Lawrence N. Ross. 2017. “Demi Agama, Bangsa dan Negara: Silat Martial Arts and the ‘Third Line’ in Defense of Religion, Race and the Malaysian State.” In Sophie Lemiere (eds.) Illusions of Democracy: Malaysian Politics and People. Vol. II. Strategic Information and… Continue Reading →
The Source As part of my ongoing research on the role of the traditional martial arts within the creation of China’s public diplomacy strategy, I am reviewing several propaganda sources produced in the 1950s and 1960s. By… Continue Reading →
Dong Jhy and J. A. Mangan. 2018. “Japanese Cultural Imperialism in Taiwan: Judo as an Instrument of Colonial Conditioning.” in Mangan, Horton, Ren and Ok (eds.) Japanese Imperialism: Politics and Sport in East Asia – Rejection, Resentment and Revanchism…. Continue Reading →
***One of my goals in creating Kung Fu Tea was to inspire more enthusiasm for (and participation in) the scholarly discussion of martial arts. As such, I am happy to share a reader’s lengthy response to a recent essay…. Continue Reading →
Greetings! I am currently traveling for some fieldwork on daunbing (short weapons training). As someone who spends a lot of time researching the Republic era Chinese martial arts, I am excited to finally have a chance to learn… Continue Reading →
Introduction Friday morning posts are usually written the day before, and it just so happens that this week’s Thursday falls on Valentine’s Day. That complicates things for reasons that are both understandable and a few which are a little… Continue Reading →
What is my motivation? Connecting the dots between an individual’s intentions, their actions and subsequent systemic outcomes is more difficult than one might suspect. Just ask any social scientist. Understanding each of these categories is important if we want… Continue Reading →
Regrets As many readers will already know, Master Hawkins Cheung Hok Jin passed away on Sunday February 3rd 2019, in Los Angeles. Within the martial arts community regrets take many forms. One of my great regrets is that I… Continue Reading →
Antagonists seem to be the critical ingredient that make the martial arts possible. Yet to understand why that is the case we need to start by unpacking a few things. An immense range of activities fall within the category that we term “martial arts,” so much so that simply defining the term is much more challenging than one might expect. Still, all of these activities are essentially social pursuits. The martial arts are really more about the pedagogy and the discussion of violence than its actual performance. Indeed, the quality of some isolated hermit’s technique cannot make them a martial artist. At a bare minimum they must be willing to pass that skill along, or perform it for others, before the label really applies.
This raises a few obvious questions. Why should one desire to be a in a community that practices or passes on these skills? What is the ultimate utility or meaning of these techniques? Or to put the question rather crassly, are the varied benefit of practicing a given martial art worth the time, cost and effort necessary to do so?
It should surprise no one that all sorts of martial arts have formulated their own answers to these types of questions. I sometimes think that indoctrinating students into their unique world view is just as important as the actual transmission of techniques. Indeed, it is an open question in my mind as to whether the martial arts, as a social and cultural construction, can even exist without some sort of world defining narrative.
Psychologists have noted that telling stories is one of the most basic ways in which humans understand, and attempt to interact, with our world. In fact, narrative seems to be key to how we as a species understand the process of causation in the world around us. Sadly, there is less evidence that the physical world that we seek to understand is structured in this way. Hence our theories and stories about the world, while certainly useful, always reveal some aspect of reality with one hand, as they hide certain things with the other. To tell stories is human, but it may not be the best way to understand quantum mechanics.
On the other hand, paying close attention to the stories that people tell may be absolutely critical when our goal is understanding the functions of the voluntary communities that individuals create. This is critical as not all groups, organizations or styles are attempting to do the same thing. Not all fighting styles claim to do the same work, or provide the same social and personal benefits.
Students of martial arts studies thus require a number of discursive keys capable of opening the door to a more serious and sustained comparative study of these functions. Sadly, the comparative method is not commonly seen within martial arts studies. Yet such studies might help us to understand why, at a given point in time, individuals are drawn to one martial art versus another. Or why do some types of martial practice thrive in a given social or economic setting, yet struggle in another?
Nothing is More Useful than a Bad Guy
This sort of positivist research generally begins when researchers sit down and begin to measure things. Typically, one will start with the martial artists themselves. You might collect data on their age, race or gender. Other socio-economic indicators can be gleaned through formal surveys or participant observation. One might conduct interviews, sample social media posts or examine their physical performance in public demonstrations or fights. Anything that can be observed can be quantified and fed into a statistical model of human behavior.
That is all great. Indeed, my earlier research relied quite heavily on data crunching and “large-N” analysis (granted, at the time I was more interested in the behavior of political parties and nation states than martial artists). Yet some of the things that are most useful for adding nuance to comparative analysis might, at first, be a little less obvious. For instance, when you walk into the average martial arts school, it is highly unlikely that anyone will self-identify as the resident villain. Yet such a figure is critical to understanding how the community functions.
This can often be seen in way that individuals discuss their styles. A good Kung Fu story is mostly a normatively loaded narrative about conflict which tends to identify one set of actors with positive social traits (or traits that are understood to be “good” in this situation) and another set of individuals or forces with negative ones. John Christopher Hamm has done a wonderful job of exploring the way in which the literary imaginings of these conflicts have evolved in the sorts of Wuxia fiction produced in Southern China. Late 19thcentury novels valorized the sorts of feuding between neighboring clans and villages that characterized much of Southern Chinese life. In contrast, Jin Yong’s much later novels reflected the larger scale struggle to control the “central plains” in an era when many of his readers had (like his protagonists) fled into exile.
Both folklore (the burning of the Shaolin temple by the Manchus) and film (Bruce Lee’s perpetual struggle against the markers of racial injustice and imperialism), offer a wide range of antagonists for our consideration. Indeed, film studies scholars are correct in noting that the sorts of villains that films present, from the fear of brainwashing in the Cold War to the distrust of social and political institutions in the wake of Vietnam, can tell us a good deal about a society’s values and preoccupations.
Comparing the sorts of villains that appear in two different genera of martial arts films (say, the current run of John Wick stories, and Hong Kong Wuxia films of the 1960s) would doubtless be an informative, rewarding and enjoyable exercise. A scaled down version of this might even make a great blog post. Yet ultimately these films are meant to appeal to a general audience. While they are certainly watched by some martial artists, they are primarily reflective of larger social trends.
Again, what would be most interesting would be the comparative case study. How do the smaller scale narratives produced within the martial arts community, for its own exclusive consumption, reflect or contradict these larger sets of social anxieties? Again, this is where we in martial arts studies might leverage our villains to collect some valuable insights about the varieties of social work performed by different types of martial arts communities. After all, I am not sure that there is any reason to expect that the stories told in an MMA gym and the children’s Taekwondo gym across the street would share the same sorts of oppositional figures.
Construction the Loyal Opposition
In purely methodological terms, how might we identify the sources of rhetorical opposition within a given community? This process will vary depending on a variety of factors, but let us begin by considering something fairly familiar, the Wing Chun community. What becomes immediately apparent is that there are actually many different sorts of overlapping villains whose image and memory students are forced to struggle with. So let’s start at the beginning.
Every webpage, how-to book and introductory seminar seems to involve some variant of the Wing Chun creation myth which typically revolves around two key antagonists. First, one must come to terms with the Manchu government which burned the Shaolin Temple, representing a sort of structural, almost metaphysical, evil. Then there is the question of the marketplace bully whom Yim Wing Chun must fight to preserve her marriage prospects.
Interpreting these stories in an early 20thcentury Cantonese context is not difficult. The first narrative evokes nationalist themes with the Manchu’s being a stand-in for various other foreign oppressors who are seen as being responsible for the chaos of the Republic period (in practice this was mostly the Japanese and the British). Meanwhile, the story of the marketplace bully is both a cautionary tale about misdirected internal opposition within the realm of Rivers and Lakes, and an object lesson in the strategic principals that will allow the Wing Chun student to overcome China’s international and structural opponents.
Deciding what it all means when these stories are translated into a Western cultural context, one in which we are not worried about Japanese imperialism in Shanghai and the Manchus have no particular cultural significance, is a much more difficult task. Given the frequency with which these stories are repeated, they must mean something to the global population of Wing Chun students. They certainly seem to serve as shared signifiers of the cultural authenticity of one’s projects. Yet a variety of listeners have projected feminist interpretations onto Yim Wing Chun’s narrative, or concocted political readings of the conflict with the Qing, which would probably have greatly surprised Kung Fu students in the Pearl River Delta during the 1920s. One does not need to be a critical theorist to acknowledge that most texts can be interpreted in a varity of different ways.
While these stories are perhaps the most widely told within the Wing Chun community, they are not the only ones that are potentially revealing for the martial arts studies researcher. We might, for instance, decide to conduct personal interviews. I will never forget a conversation that I once had with two of my Wing Chun students, both old school karate guys who were a good deal older than me. Somehow the discussion turned towards the ways that casual social violence (things like barfights) had changed and largely disappeared from America’s public spaces after the 1980s.
Both of these individuals were from a large rustbelt city, and both began to reminisce fondly on the frequent bar fights that they used to get into. They immediately told a number of stories about how martial arts students from “their neighborhood” would get into fights with African American martial artists from a couple of other local schools. As the stories progressed it became clear that these were actually narratives about attempting to control a changing neighborhood recast as stereotypical martial arts tales. It became increasingly clear that when these gentlemen training in either kung fu or karate they were remembering a very specific set of opponents from their youth. Accepting this fact is critical to understanding the very specific social functions that these fighting systems served in a number of American cities during the 1970s and 1980s.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about these conversations was how upfront the two gentlemen were about the sorts of violence that they had perpetrated and also feared. It was an eye-opening experience for someone who was still relatively new to the field of martial arts studies. But in thinking about the incident it occurred to me that there are many less obvious ways in which these sorts of tales are told.
The classic “how to” books and articles which sustained the martial arts publishing industry for decades are interesting in that they contained all sorts of visual reenactments of imagined violence. Often the two fighters are randomly selected students dressed in the same school uniforms. But in a number of other cases greater budgets or imaginations allowed for a more direct visual construction of the imagined villain. Turn of the century photographs depicting the gentlemanly art of Bartitisu displayed a clear sense of class anxiety by so often portraying attackers as stereotypic muggers, mashers and tramps. On the other hand, German literature on Wing Chun in the 1970s and 1980s often took as its “loyal opposition” students of the other Asian martial arts (e.g., Karate or Taekwondo). The anxiety it responded to was not random street crime (or growing income inequality). Rather, the concern was to demonstrate that in a battle between skilled opponents (both of whom would show up wearing the proper uniforms), your arsenal of skills of would prevail.
When thinking of the social conditions that generated these two cases, it is probably significant that the first style persistently pictured its attackers as socio-economic “others,” while the second system constructed a discursive system around a more recreational model of self-defense training. This was a world in which the fundamentally similar martial artists who inhabited a rather crowded marketplace might fight for honor. Or barring that, certain sorts of magazine illustrations might help to reinforce one’s belief that their time and money had been invested in the proper sort of martial arts school.
Conclusion: The Embodied Fear
All of this is helpful, and it makes more of an art’s underlying narrative visible to the researcher. Indeed, the subconscious inflections and biases which emerge out of magazines, postcards, webpages and social media videos may be more helpful to researchers precisely because they are not interviews. The fact that we are so often unaware of how we subtly frame these more technical stories means that the resulting process may more accurately reflect the sort of work that we are actually expecting a given martial art to do.
Still, there is another level of storytelling that occurs within every martial arts system. It lays even deeper than the popular media, creation myths, or ephemera. It is expressed within the realm of embodied technique itself.
While the human body is always the same, there seems to be no end to the variety of fighting systems that surround us. This variety is the result of many factors. At the most basic level not all martial arts have the same goal. Some Chinese arts are systems of individuals self-defense (Wing Chun) while others may have been developed with an eye toward coordinated small unit military combat (the pole work of General Yu Dayou’s Sword Classic comes to mind.) Sometimes the goal of a public performance is victory in a highly competitive combat sport, while in other cases a practitioner might seek to entertain guests at a wedding or festival.
Yet even these large scale distinctions cannot explain all of the variations in the styles and approaches to combat that we see. Systems with similar goals might still have different sets of assumptions about how a fight is likely to proceed, and what sorts of skill are most important. Indeed, I am often struck by the fact that on an abstract level so many southern Chinese martial arts share a wide range of techniques. Yet they differ markedly in terms of their pedagogy and strategic assumptions. Taken as a whole, this embodied knowledge also reveals a narrative with its own set of villain(s) which may be quite useful to the practitioner.
Consider the question of grappling within Wing Chun. It is untrue that traditional Wing Chun has no grabs, locks and throws. Indeed, I was even trained in a minimal amount of ground work. But rather than attempting to wrestle and submit my opponent almost all of this was directed towards disentangling myself and being able to get back on my feet as quickly as possible. Indeed, much of the short range fighting in Wing Chun (including the afore mentioned locks and throws) seem focused on maintaining one’s ability to continue to strike and move once someone has attempted to grab you.
All of this reflects a single tactical preoccupation within the Wing Chun system. It is extremely concerned with the likely presence of multiple attackers. In these sorts of situations, one could very easily win a battle on the ground, yet lose the war. In thinking about the history of the art, it is not difficult to understand where this preoccupation came from. As a plain-clothes detective in Foshan, Ip Man was likely involved in the arrest of both violent criminal and suspected communists. During the final years of the Chinese civil war, this later group of individuals were typically tortured and killed at the end of the interrogation process. The Communist Party did not let these murders go unanswered. Its agents also put together teams that snatched various enemies of the party and treated them in broadly similar ways. In short, when Ip Man was informed that he had been added to a Communist hitlist in 1949 he probably wouldn’t have had any reason to doubt the assertion. This was a reality that all of Guangdong’s police and intelligence officers were quite familiar with.
Why then is Ip Man’s Wing Chun so focused on the possibility of multiple attacker scenarios? I would humbly suggest that the answer might be that the thing which he (and an entire generation of other practitioners) most feared was being abducted by a hit squad comprised of three to four highly trained individuals driving a Packard. Avoiding being grabbed and thrown into said Packard was the key to not being tortured to death in the back room of a safehouse somewhere in Guangzhou.
Granted, this is a very specific, historically bounded, fear. It is interesting to speculate as to whether Leung Jan’s Wing Chun had the same tactical emphasis on multiple attackers. If it did, perhaps he might have been more interested in the sorts of small unit fighting that period militia members were expected to train for, rather than the world of law enforcement and politically motivated killings that had colonized Ip Man’s imagination by 1949.
It is interesting to me how many of these half-forgotten tactical doctrines remain embodied in a wide range of martial arts. But as we think about the layers of antagonists that each system presents, in its media representations, in its oral folklore, and even in its bodily habits, we may become more conscious of these villains. Better understanding this imagined opposition can help us to not only understand what these systems were in the past, but to make more informed choices about how we interact with them, and what they might still become in the future.
If you enjoyed this reflection on villainy you might also want to read: Martial Values, Social Transformation and the Tu Village Dragon Dance
A New Hoplology
Over the last few weeks I have been thinking quite a bit about what hoplology was and what it might yet become. What were the advances and shortcoming of this field’s previous incarnations, both prior to the First World War and during the Donn F. Draeger era? My own involvement with the quickly growing field of martial arts studies, now institutionalized in the form of grants, conferences, peer reviewed journals and dedicated book series, has made me curious about such things. Why exactly did the field of anthropology seem to lose interest in the subject (at least as a cohesive literature) following WWI? Why did Draeger’s renewed efforts, while inspiring much popular enthusiasm, never find a place in academia? And what precisely can students of martial arts studies learn from all of this regarding the birth and growth of scholarly fields?
While problematic in a number of ways, there was also much about the older hoplological tradition that was very interesting, and even admirable. While martial arts studies has made great strides in establishing the notion that these practices can, and indeed must, be examined through a variety of theoretical lenses, I am sometimes surprised that we have shown little interest in engaging the more material and technical aspects of hand combat. Only a handful of articles in our journal have sought to record and provide a detailed analysis of actual techniques. Embodiment is a theoretical concept that is often discussed in the abstract, but only rarely is the hard data presented to the reader.
Likewise, there has been almost no discussion of the material culture that is so central to most individual’s lived experience of the martial arts? Where did the now ubiquitous “Wing Chun Dummy” actually come from, and how has it managed to spread itself across so many other styles in the last decade? Would recent advances in the fields of history and critical theory allow us to say anything new about the development of the ubiquitous white training uniforms and colored belts that the Japanese introduced to the global martial arts? What exactly happens to a non-Japanese system when these foreign artifacts begin to colonize the imagination of a new generation of students? Why are there no studies of the various phases of the standardization and evolution of the Chinese jian (or even the dadao) in late imperial and Republican China?
While it is easy to criticize aspects of the older hoplological tradition, or perhaps salvage ethnography as a whole, no one could never claim that these fields neglected the connection between material culture and the lived social experience. This is critical as the material goods that we consume, the weapons, media, uniforms and ephemera, often testify to a set of values and social functions that support martial arts practice on a deep level that most of us perceive only dimly.
Nor did the older generation of hoplologists shy away from the topic of social violence. Over the last two years both Paul Bowman and I have called, in different settings, for a more sustained investigation of the relationship between martial practice and the experience of violence in the modern world. In general, I think it is a good thing that so many martial arts studies researchers are also students of hand combat. Yet this can also work against us. There is a natural tendency to “write what you know.” Gratefully, most (though not all) scholars are able to work and train in environments where the actual threat of physical violence is rare. But that has not historically been true for the world’s martial artists. And even when we are aware of these things, there is a tendency to play down or ignore some of the darker aspects of modern martial arts practice.
While discussing this topic with Prof. Swen Koerner, he noted that all sorts of sociologists are interested in projects related to how the practice of the martial arts contribute to good social outcomes. Yet we have tended to ignore their correlations with violent or anti-social behavior. When we disregard this, we may save ourselves a degree of embarrassment (or maybe cognitive dissonance), but we also miss an opportunity to discover the many ways that hand combat practices intersect with the realm of social violence. Yet this was precisely the territory that individuals like Burton and Malinowski explored in the late 19thand early 20thcenturies.
Is there room for a “new hopology?” And what purpose would such a literature serve? What would its relationship be to the traditional disciplines, and to the growing field of martial arts studies?
Such questions are impossible to answer in a single blog post. Indeed, they cannot be answered by a single researcher. If we have learned anything in martial arts studies it is that the creation of a field is by definition an experiment in applied sociology. One certainly hopes that a new hoplology would address some of the intellectual and social shortcomings of its predecessors. Beyond that, for reasons that I will touch on below, I think it would have to be grounded in rigorous theoretical and methodological discussions. Finally, by both tradition and necessity, the new hoplology would probably be an empirically oriented wing of martial arts studies, dedicated to the collection and comparative study of interpersonal combative behavior and culture. Beyond that it is hard to say much at all.
This is not to imply that the earlier hoplologists never advanced theoretical or conceptual models. They certainly did. Yet I think their greatest achievement was in building databases of information that essentially captured a single cultural snapshot in time that would forever be available to future scholars looking to test whatever theories they had. A new hoplology could certainly make important contributions to the overall growth of martial arts studies by carefully gathering comparative data focused on the material and technical aspects of martial culture, as well as the many unique local experiences of social violence.
The Research Expedition
Nevertheless, it is one thing to state that the new hoplology might be an empirically driven pursuit, it is quite another to narrow down the range of investigations that we are likely to see. Historical research in the archives, the collection of large-N datasets using on-line surveys, and the writing of “thick descriptions” of culture via participant observation are all equally “empirical” paths. Indeed, it is quite possible to imagine each of these methods being employed in hoplology projects. Draeger encouraged a myriad of students to spend years intensively training with specific ryu in postwar Japan. Likewise, Malinowski and his students sought to collect textual archives and museums full of artifacts to enlighten future generations of researchers. Like martial arts studies, hoplology, in actual practice, seems to have always been deeply interdisciplinary (and in its more amateur forms, pre-disciplinary).
All of these methods of data collection are seen in a number of other fields and their possibilities and limitations are relatively well understood. It sometimes seems that I spent my entire graduate school career doing nothing other than debating the relative merits of historical vs. large-N research, and how best to leverage various empirical approaches when dealing with different types of theoretical frameworks.
Yet there is one specific research method which seems to have become hoplology’s hallmark, and it is much less well understood. What can be accomplished by short term research expeditions carried out by teams of individuals who, while possibly highly trained, tend to be non-specialists in the geographic or cultural areas that they seek to explore?
Perhaps that last sentence undersells the challenges that such expeditions face. Let us rephrase the question more succinctly. What do we really expect a bunch of academics who have just stepped off an airplane to be able to learn about a new set of martial arts in a short period of time (anywhere from a single week to perhaps a couple of months)? Can such an exercise ever constitute “serious research,” or will it always amount to an intellectualized version of the sorts of martial arts themed package vacations that have become so popular in the last few years?
I suspect that many readers will have no problem coming up with reasons why the utility of short duration expeditions will be limited. At the most obvious level one is unlikely to master a foreign language, culture, or even a nuanced system of etiquette, in only a few weeks. This will impact both your ability to interact with local martial artists and one’s capacity to gather data. In the short term it, may even be difficult to determine what data one should be collecting. The sorts of puzzles that arise when thinking about a martial practice that one has practiced for two weeks are qualitatively different from instances where one has studied the material for a few years. And while it is possible to establish friendships in only a few weeks’ time, the quality of those relationships is simply not the same as what comes with daily interaction over a period of years.
There are many good reasons why anthropologists traditionally looked down on this sort of research. A senior professor of the discipline here at Cornell recently confessed to me his disappointment that so few graduate students have the funding or inclination to spend a few continuous years in the field as part of their professional training. In his view this massive investment of time not only led to richer, more insightful, descriptive data. It was the transformative initiation that produced his field’s professional ethos. It was the process by which anthropology students were turned into anthropologists. It was a matter of great concern for him that so many graduate students split their fieldwork into three-month chunks, or only studied groups that never require them to go into “the real field” at all.
While the development of hoplology may have had important early connections with anthropology, it goes without saying that not all students of martial arts studies are attempting to write classical ethnographies. So once again, what might be achievable in short duration research expeditions given the obvious limitations of the exercise?
I think that there are at least three possibilities that deserve consideration, and their utility to any individual researcher may be a function of both their disciplinary background and theoretical orientation. First, while it is true that most martial arts studies scholars do not do ethnography, anthropologists do seem to be overrepresented in the rather small group of scholars who continue to be interested in hoplology. Wondering how they might make the best use of their time I decided to interview my own father on the subject, who is also a cultural anthropologist and a strong supporter of “old school” ethnography.
After listening to me lay out the basic structure of a hypothetical hoplological expedition he noted that, no matter what someone like him says in a “Classics of Ethnography” lecture, in truth many anthropologists do a great deal of work-related short-term travel. He further noted that every long-term stint of field research goes through progressive phases, each of which are important and yield their own sort of data and level of understanding. Learning to get the most out of these first few weeks or months can make a big difference to the success of a long-term project. There was no reason why, in his view, such expeditions could not be treated as “pilot projects” dedicated to making initial contacts and gaining a degree of understanding of the local martial culture that would make the next visit to the area both possible and profitable.
Given the realities of the current funding process, most research is now produced through multiple short expeditions, and so figuring out how to set up the next phase of research is always vital. Additionally, he noted that such travel was actually important for more senior researchers as, by building their network of professional contacts, they could identify research opportunities for the next generation of graduate students. While intensive participant observation is not really possible in short duration studies, they might still be valuable as a pilot projects to identify future ethnographic opportunities.
Of course there are other approaches to understanding short duration research. The empirical data generated by ethnography is descriptive and qualitative in nature. Yet the social sciences (fields like sociology, political science or economics) tend to focus on the creation, and testing, of causal theories. To vastly oversimplify, rather than treating culture or a society as a literary text to be interpreted, they seek to understand which constellations of material, structural, strategic and discursive variables lead to specific, observable, outcomes. Even as the humanities and (American) anthropology have moved away from such approaches, the emphasis on investigating causal explanations through positivist research methods have grown within much of the social sciences.
Nor is this necessarily a bad thing if we are contemplating the development of a “new hoplology.” A positivist orientation would allow researchers to develop and test a wide range of theories regarding the evolution of basic martial structures through either focused comparative case studies or the creation of larger datasets. Sadly, we have yet to see much in the way of sustained comparative research within martial arts studies. And topics that have been central to hoplology, such as the evolution of weapons, or the causes of certain types of social violence, may be particularly amenable to these research strategies.
None of this means that social scientists can, or should, indulge in a sort of naïve empiricism. I think that this is a common misconception about how this sort of research works. A short duration research expedition is a great opportunity to gather rich troves of data. Both training and performance can be photographed and filmed. Masters, students and supporting community members can interviewed. One can investigate the economic and political institutions that uphold such practices. Journals can be distributed to allow local practitioners to record their media consumption habits. There is actually much that one can do in a few weeks. But given the temporal constraints of short duration research, any researcher is going to be forced to prioritize these things. That means that they must have a clear idea of exactly what sorts of hypotheses they might want to test, and what sort of data will be of the most use to future researchers. In other words, extensive causal theories must be developed and submitted to initial “plausibility probes” before anyone ever sets foot on an airplane. And those causal stories are likely to be the most meaningful when they build off of, and take into account, the basic concept that arise from the various philosophical schools of critical theory.
Whereas an anthropological approach might see short duration research as the very first step of a much longer process, within a social scientific framework, heading out into the field to gather data usually comes in the middle (or even toward the end) of a project. It is this logic of discovery that forces social scientists to begin by thinking about theory. That doesn’t mean one might not discover that a new causal story (or theoretical framework) will be necessary when you sit to analyze your hard-won data. As all of us who work in this area can attest, that happens with some frequency. But even that sort of “negative finding” is an incredibly important aspect of the research process and should not be confused with naïve empiricism.
The great advantage of such a data intensive, social-scientific, approach is that it allows for the construction of comparative case studies in which more general hypotheses about martial arts development, or social violence, can be compared across a variety of groups or even regions of the world. In the best-case analysis this might lead to the development of “covering laws.” I suspect that such a discovery would have thrilled old school hoplologists.
The obvious disadvantage to such a research strategy, however, is a subtle shift in focus. The data that we collect in our expedition is now geared to reveal more about our theories of human behavior in the abstract than the specific practices of a given community at a single point in time. One assumes that the “thick description” of participant observation would always address those realities better. Yet that is a process that inevitably takes time. Once again, martial arts studies researchers will need to think carefully about their basic goals long before they ever design a research project and set foot in the field.
Finally, it is worth considering who will be responsible for making these decisions. Much of the preceding discussion has assumed that it is a single researcher headed into the field as that is what reflects my personal experience. Yet one of the things that I find most interesting about the classic hoplological expedition is that they were undertaken by entire teams of researchers. That implies a much greater scope for potential specialization.
While everyone on a research team might bring their own martial arts background, members could be selected to represent a variety of disciplinary and methodological perspectives. A research trip to Southern Taiwan might include a researcher looking at social marginality, another who specialized in traditional medicine, an ethnomusicologist and a media studies specialist. Each of these individuals might be tasked with collecting data and testing a set of distinct hypotheses which all spoke to a larger set of theoretical propositions regarding the Southern Chinse martial arts in relation to any number of factors (globalization, social transformation, fictive kinship, the echoes of imperialism, etc…).
It is not hard to imagine the ways in which such a team might generate important synergies within their collective investigation. And if each of these researchers were to spend only a month in the field, they might generate a body of cultural insight that a single researcher working in isolation might take years to match.
As always there are dangers. One would need to guard against the emergence of “group think” or the fostering of potentially blinding ethnocentric attitudes among a small group of relatively homogenous researchers. Still, teams could also be constructed to bring a greater variety of perspectives and life experience than any one researcher could ever hope to possess.
It is difficult to say what a new hoplology might be, and whether such a thing could make unique contributions to the development of martial arts studies. It would certainly be nice to have a group of scholars dedicated to the careful construction of empirically rich case studies and datasets which might, in turn, inspire the creation of new research questions. And I personally would welcome a more sustained (and theoretically informed) investigation of the weapons and material culture that so many modern martial artists seem to fetishize. I suspect that the field as a whole could only benefit from these efforts.
This is not to say that there were not problematic elements within the older hoplological tradition, or issues that would have to be addressed before any attempt to resurrect the label within a modern academic framework could move forward. Yet I do not believe that the classic hoplological expedition is one of these problems. We would certainly want to avoid anything that smacks of amateurism or naïve empiricism. Yet from my perspective as a social scientist, such exercises might finally facilitate the emergence of a body of detailed, theoretically informed, comparative studies. That is a very exciting possibility for researchers who are interested in explaining causality or unraveling the functions of social structures. And even those individuals who are more focused on ethnographic approaches might find such short duration, highly focused, research opportunities useful as pilot projects opening the way for more sustained participant observation in the future.
There are likely good reasons why prior attempts to create something like martial arts studies failed to find a foothold in the academy. And if a new hoplology were to succeed, I suspect that it would be quite different from the projects that Draeger or Burton imagined. Yet short duration research expeditions constructed around the research interests of teams of specialists almost certainly have much to contribute to the field.
If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: Martial Arts Studies: Answering the “So What?” Question