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?