Alternate Experience Theories in Action

Social Identity and “the Self” Within the US Army

While conducting my interviews of Army officers this summer, it became abundantly clear to me that each branch within the Army has its own social identity that its soldiers incorporate into their images of the self.

This process of forming a social identity began after each soldier joined their branch. A soldier’s branch becomes a label for that person that is used to identify the knowledge and expertise that that soldier possesses. Thus, very early on in an individual’s military career, they have become socially categorized.

The process of forming a social identity continues with the influence of stereotypes. Because each branch within the Army has a specific knowledge base that their soldiers have and a specific expertise, stereotypes quickly develop about what people within those branches are like.

As I spoke with the two Military Intelligence officers about stereotypes within their branch, they pointed out that common stereotypes are that they place a high emphasis on education and reeducation, are a highly intelligent and motivated group of individuals, and take their role as the intelligence collectors of the Army very seriously. Both officers felt that most Military Intelligence officers would say they fit into this stereotype and are proud to be claim the branch as part of their social identity and self.

During my discussions with the three officers from the Engineers, they spoke about how the stereotypes within their branch were that they were academically oriented, used the scientific method to understand and overcome problems, and that they were problem solvers. Just like the officers from intelligence, the Engineers took great pride in these common stereotypes of their branch and incorporated their belonging to the Engineers as part of their social identity and self.

My interviews with the three Field Artillery officers were a little different. They explained how some common stereotypes for Field Artillery is that they just want to blow things up, that there is very little intellectual thought going into their work, and that they just sit around all day and fire their guns. The Field Artillery officers did not think that these stereotypes were fair assessments of their capabilities and worth. They explained how within the branch, there is a large emphasis on understanding their weapons systems, how they function, and how they are most effectively used. Although destruction of things by artillery is part of the job, there are many other roles they play like illuminating dark areas with rounds and providing smoke concealment rounds to protect friendly forces. Lastly, they disliked the stereotype that they sat around all day. They explained how a lot of planning goes into their jobs and training and how they take great pride in ensuring their soldiers readiness, safety, and expertise in their craft. Thus, it seems that the common stereotypes about Field Artillery from the Army as a whole and the stereotypes within the branch about itself did not align, so Field Artillery officer’s social identity came from the self-stereotyping of themselves and others within the branch.

Through the early social categorization within the Army, the common stereotypes of each Army branch, and the self-stereotyping of the individual soldiers, soldiers create a common social identity with their peers and incorporate this into their sense of self.