Why do difficult and expensive martial arts thrive?

I do not post advertisements in this site, and so I would not normally display something like this.  However, this image really captures something about the modern urban martial arts experience.
An advertising image for the Wah Lum Kung Fu School.  One view of the martial arts in the modern marketplace.




Introduction: Is there room for rationality in the martial arts?


The study of hand combat suggests many types of questions. Following the “levels of analysis” typology I tend to mentally organize these into three categories; the systemic, institutional/organization and individual. Of course no typology is perfect, but I find that this exercise is often a good first step in clarifying central issues and answering the age old of question of “what is this a case of?”

Consider the costs associated with the study of the martial arts. At the outset I would like to state that there are many fruitful ways of approaching this issue and what follows is more of a thought experiment than a definitive theory or statement on these issues.

Nevertheless, when considered from the “individual level” perspective, certain key questions about these costs begin to emerge that may have an important effect on how we think of a number of other topics in martial arts studies. These include, but are not limited to, the reasons why some martial arts grow, who takes up these practices and the question of the basic rationality of the individuals who engage in these activities.

In the following post I would like to focus on the question of rationality. More specifically, can someone rationally decide which martial art to study?

Obviously not all aspects of an individual’s engagement in these activities are amenable to rational choice analysis. In other places on this blog I have spent quite a bit of time discussing variables like nationalism, culture, media discourses and even psychological insecurity. None of these forces are random; each follows their own logic. So at the end of the day is there any room left for rationality in the discussion of martial culture? Can it help us to better understand these social institutions in new and non-trivial ways?

I suspect that the answer to this question is almost certainly yes and hope to explore these issues over the course of a few posts. Of course this is not the only time that “rational choice theory” has emerged in a seemingly unlikely place. While teaching at the University of Utah I had a chance to offer an upper level seminar on the place of religion in International Politics. One of the sections of that course that students found the most interesting was the unit discussing the economic literature on the “market for religion.”

A number of economists and sociologists (led by Iannqccone, Stark and Barrow) have developed this literature by addressing questions including what sorts of religions are most likely to succeed in open markets, how states approach the regulation of religion and what subsequent impact this has on the quality and popularity of religious “goods.”

There are a differences between the modern martial arts and religion. Still, enough conceptual similarities exist to suggest that students of martial culture may wish to pay attention to some of the developments in the religious studies literature.

It is impossible to include all of the basic material that I would normally cover in a seminar within in a single blog post like this. But we should still begin by asking what it means to assert that an individual is “rational”?

Rational choice theorists and economists have developed a few different approaches to this question (often clustered into the debate between “thick” and “thin” forms of rationality). Yet for a first cut at this problem I would like to focus on only two elements of “rationality.”

The first of these is the idea of a “budget.” This concept will be familiar to most of us. We live in a world of scarce resources. All individuals have a finite amount of time and money, so choices must be made as to how they will be used. Secondly, all else being equal, if offered the choice between two envelopes, one with a small amount of money and one with a much larger sum, a “rational” individual will choose the greater amount.

Will all individuals always chose the greater amount? Certainly not, though I should add that in multiple years of doing classroom experiments with real money not once did I have a student knowingly choose the envelope of lesser value.

Nevertheless, one can imagine a number of possible scenarios in which individuals might act in a counter-intuitive way. Insecure property rights (such as a high marginal tax rate) might motivate someone to forgo an additional unit of income. Alternatively, an individual may have taken a vow of poverty for religious or personal reasons. In that case the choice I am offering them is actually between bad and worse. Culture always conditions and frames how individuals will perceive these resources.

So does the possibility that someone might not pick the larger sum invalidate the basic concept of rationality? Not necessarily. On a purely practical level I should point out that we adopt theoretical concepts because they are useful and do work for us, not because they are perfect. The sad truth is that there are no perfect theories out there, but some of them can manage to be incredibly illuminating anyway. The proof of a pudding is always in the eating.

I also prefaced my thought experiment by stating that “all else was equal” and each of the exceptions above is premised on bringing in some exogenous factor (either material, institutional or cultural) that was not in the original experiment which skews the subject’s valuation of the two envelopes. This often happens in life. Thin rationality suggests that individuals will pursue their goals rationally (even if that goal is to live a life of poverty). It doesn’t actually have a lot to say about where those goals will come from as they tend to be exogenously given in many of these models. One can debate whether this is ultimately a good thing.



Joe Fraziers Gym in Philadelphia after it was put on the market in 2008 due to Fraziers growing financial difficulties.  Source: Wikimedia.
Joe Fraziers Gym in Philadelphia after it was put on the market in 2008 due to Fraziers growing financial difficulties. Source: Wikimedia.



The Paradox


The choices of many martial artists would seem to pose an even tougher challenge to the idea that these individuals are making rational consumption decisions in response to strict budget conditions. After all, serious martial arts training is both time consuming and expensive. I would guess that most self-identified martial artists practice at least four hours a week and a very big chuck of them are doing twice that. In the world of competitive combat sports even amateur fighters might spend twenty hours a week in the gym a prepping for a big fight. Individuals could use this time (say ten hours a week) to do any number of other tasks, including getting a second job at McDonalds, advancing their academic careers, spending quality time with their children or writing the great American novel. The forgone wages or benefits of these other activities are known within the rational choice literature as “opportunity costs.”

Sacrificed opportunities are not the only costs to contend with. There is also the monetary expense of tuition (which can vary between schools and styles), the cost of training gear and the frequent travel which is often part of the “martial arts lifestyle.” I am always surprised by the number of individuals who are willing to invest large amounts of time and money to travel to the “home school” in Asia as a sort of martial pilgrimage.

In addition to time and money there are also bodily costs to consider. Discussions tend to focus on the physical benefits of dedicated training, but injuries (occasionally quite serious) are also part of the martial arts world. When discussing the apprenticeship process in western boxing Loic Wacquant notes the irony that the very sport that was designed to perfect the body also consumes it. This seems to be true for a number of currently popular combat sports such as MMA and Kickboxing, and to a lesser extent some elements of his formulation can be seen in even the more traditional martial arts. Yes, the traditional martial arts can help one lose weight and get in shape, but so can any number of other classes offered at the local YMCA, often at a much lower cost.

When reviewing personal narratives it is not uncommon to encounter individuals who describe their involvement with the martial arts in almost religious terms. They had been “lost,” but now they are transformed. Of course this transformation is never free. It often comes at tremendous costs, both monetarily and in terms of forgone opportunities.

The question of “costs” grows even more paradoxical when one considers how they are distributed across the various styles, schools and competitive events that western consumers must choose between. Comparatively few students actually “inherit” a style form their family or grade-school experience as occasionally happens in both China and Japan. Choice is always a central aspect of the western market for hand combat instruction.

One of the ironies of the current martial arts marketplace is that while it contains a number of competing styles which differ in terms of their ultimate goals and training methods, one would not necessarily know this from simply reading their advertising brochures and webpages. Most martial arts, and even the combat sports such as MMA and kickboxing, seem to promise consumers a very similar range of goods.

All of these schools promise to get you in shape and to teach you critical self-defense skills. On a more subtle level they also offer greater confidence, the opportunity to belong to something larger than oneself and ultimately the ability to transform and “actualize” the self.  This seems to be the basic script that consumers have come to expect, and the producers of hand combat instruction are only too happy to provide it.

While there is uniformity in the goods that are promised (at least in discussions generated for public consumption), there are interesting variations in the costs that these same schools impose on their students. Tuition might range from $50 to a couple of hundred dollars a month. Students may or may not be required to buy and wear colorful and anachronistic uniforms. Some schools might provide a couple of hours of instruction a week, while other may demand that their students participate in six hours of grueling physical training. Some schools have relatively open structures, allowing students to come to class times that work for them, while other are more rigidly structured. In short, while most schools seem to offer their students some combination of practical skills and self-transformation, the costs of attaining these goals vary widely.

Rational choice theory makes clear predictions about how consumers (and martial arts students) should behave in situations such as this. Each of these individuals is constrained by a budget (limited time and resources) and possesses a desire to maximize their gains. Given these assumptions our students should flock to the schools that offer them the most “bang for their buck.” We might expect that schools which demand less money, time and lifestyle commitment should be thriving, while more expensive and demanding styles should be suffering as they are out competed by low cost alternatives.

All of this sounds very reasonable. Yet in the aggregate it does not appear to be happening that way. In fact, it is the relatively low cost “mainstream” martial arts that are struggling in the current period. Karate and Taekwondo schools, once the mainstay of the American strip-mall, are closing. Judo has never recovered from its precipitous decline in popularity during the 1970s. Traditional Kung Fun schools are struggling, with a few notable exceptions.

Yet this decline is not universal. Certain arts, such as Brazilian Jujitsu, Taijiquan and Krav Maga are doing quite well. Likewise combat sports such as MMA and competitive Kickboxing are growing. Even western boxing has seen something of bump following decades of slumping fortunes. Each of these arts tends to be pretty expensive or demanding in its own way. Some of these costs are monetized and born up front, but others are less easily quantified. Boxing and BJJ both demand an extended and often painful apprenticeship. Taijiquan practice can be much less physically demanding (depending on how one’s school chooses to approach the art), yet it typically requires a high degree of “cultural commitment” in term of accepting and mastering an entire range of foreign ideas, identities and theories that go well beyond what one might have been exposed to in a 1980s strip-mall dojo.

In short, the expectations of our basic theory seem to be about as close to exactly wrong as is possible. Issues of limited budgets notwithstanding, in the current environment the lower cost alternatives seem to be struggling while consumers flock to their more demanding brethren. Can we then falsify rationality as an approach to understanding choice within the hand combat marketplace?



The location of the Cobra Kai dojo featured in the Karate Kid.  The martial arts schools it used house are now gone and last I heard this building was still vacant.  Source: anarchosyn on Flickr (CC).
The location of the Cobra Kai dojo featured in the Karate Kid. The martial arts schools it housed are now gone and last I heard this building was still vacant. Source: anarchosyn on Flickr (CC).




Laurence Iannqccone and the Market for “Strict” Churches


The economist Laurence Iannqccone has never, to be best of my knowledge, discussed the martial arts. Yet if he had I think he would caution us against dismissing our theory too hastily. Earlier in his career he wrote a now classic article tackling an almost identical paradox in the western religious marketplace. (See: Iannqccone, Laurence R. 1994. “Why Strict Churches are Strong.” AJS Vol 99 No. 5 pp. 1180-1211.)

Iannqccone noted that while all western faiths offered basically the same package of spiritual goods, the costs that they imposed on their parishioners varied tremendously. More paradoxically, it was the relatively inexpensive churches that were struggling while their “strict” brethren (Evangelicals, Mormons, Black Protestants, Seventh Day Adventists, Orthodox Jews…..) were thriving. Not only were individuals born into these faiths more likely to remain, but increasingly those individuals who converted were choosing to join relatively strict faiths over those with lower barriers to entry.

This forced Iannqccone to ask whether there was room for rationality in the discussion of competition between religious sects in the modern western world. Given that he did not abandon his profession to become an anthropologist, I assume that we can all guess what he concluded.

While the competing claims of heavenly salvation may be beyond the pale of social scientific analysis, Iannqccone suggested that we may want to begin by considering other, more easily observable, aspects of the religious experience. In terms of martial arts schools we might note that while the internal mechanics of “self-actualization” are pretty opaque, the conditions designed to help students attain it are more visible.

Iannqccone stated that social institutions are self-regarding, meaning that they tend to promote their own survival. After all, it is impossible for any institution to accomplish its key goals if it simply “goes out of business.” As such they provide a number of goods to attract potential students or members. Yet many churches and schools go out of business anyway, leading us to conclude that there are critical challenges which must be accounted for.

This is especially true when considering the sorts of “public goods” that such an institution might offer its members. In economic thought such goods are both non-rival (meaning there is no less of the good if one individuals consumes it) and non-excludable (everyone in the community enjoys it regardless of whether they contributed to its creation).

A typical example of a public good at the state level might be something like “national security.” Your personal security against the possibility of a Canadian invasion does not deplete the overall amount of the good available to everyone else. Anyone within the boundaries of the state benefits from the good once it has been provided.

Smaller organizations also provide these sorts of goods (albeit on a lesser scale) both as an inducement to attract members and as a strategy for accomplishing other goals. For instance, in a boxing gym one might benefit from being surrounded by a number of dedicated students and trainers who have extensive competition experience. The sort of atmosphere that such students bring to the gym is likely to have a positive impact on everyone who trains there. Nor does my enjoyment of this atmosphere inhibit you from also benefiting from it. Other public goods might include a strong sense of identity or belonging, access to high quality training institutions (both physical and cultural) and the leadership of engaging and skilled instructors.

All of these things help to make a school successful. But the problem with public goods is that they are often extremely expensive to provide. While a reasonable tuition rate might be enough ensure the monthly rent for a decent gym, it is no guarantee of high quality assistant instructors or dedicated classmates. To succeed a martial arts school (or church) needs real dedication from its members. They must be willing to invest in their own success and that of the organization.

This reality leads to a dilemma. While all potential students may have a budget of some sort, they do not all have identical resources. Some students are simply capable investing more than others. Then there is the question of motivation. Even two individuals with identical budgets might have different utility functions and thus may not be equally willing to invest in the school. In short, wealth alone is not enough to ensure that a student will actually be motivated to contribute.

Many different sorts of institutions face some variant of the “free rider” problem. Free riders are individuals who join a group and consume its goods, but do not invest in their maintenance. One classic example of free riders in American religious history are the so called “Winter Shakers.”

The Shakers were a religious movement composed of individuals looking for a particularly intense type of communal religious experience. As such they designed a number of unique physical and social structures to help them achieve this goal. As a byproduct of this process these same institutions led to fair degree of economic prosperity.

The costs of joining a Shaker community were very low (at least in the short run). As such, a number of communities began to see an influx of “new members” in the fall who consumed the group’s resources during the winter months, and then left in the spring when the weather improved and there were better job prospects on local farms. Over time this phenomenon became so pronounced that it started to cause fundamental problems within Shaker communities.

This instability then affected the next generation of religious seekers looking for an environment in which they could also enjoy an intensely communal spiritual life. Suddenly Shaker communities looked less attractive, and these high quality recruits decided to invest their efforts and dedication elsewhere. Iannqccone notes that this further diminished the viability and attractiveness of Shaker communities.

Of course it is not hard to imagine something similar happening within martial arts schools. A national market survey noted that 20% of adults in the USA claim to have studied the martial arts in the past, though a much lower number still have anything to do with them now. Only a small percentage of individuals who are exposed to these systems will go on to become dedicated martial artist or serious competitors. Attracting a greater percentage of these individuals can be the key to success for schools functioning in a competitive marketplace.

Iannqccone suggests that the best way to capture and retain these high quality students might actually be to raise the “barriers of entry” surrounding a style or school. Low costs tend to attract both dedicated students and free riders. Yet many free riders cannot (or will not) pay the greater costs associated with a really “strict church” or a challenging martial arts schools. Thus high costs become a type of self-sorting mechanism. Students that are already dedicated and expect to benefit from an intense training experience are less likely to be dissuaded by them. Those individuals who are simply looking for something to do on a Thursday night are likely to move along to other options on their own accord. Such mechanisms can achieve the desired ends while keeping monitoring and enforcement costs to an absolute minimum.

There are many different ways in which churches advertise their “strictness” (by which Iannqccone means the distance between their own behaviors and social norms more generally). These might include high monetary costs of membership, difficult dietary or physical requirements, bizarre modes of dress or heavy demands on a parishioners time.

Of course all of these strategies are also seen in the world of the martial arts. Some styles tend to charge more for instruction than others. Elite MMA and boxing camps will make physical demands of their students that few casual visitors will have the athletic capital to pay. A great many more traditional schools take pride in their anachronistic costuming and ritual. Other arts may require their students to invest in very culturally distant philosophical, medical or metaphysical ideas that would surely be rejected out of hand by most individuals within society as a whole.

We should note that there are actually two different pathways by which these sorts of “barriers to entry” might help to strengthen difficult or expensive schools. First, they discourage individuals from joining who might not have basic resources needed to succeed in the long-run. Secondly, Iannqccone notes that such barriers are also likely to change the behaviors of these students as they interact with other organizations in the broader community.

Each of the barriers to entry that we noted above tends to either monopolize the resources of a student or somehow marks them in such a way that they would be potentially less attractive to other institutions who might also be competing for membership. Rather than joining a variety of organizations within their community students may suddenly find that their time and resources have been monopolized to the point that it is actually cheaper to invest more in their now dominant identity than to pay the opportunity costs necessary to join a second martial arts style, or a competing community organization like the PTA. In this way students are subtly encourage to invest more of their time and resources than they otherwise would have. As these schools establish a reputation for excellence they attract other high quality candidates, establishing a virtuous cycle.

A modern urban Wing Chun School in Passau, Germany.
A Wing Chun School in Passau, Germany.  Photo by Demonwhip.  Source: Wikimedia (CC).


This essay has attempted to suggest two points. The first of these is that there is room for the concept of “rationality” when thinking about highly “personal” decisions such as why some individuals might join a certain martial arts style. Secondly, those seeking conceptual tools to address some long standing puzzles in the development of the martial arts in the west may wish to look at work in the field of religious studies which has already addressed similar questions.

This post argues that it may be possible to understand the choices of both students and martial arts organizations as rational responses to the problem of scarcity. Indeed, I am fairly uncomfortable when I come across arguments that begin with the assumption that martial artists are highly irrational individuals who are basically reactive and incapable of purposive behavior. Iannqccone’s argument is a helpful reminder that individuals often display a high degree of rationality in the pursuit of goals that are otherwise culturally given.

Still, this post is one part of a thought exercise, and it is important not to overstate the strength of its argument. Iannqccone himself notes that while some “strict” or “expensive” organizations succeed, most do not. History is littered with religious movements whose barriers to entry were just a little too high. One expects that this is probably true of martial arts schools as well. As with all pricing decisions, one must strike the right balance between supply and demand. Like the Shakers, many organizations fail to find or maintain this balance.

We might also stop to consider the question of why, if there are so many advantages to being “difficult” or “expensive” to join, there are still so many cheap churches and less demanding martial arts schools out there. Yes, these things have declined in popularity, but they have not disappeared. Overwhelmingly parents looking to “build character” in their children still take them to Taekwondo schools, not MMA training camps.

For that matter, why do we see so many different sort of “strictness” on display in both the religious and hand combat marketplaces? Given that we are discussing a competitive market, why haven’t the various supplier settled on a single optimal utility maximizing barrier to entry?

The simple logic of Iannqccone’s 1994 article might seem to suggest convergence on a single best outcome that all rational actors should conform to. Yet we are still living in a world of competing choices. In fact, the variety of choices available to consumers seems to be growing rather than shrinking.

In the next post in this series we will explore what the concept of rationality has to say about the emergence and stabilization of choice in the martial arts marketplace. This, in turn, may suggest something about the frequently noted decline of the traditional martial arts.




If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: Bruce Lee, Globalization and the Case of Wing Chun: Why do Some Chinese Martial Arts Grow?


15 Comments Add yours

  1. rickmatz says:

    I have found that the monthly cost of studying Brazilian Jiujitsu at an academy to approach, and in some parts of the country, exceed $200! I am paying less than half that, but am training at an MMA gym were the BJJ instruction is sort of side training offered and my training opportunities are quite limited.

    1. benjudkins says:

      Yeah, there are some pretty pricey BJJ schools around here and in the last city I lived in. I think it was one of those little observations that got lodged in my brain and helped to inspire this post. Thanks for dropping by!

  2. Andrew Shinn says:

    Oh man – it’s been a long time since I thought about rational choice theory! Here’s the thing, if we assume that humans as a whole are rational actors (and I see no reason not to), then rationality explains nothing (it balances out in equations). Any given action should be seen as a rational attempt to maximize – or at least satisfice – a desired outcome. Ok. But if all actors are rational, what explains the DIFFERENCES in choices?

    Individuals are culturally bound, or as you put it above: “Culture always conditions and frames how individuals will perceive these resources.” What we value, what we set as goals, how we perceive those goals and how we see the potential array of paths to achieving those goals are all conditioned by complex interactions of forces that can generally be lumped into a broad concept of culture (which then gets dissected in the effort to isolate measurable independent variables).

    So if culture conditions and frames how resources, etc. are perceived, and all else being equal, we choose rationally, then the explanatory force lies in analyzing the culture(s) at play in expression of rational human agency.

    This is where many rational choice theorists go wrong. The apply the wrong values to problems due to a lack of cultural knowledge. I remember reading an analysis of the religious marketplace in Latin America, which compared the costs of becoming a Catholic priest with those of becoming an evangelical minister. The years spent in seminary were seen as a comparatively high cost for the would-be Catholic priest. Having grown up in a religious household (my father is a Russian Orthodox priest), I know that aspiring priests look forward to spending time in seminary – rather than being a cost, it is actually a good in and of itself, that also moves the individual along the path to the ultimate goal of becoming a priest.

    The same goes for martial artists. All serious martial artists I know view time spent in training as a good that they work to obtain, not a cost to membership. The “sacrificed opportunities” you mention may be perceived as either costs or goods in their own rights, depending on the actor’s values.

    This would then call for an analysis of what goals are being worked towards in the choices to become members of various high and low cost martial arts groups, and then further analysis of what individuals make which choices to start to map out what kinds of cultural dynamics are informing those decisions.


  3. drlukewhite says:

    First, thanks for the fascinating post – thought provoking like so many of the posts on this blog! I also absolutely love the images – quite haunting… The material about free riders and Winter Shakers was really interesting and I think helps with the explanation – but in the end, I found myself thinking that the additional discussion of “rational choice” theory becomes a somewhat unnecessary addition to that, if our primary goal is to explain the phenomenon rather than to prove or disprove rational choice. If, following Andrew Shinn’s point above, the framework for a “rational choice” becomes determined by cultural factors, is it not primarily within this cultural and ideological field that we need to trace an explanation? “Rationality” becomes here a somewhat “thin” (?) – or even unnecessary addition… (But then, my training is very much to think about things culturally rather than through economic theory,e tc. so I probably would say that!)

  4. benjudkins says:

    Hello Andrew and Dr. White,

    First off, thanks for taking the time to read with and engage with this essay. Compared to other posts here at Kung Fu Tea this particular update does not seem to have generated a huge amount of reader interest. However the individuals who did read it seem to have found the argument to be interesting, or at least thought provoking, and that is always rewarding.

    On to your more substantive concerns:

    “Ok. But if all actors are rational, what explains the DIFFERENCES in choices?”

    Potentially quite a few things. I should state at the outset that what I am attempting to do here is not to argue for a complete hegemony of rational choice analysis over cultural concerns. Rather (as you probably guessed from my post) I am trying to think about how these can be the most fruitfully integrated. Still, to do so we need to be careful to accurately characterize both sets of approaches.

    Hard rational choice theorists (like the entire field of micro-economics) have many different of mechanism for explaining differences in choices that do not depend on culture. They instead usually start with the assumption that tastes are stable and look instead at factors such as differences in budgets, private information, search costs, transaction costs, utility functions and good old fashioned miscalculation to explain the variety of outcomes that you see out there. Now personally I do not believe that preferences are identical between players, and I don’t want to recount how many hours I have spent debating this with my old econ professors, but for the sake of fairness I should point out that there are ways that RC theorists account for difference without opening the door to culture (and some of these might be fun to think about at some point in the future).

    One of the things that struck me when I read you comment was the fact that I actually had a professor dismiss the validity of all cultural arguments using a pretty similar formulation. She argued that for culture to mean anything it needed to be widely shared in a community and it had to be at least somewhat stable over time. In short culture (much like the assumption of rationality) is a constant. And yet the things that we are trying to explain are variables. And constants just cannot explain variables. QED

    I think that we all agree that this is a straw-man type argument, but its important to stop and consider why. In truth neither rationality nor culture are constants. We may all aspire to perfect god-like rationality, but the limitations of time, resources and information costs all suggest that the amount of rationality we actually see is likely to be highly variable in different situations. Hence we may want to ask, is this particular case, where individuals are deciding which martial art to join, likely to be one of those cases in which we see more or less rational decision making?

    Likewise culture is not a static thing. It is more of a collection of meanings and symbols, all of which can be reconfigured with surprising facility, rather than a fixed and unchanging statement. Cultural meanings and norms are often deeply contested. Different groups promote their own vision of cultural values and meanings through both their actions and their discourses (shades of James C. Scott here). In fact, the martial arts are fascinating precisely because its one area where we see a lot of these complex cultural negotiations happening.

    So if cultural meaning is open to negation, what sorts of forces guide this competition? Scott (in “Weapons of the Weak”) suggested that these sorts of clashes could be pretty strategic in nature. Landlords tell stories about good/bad peasants in an attempt to establish norms that advantage their economic position, while peasants tell stories about good/bad landlords that attempt to establish norms that are more advantageous to debtors and the downtrodden.

    I don’t want to see this response turn into a second post (and I can already feel that happening) but there are at least a couple of examples from the martial arts literature that might be useful here. I will just give you the citations and you can check them out if you feel so inclined:

    Jeff Takacs. 2003. “A Case of Contagious Legitimacy: Kinship, Ritual and Manipulation in Chinese Martial Arts Societies” (Modern Asian Studies 37:4 885-917)

    Adam Frank. 2014 “Unstructuring Structure and Communicating Secrets Inside/Outside a Chinese Martial Arts Association.” JOMEC 5

    Both of these authors end up on the horns of a similar dilemma. In both cases the individuals they are studying find themselves involved in a debate as to what the traditional cultural values or institutions really mean in some specific situation. In both cases individuals seem to be more motivated by rational/strategic concerns, and they employ culture as a tool to solve their problems, rather than as a totalizing force that directs their actions.

    I am still thinking all of this over, and doubt there is any perfect solution to all of this, but I personally would like to see a more complex and recursive relationship emerge between material and cultural variables in our models. I am fascinated by how these things interact, how both of these factors have the power to shape the other. Of course those sorts of models are pretty complex.

    “The same goes for martial artists. All serious martial artists I know view time spent in training as a good that they work to obtain, not a cost to membership.”

    Yeah, I suspect that it is true of the “serious” martial artists, precisely because they anticipated that this was going to be an investment. But as I pointed out in the post, most individuals who wander into a martial arts school wash-out. I suspect to them these “goods” were simply costs, ones that were too high to bear. But I liked what you described in this statement and with the question of seminary training. I think that this actually captures the dynamic of self-selection that Iannqccone was trying to get at. In general economists do not actually expect individuals to experience a rational internal discourse when they consider a consumption decision. Rather they just expect that they will ultimately choose as though they did. But given that I explicitly decided not to become an economists I don’t want to invest too much energy in defending the details of their position.

    Dr White:

    If I understand your question correctly you are basically asking if, once one admits that culture frames how a given choice is framed, you haven’t given away the game. Why not just rely on a cultural explanation rather that complicating the situation by bringing in the question of rationality?

    I guess there are two basic arguments that one could make for keeping the emphasis on rationality. First, as I argued above, cultural values rarely go uncontested. Both Frank and Takacs are in a situation where all sides of a soundly material dispute are sure that they have culture on their side. In fact, all parties do have some aspects of culture on their side as cultural values can be complex and are rarely unitary. So in at least some situations material and strategic considerations seem to be key to understanding which cultural argument will ultimately carry the day.

    Secondly there is the more methodological question of how much work our theory does for us. If I have a puzzle and I reach for the first ad hoc cultural solution that works I have solved one problem. But if I instead add an assumption about the nature of my actors I have done something more. This new assumption may allow me to generate novel hypothesis about my actors which can then be tested (if X is true then I also expect to see Y).

    Hopefully this leads me to one of two outcomes. I find out that I am wrong about Y and so I know that my assumption was unwarranted, or I now have a theory that has explained two puzzles (and potentially more) rather than an explanation of a single instance.

    Of course this approach can also be employed with a well-developed cultural theories, but I put it out there because it is the sort of thing that RC theorists are explicitly trying to accomplish by building on these assumptions about their actors rather than just looking at a variety of other environmental factors. Still, as I said in the start of this piece, there are lots of approaches to these questions and I fully acknowledge that your mileage may vary. I don’t immediately reach for RC theory when approaching a number of different problems.

    Thanks for your kind words about the blog and the images. I actually spent quite a bit of time hunting around for pictures of abandoned martial arts schools. They appear to be one of those things that are everywhere, but somehow you can never find one when you are actually looking for it.

    1. Thanks for the lengthy engagement, Ben! While fun, I don’t quite have the time to formulate an equal response. But in shorthand, I do not view culture as a constant, but as a dynamic field of interaction with various social institutions and competing discourses framing the perceptions and cognitive possibilities of individuals. I rely heavily on Simmel’s dialectics of culture in my thinking.

      “In both cases the individuals they are studying find themselves involved in a debate as to what the traditional cultural values or institutions really mean in some specific situation. In both cases individuals seem to be more motivated by rational/strategic concerns, and they employ culture as a tool to solve their problems, rather than as a totalizing force that directs their actions.”

      So in the above, I see some slippage between rationality as a theory of decision-making (as you said, economists don’t think that we internally debate these things in every instance, but act as if we had), and rationality in the everyday sense of a conscious “strategic concern”. Likewise, culture is treated as finite and an object that can be employed. Here I would suggest that, rather than culture, we look at discrete (and competing) narratives as to what is or isn’t “traditional” to a population or practice. If culture were a totalizing force, one couldn’t explain variation, as you say.

      Thanks again!

    2. drlukewhite says:

      Hi – thanks very much for the response. I think one of the things that interested me about the post was precisely how different “rational choice” theory is from the kinds of ways that I’d think about any such matters, and in many ways this may be one of the interesting things about the conversations that open up around a notion such as “martial arts studies”, with its dazzling array of disciplinary inputs… The seeming tension between “cultural” explanation (humanities?) and something like “rational choice” (social sciences?) might mark some of the fundamental methodological tensions that may traverse this field – and either make it fascinatingly productive, or incoherently fragmentary… You note that the post got less interest than many of your others. I wonder if this reflects precisely this kind of disciplinary division (with a chunk of your audience switching off at the mention of this term to which they are not sympathetic?). Perhaps, of course, it simply reflects a wider disinvestment that Westerners drawn to Asian martial arts might have for the “rational”…

      By the way, in a moment of bizarre serendipity, a colleague just waved a book in front of me, Brian Massumi’s The Power at the End of the Economy, which he was saying is very much a critique of ideologies of “rational choice” – a quick quote from the first pages gives an idea:
      “On closer inspection a rabbit hole appears at the heart of the market. It plummets from the apparently solid ground of rational choice to a wonderland where noting appears the same. Affect is its name. […] In today’s version of free-market ideology, neoliberalism, the affective commotion has become so insistent that something else surfaces as well: the creeping suspicion that it is upon the groundless ground of these now not-so-concealed factors that the edifice of the economy is actually built […] It becomes obvious that the ‘rationality’ of the market is a precarious art of snatching emergent order out of affect. The creeping suspicion is that the economy is best understood as a division of the affective arts.”

      Of course, when rational choice can be applied to religion, I’m not sure you and Massumi have quite the same think in mind when they use this idea! (And I’m not quite sure why affect can’t be “economised”, especially in the wake of Freud…)

      Please do call me Luke, though – the “dr” was just me trying to find a username not already taken and that I’d remember!

  5. I think your use of rational choice theory as a framework to evaluate martial arts is an interesting approach, and am glad to see the series of articles on this. I think it’s worth making a distinction between types of choices. For some choices we know what we want, have a reasonable sense of the options, and are able to compare options or have criteria to compare the options. It can still be difficult – my preferences might not be stable, or I might not know the options, or maybe I just can’t compare. Sometimes it’s worth taking the effort to overcome the difficulties to make a more rational choice – for example if I’m purchasing something expensive like a car or a computer. It might not be worth it to spend too much time on it if I’m in driving through a new town and just want to eat: one chinese restaurant might be good enough and it might not be worth the effort to find the best one.

    But there are other choices where in principle I can’t know what I want, because I’m not in a position to know. For example, think about picking a major in college, or picking a research topic in grad school. We try to do our best: we might think about future opportunities, or think about costs, or somehow think of other criteria to try to compare. But this doesn’t take into account that my choice of major, or choice of research topic ends up shaping me. My choice of research topic shapes the things I learn, the questions I will come to ask, the people I will meet, and the things I will come to care about. I can’t know those things at the time I pick the research topic. It’s not that I’m not rational, or that it was just that the search costs were too high back when I picked. It’s that the choice is of a type that will shape me in the future. This has been called “dynamic rationality” because my choice shapes my future self, my future options, and future choices (see David Schmitt’s Rationality and Dynamic Choice).

    I think this idea of dynamic choice applies to martial arts. I’m a relatively new student to wing chun. It’s the first martial art I’ve studied. When I thought about studying martial arts maybe I had some sense of what I wanted – an alternative to a gym or something. I thought I would give it a try. I didn’t even give too much time to trying to learn about the options. But whether or not I should have tried to weigh options, I’m not sure it would have helped. No matter whichever school I picked, that choice would have changed me. That decision caused me to care about things I never would have previously, and in ways I couldn’t have known when I picked the school. It’s not just that search costs were high, or my preferences weren’t stable, or that somehow the options weren’t reconcilable. It was that picking one option resulted in different choices being live ones in the future, compared with others that would be available if I had picked a different option.

    The tools of traditional rational choice theory don’t say much about how we change over time, or how some choices make us better or worse people in terms of our character. We need to account for how choices impact us. We need a rational choice model that accounts for this, if only because some people enter martial arts with an explicit intent of self-improvement – they in fact are counting on changing. We need to apply a rational choice picture that accounts for our intuitive sense that some choices are life-changing, and that this can go better or worse.

    1. benjudkins says:

      Hello 011952wphosted,

      Thanks for taking time to read and engage with this short series of posts. I am gratified that someone else out there finds this subject to be potentially interesting.

      Your suggestion to employ dynamic modeling is certainly interesting, though it would by necessity be a lot more involved than the relatively simple exercise that I proposed here. This is not an area of RC theory that I spent a lot of time of looking at, so I would be interesting to see what sorts of specific applications you have in mind for these concepts.

      Still, for the puzzles examined in these two posts, I am not sure that we need a more complicated and nuanced model of individual decision making. As I mentioned before, I am trying to think about how RC might be used in combination with some of the other major approaches seen in martial arts studies.

      One area that where I suspect that this approach might be particularly useful is in dealing with counter-intuitive market equilibrium. Both of these articles actually look at the same problem. If there is an expensive option and a cheap one, why do people so often flock to the more costly alternative.

      By looking both at the behavior of firms and patterns of market regulation it turns out that we might be able to explain this in a way that tells us something about how these specific markets function. However, these highly complex questions regarding individual motivations (and how their ideas and beliefs about what is an appropriate way to express a yearning for self-improvement came to be) would seem to be an area where explicitly cultural theories have a lot of utility. Fundamentally these are all questions that revolve around social meaning.

      So given that my question is really about the nature of markets, and a very simple (one might even say bare bones) model of individual decision making is enough to show how a range of complex strategic behaviors might emerge, what do you see as the benefits from this approach that offset the loss in parsimony (and ability to access to findings of the preexisting literature which seems pretty relevant in this case?)

      I think that your experience with Wing Chun is interesting in this regard. You mentioned that it caused you to grow and change to the point that a simple accounting of costs and benefits could not have accounted for the totality of your choice. And yet most people who walk into a Wing Chun class do not stick with it. They fall away after only a few months (or weeks) precisely because the costs (in terms of money, time and foregone opportunities) are too high. They seem to have a very easy time making this calculation. While the internal dialogue going on in any actor’s head might be quite complex (and better understood through cultural theories) it seems to me that basic price theory is still a great way to understand the basic market equilibrium that emerges in the aggregate.

  6. rebeccafrank says:

    There seems to be a relationship between martial arts and religion in general. This is because this type of arts forms will help one to attain the metal and spiritual stability thereby making them even fit outside. So there is a great likeliness for students who learn martial arts to prefer religious studies literature. Thanks for sharing!!

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