The purpose of this paper is to present an insider ethnographic account of a series of social confrontations between two mutually opposed groups of officers that took place in an officers’ mess in a remote military garrison in the 1980s. The identity of one of these groups was expressed in a particular song that was sung frequently and noisily in the mess. The analysis of these incidents and their precursors provides an understanding of the social processes in which they were embedded, and the conclusions drawn are generalized into the wider context.
The paper is based on insider ethnography, using rich description to present the incidents and their background. Analysis is conducted using other research by the author on the organizational culture of Service officers and wider scholarship not specifically related to the Military.
The paper finds that in-groups and out-groups in joint Service populations do not necessarily run along traditional, Service, lines, and that cultural change in the groups concerned was associated with the rapid turnover of their members as they were replaced in the normal postings cycle. It demonstrates that a socially powerful shared cultural element can, if only temporarily, bring unity between rival groups. It also contributes to the scholarship on the power of song as a proclamation of group identity and the intensification of that identity.
The main strength of this paper is that it provides an insider’s view of a British military social group, which is extremely rare in the literature, describing social processes that connect to the wider scholarship on song, in-group and out-group behaviour, and cultural change.
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