Excerpt from Dr Amy Johnson’s speech in conversation with Maree Sirois, DFA Convenor.
– 2019 Defence Families Australia Annual Conference Dinner
Dr Amy Johnson is a lecturer in Communications and Media at the University of Canberra. Amy was awarded a PhD from Central Queensland University for her thesis: Inside and Outside: An Investigation of Social Media Use by Australian Defence Force Partners. Amy has published in academic journals, presented at many domestic and international conferences and spoken with multiple ADF organisations and command teams about social media and military families. She is married to a current-serving Royal Australian Navy member and spends her hypothetical free time with their two children and goofy golden retriever dog.
Can you explain what your intent was to research when you embarked on your PhD?
The 2014 Defence Families Survey indicated that partners may have been rejecting official communication channels and instead preferring to use social media to connect with the ADF community. There was no discussion about the positive things that were taking place in social media groups or the benefits social media could offer partners. This didn’t match with my understanding of these social media groups, and how social media more broadly, worked to support ADF partners.
Essentially, I sought out to understand what motivates ADF partners to use social media and how they use social media for receiving information and support. I also wanted to understand why partners might prefer social media to official channels & networks
So why do ADF families use social media?
I found there are several major reasons why ADF families use social media. Firstly, social media connects military partners with others like them. Partners can connect with others who are very similar to them and who have more points of connection than just ‘married to a military member’. Also, social media connections tend to provide more efficient links to the information and support partners desire. By asking for help on social media, partners receive more specific advice suited to their situation. They also can use social media to get practical support- something we know partners desire but often cannot access via official networks
The second major reason is that it allows partners to bypass official channels for information and support. It helps them (and through them, the ADF member) to navigate the Defence ‘system’. There is a theory called ‘abstract systems theory’ and it explains how ordinary people interact within massive, complex systems. We can use the analogy of an airline to explain- when you want to travel, you use an airline. With the exception of some in this room, most of us don’t know how an airplane works. We don’t understand how to operate the plane, how it is serviced, or what’s required to keep it flying. We don’t understand the bigger system and we can’t interact with it: we don’t have the access or the expert knowledge to do so. Trust becomes critical: we have to trust in the system to get us safely to our destination.
My research found that Defence is an Abstract System. Partners have to interact in this system but they don’t have the access or the expert knowledge to do so. The system itself is wieldy and confusing. The only way we have to access abstract systems is through access points- specific points at which we can interact with the system. Going back to our airline analogy- the points at which we interact with the airline system are through airline hosts. The airline host represents the broader airline system. If the host is calm and in control, we are too. If the host is professional, we also think the airline is professional. Access points are opportunities to build (or break) trust between individuals and abstract systems.
If we come back to Defence: where are our access points? My research says for partners, access points are the official networks they interact with including DHA. Toll. DCO. DFA. The experiences these partners have with these networks represent the broader Defence system. Remembering that access points are opportunities to build or break trust between individuals and the abstract systems, it makes the interaction between the network and the partner critically important.
You discovered different types of Defence partners. Can we talk about these?
Yes! This is one of the most interesting aspects of my research. Over my research, I identified several different ‘types’ of partners. We don’t have quite enough time for me to go into these in depth, but each of the types teach us really important things about Defence community. I’m going to talk specifically about a profile called the ‘Perfect partner’. Participants in my research acknowledged the perception of a ‘Perfect Partner’. The ‘Perfect Partner’ is a female civilian married to a male serving member. They have infant or school aged children and she is supportive of her partners military career, she never begrudges an absence. She is not employed or has a ‘hobby job’ which doesn’t interfere with the members’ military career. There are some partners who think they have to be this, and some partners who think the Defence & the civilian community want or expect them to be the Perfect Partner.
The concept of a perfect partner really stood out for me as I read Amy’s thesis. Amy, can you talk about the problems when aspects of our system expect a Perfect Partner.
The thing about the Perfect Partner is that it doesn’t fit with the way partners identify themselves. While it’s true that some people can fit this profile for a short period of time, not many people can. Infant children grow. Deployments which are gracefully approached in locations with good social & community support are begrudged later in areas where the partner is on her own. It also completely discounts the many different styles of families who make up our Defence community, including LGBTI families and families where both members serve. Participants in my research said that they feel as though they are presented with this image of The Perfect Partner and being asked to live up to this profile. They feel as though they can never truly be the Perfect Partner they are meant to be. It can mean that they don’t ask for help, because they feel like they shouldn’t need it. It can also mean they feel like they don’t belong, and so they disconnect from the Defence community.
What are your recommendations from your research?
As the ADF faces challenges with retention, becoming and staying an employer of choice is critical. A strong military community can support this. My recommendations suggest that organisations should try to show partners that they understand the challenge partners face in being associated with, but not enlisted in, the military.
Many partners indicated to me that they just wanted to be seen and acknowledged. Secondly, organisations should seek to communicate directly with partners wherever possible. ForceNet is one of the tools they might use for this.
DFA is appreciative of Amy’s time in speaking at our Annual Conference, and for her research and insight into how Australian Defence families interact online in social communities.
Follow Amy on Twitter @AmyJohnsonPhD