Book Review: J. Hockey, Squaddies: Portrait of a Subculture (Exeter, 1986)

John Hockey’s book is a ground breaking insight into the life, culture and experience of the British Army infantry private in the late 20th Century.

John Hockey sets out an ethnographical study of regular British soldiers from their basic training, to permanent allocation to an infantry battalion to deployment in Northern Ireland in 1979-80 on active operations. He was a ‘participant observer’, being embedded with a company for ten weeks and aimed to examine and understand the ‘everyday world of private soldiers’ from their perspective.

In particular, he wanted look at the two sides of privates’ behaviour. The first was ‘official’ behaviour that was in conformity with the sanctioned organisational demands of the Army and was exemplified by following orders, performing set duties and completing them to the desired standard. The second was ‘unofficial’ behaviour which could be in contravention of these things. He examined how privates and their commanders negotiated and bargained between each other over these modes of behaviour and how different situational contexts – from basic training to active service – influenced and shaped this process.[1]

Observational studies of soldiers’ daily lives are very rare. Hockey’s research joins a small collection of such initiatives conducted by such scholars as Tamotsu Shibutani, Knut Pipping, Roger Little, Larry Ingraham/Frederick Manning and Charles Moskos.[2] These studies are unique as they show the dynamics and complexities of soldier behaviour over a period of time. Hockey’s is important because it monitors soldiers’ conduct during combat operations.

His study was originally conducted for his PhD in sociology. It takes a chronological approach following the route a new volunteer joining the army as an infantryman would take from basic training, posting to a unit in barracks and then to combat. This approach is taken as the lessons, experience and skills gained by soldiers at different stages of their service life were important to their personal, social, professional and organisational survival and development in their military careers.

Once a soldier had volunteered for military service, they were sent on 18 weeks basic training. This started a process of organisational socialisation to change young lads from civilians into soldiers. The environment is dominated by strict, and often petty, discipline which is focused on eroding self-determination, autonomy of movement, personal privacy and individual appearance. It also aims to build physical fitness, teach considerable body of knowledge and skills and make men work and depend on their comrades.

Basic training introduced recruits to three features of military life. The first is the development of an unofficially bargained working relationship with leaders. Leaders made life easier for their recruits if they in turn performed to an adequate standard demanded by their leaders. This ‘negotiated order’ is important as trainers knew that coercion had limited value in forcing volunteer soldiers to learn and comply and more could be achieved through bargaining, support and encouragement. The second, in response to the tough conditions and training imperatives of basic training, is the development of a ‘sub culture’ of unwritten group norms which promoted collective community solidarity through close co-operation, communal loyalty and mutual aid. The third, in response to personal privation and tough demands of the training regime, were attempts to ensure individual comfort, well-being and security through unofficial means such as ‘skiving’, ‘scrounging’ and taking ‘shortcuts’. This was done on an individual basis but more often was a group endeavour. [3]

Once a soldier has passed basic training, he is posted to a battalion barracks where life is significantly different and discipline more relaxed. For an infantry battalion to function effectively in training or on the dispersed modern battlefield, performance was heavily dependent on the co-operation and commitment of its constituent privates. This gave privates an unofficial leverage over their superiors by the threat of non-co-operation or by performing poorly if they so choose. Therefore working relationships between leader and subordinate mattered much more than they did during basic training and leaders sought to encourage good relations by maintaining informality and flexibility of the ‘negotiated order’. Working relationships varied depending on the character, official role and rank of the NCO or officer. Some leaders colluded with men and gave them ‘let offs’, whereas others, known as ‘tick tocks’, were much stricter on disciplinary matters.

The private’s subculture of group solidarity was well established in the barracks. Though discipline at the barracks is more relaxed, army life had its level of daily tedious tasks, hard training and routine monotonous jobs. Soldiers, both individually and collectively, focused on looking ‘after No.1’ and adopted and adhered to an unofficial normative code that regulated how they behaved. The code is defensive in orientation and split privates into ‘us’ and everyone else as ‘them’. ‘Them’ could refer to their own NCOs and officers, but also other units and classification of who constituted ‘them’ varied on context and environment. The code expected privates to reciprocate social obligations, to do their share of work, but never more, and promoted loyalty to mates and never getting others into ‘trouble’.[4] Bonds between men are enhanced and strengthened by antics off duty which involved ‘booze’, ‘birds’ and brawling.[5] Adherence to the code was often enforced by giving mutual support or by imposing informal sanctions on deviants such as ridicule, social isolation or violence.[6]

However, Hockey argued that though privates reacted defensively to the army, many have a solid commitment to their profession. The men are volunteers and many choose the infantry as it was to them the toughest arm of the army and many internalised a self-image based on their soldierly role and were heavily involved and dedicated to their job.[7] This, on occasion, motivated men to want to perform well and they engaged in their activities, especially if they found them interesting. The private soldier, argued Hockey, was ‘not a passive unreflecting puppet’ but someone who reacted to their world and shaped it, if they could, to their benefit. It was not a paradox that men may be committed to the performance of tasks one minute and seek to skive the next. The way soldiers reacted was informed by ‘occasioned interpretation’ determined by their context and perspective.

Hockey demonstrated this by examining how soldiers performed and acted while on active deployment in Northern Ireland. Relationships here changed. ‘Them’ became the IRA and the supposedly hostile civilian population and ‘us’ became the unit that included NCOs and officers. Men on patrols outside their fortified base had to depend on all, working together to survive and come home unhurt. This change in working relationships meant that the semi-formal discipline of the barracks was supplanted by a much more informal style of operation. The criteria for ‘looking after No.1’ became focused on survival and ‘doing the job’ to get home. As a result, all were expected to be ‘switched on’ as a lapse of concentration could result in death or injury. ‘Deviancy’ and rule breaking still persisted as soldiers sought to make themselves safe and comfortable and men resorted to ‘scrounging’ kit or stealing ice cream from the mess.[8]

At the end of the book, Hockey asks whether the privates’ ‘subculture’ supported or hindered the wider mission and objectives of the Army. He argued that the ‘subculture’ was ‘oppositional’ to those in authority but on balance the ‘deviance’ soldiers demonstrated went far to support what the army officially required and trained its troops to perform. Public brawling built team loyalty and ‘fighting spirit’. Skiving and scrounging demonstrated initiative, quick thinking and guile, all objectives of army training. While the normative code of privates appears antithetical to the efficient running of the army it is of great value when the unit is deployed on active service where teamwork, loyalty, doing one’s share and mutual support are all required for successful operations. Finally, Hockey suggests that the operation of the oppositional nature of the subculture was good mechanism for soldiers and officers to negotiate and resolve conflicts and disagreements. The limits of negotiation were defined by those in power who officially demanded instant and quick obedience but the fact that a relaxed interpretation and enforcement of military law is traded for effective role performance shows the private’s unofficial power. He argued that the combination in conflict and co-operation in the ‘subculture’ went a significant way to serve rather than subvert the organisational goals of the army.[9]


[1] J. Hockey, Squaddies: Portrait of a Subculture (Exeter, 1986), pp.1-6.

[2] T. Shibutani, The Derelicts of Company K (Berkley, 1978). K. Pipping, Infantry Company as a Society, (Helsinki, 1947). R. Little, ‘Buddy Relations and Combat Performance’, in M. Janowitz (ed), The New Military (New York, 1964). L.H. Ingraham & F.J. Manning, The Boys in the Barracks (Philadelphia, 1984). C. Moskos, The American Enlisted Man (Hartford, 1970).

[3] Hockey, Squaddies…, pp.21-63.

[4] Ibid., p.124.

[5] Ibid., pp.112-118

[6] Ibid., pp.126-129.

[7] Ibid., pp.75-77.

[8] Ibid., pp.97-112.

[9] Ibid., pp141-159.