On the links between sociology and the armed forces

I’ve been re-reading a bit of Squaddies recently, John Hockey’s ethnography of a British Army infantry unit.  It was first published in 1986, and is now something of a classic of military sociology.  It drew on John’s PhD fieldwork which involved a period of time living and working with a group of soldiers, something John was well qualified to do.  It’s still an essential reference for understanding military participation (check out the citations in Google Scholar), and an absorbing and informative account.  I was re-reading it having just reviewed a paper which was quoting it, and as often happens, I found myself carrying on reading after checking out the point I was after.  Proof, to me, of the enduring value of this book.

Above all else, Squaddies seems to me to provide clear validation for the argument that military forces and the defence community in general have much to gain from sociology and a sociological understanding of military forces.  There’s often a degree of antipathy within military and defence circles to the insights of sociological thinking on military matters.  So I’ve been told many times over the years, in discussions with people working within these circles, that certain arguments are somehow unreliable because of the methodologies used, particularly when the methods concerned sit at the qualitative end of the spectrum.  Or it’s been explained to me that much sociology is insufficiently ‘objective’, reflecting a mis-perception particularly of the more critical military sociological analyses that are out there, which are trying to examine military phenomena with reference to the political contexts in which they sit.

Yet I was struck when reading my Google news feed last week (set to deliver a round-up of news using alert terms like ‘British’ and ‘armed forces’) how the majority of news stories about British military forces are essentially about sociological issues.  Last week’s feed, for example, reported stories on obesity levels among military personnel (so about bodies and embodiment), suicide rates amongst former personnel (so about the sociology of trauma and mental health) and a stream of invective on a far right website in response to a Centre for Army Leadership piece about women’s military participation (so about gender and the structuring of social life).

I’m also frequently reminded – not least by John Hockey’s work – about the contributions to military sociology by academics who have a military background and who have used their thinking and training in social science in their interventions about military sociological phenomena.  John Hockey is a case in point, of course, and he reflects on this a little in his chapter in The Routledge Companion to Military Research Methods, as does David Walker.  I can think of a number of others similarly placed – Lauren Greenwood, Neil Jenkings, Patrick Bury, Ross McGarry, Anthony Forster, Godfrey Maringira, Ryerson Christie, Kevin Spruce, Hannah West – who even if they don’t describe themselves as sociologists, clearly (to me, at any rate) use their military experience to inform their academic social scientific research in ways that seem sociological.

I wonder if the UK is quite distinct in the ways that the defence and academic military research communities engage with each other (or don’t), and whether this explains at least some of the antipathy towards military sociology’s insights?  The North American context is quite different, with the ‘soldier-scholar’ model animating much work behind the IUS-AFS and the journal Armed Forces & Society.  In mainland Europe the practice of social scientists working within defence ministries, evident in the ERGOMAS meetings and the recently revived journal Res Militaris, mean that a very different military institutional view is possible of the benefits of sociological approaches to military issues.  In the UK, it seems that some kinds of social science – behavioural psychology, management studies – are considered useful for the Ministry of Defence and the armed forces.   The work of a few social scientists has had clear utility over time in shaping defence thinking (see for example Tony King’s work on military transformations or Tim Edmunds’ on security sector reform).  But beyond these examples, I often feel that we’re missing a trick here in the UK.

It’s the critical analyses, in particular, that have the most to offer.  Those labouring in the Ministry of Defence to respond to the Government latest anxieties about the armed forces / civil society disconnect, would surely have an easier time if they went through a few back-issues of Critical Military Studies to help with their thinking (even if they disagree with the analysis).  For those faced with unpicking the multiple problems caused by the outsourcing of military tasks and requirements, such as base maintenance or personnel recruitment, something like Swed and Crosbie’s The Sociology of Privatized Security might help.  Concerns about the fine lines between criminal acts and acts legitimated under rules of engagement call for insights on criminology and war.  The list is almost endless; the point is that sociological analyses (including, perhaps even particularly, those most critically engaged with military activities and phenomena) have enormous potential to inform the UK’s military and defence policy and practice.

Above all else, the idea persists with me that most military personnel are actually really good sociologists – and to return to the starting point, I think this is one reason why Squaddies is such a good book.  Military personnel live and work from a relatively young age in an institution, so social structures, organisations, hierarchies and institutional behaviours are thoroughly familiar, and they’re dealing with other people all the time, so identities, positionality, micro-politics and embodiment are routine, daily issues.  Sociology and the armed forces seem to fit together well.


Rachel Woodward

Military Wives Choirs as empowerment?

As part of my PhD research, which looked at how ideas around military heroism circulate in popular culture and everyday life, I did some work focusing on the UK’s bestselling Military Wives Choir (you can read more about the choir here).

For this aspect of the project, I was really interested in seeing how the women of the choir engaged with some of the dominant representations of military wives that circulate through popular culture.  The prime example of this is Gareth Malone’s BBC television programme The Choir: Military Wives. I was interested in how the experiences of the women of the choir might chime with or challenge the story told through things like television programmes. I spent roughly a year doing fieldwork with the Plymouth branch of the choir, not only chatting with them but going along to rehearsals, watching performances, and attending fundraising events.

Below are some of the conclusions that came out of this research.  The quotations (which I’ve kept anonymous) are taken from interviews with the women.


The most striking research finding was the way that women talked about attending the choir as something which had given them a voice,  one which had previously often been hidden behind concerns for the struggles of serving members of the armed forces.

“…you can belt it out and that could be the only time that week that your voice is getting heard in a way, especially if your husband is away and you’ve got two children and you don’t talk to many people.”

Being a choir member had unexpected impacts on the lives of some members, empowering them to leave dead-end jobs, start college courses, and do new things with their lives.

“It has been very empowering, a lot of the girls have started to do things like they’ve started courses, so like for me I’ve wanted to train to be a counsellor for a while and going to the choir and doing the gigs and having the support and stuff I’ve finished my course. Other girls have started up businesses, other girls have changed jobs or gone for jobs that they’ve always wanted to go for, and I think it’s been really empowering for everybody to have this voice, that’s a big thing that the choir has given us. It’s given us this voice together but also individually, so like OK I want to go and change my job so I’m going to change my job.”

Being in the choir also, for some members, helped to disrupt some of the conventional roles the women found themselves in, and this disruption to gendered household dynamics was important. Attending rehearsals or performances for some meant that their husbands had to stay at home and look after the kids.

“It’s enabled me to be like ‘OK I’m going out and doing stuff now, my husband can stay home and look after the children’.”

For others, though, attendance was challenging and put strain on relationships.

The empowering aspect of the choir is not one reflected in wider media representations, and was suggested to be paradoxical to the image of the military wife that the choir represents.  This image is of the military wife as a rather docile, faceless woman who exists to support her soldier husband.

Despite some media representations, which suggest that the Military Wives Choir is just women singing sad songs about their husbands, attending choir often had little or nothing to do with their partners. There were diverse reasons given for attending choir, but none of them included wanting to sing about their husbands’ heroism or bravery.

“It’s strange, all of the soppy love songs that we do sing don’t remind me of my partner. They more remind me of my family back home, like last year my mum found out she had breast cancer, so I was always singing for her it was nothing to do with him”

Community and Therapy

Many members attend the choir as a way of meeting other women in similar situations to their own, and making new friends.

“It was a way of meeting other ladies as well who had similar interests and who would understand the life I lead”

Other members felt that the choir was a way of remaining attached to the military community during periods of transition in their lives.

“…the choir keeps me [in the military community]… I am a little bit removed and I think I miss it, that’s an important part of being in the choir, the community is more like an extended family and now I get my little fix of that each week”

The community that is generated by the choir between military wives helps to challenge the notion that military wives can only be recognised in relation to their husbands. They are their own distinct community.

In private rehearsals, many members felt that singing sad or melancholy songs helped them to connect with other members who were going through difficult times. Singing these types of songs in public performances also helped military wives to connect with their audiences.

Attending choir was often very therapeutic to members, and gave them an emotional release. This emotional release was tied to singing both happy and uplifting songs, and sad or melancholy songs. The latter often helped members to connect with their emotions, as well as each other.

“music is very therapeutic, and what’s quite nice is that people feel they can cry, they don’t feel stupid for having a good cry”

The choir is seen first and foremost as a support group.


Media representations of the choir were not necessarily reflective of the diversity of military wives choir groups, who often include not only wives but girlfriends, sisters, mothers, daughters, and serving or veteran women. (Catherine Baker has some interesting observations on the public image of the Military Wives Choirs here).

The BBC’s The Choir: Military Wives, while shedding an important light on the lived experiences of military wives, told a particular ‘story’ which was not always accurate or sensitive to the needs of the military wives themselves.

“We felt really uncomfortable like we shouldn’t be there but they were just like THIS IS FANTASTIC LETS GET IT ALL ON CAMERA”

The songs that are chosen for public performances often appeal to audiences, but again only tell one side of the story. Many members expressed a desire to sing more upbeat songs in public performances, in the hope of challenging representations of military wives as, in the words of one woman I interviewed, ‘poor sad women’.

“Because of the media coverage of Wherever You Are and cos of the style of the song and the lyrics, and because of all the stuff we do at gigs, how sad it is how sad the lyrics are, and you know there’s a lot of ‘Oh look at those poor sad women’ [laughs]”

Another woman pointed out,

“we would also like to sing stuff that we enjoy singing that’s happy and upbeat… when you go you want to be uplifted, you don’t want to be stood there like ‘I miss my husband’”

Overall, the image of military wives portrayed through media representations of the choir was one which research participants wanted to change.

 A key findings report based on this research will be available to the Military Wives Choir Foundation in the next few weeks.

Alice Cree

This research was supported by the Economic and Social Research Council.

The Future of Military Environmentalism

The other day, I spotted a Tweet by Landmarc (who provide estate management for much of the defence estate), celebrating the success of grassland management on part of the British Army’s training area at Salisbury Plain, in terms of the government’s National Pollinator Strategy:


This got me thinking about some research I did, many years ago now, on the intersections between military land use and environmental protection (see here and here). That work feels very dated now, and seeing Landmarc’s celebration of its habitat management strategies, I’ve been thinking about why that is, and what has changed.

The most obvious change is that it is now really widely recognised that much of the UK defence estate consists of sites with rich and diverse ecosystems and habitats.  The reason for this scale of habitat protection is fairly obvious: military land uses tend to include activities which may be dangerous to those not involved, or may require a certain amount of space and privacy.  Designating land for military purposes generally means that other land uses are either entirely absent (such as intensive agriculture, housing development, significant public infrastructure), or are present but at a modest scale (upland low-intensity sheep farming would be a case in point).  Given that activities such as intensive agriculture, urban development or other types of construction can have hugely negative impacts on environments and habitats, by default because military land uses block these activities, much of the defence estate has a far richer and more diverse range of habitats, flora and fauna than equivalent ground beyond the perimeter wire.  Habitats (and their inhabitants) that may be rare, threatened or otherwise absent elsewhere can thrive on the defence estate.  There has been considerable proactivity around this on the estate.  Conservation Officers (first established in the early 1970s) have long been active on many military installations, and Sanctuary (now up to issue 46 and published by the Defence Infrastructure Organisation) through its long print run tells a story of places where there is some kind of harmony between military land uses and environmental protection as a consequence of land use strategies and practices.  The environmental health of the defence estate is widely recognised now, in ways it probably wasn’t 20 years ago, because defence land management practitioners have been adept at spreading what is by any measure a positive message.

The original research that I did on military environmentalism was done in the late 1990s and the defence and security context was of course quite different then (and this was also a time when the idea of environmental security as a legitimate military concern was barely mentioned).  I’m wondering now whether my original analysis about the ways in which we could understand the defence estate and military environmentalism still holds.  I’m assuming that, for example, reduced personnel numbers, different equipment capabilities and altered training patterns will all have had an effect on the ways military environmentalist discourses and practices are mobilised.  The management regimes will have changed, not least because serving military personnel no longer do much of the defence estate’s regular management: as the above Tweet shows, Landmarc is a key player in defence estate matters now, and I wonder what changes this has brought to land management practices.   I don’t know with precision (because I haven’t asked anyone recently) how these and other defence changes have filtered through into shifts in the organisation and management of training on the UK defence estate.   Neither do I know what this has meant for the habitats concerned.  I suspect that there have been quite significant changes in defence estate management practices, but that very little has changed on the ground – I was up on the Otterburn ranges fairly recently, and apart from some bits of infrastructure, it looks much as it did when I first went up there more than 20 years ago.   Environmental protection continues, in other words.

The flip-side of celebratory comments about the protections afforded to habitats by defence use was always an issue around environmental contamination.  What does the rich environmental heritage of the defence estate hide?  What about the toxic effects of military training – fuel spills, the emissions from weapons, the contamination from heavy vehicles, from military testing?  In other words, what lurks beneath the greenery?  I’m fairly sure that this issue hasn’t disappeared, that although there may be defence sites where remediation for past pollution and contamination has taken place, that there are also many others where the ground is potentially quite toxic.  How would we know, though?  There is little on public record which suggests detailed studies of this (but give me a shout if you know of any).

In thinking about what has changed over the years in terms of military environmental issues, I’m also thinking about the future for these lands.  I won’t go into detail here about the future size of the defence estate, and questions about whether its current size (about 1% of the land area of the UK) can still be justified – that’s a contentious issue, an important one, but for another blog post.  But, if there were to be a move towards the demilitarisation of parts of the rural estate, what issues does that then raise?  David Havlick’s excellent Bombs Away: Militarization, Conservation, and Ecological Restoration is a really useful guide for thinking about this.  In the book, David carefully unpicks the complex and often politically fraught practices around the ecological restoration of former military sites, primarily in the USA.  He reminds us that celebrating the biodiversity of current and former military lands is only part of the story; there is always a politics at play here in these hybrid spaces where ecological processes, scientific practices and political discourses come together in transformative ways.  So let’s celebrate the bees buzzing happily in the grasses of Westdown Camp – but be mindful that this is only part of a much more complex and often quite difficult military environmental story.

Rachel Woodward

Invictus Games: Beyond the ‘Invictus Spirit’

On the 20th October 2018, the Invictus Games will be heading to Sydney, Australia for their fourth tournament. The usual #Invictus Twitter storm is already brewing, and with the appearance of the Games’ new hashtags such as #makeyourmarkdownunder alongside the usual #weareInvictus, I’ve been thinking again about the ‘spirit’ of the games.

According to the Invictus Games Foundation, the word ‘Invictus’ means “‘unconquered’; it embodies the fighting spirit of the wounded, injured and sick service personnel and what these tenacious men and women can achieve, post injury” (see the Invictus Games website here for more info). This is so much of what the Invictus Games is about, this overcoming of injury and trauma in a way that marks them as tenacious warriors. Harriet Gray (2015) has written some interesting stuff on the narratives of redemption at work here;

According to the Invictus Games website, the ‘wounded warriors’ who compete ‘have been tested and challenged, but they have not been overcome. They have proven that they cannot be defeated. They have the willpower to persevere and conquer new heights.’ The injured bodies of these servicemen are thus reinterpreted, and understood not as something which makes servicemen weak, but conversely as something which makes them strong through providing the opportunity for demonstration of their ability to overcome” (pp.13-14).

As Gray tells us, the Invictus Games provide the opportunity for the injured bodies of servicemen and women to be remade, and presented to the public as conquerors of their weakness. The men and women of the armed forces are thus not simply heroes, but warriors, not only because they have fought in wars, but because they have fought to overcome the physical and mental impairments that these wars have inflicted upon them.

But there is something troubling to me about this. Is there a violence at work in remaking the horrors of war as an opportunity to ‘overcome’? What do we lose in our understanding of war and trauma when we display the wounded bodies of servicemen and women in this way? HRH The Duke of Sussex, patron of the Games, said in his rousing speech at the closing ceremony of the 2016 Orlando Games that;

What could explain the remarkable sportsmanship of Mark Urquart in sacrificing gold on the track to push Stephen Simmons into first place? Invictus!

How else could I describe the way I felt seeing Tim Payne, a man I met three years ago to the day, in his hospital bed at Walter Reed, beaming as he wore his gold medal round his neck? Invictus!

What defines the spirit of Denmark’s Jonas Andersen, who loaded the coffin of his friend onto the flight which changed my life in 2008, and then fought through his own dark days to compete in London and Orlando? Invictus!”

He then goes on to say

“You are all Invictus. You are now ambassadors for the spirit of these games. Spread the word. Never stop fighting. And do all you can to lift up everyone around you

(Invictus Games Orlando 2016 closing ceremony – you can read the full transcript here).

There is clearly something very powerful about such calls to action. Harry tells us that we are “all Invictus… Spread the word. Never stop fighting”; thus, we are all implicated in spreading the Invictus spirit. But what does the glorifying of the ‘Invictus spirit’ do for those who cannot or choose not to overcome? This is a question I come back to again and again when thinking about the role of the Invictus Games in shaping how we come to view and understand wounded veterans.

There is of course nothing inherently bad about the Invictus Games, and the work that the Foundation does to help wounded servicemen and women. The recovery from trauma and injury in the military is and should be a central concern of the state, and organisations such as the Invictus Games Foundation clearly have a role to play in this. There is also nothing inherently wrong with, as the Duke of Sussex says, being ‘ambassadors for the spirit of these games’. If the Invictus spirit is characterized by a renewed tenacity for life, a drive to overcome injuries and psychological traumas that might very well have broken you, then how can we critique that? Why would we want to?

And yet, there is something troubling to me about the way that wounded military bodies are displayed through the games, and claimed as national competitors. It seems to me that the lived experiences of wounded veterans are very much sidelined, or even erased in favour of a more positive ‘heroic’ representation. I can’t help but be reminded of Gareth Malone’s 2016 Invictus Choir, a two-part mini-series in which Malone works with a choir made up of physically and psychologically wounded servicemen, women, and veterans towards a performance at the 2016 Orlando Invictus Games. This of course was the first year that mental trauma was incorporated into the representation of wounded servicemen and women in the Games in any real way. In the programme’s two episodes, Malone echoes the ethos of the wider Games by telling choir members that their goal is to “inspire the world with your voices, what you’ve been through, and what you’re doing now” (Invictus Choir, Episode 1). The choir actively seeks to shed light on the emotional and physical trauma of war, but largely as a means of providing a compelling and entertaining story to viewers. Viewers are invited to spectate upon these men and women, revel in their pain, but importantly follow the story to its conclusion in the form of their final performance in Orlando. But what happens after that? The audience are given a sense of closure, a warm fuzzy feeling that everything was alright in the end, but that isn’t the end of the story. And, just because we are afforded the opportunity to watch wounded servicemen and women achieve something remarkable in the face of inconceivable adversity, this does not mean that we should close our eyes to the bigger picture.

Some of the material for this blog post has been taken from my doctoral thesis, which you can access here if you’d like to read more.

Alice Cree





Cree ASJ. (2018) The Hero, The Monster, The Wife: Geographies of Remaking and Reclaiming the Contemporary Military Hero. Ethesis available here. Accessed 18/09/18.

Gray H. (2015) The Trauma Risk Management approach to posttraumatic stress disorder in the British military: masculinity, biopolitics and depoliticisation. Feminist Review. 111(1): 109-123. Available here.

The costs of maintaining a Reservist identity need full recognition

Over the last 4 years or so, a team of us have been doing a piece of research looking at how Reservists manage the task of being both a civilian employee and a Reservist. In the next couple of weeks or so, we will be mailing out to a number of Reserves units a short briefing document on the research, and a copy is also available here.

During the research, we did a large number of interviews with Army Reserve, Royal Naval Reserve, RAF Volunteer Reserve and Royal Marines Reserve participants. One of the really striking things across these interviews was the amount of time and effort that these personnel put into the work of both being a Reservist, and following their civilian career.

It was striking how many Reservists wanted to maintain quite a stark distinction between their identities as military personnel, and their identities as civilian employees. All our interviewees took great pride in their military participation, but sometimes found it hard to convey the detail of what they do, and why they do it, to their civilian colleagues. Efforts to do so were often met with bafflement, scepticism or humour. As a consequence many Reservists were reticent in discussing their military identities and Reserves participation when in the workplace, playing down or even concealing their membership of the Reserves.

This reality of Reservist life is interesting when put in the context of the Future Reserves 2020 plans when they were originally set out. These plans identified the expansion of the Reserves as a means of developing greater civilian awareness of the armed forces and defence. That wasn’t the primary purpose of the plans – but it is there in the documentation. For example, the original White Paper implied that the FR2020 plans might be one of a number of mechanisms that could be used by the then Coalition government to address what it saw as the widening disconnect between the military and civilian worlds. (There’s a lot more to say about civil-military relationships here, not least the history – going back to Options for Change – of political anxieties about this, the many ways in which this changing relationship has been visible or not, and the ways that binary thinking has obscured some more interesting ideas about this relationship – but I’ll save all that for another blog post.) These ideas about the role of the Reserves in developing civilian awareness seemed to contrast quite distinctly with what Reservists themselves told us, when they talked about the work they put into maintaining their identities as Reservists and how this might include silence or reticence about their service when talking with work colleagues.

It seemed to the research team that a more detailed appreciation about this identity work – and we use the word ‘work’ deliberately to reflect Reservists’ serious commitment – was needed by senior policy-makers. It may be the case that the demands of maintaining a Reservist identity are well recognised by senior individuals in the Ministry of Defence and the armed forces. After all, many of these people are themselves Reservists. But we wonder whether policy interventions and strategies on the Reserves reflect that understanding. The idea that you should know your people was one that came back to use, time and again, when we conducted the research interviews and read through the transcripts.

Understanding Reservists as members of the workforce and understanding the work they do, not just in terms of employment but also in terms of identity work, seems to be critical to addressing some of the tensions around Reservists in the workplace, and ultimately to the future sustainability of FR2020.

The ‘Keeping Enough in Reserve’ project was conducted by Rachel Woodward (Newcastle University), Antonia Dawes (University of Bristol), Tim Edmunds (University of Bristol), Paul Higate (University of Bath) and K. Neil Jenkings (Newcastle University.

Rachel Woodward

‘Line of Sight’: Art Sessions at Forward Assist

Last month we started ‘Line of Sight’, an art project at Forward Assist veteran’s charity in Newcastle. The project is funded by National Lottery Awards for All and is inspired by a conversation with Forward Assist about veteran’s experience and the range card. The range card is used by all branches of the military to direct live fire, either from artillery, portable firearms such as machine gun or mortars, or weapons delivered by aircraft. Yet beyond the battlefield it seemed the range card was helping some veterans to transition into the seemingly uncertain environment of civvy street, by being a emblem of certainty.

This brought to mind art historical work about spatiality in Dutch Landscape painting from the 17th Century being a direct result of innovations in targeting advanced artillery, with the task of targeting the canons falling to the royal artists and geographers. Other academic work has demonstrated that artist throughout history have also been active participants in battlefields by collecting data and intelligence on bridging points, fortifications and landscape features. Innovations such as oil paint in metal tubes that helped the emergence of outdoor painting, were also seen as a threat to combat forces on the battlefield of the Franco Prussian War by being manoeuvrable and easily concealed . Many of these battlefields were captured by the Impressionist painters such as Monet, Degas and Renoir with several of these works being seen, by military of the time, as being operational objects.

So there seemed to be a great opportunity for an art class based on artistic and military seeing with an aim to aid veteran to move from the regimented but predictable structure of military life, to the less certain and arbitrariness of everyday. The first class was held in the mid August and after a pause for the bank holiday resumed last night. Straight away the veterans got to work decoding landscape paintings by Renoir or van Ruisdael identifying areas of risk areas, or tactical advantage. For example  a Renoir cornfield presented a risk to infantry that could be mitigated by an air bursting artillery barrage over a distant village and large amounts of smoke across the fields depending on the wind direction. The dips and contours of what had been a flat landscape became very apparent while problems of spatial depth became a matter of using the same skills as ranging firearms.

Perspective drawing and spatiality can be tricky skills to teach. However, it seemed even in the first art class that these are tacit abilities taught through military training, which the veterans have brought to the art session and re-applied into landscape painting. What had seemed like a novel notion of combining art history with veteran’s experience of landscape has suddenly became embodied and actual.

Michael Mulvihill

Recruiting the new intake – the OTC, UAS and URNU on campus

The new academic year is about to start, Newcastle University’s campus will soon fill with people advertising student events, organisations and activities, and my thoughts turn again to that old chestnut, recruitment to the university armed service units (USUs) on university campuses.  It’s an interesting one to ponder, not least because of the diversity of views this generates.

The university armed service units – the Officer Training Corps (OTC), the University Air Squadrons (UAS) and the University Royal Naval Units (URNU) – are open only to university students.  University campuses are an obvious place for these organisations to recruit.  The fact of this happening elicits some fairly divergent opinions.  For some, this is no big deal.  For some, the unit activities on campus are a fabulous opportunity for people to consider joining an organisation they otherwise wouldn’t know about.  For some, recruitment to the units is a practice which should have no place on a university campus.

We did some research on the USUs a few years back, and one of the things we found (we did a survey of current participants across all the units) was the high a proportion of students for whom Freshers’ Week activities were a key source of primary information about the units.  In fact, it was the single most important source of information identified by people, looking back on their experience of joining.  There were of course participants who arrived at university with prior knowledge of the existence of these units, usually from family, friends and cadets, for example.  But for a significant proportion (about 30% overall) Freshers’ events were the primary source of information.

The gender split on this was also revealing.  For example:

  • For the OTC, 31% of women said Freshers’ events were significant, compared with 26% of men.
  • For the URNU, 48% of women said Freshers’ events were significant, compared with 26% of the men surveyed.
  • For the UAS, 30% of women said Freshers’ events were significant, compared with 18% of the men.

We thought then, and I am reminded of this again this year, that there is a fairly basic argument about equality of access to opportunities at play here, which the discussion about ‘recruitment on campus’ often overlooks.

This is not to say that USU recruitment practices and their effects are, across the board, exemplary strategies for encouraging diversity in the armed forces.  The picture is a whole lot more complex than that, not least because of the differential presence and reach of the units across the university sector.  To put this simply (if crudely), the logics of the history and geography of higher education in the UK mean that the dominance of Russell Group universities echoes across the USUs, their recruitment and existence, and the USUs may be absent entirely or only vaguely visible in many of the post-1992 institutions.  Our research did not explicitly look at differential access, whether in terms of class, ethnicity or other markers of social identity or difference.  But, I wonder whether there might be some use in a piece of research which looks in more detail than we were able to, at differential access to the units, and the way that this socially structured?

This would make a very good dissertation project for a USU-participating social science, sociology or geography student, at any rate.

Rachel Woodward


The research referred to above was conducted by Alison Williams, Neil Jenkings and Rachel Woodward, Newcastle University.

You can read The Value of the University Armed Service Units (the full book of the research findings) for free here.

We also published a paper in Political Geography on the connections between the universities and the military in the UK, available for free download here.

‘Army at the Fringe’ returns for another year

The lived experiences of Army life, past and present, will be brought to the Edinburgh Fringe stage for another year following the success of the ‘Army at the Fringe’ 2017 debut. Of ‘The Troth’, one of the shows taking place at the Hepburn House Drill Hall Army Reserve Centre during the city’s festival season, Mira Kaushik said;

“It’s a story about soldiers, so it’s relevant any time. It’s a human story, it’s a very accessible story. So, it’s all about emotions of the boys who leave home, who go to all sorts of conditions which they are not familiar to” (Forces News 2018).

The presence of military theatre at the Fringe appears as part of a much wider trend. The narratives of military personnel and their families are stories of great public interest, and are increasingly emerging in civil society as dramatic productions for public consumption (see Cree 2018). More broadly, this is further evidence that “the literature of war is increasingly escaping from between the covers of books and engaging directly with a wider popular culture of war as entertainment” (Woodward & Jenkings 2012; see also Cree 2018).


Cree A. (2018) The Hero, The Monster, The Wife: Geographies of Remaking and Reclaiming the Contemporary Military Hero. Avaiable at http://etheses.dur.ac.uk/12561/1/Thesis_Alice_Cree_with_corrections_(1).pdf?DDD14+. Accessed 16/08/18.

Woodward R and Jenkings NK. (2012) Military memoirs, their covers and the reproduction of public narratives of war. Journal of War & Culture Studies. 5(3): 349-369.

Forces News. (2018) Army Fringe Returns for Another Year. Available at https://www.forces.net/news/army-fringe-returns-another-year. Accessed 16/08/18.


Welcome to Military Research at Newcastle!

Hello! Welcome to the Military Research at Newcastle University blog. We’ll be using this space to blog about some of the interesting work we are doing here, as well as some commentary pieces on current armed forces news and other relevant issues.


Professor Rachel Woodward

Rachel is a Professor in Human Geography in the School of Geography, Politics and Sociology. Her research interests focus broadly on military geographies, including military land use, military landscapes and post-military landscapes, military environmentalism, militarism and space/place, base conversion issues.

Other areas of interest:

Gender and identity; Military representation in photography and print media, and contemporary military memoirs; Reserve armed forces, and University Armed Service Units

Dr Alice Cree

Alice is an ESRC Research Fellow in the School of Geography, Politics and Sociology. Her research interests broadly include Critical Military Studies, feminist geopolitics, military geography, and creative methodologies in political geography. Her postdoctoral project titled “Dramatising the home front: The lively politics of gendered militarism” seeks to explore the critical potential of participatory theatre to address broader debates in military studies. In particular, it will develop her doctoral work with the Plymouth branch of the Military Wives Choir, and consider how participatory community theatre can give flesh to the “material, discursive, and emotional labour” undertaken by women married to servicemen (Hyde 2016: 857).

Other areas of interest: Veteran transition and recovery; War and popular culture; Military families; Conscientious objection.



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