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The Lived Experience of Military Pilots Under Threat of Professional Identity Loss: A Phenomenological Study of Professional Identity Open Access

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This qualitative transcendental phenomenological study (Husserl, 1931; Moustakas, 1994; Moerer-Urdahl & Creswell, 2004; Vagle, 2014) of professional identity explored the lived human experience of the threat of loss of professional identity among American military pilots in light of an emerging technology: remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) within unmanned aerial systems. This study of professional identity was grounded in the academic discipline of social psychology and in social identity theory (Tajfel & Turner, 1979). It was approached from an interpretivist research paradigm and a micro, idiographic (Burrell & Morgan, 1979; Ponterotto, 2005) perspective of analysis. This study’s approach was both descriptive and exploratory. The purposeful sample (Creswell, 2013) consisted of seven former Air Force pilots of traditional aircraft who were reassigned to operate RPA between 2003 and 2016. Data were collected via Seidman’s (2013) semistructured interview techniques and analyzed via coding techniques described by Saldaña (2013). The researcher’s personal experience and knowledge was bracketed (Moustakas, 1994). Study data were then examined in the tradition of Husserl (1931). Based on the participants’ textural and structural descriptions, a composite description (Moustakas, 1994) was developed with the following themes: success during upbringing, military heritage, same organization, pride in achievement—intrinsic rewards, lack of recognition, pilot identity, threat to professional identity, multiple professional identities, affect, behavioral responses, and cognitive responses. The study resulted in five conclusions. (1) New technologies potentially challenge the habitus, as well as the professional identity, of working professionals. (2) Professionals under technological-based threat may need to redefine what success looks like within their own professions. (3) Loss of identity salience (Stryker, 1980; Morris, 2013) and identity prominence (McCall & Simmons, 1978; Brenner et al., 2014) of professional identity may occur as a result of technological-based threat to that professional identity. (4) Agents may respond to technological-based threats differently, depending on how long they have worked within a given profession. (5) The manner in which leadership within an organization responds to a disruptive technology may impact the integration or differentiation tactics (Kreiner & Sheep, 2009) used by an agent to cope with a threat to professional identity. The study’s implications for theory, research, and practice are discussed.

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