August Update: Research Connections, Popular Culture, and Social Identity Theory

Although we are only nearly half-way through August, this month has been an interesting one in guiding the focus of my thesis writing. In my last blog post, in which I said my main focus for the month of August was literature (fiction and memoirs), I provided the “guidelines” I use to approach these sources. At the beginning of the summer, I intended to use literature to supplement my argument about social identity drawn primarily from personal correspondence. However, I think I underestimated these sources coming into this summer’s research. I have read many of these memoirs before, either for leisure or for research on similar topics. However, without the extensive reading of other primary sources and research on social class running parallel to my reading and close analysis of these sources, I failed to make many of the strong connections I have been making in my ongoing reading of these different sources.

A major (helpful) development fostered recently in the form of a connection I made during my time in England. During one of my visits to the Royal Air Force Museum in London, I had a conversation with Curator Peter Devitt about the Royal Flying Corps, specifically about Major James McCudden VC (one of the individuals he has a particular expertise on) and elements that contributed to the identity of different occupations within the RFC. During this conversation, I told him the work of the different historians key to my research. As I mentioned one of them, Alexandra Churchill (one of the only female historians-one of the younger historians- in the First World War Aviation field), Mr. Devitt told me that she had come to the museum to do research/work in the past and he would be willing to get me in contact with her if I had any questions I wanted to ask. Of course I said yes, as I greatly admire her research, her literature, and the work she has done with different digital media outlets to spread the word about First World War history. I also think my quickly made decision may have been helped by the fact that I own all of her books, but that is perhaps just a minor detail. 

As I am waiting for her initial email, I have drafted a set of questions that have come to mind as I have read more of the RFC literature and begin to think more about the presence of the British fighter pilot in popular culture. These are very rough questions that I jotted down quickly  as I realized they have popped up in my mind as I have approached the idea of popular culture and familiarized myself with its different manifestations. 

  1. What factors are commonly used in defining the personality of flying officers in popular culture portrayals? How is this different from other Royal Flying Corps officers, ground personnel, and from members of the other military branches? 
  2. How prevalent was First World War aviation/flying aces in British society? Why do you think that has changed over time?
  3. Why do you think First World War aviation is so prevalent in popular culture (film, TV series, music, fiction, advertisements, etc.)? Why is the British flying ace so popular in particular?
  4. Do you think there is a discrepancy in the portrayal of flying officers lives and the lives of the ground crew in these popular culture mediums? What founds these differences? How accurate are these different portrayals?
  5. What do these projections of cultural characteristics onto popular culture portrayals about historical figures suggest about British culture? How it has changed over time? 
  6. What factors (however realistic) influence popular culture’s portrayal fo First World War aviation?
  7. What aspects of British culture does the flying ace encompass? 
  8. How has the portrayal of the flying ace in popular culture changed as British culture has evolved since the First World War?
  9. What role do these flying aces play in British memory and British culture regarding the First World War?
  10. Is there a certain group in the British public that connects more strongly than others to these popular culture portrayals? Has this group changed over time? 

I find that these particular questions came to mind after reading both social identity theory and Royal Flying Corps literature to be really interesting. After reading more literature on social identity theory, I have found it easier to identify how a specific group’s perception of identity manifests itself into art and popular culture.  As one of my German professors said, art is not only an expression of one’s identity and inner thoughts/feelings/emotions, but it is always in conversation with other pieces of art.  With this in mind, I hope to see not only how these popular culture representations are manifestations of a certain group’s (or even down to the individual level) perception of identity and the common experience associated with that identity, but also how they interact with other popular culture portrayals of the Royal Flying Corps. Does this artistic conversation show a nearly identical “Royal Flying Corps experience” or do the elements change over time? 

Now, reaching the mid-point in the month, I continue to focus on my literature reading and begin thinking about my guidelines for approaching other popular culture media types. Why not finish the summer and kick off the new semester with the best Royal Flying Corps films the twentieth century had to offer? 


To get a sneak peak of some the sources I will break down in a future blog post, check out the trailer below: