Sociology The Sociology of War
Molly Clever
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 April 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0161


The sociology of war is a subfield of sociology that focuses on the macro-level patterns of war making, how societies engage in warfare, the meaning that war has in society, and the relationship between state structure and war making. A related subfield is military sociology, which focuses more explicitly on the organization and functioning of military forces and civil- military relations. These lines of scholarship are bound together by the basic premise that understanding war necessitates understanding those who fight it, and vice versa. The sociology of war overlaps with other fields that share an interest in government and politics, such as military history, political sociology, political science, and international relations. However, these fields tend to be concerned primarily with how wars begin and end, whereas the sociology of war tends to focus more explicitly on the cultural and social implications of war and how war and society act and react upon each other. With a few notable exceptions, the sociology of war remained mostly isolated within the field of comparative historical sociology until the 1980s, when two trends opened the door for an interdisciplinary sociology of war. The first was the dissipation of a war taboo, widespread in American academia and connected to the social resistance against the Vietnam War throughout the 1960s and 1970s. A renewed interest in the social implications of war also occurred as the end of the Cold War raised new questions about the role of the state in war making and the future of warfare. Renewed interdisciplinary interest in the origins of the modern nation-state led to a reexamination of the role that warfare played in the emergence and spread of the state system. In the decade after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2011 the sociology of war focused extensively on questions related to the role of nonstate combatant groups, the apparent increase in asymmetrical war in the post–Cold War era, and the meaning that such transformations in war making may carry for the societies that wage them. As the Global War on Terror nears the end of its second decade, scholars have increasingly turned their attention to understanding the interactions between state and society as the lines between peacetime and wartime become less distinguishable. Most recently, the sociology of war has exhibited a broadening in scope, with greater emphasis on examining how war is situated within larger patterns of social violence.

Classic Works

Much current scholarship on the sociology of war is explicitly in response to Clausewitz 1976, theories of war as an extension of politics and the centrality of the tripartite relationship among the state, the armed forces, and society that were drawn up during the era of the Napoleonic Wars. While Clausewitz may be considered the founding father of modern war sociology, earlier writings from Machiavelli 2003 in 16th-century Europe and Sun Tzu 1971 in 6th-century BCE China established the foundations for the study of the tactics and political implications of warfare. Clausewitz’s seminal maxim that war is politics by other means is likewise present, in one form or another, in the works of both Sun Tzu and Machiavelli. Grotius 1962, extensive volumes on the laws of war written during the upheaval of the Thirty Years’ War, was a paramount influence on the development of European international law. The study of war became embedded in sociology through the mid-19th-century writings of Weber 1978 and Marx 1988. Weber and Marx established conflict theory within sociology, specifically linking the modern state apparatus with the use of organized, coercive violence. Marx’s materialist conception of history linked the organization, tactics, and technologies of war to specific modes of production and advocated armed proletariat revolution as the only way to demolish the coercive power of the modern state. Weber’s definition of state power in terms of the monopolization of the legitimate use of force within its claimed territory continues to form the foundations of current understandings of the modern state and warfare as distinct from other forms of violence. Weber’s link among modernity, territory, and the monopolization of legitimate force has taken on new relevance and come under increased scrutiny in recent decades as more scholarly attention has been given to the use of force among nonstate actors. Malešević 2010 provides a useful analysis of the treatment of militarism and violence among the founding fathers of sociology, and it is especially useful as a companion piece when reading the classic sociological texts.

  • Clausewitz, Carl von. 1976. On war. Translated and edited by Michael Howard and Peter Paret. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1515/9781400837403

    English translation of Vom Krieg, first published in 1832. The foundational work of the sociology of war, Clausewitz’s formulation of the “trinity of forces” that comprise war established the analytic frame that continues to dominate war scholarship.

  • Grotius, Hugo. 1962. The law of war and peace. Translated and edited by Francis W. Kelsey. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill.

    English translation of De jure belli ac pacis, first published in 1625. This classic text on the laws of war influenced the development of European international law. Also see the Just War Tradition and Laws of War.

  • Machiavelli, Niccolò. 2003. Art of war. Translated and edited by Christopher Lynch. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226500324.001.0001

    English translation of Dell’arte della guerra, first published in 1521. Serves as both an important theory of war, particularly regarding the use of standing armies, as well as a historical document that provides insight to an important period of transformation in southern Europe in both the technologies of war and the organization of military forces as Europe entered the modern age.

  • Malešević, Siniša. 2010. How pacifist were the founding fathers? War and violence in classical sociology. European Journal of Social Theory 13.2: 193–212.

    DOI: 10.1177/1368431010362298

    A useful assessment of how war and violence figures into the classic works of the founding fathers of sociology. Provides an important companion piece to reading the classic sociological works, especially of Marx and Weber, and directing the reader to relevant passages on war in the classic texts.

  • Marx, Karl. 1988. The Civil War in France: The Paris commune. New York: International Publishers.

    A pamphlet written in response to the 1871 French uprising that reflects Marx’s shift toward explicit advocacy of armed proletarian revolution. This pamphlet would become especially influential for communist revolutionaries, such as Lenin and Mao, to adopt tactics of peasant guerrilla warfare.

  • Sun Tzu. 1971. The art of war. Translated and edited by Samuel B. Griffith. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    English translation of the classic Chinese treatise on the tactics and strategy of war, first published in the 6th century BCE. Ten centuries before Weber, Sun Tzu (also known as Sun Wu and Sunzi) discussed war in terms of rational efficiency and bureaucratic organization. The text is used as part of standard military leadership training in many countries, including in the United States and most East Asian nations.

  • Weber, Max. 1978. The types of legitimate domination. In Economy and society: An outline of interpretive sociology. Edited by Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich, 212–216. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    Although he never explicitly theorized war, Weber’s definition of the modern state as a political entity that monopolizes the legitimate use of force within its claimed territory continues to form the starting point for current analyses of organized violence.

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