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military and militarism


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It is conventional wisdom that sociologists have tended to neglect military concerns. In fact this is a somewhat misleading claim, since not only have numerous studies taken the military as a substantive area of interest, but (more importantly) it is hard to see what, if anything, is specifically sociological about militarism and war. The threat of global annihilation, implicit in the Cold War antics of the superpowers, would seem to be a subject of rather more than merely sociological interest.

In any case, Kurt Lang's Military Institutions and the Sociology of War (1972) offers an early review of relevant literature, and an annotated bibliography of more than 1300 items on organized violence. These suggest that sociological studies of the military may conveniently be considered under three headings. First, there has been extensive research into the involvement of the military in politics, both in the developed and developing world. C. Wright Mills's account of the American military-industrial complex during the Cold War period is a good example of the former. During the 1980s, in a significant extension of this tradition of study, some prominent social theorists (notably Anthony Giddens) and historical and comparative researchers (including Michael Mann) began investigating the relationship between military changes, on the one hand, and (the more usually explored) economic, political, social, and ideological changes on the other. In a more limited way, the endemic militarism (that is, the tendency to look for military solutions to political problems and conflicts) in some parts of the developing world is examined fully in volumes such as J. J. Johnson's The Role of the Military in Underdeveloped Countries (1962), which both identifies some of the many forms which militarism can take in politics (direct rule, indirect influence, strategic alliances), and also offers a long list of factors which predispose towards military intervention in government in particular societies (relative strength of armed forces, political stalemate, administrative corruption, and so forth). (It should be noted, however, that there is little or no agreement about precisely which of these factors are most important.)

Second, one might point to the attention given to the topics of war and violence in the sociological theories of Social Darwinists and evolutionists such as the Polish social theorist Ludwig Gumplowicz (1838–1909) and the Austrian Gustav Ratzenhofer (1842–1904), both of whom extended their theories about the origins of conflict between social groups to include the military struggles between states. Gumplowicz traced such violence to an insurmountable hatred that allegedly exists between different races, on account of their lack of a common blood-bond, and hypothesized that wars between states express an urge for conquest that arises from a desire for improved economic conditions at the expense of other groups. Ratzenhofer (a field-marshal and president of the supreme military court of Austria) produced a typology of interests which were said to be rooted in human nature and governed social life, these being procreative, physiological, individual (self-assertion), social (group welfare), and transcendental (religion). These generate conflict between groups (because of an innate human predisposition to obey primary impulses and to hate), but at the same time form the basis of social order, since this struggle for existence soon becomes organized on a group basis and leads eventually to the appearance of (competing) nationstates.

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Subjects: Sociology.


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