Vintage Postcard (probably 1920s) showing the approach to the Ming Tombs.
Vintage Postcard (probably 1920s) showing the approach to the Ming Tombs.  Source: Public Domain.




Introduction: Rational Choice Theory in Martial Arts Studies



This essay picks up on a few threads in my ongoing attempt to parse out whether there is a place for “rational choice theory” in martial arts studies. On the surface no phenomenon would seem to be more culturally determined than the martial arts. Yet as multiple authors have already discovered, the process of cultural framing does not necessarily exclude, and is sometimes implicated in, more strategic and materialist disputes.

As I mentioned at the conclusion of the previous essay, my intention is not to argue for the hegemony of rational choice methods. Rather I am interested in how certain key insights from this literature can be better integrated into our discussion of the history and sociology of the traditional fighting methods. Of course such an exercise is not without its dangers.

The main weakness of such an approach is that the “rational choice” elements of a model may simply be brought in as an ad hoc solution to an otherwise poorly formulated cultural theory. Alternatively, more than one economist has turned to a facile understanding of “culture” in an attempt to explain away “outliers” in their model.

Our problem is not that we lack compelling explanations for the puzzles that we might encounter in the martial arts. Simply coming up with a “just so” story to explain two sets of facts is never really that difficult. The real challenge is selecting between the various explanations that we have in front of us. The danger of the current thought experiment is that combing very different methodologies might make it easier to create theories rather than to choose between them.

Still, one wonders whether the strict line between “cultural” and “materialist” approaches can be maintained as the somewhat arbitrary divisions between the various disciplines (and even between qualitative and quantitative ways of looking at the world) are challenge by the growth of interdisciplinary work. If nothing else the sheer complexity of a number of central research questions would seem to suggest that such efforts will ultimately be worthwhile.

In the last post in this series I turned to a now classic article from the literature on the economics of the religious marketplace to ask why “expensive” martial arts (meaning those that demand more time, money and pain) are succeeding in the current era at the same time that less costly, more traditional arts, are struggling to survive. This in turn directed our attention towards a discussion of the different survival strategies that institutions might adopt in the face of “free-riding,” a central concern in a number of rational choice models.

The current post returns to this same literature, examining another classic article on the religious marketplace, but instead asks how different types of government regulation might affect the quality and popularity of martial arts instruction in powerful and often counter-intuitive ways. It is not uncommon for those concerned with the dwindling popularity of the folk arts within China to call for some type of government support. While an understandable impulse, the following post suggests that such efforts might actually hasten the decline of these arts rather than save them.

While the Asian martial arts are now practiced around the globe, governments in various states have taken very different attitudes toward their management and regulation. In some places a free-market, with little intervention, has been allowed to emerge. In other places states, wishing to promote the health of their citizens or certain types of identity formation, have actually subsidized hand combat instruction. In a few areas concerns about links to organized crime or a “culture of violence” has led to restrictions or even bans of certain martial arts activities.

It is not uncommon for students to wonder what effect the practice of the martial arts might have on a variety of issues from the construction of ethnic or gender identity to the accumulation of human and social capital within minority communities. To date most of these studies have focused on only one or two locations. Yet as our body of literature grows I suspect that we will start to discover that the ways in which martial arts are regulated and supported by states may have a substantial impact on their social function. As such it may be a good time to think more carefully about how these unexpected consequences might actually play out.

Any decent blog post needs to proceed with some sort of a puzzle. Consider the current state of the martial arts in China. On the one hand the government is spending immense amounts of money to subsidize certain practices (namely Wushu and Sanda). Yet this substantial investment has not led to a rise in the popularity of these arts. In fact, they have been declining in popularity and social prestige since the 1990s. While certain styles, such as Taijiquan, seem to be growing, this same malaise has also struck a wide variety of “folk arts” (those traditional systems that are not supported by the government). Increasingly these traditional arts are turning to the global arena to win support at the same time that “foreign” practices such as Brazilian Jujitsu, Taekwondo and MMA, are growing in popularity within China itself.

How might rational choice theory help us to sort this situation out? Is this simply the work of brute market forces? Studying the martial arts was a relatively inexpensive activity during the 1980s as economic growth was slower and workers had more leisure hours. It is certainly true that parents, anticipating a higher economic payout in the future, would rather encourage their children to excel in academic studies today than to enroll in a Wushu-based technical school.

While the opportunity cost of martial arts instruction has likely increased, it is unlikely that this alone can explain all of the current slowdown. After all, higher wages also means more money to spend on luxuries (such as a growing taste for exotic vacations and antique weapons). Additionally some arts, such as Taijiquan and Taekwondo, are growing and generating social enthusiasm within China.

Alternatively, can we simply blame “kids these days?” Whenever I talk about the current state of the martial arts with instructors this is almost always the first thing that they bring up. I have to admit that I am doubtful, but generational change leading to cultural evolution is certainly a possibility. Still, the martial arts do not seem to have lost a “cultural” battle for the hearts and minds of the next generation. They are still just as popular in films, videogames and wuxia novels as ever. While certain individuals have decreased the amount of time and money that they invest in practicing these systems, they have not stopped dreaming about them. This is an important point to consider when thinking about the likely fate of Kung Fu in the future.

So might it be possible to develop a theory that explains the declining enthusiasm for Wushu schools and the Sanda circuit in China (in the face of MMA and Taijiquan’s growth) which does not end up falling back on some version of “Chinese exceptionalism?” In other words, is it possible to develop some basic concepts that might help us to think about the trends that we are seeing in this one market while also suggesting something about the popularity of the martial arts in other areas (such as North America or Europe) as well?



Vintage Postcard showing the approach to the Ming Tombs.
Pre-1911 photograph showing the approach to the Ming Tombs.  Original photographer unknown.




Secularization, Establishment and the Market for Religion



In a now classic article Rodney Stark and Laurence R. Iannacconne examined a very similar puzzle within the religious studies literature (Stark and Iannaccone. 1994. “A Supply-Side Reinterpretation of the “Secularization” of Europe.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. Vol. 33 No. 3 pp. 230-252). Obviously the question of secularization is a critical one in the field of sociology and it would not be hard to find more recent treatments of this topic. Still, I tend to use to this paper in classes as it helped to launch the current conversation as to whether we could use the insights of rational choice theory to understand the West’s rapid turn away from religion in the 20th century.

Stark and Iannacconne begin by noting that the death of religion in the West has always been more of an article of faith among students of secularization theory than an actual empirical observation. A cursory historical examination suggests that the “good old days” of the 19th century (or even the Middle Ages) were much less pious that theorists such as Durkheim, Weber and Marx assumed. Nor are all advanced western nations equally secular. There is actually a lot of variation on that account that needs to be explained. Rather than doing this, scholars had traditionally dismissed the high rates of religious observance seen in North America as a statistical outlier, or possibly a sign of “stunted national development.”

Stark and Iannacconne instead called for a much more careful examination of what we mean by the term “secularization.” They noted that when questioned about their personal spirituality individuals in highly “secular” Scandinavian countries and “pious” America tended to report broadly similar levels of interest.

All markets are structured around two intersecting forces, the demand for some product on the part of consumers and the efforts of those willing to supply it. Given that there was less variance in demand than one might expect, the authors instead turned their attention to the institutions that were expected to supply these “religious goods.” They also paid close attention to how government policy shaped the marketplace that these religious actors occupied.

As is the case with martial arts, Stark and Iannacconne discovered that in certain states the market for religion was fairly open, while in others it was highly regulated. This regulation might take the form of actual prohibitions (such as bans on conversion by Muslims) or subsidies (where the state economically and socially supports one church above the others). Europe was particularly interesting to the authors as it had a long history of “established churches,” meaning that tax dollars were collected to pay for the salaries, education and sanctuaries of either a single official church or a group of “approved” religions.

One might think that this sort of support would be a great advantage to religious groups. While that may be the case in terms of job security and economics, it did nothing to increase the popularity of these institutions. Instead, a very large number of scholars who have conducted independent studies on varying groups of countries have all found that “religious observance” is least popular in those states with regulated marketplaces and is the most vibrant in comparatively laissez-faire markets. Even more interesting, in those countries with officials state churches, these organizations tend to be relatively unpopular compared to new religious movements (Islam, Jehovah Witnesses, various protestant denominations) coming in from the outside.

Why is this the case? At the risk of oversimplifying their argument, Stark and Iannacconne conclude that religious marketplaces are not fundamentally different than those for any other sort of good or identity. Open markets encourage competition, and firms must seek to innovate and increase the quality of their products to survive. Monopolistic firms, on the other hand, maximize their profits by reducing innovation.

While Stark and Iannacconne focus on cross-national comparisons in their article, I think that US religious history can actually illustrate their point more quickly. When the original 13 colonies were created most states in Europe had official established churches and their North American outposts followed suite. While we always tend to assume that previous generations were more pious than ourselves, this is not actually the case.

In the 18th century there was less interest in religious questions than would be the case in the later 19th century. As churches were supported by taxes they tended to pay much closer attention to the needs of local government than they did their parishioners. This had concrete effects on the ways that churches interacted with their community. Not only were many of their sermons dull, but they tended to be less involved with good works (such as feeding the poor or education) than would be the case later in history.

The separation of church and state which is so much a part of American life (established in the Constitutional Period) changed the relationship between religious providers and their home communities in radical ways. Now the survival of a church was not dependent so much on one’s relationship with the government, but the ability to put individuals in the pews, and then convince these same people to donate generously to support the growth of the institution.

Not surprisingly, as the quality of the religious products being produced increased, Americans exhibited a greater zeal for organized religion and spirituality in general. Churches also became increasingly involved in a number of community projects including education.

This is a quick gloss on an admittedly complex subject, but the end of the “establishment period” seems to have coincided with an increase in religious activity in the US, just as Stark and Iannacconne predicted and other scholars found in large-N comparative studies in other countries. It would seem that when asking about the social functions of these sorts of institutions we may need to know something about how they are regulated in addition to the substance of their teachings. This is one area where rational choice approaches to sociology, political science or economics may be helpful.



Another photograph of the Ming Statues.  This one was reproduced on a large number of early 20th century stereoscope slides.  Public Domain.
Another photograph of the Ming Statues. This one was reproduced on a large number of early 20th century stereoscope slides. Public Domain.




The Traditional Chinese Martial Arts in a Global Marketplace



The logic of Stark and Iannacconne’s argument would suggest that far from strengthening the overall position of the traditional Chinese martial arts, the sorts of subsidies and “administrative guidance” that these activities receive from the state may actually be diminishing their social relevance. When Wushu and Sanda coaches respond to the guidance and requests of their political employers they are becoming increasingly cut-off from what the public might find interesting and engaging.

Very few individuals will innovate and take chances where such behavior is not rewarded, and may well be punished. While everyone is concerned about the falling social status and diminished popularity of Wushu, the proper players do not have a direct incentive to tackle what has become an entrenched bureaucratic problem. Arts like Taekwondo, which has seen a rapid growth in popularity, have been forced to succeed outside of this elaborate system of subsidization, leading possibly to greater innovation and the creation of a more relevant and appealing product (particularly in the eyes of middle class parents looking for some physical activity for their children).

Nor is there any reason to expect that the basic conclusions of this argument should apply only to China. In a recent article Jasmijin Rana looked at Dutch government policy towards kickboxing in disadvantaged neighborhoods. More specifically, she focused on a period of time in which government policy transitioned from the active subsidization of these activities (as a way of encouraging integration into mainstream society by the children of Muslim immigrants) to the halting of the program in response to worries about kickboxing’s unsavory public reputation and a changing public discussion on ethnicity and sports.

Rana’s paper is interesting enough to deserve a post of its own (one which I hope to get to soon). But she also found that national regulation had a critical effect on the social meaning and value of kickboxing among young Muslim women. By socially constructing kickboxing as a “violent sport” that was well suited to channeling the natural aggression of young Muslims, and then subsidizing classes and gyms in their neighborhoods (but not other areas of the city), the government ensured that these practices would not promote a more inclusive identity. Instead they actually reinforced and hardened existing ethnic boundaries.

This is not to say that the martial arts cannot have a transformative effect on students. But when attempting to tease out how this emerges it may well be necessary to look beyond the walls of the training hall itself. The martial arts are only one part of popular culture, and like every other aspect of civil society their role and social function can be refracted by government regulation. The literature on comparative religion suggests that these regulatory frameworks may have a substantial effect on how institutions function within society, separate from their own beliefs about themselves. The same is likely true of martial arts movements and groups.

In some cases governments may be very aware of what they are doing. Both Japan and China crafted martial arts policies during the 1930s designed to promote national identity. Similar policies have also been employed in places like Indonesia and Korea. It is hard to see the CCP’s post-1949 Wushu program as anything other than a calculated effort to detach the Chinese martial arts from their roots in popular culture and to use them as a tool to advance a small set of carefully curated state goals.

But Rana’s case reminds us that not all regulation efforts are equally Machiavellian or successful. The Dutch government was genuinely interested in promoting greater ethnic integration through its sports policy and they rightly decided that the martial arts could be a valuable part of this process. Yet they undercut their own efforts through a lack of coordination and the unintentional creation of a set of market distortions that reinforced the very same neighborhood and ethnic identities that they wished to soften.

Again, no theory is perfect. Stark and Iannacconne’s paper, while it started a conversation, has hardly been the last work on the subject. Readers interested in religious trends might want to consider how the rise of the “nones” could influence their critique of the secularization debate. Alternatively, while some folk arts (like Taijiquan) are doing quite well in China, a number of other ones are struggling.

The loudest voices calling for state support and subsidization tend to be coming from their direction. In this situation government backing may be seen as a sign of one’s intrinsic cultural value or a “vote of confidence” rather than as a direct economic boon. After all, in Imperial China the very best martial artists were often recruited into government service through the military exam system and that fact is still remembered today. So there is clearly something at stake here besides pure economic subsidies.

Still, one cannot help but wonder if the government protection of the “folk arts” against market pressures might not deprive them their most important traditional characteristic, an amazing degree of flexibility and resilience in the face of upheaval.








If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to see: The New Economics of Taiji Quan: Culture, Identity and the Rise of China’s Upper Middle Class




A map of the Ming Tombs, stored in the United States Library of Congress.  Source: Wikimedia.
A map of the Ming Tombs, stored in the United States Library of Congress. Note the positions of the arches and statues seen above.  Source: Wikimedia.