Insights from a World War II Study
By Samuel A. Stouffer, et al.
An excerpt from The American Soldier: Adjustment During Army Life, presented by POP as one of an occasional series of Public Opinion Classics.
During World War II, the Research Branch of the Information and Education Division of the War Department, led by Samuel A. Stouffer, conducted a series of large-scale surveys of personnel in the U.S. armed forces in the United States and overseas. The “American Soldier Surveys,” which encompassed over one hundred studies of more than half a million soldiers, were, in many respects, a pioneering effort in the field of scientific survey research. Among many new insights produced by this work was the now classic concept of "relative deprivation"—the idea that people experience feelings of deprivation when they compare their own situations unfavorably with those of other individuals or groups—later developed by Robert Merton and Alice Rossi to consider the reference groups used for such comparisons. Stouffer and his colleagues were led to formulate the concept of relative deprivation in part by the analysis reprinted below.
The datasets from the American Soldier Surveys are now archived at the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Connecticut. Half a century ago, these data were important to the war effort; today, they survive as a fascinating, informative and often moving testament in digital and documentary form to the views, feelings, and experiences of those who served.
…Here the responses of Military Police to the question, “Do you think a soldier with ability has a good chance for promotion in the Army?” are compared with responses of Air Corps men, in early 1944. Longevity is held roughly constant by taking only men who had been in the Army 1 to 2 years.
It will be noted that more of the less educated, among both privates and noncoms in both branches, had favorable opinions than did the better educated. For example, among privates and Pfc’s in the Military Police, 33 per cent of the less educated said that a soldier with ability had a very good chance for promotion, as compared with 21 per cent of the better educated privates and Pfc’s. Finally, it will be seen, among both privates and noncoms in each educational group, that the Air Corps men tended to take a dimmer view of promotion opportunities for men of ability in the Army did the Military Police.
Without reference to the theory that such opinions by soldiers represent a relationship between their expectations and their achievements relative to others in the same boat with them, such a finding would be paradoxical, indeed. For chances of promotion in the Military Police were about the worst in any branch of the Army—among this sample of men in the Army 1 to 2 years, only 24 per cent of MP’s were noncoms as compared with 47 per cent of the Air Corps men. The MP’s felt, too, that as a branch the Military Police had been discriminated against in getting ratings, two thirds of them saying in answer to another question that MP’s do not have as good a chance for promotion as men in other branches.
But consider a high school graduate or college man in the Military Police with Army longevity of 1 to 2 years. The chances of his being a noncom were 34 out of 100, based on the proportions of noncoms in this sample at this time. If he earned the rating, he was one of the top third among his fellows of equal educational status. If he failed to earn the rating, he was in the same boat with two thirds of his fellows with equal schooling. Contrast him with the Air Corps man of the same education and longevity. The chances of the latter’s being a noncom were 56 in 100, based on the proportions in this sample at this time. If he had earned a rating, so had the majority of his fellows in the branch, and his achievement was relatively less conspicuous than in the MP’s. If he had failed to earn a rating, while the majority had succeeded, he had more reason to feel a sense of personal frustration, which could be expressed as criticism of the promotion system, than if he were one of two thirds in the same boat, as among the MP’s.
The process would work in the same way among the less educated. In both the Military Police Branch and the Air Corps, the promotion chances of the less educated were inferior to the chances of others. In the MP sample, only 17 per cent of the less educated were noncoms; in the Air Corps sample, the corresponding figure was 47 per cent. An MP who did not complete high school would feel unusually rewarded compared with others in his outfit in becoming a noncom; one who remained a private had so much company that he hardly could view discrimination against him as a reflection on his personal competence. In the Air Corps, those with ratings had almost as much company as those who remained privates—with less room for personal satisfaction over comparative achievement and more room for dissatisfaction over comparative failure to climb the status ladder.
Excerpted from The American Soldier: Adjustment During Army Life, by Samuel A. Stouffer, Edward A. Suchman, Leland C. DeVinney, Shirley A. Star, and Robin M. Williams, Jr. Copyright © 1949 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission.
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