Representation

The military’s and society’s interdependence is crucial to be noted as the military itself is shaped by the culture and systems of the society and dominantly mirrors the dominant culture. Due to this women were not allowed to fill the military ranks and were subjected to jobs like spies and prostitutes. An important example highlighting the importance of society/military interface would be when Queen Victoria had sent a group of nurses to a military hospital to incorporate sanitary practices and to treat death by disease. While there was much opposition to the idea of women involved with the military, it indeed slowed down death by disease, and also the involvement helped the soldiers change their attitudes to feel much more optimistic and also influenced public opinion. Western military organizations worked hard and struggled to get women to be included in all aspects of the force. Cynthia Enloe (2000) studied women in the military through a broader lens of feminism and militarization of women’s lives. Koeszegi et al (2014) examine the challenges that women soldiers face in the masculine culture of workplace aggression. Conservative personnel continue to question the physical abilities of a woman and raise questions about military effectiveness and combatants. Military scholars have also highlighted the prominent problem of sexual harassment. “Crowley and Sandhoff (2017) studied men in combat units and found they used sexual harassment against military women as a way to communicate their lack of acceptance.”


Military Sociology as a research field contains crucial topics and methodologies within which the evolving state of security conflict continues to affect society and military relations. Scholars and Policymakers’ persistent investigation that links the society and the military is especially prominent in contemporary times with the ongoing conflict in nations like India and America. The emergence of more libertarian societies and the military’s use of excessive force and casualties have created much dislike and nonsupport from civilians to military personnel. While the military has been relying on more realist approaches, there is a need for military organizations in all nations for peace and security purposes, so closely studying the military and society together to come to peaceful solutions can lead to the enhancement of the state as a whole and to especially prevent internal and external violence and conflict.


  • Crossman, A. (2019, June 2). Understanding Military Sociology. ThoughtCo.
  • Crowley, K., & Sandhoff, M. (2017). Just a girl in the Army: U.S. Iraq war veterans negotiating femininity in a culture of masculinity. Armed Forces & Society, 43(2), 221–237.
  • Enloe, C. (2000). Maneuvers: The international politics of militarizing women’s lives. Berkeley: Univ of California Press
  • Forster, A. (2005). Armed forces and society in Europe. Cham, Switzerland: Springer.
  • Feaver, P. (2009). Armed servants: Agency, oversight, and civil-military relations. Cambridge: Harvard University Press
  • Heinecken, L. (2015). The Military, War and Society: The need for Critical Sociological Engagement. Scientia Militaria, South African Journal of Military Studies, Vol 43, No. 1, pp. 1–16. doi : 10.5787/43-1-1107
  • Herspring, D. R. (2005). The Pentagon and the presidency: Civil-military relations from FDR to George W. Bush (Vol. 14, p. 490). Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.
  • Huntington, S. P. (1957). The soldier and the state: The theory and politics of civil-military relations. New York: Vintage
  • Koeszegi, S. T., Zedlacher, E., & Hudribusch, R. (2014). The war against the female soldier? The effects of masculine culture on workplace aggression. Armed Forces & Society, 40(2), 226–251
  • Shields, P. (2020). Dynamic Intersection of Military and Society. 10.1007/978-3-030-02866-4_31-1.
  • Stouffer, S. A., Suchman, E. A., DeVinney, L. C., Star, S. A., & Williams Jr, R. M. (1949). The American soldier: Adjustment during army life (Studies in social psychology in World War II, Vol. 1). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
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Neha is currently pursuing a degree in Sociology paired with International Relations and Media Studies. She aspires for a global career as an academic researcher and advocate of humanitarian action. She is deeply passionate about human rights and social justice, and she profoundly researches socio-economics, politics, and public policy to better understand the society and its institutions. One of her biggest accomplishments would be starting a free school in her backyard for kids with no access to education during the pandemic.