What does it mean to be a soldier?
: Negotiating identities in the British Army

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This research explores what it means to be a soldier in the modern British Army. And it does so by posing two central questions; the first is concerned with how soldiers self-identify, and develops a set of integrated beliefs, behaviours, and characteristics that are common to soldiers. The second line of inquiry develops this understanding further by uncovering the social processes through which soldiers negotiate this identity, in their interactions with others and through experiences that are unique to the soldiering profession. The research is based on data gathered from interviews with serving British Army soldiers, and analysed using a theoretical framework which draws upon a number of analytical concepts influenced by symbolic interactionist thought. The analysis reveals that soldiers’ lives are structured, orientated, and regulated, by the Army’s war-fighting mandate, and a requirement for them to go to war. This leads to a pervasiveness of war in the everyday lives of soldiers which governs many facets of their identity, such as the possession of specialist military qualifications and expertise, the requirement for sacrifice and mutual support, a need for mobility and readiness, a high moral character, and a feeling of interconnectedness or belonging to a wider collective of soldiers in the British Army. In this way the functional imperatives of war determine what it means to be a soldier, and defines the distinction of soldiers from civilians. But war alone cannot account for how soldiers negotiate their identity, because wars are fought on behalf of the Nation, and therefore war is an inter-subjective construct which is also contingent upon civilian society. For example, it is society which sets the ethical basis for the conduct of soldiers in war, and through the public portrayal of soldiers depicted in the media, soldiers’ self-image is configured and validated. But where members of society are opposed to war this challenges the identity of soldiers, forcing them to confront their own anxieties about the use of armed force. This highlights a troubled interplay, where soldiers define their identity through its distinction from civilians, yet ultimately this is a distinctiveness that is contingent upon civilian society. In this sense soldier identity emerges in this research as a dialectic between the functional imperatives of war, and the complex relationship between the military and civilian society in Britain.
Date of Award1 Apr 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorMatthew Uttley (Supervisor) & Helen McCartney (Supervisor)

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