A Healthy Soldier. An ethnographic study on conscripts' health sense as a social phenomenon

(In Finnish: Terve sotilas! Etnografinen tutkimus varusmiesten terveystajusta sosiaalisena ilmiönä)

Anni Ojajärvi

This study observes young men´s health behaviour during military service. In addition to individual health choices, the study analyses how the practices of the military institution, the conscript community and the images of and expectations for the conscript role guide and restrict the health choices of the conscripts. The purpose of this study is to determine how health behavior is constructed in different social contexts, amongst the orders of a total institution. The study is situated in the field of qualitative health research.

The research material involves an ethnographic field study conducted in Parolannummi Panzer Brigade in 2008. The researcher participated, during eight weeks and full time, in the initial conscript training, lived with the conscripts and observed the everyday life in the army. The conscripts were also interviewed; altogether 39 individual interviews of 15 men and 8 women, some of them twice, were made.

On the basis of the results, the conscripts´ health behaviour can be determined as a communal process defined by an institution. An individual conscript makes choices in the midst of the strictly defined everyday life of a totalitarian establishment and the social reality of the conscript community. In the absence of a strong personal motive for guiding the individual health choices, the young person adheres to institutional practices and to the conscript community. The logic and objectives of military training or the practices of the conscript community do not always support the aims of health education. Instead, the everyday life in the army often contradicts the health perspective.

In the analytical chapters of the study, the limits between sickness and health, eating, smoking and alcohol consumption are reviewed. Findings include answers to questions such as how smoking may be a smart choice from the conscript point of view, how collective army stories are related to conscripts´ alcohol consumption, how being occasionally sick is connected to conscript´s social identity, and how eating is split to fuelling up and eating for pleasure. At the same time, we discover how a 21st century young man revives the ethos of sustaining but, differing from the traditional ethos of self-sustaining, shares his difficult life situations with others. The analytical chapters also suggest conscript ideals, constructed on the basis of the study material, which define the limits of a socially acceptable conscript role. The study calls attention to everyday practices in the institution and the conscript community´s ways of acting, whenever aiming at influencing the conscripts´ health behaviour.