Date of Award

Spring 1-1-2015

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Leslie Irvine

Second Advisor

Christina A. Sue

Third Advisor

Amy C. Wilkins

Fourth Advisor

Steven M. Samuels

Fifth Advisor

Wilbur J. Scott


This dissertation examines how cadets at the United States Air Force Academy make sense of their experiences, form attitudes and beliefs, and construct identities within a restrictive environment where espoused values conflict with theories-in-use. The analysis of qualitative data from focus groups and in-depth interviews, along with visual data in the form of editorial cartoons, shows how cadets engage in resistance against the institution, encounter a culture of non-compliance, perpetuate the military masculine-warrior narrative, and use humor in sense-making and the construction of gender differences.

By exploring how cadets maintain a sense of self that they describe as simultaneously separate from and in line with what USAFA attempts to impose on them, this dissertation contributes to several literatures. In showing how cadets make decisions about doing “the right thing,” the analysis adds to the research on rule-bending, or “secondary adjustments,” in total institutions. It also engages with research on the conflict between espoused values and theories-in-use within organizations. Over time, USAFA has shifted from an institutional to an occupational paradigm, contributing to a decline in commitment to institutional values and the proliferation of a culture of non-compliance. Moreover, cadets have constructed a highly masculinized culture based on an unrealistic narrative of heroism and combat readiness. Pluralistic ignorance creates and perpetuates sexist stereotypes, and the combat narrative, combined with beliefs about physical fitness, becomes an acceptable way to express gender biases. This confluence of factors generates a contradiction between policies promoting the inclusion of women in the military and women’s lived experience. Editorial cartoons both challenge and perpetuate the tensions prevalent within USAFA. They allow cadets and alumni to resist and conform to USAFA norms, express stigmatized emotions, establish boundaries for appropriate behavior, and navigate hegemonic masculinity. The analysis of this highly masculinized total institution suggests potential directions for policy, practice, and further research.

These views are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the United States Air Force Academy or any other government agency.