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From Boarding School to Specialized Military Education: The Royal War Academy Between 1792 and 1866

Esbjorn Larsson
Uppsala University
June 2001

My dissertation concerns the development of the Royal War Academy, a Swedish cadet academy founded in 1792, and its progress leading up to its transformation into the Royal Military Academy in 1866. The starting point for my study is the academy's original design as a boarding school for young, mostly noble, boys, instead of as an institution of specialized military education. The goal of my thesis is to determine what purposes such an academy served and to explain how the later changes towards a specialized education came about changes that, in my view, reflect changes within society as a whole.

To understand the role of the Royal War Academy in the late 18th century, we must first consider the kind of society in which it evolved. The period known in Sweden as the "Gustavian era" (1772-1809) was still a time of late feudalism. It was a period with a centralized state, but one in which the development of a full-scale commercial agriculture and capitalist economy was still to come. During this period, military officers had a prominent position in society, and the three most important factors for securing a military career were nobility, personal relationships to high military officials, and money.

As Swedish society changed in the 19th century, as a result of a growing capitalist economy and political emancipation, so did military education. In 1835, the military began demanding that new officers attain a diploma from either the Royal War Academy or from one of the designated examining committees. In the 1850s and 1860s, the Royal War Academy went through several major changes, and in 1867 it became known as the Royal Military Academy and was the only school that graduated army officers.

To explain the function of the Royal War Academy and its development from boarding school to military college, I will use theories put forward by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. One of Bourdieu's main interests was to show how an elite manages to sustain and reproduce its dominating position. From this point of view, Bourdieu doesn't see education as a primary way of educating people, but rather as a way to consecrate an elite and justify differences within society, thereby maintaining the structure of domination. From this theoretical viewpoint, I launch the hypothesis that the foremost function of the Royal War Academy was initially to reproduce the noble domination within the military and not to produce better military officers. In the process of trying to prove this hypothesis, I will implement Bourdieu's theoretical framework when confronting the empirical material. In this context, it is particularly interesting that much of the training in the early years of the Royal War Academy was not directed towards military skills, but rather toward cultivating manners and becoming a gentleman.

An important tool in Bourdieu's "toolbox" is the concept of "symbolic capital," which he defines as "what people find valuable and adjudge as valuable." For example, symbolic capital could be a noble title, an academic degree, or a prestigious job; in other words, things other than money that may open doors for you within a group or in society. The term "cultural capital" is a kind of symbolic capital that usually derives from a finer social background often enhanced by education. It is important, in this context, to understand that cultural capital is not just a meter of knowledge attained, but that the style and elegance ascribed to a person is just as important. When cultural capital is embedded in an academic degree, it is often referred to as "academic capital." Apart from symbolic capital, Bourdieu also uses the term "social capital," a concept that concerns relationships, such as kinship and friendship. In this study of 18th and 19th century cadets, the terms "cultural/academic capital" and "social capital" will be used to determine the value of a diploma from the Royal War Academy. I will specifically look at the cadets' future careers as well as their coming representation within the military higher staff.

To investigate the academy's development during the 19th century, another of Bourdieu's terms, "field," will also be used. Field is seen as "a system of relations between agents or institutions that fight over something that that they find valuable." The art scene, to take an example from Bourdieu's own research, can be seen as a field inhabited by artists, critics, art dealers, etc., all fighting over what good art really is. The amount and type of capital then determines the positions on the field. In the case of the "Art Field," the fight stands between the positions of established art and the avant-garde, between high culture and commercial culture. In my research, I will construct a "Military Field" in order to determine the positions of the agents that have interest in how the military academy develops as well as those groups that used the academy to reproduce or build up their stock of capital.

Also important is the relationship between the field and other parts of society. As Bourdieu has pointed out, the special logic of a particular field will redirect external influences, very much in the same way a prism breaks light. With that in mind, changes in the broader society's mode of production probably influenced the Military Field in different ways than it influenced the rest of society. Important in this context is the change of the military's role in society, from being almost synonymous with the state in the Gustavian era, to being reduced to just one of several branches of the state apparatus during the 19th century. With this goal to connect the society's mode of production and the Military Field, the dissertation can be seen as an attempt to combine Bourdieu's field theory with the Marxist notion of the production and reproduction of real life as the determining element in history.