Iroquois war club.  Original date and source unknown.
Iroquois war club. Original date and source unknown.



“We now come to the most critical yet most prickly of all questions: does any of this matter beyond the martial arts and combat sports, symbolically rich but socially marginal activities after all…The greatest challenge that the fighting scholars leave untackled in this book is that of extending the teachings of their carnal investigations of corporal trades to practices in general. Is such an extension warranted and, if so, is it possible?”

Loïc Wacquant responding to the authors of Fighting Scholars: Habitus and Ethnographies of Martial Arts and Combat Sports (Anthem Press, 2014). Epilogue, pp. 197-198.



“I understand what you are trying to say, but why does this matter? So what?”

The time honored professorial formula repeated in pretty much every dissertation proposal meeting.




Introduction: Marginality in the Longhouse



My father is an anthropologist. When I was a child his field work involved frequent visits to the “Longhouses” (community and ritual centers) of the Seneca tribe of the Iroquois Confederacy. Every year he still teaches a course on Iroquois ethnography. In this class there is always a unit on the Handsome Lake Religion, which is the faith tradition of conservative members of the Iroquois nations.

Students like this material. These sorts of studies have been central to the discipline of anthropology. Yet every so often a complication arises. It usually starts when some bright young scholar starts to think about the basic demographic situation of this community.

In the United States there are two major Seneca reservations. They can be found in Salamanca and Cattaraugus NY. The Cattaraugus reservation is not large, even by the standards of rural western NY. It has a total population of only about 2,400 individuals. Most of them are either Christians or agnostics. Less than half of the community identifies as members of the Handsome Lake Religion. Of them probably around 30% attend doings at the Longhouse on a semi-regular basis. Only a fraction of these individuals (perhaps half?) could be characterized as “committed believers.” These are the individuals who not only participate but donate the resources necessary to keep the community functional.

It is also interesting to consider who these individuals are. To fully participate in this religion one must be able to speak and understand the Seneca language, as well as follow a variety of specific rituals involving both deep cultural knowledge, specific songs (again, in Seneca) and dance. These are not skills that anyone is born with. Additionally, many of the faithful are older individuals who have retired.

All told, when students consider the Handsomelake Religion as it is practiced on the Cattaraugus reservation, they are actually talking about a practice that seems to have a few hundred dedicated followers, and a few dozen ritual specialists responsible for preserving the entire transmission. Nor are these always the wealthiest, best educated or most successful members of the community. Many followers of the religion occupy “marginal” places on the broader socio-economic spectrum.

This realization quickly leads to the following question. Is the Handsomelake Religion really central to the ethnography or cultural understanding of the Seneca? Why not study the local Baptist or Methodist churches instead? Or maybe we should just skip the entire topic of religion (which doesn’t seem to be horribly popular most of the time) and focus on material questions of economic development, health and education? Given that this is a practice perpetuated by a relatively small number of often “marginal” individuals, why is it worthy of our increasingly scarce research dollars?

There are two quick answers that one could give to this question. These focus in turn on “sufficient” and “necessary” justifications. In an undergraduate class one could point out that the true object of study is really culture in general (e.g., how cultural systems function and evolve). If that is the case, then looking at a relatively small and local tradition (whose history is well understood) makes a lot of sense. It’s a great case study for purely pragmatic reasons.

This sort of argument may show that the study of a group is sufficient to accomplish our goal of increased understanding. In some ways it answers our “so what” question. But it still leaves open the issue of why. Why look at the Longhouse and not the local lacrosse league? Either would teach you a lot about Seneca culture, and the latter is probably better attended. Why is the study of small and sometimes marginal groups necessary and even desirable?

My father’s answer to this second question is that the size or prestige of a social institution is often not a good guide to understanding its actual role in society. This is especially true when we start to think about the construction of meaning, identity and basic cultural concepts.

The Longhouse is critical as it is the acknowledged center of these things in Seneca life. Yes, most of the time the majority of individuals don’t have any interaction with this institution. They may not even be believers.

But when a grandmother dies, this is where you go. The stories and rituals of the Longhouse invest that moment of crisis with social meaning. The function of other institutions (such as the clan system) is facilitated by the Longhouse, and they are in turn responsible for providing services and comfort in a time of loss.

The Longhouse is more than a building, or even a religion. It is a meaning making machine. It reproduces the basic symbols, community structures and norms that tell someone what it means to be Seneca. Yes, relatively few individuals can be classified as “highly committed” members in sociological terms, yet the social goods that they produce are critical to understanding what it is to be a member of this community.

Nor is the impact of their ideas and symbols restricted to the reservation. The Iroquois are a part of the fabric of New York State, and they have successfully pursued a complex economic, political and cultural agenda in recent years. The results of this can be seen in a number of places, including a growing appreciation (and more nuanced understanding) for some of their concepts within society at large. Indeed, the impact of the Handsomelake Faith-keepers can now be felt far beyond the borders of their own nation.



A detail of a larger mural painted on a parking garage next to the Ithaca Commons (in Ithaca NY) showing an Iroquois chief holding a wampum belt that represents the nations of the confederacy.  Photo by Benjamin Judkins.
A detail of a larger mural painted on a parking garage next to the Ithaca Commons (in Ithaca NY) showing an Iroquois chief holding a wampum belt that represents the five nations of the confederacy. Photo by Benjamin Judkins.




Marginality in Martial Arts Studies



Martial arts studies now faces a very similar set of questions. Why should we study the 19th century Chinese martial arts, Judo in the 1950s or boxing in Chicago’s ghettos during the 1980s? Research dollars are scarce, and these activities tend to be practiced by small numbers of often marginal individuals. Personal interest or a fascinating story will not get a manuscript published, or ensure the continued development of this research area.

Instead we must begin by answering that most basic of all questions, “so what?” Given all of the specialized communities in the global system today, why should we focus our energy on the martial arts or combat sports? Indeed, this is a variant of the challenge that Wacquant (Body and Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer, 2004) posed to the collective authors of Fighting Scholars (2014).

Each of the authors in that collection attempted to engage with, explore or expand the idea of the habitus in martial arts studies. As such Wacquant specifically challenged them to explain how their work (and indeed, his own study of boxing) illuminates the realm of practice more generally. For our purposes this same objection extends far beyond literature on embodied practice. It could be asked of any student of martial arts studies more generally.

Do our theories and observations apply to the world beyond the gym or training hall? What issues can we speak to? Under what conditions does the study of these combative systems become a necessity, making a unique contribution to larger discussions? Why should scholars who do not practice the martial arts care about what we have to say?

The questions are simple, but the issues they raise are complex. I do not expect to be able to provide a definitive answer in the following blog post. Indeed, I expect that a number of us will spend years wrestling with these questions. Certainly these were questions that Wacquant faced in 2004, yet his return to them a decade later would seem to indicate that they are the sort of challenge that demands continual mindfulness rather than trite dismissal.

The following blog post attempts to provide a first cut at these questions. As I have argued above, we cannot dismiss the martial arts (or a great many other institutions) simply because they are practiced by a relatively small number of more or less marginal individuals. When practices focus on the reproduction of social values it is possible for even small groups to have an outsized effect.

In discussing the justifications for Martial Arts Studies I will again consider both “sufficient” and “necessary” motivations. These fighting systems are the products of complex social systems which use them to entertain, regulate behavior and reproduce core values. As such their study can reveal at least three things about these larger social structures. More challenging is the question of necessity. Where can we envision martial arts studies making a substantive and unique contribution? I offer some thoughts below, yet this is a question that will require further consideration.



A longer view of the same mural.  Note that the figure are portrayed as standing within a modern longhouse.  Photo by Benjamin Judkins.
A larger view of the same mural. Note that the figure are portrayed as standing within a modern longhouse. Photo by Benjamin Judkins.




Society and the Social



No tendency is more common than to discuss the Asian martial arts as transcendent practices. These systems are viewed as responding to their own internal logic which survives the successive ages of history more or less unscathed. Fortunately this common view is fundamentally mistaken. If that were not so, it would be impossible to answer the “so what” question. The study of these fighting systems would reveal nothing except their own idiosyncratic internal logic.

In reality the martial arts are caught in a constant process of social construction and revival. At each point in history their basic institutions, practices and meanings are reconstituted. This is not to say that their past is unimportant. Rather it is to remind us that the effects of history are additive, and that the versions of these arts which we encounter always bear the marks of the social systems and discourses within which they are embedded.

Persistent fantasies of hermit warriors notwithstanding, the martial arts are inescapably social institutions and products of popular culture. Unfortunately popular culture is not always well understood. This is particularly true when considering historical questions. Traditionally the writing of history has favored the stories of the elite rather than the masses. This then suggests the first area where the study of martial arts and combat sports might gain significance.

Since they manifest themselves in ways that are tied to specific economic, cultural and social systems, a better understanding of them may reveal elements of a world that seems to have been lost. Much of my own interest in the martial arts of southern China reflects broader questions of how modern civil society emerges.

The Republic period saw an explosion in the number and type of private institutions seen within society. Most of these organizations no longer exist, but the martial arts are still with us. Better yet, they retain the historical and cultural imprint of this critical time. Thus the study of the martial arts and combat sports can reveal how specific social systems functioned at a given point in time.

Of course we can approach this basic issue from a number of perspectives or levels of analysis. Rather than just asking how various social organizations interacted to produce a certain sort of civil society, we might instead go deeper and begin to question how they formed in the first place. Where do new types of institutions come from? Are they simply the product of rational (or functionalist) calculations? Or do they instead reflect more fundamental cultural patterns? How are these two competing variables balanced in the process of social innovation?

Once again, the martial arts seem ideally suited to shed some light on this fundamental question. In a previous series of posts I considered the creation, evolution and practices of the Red Spear movement. This loose association of village defense leagues emerged in the 1920s and survived until the close of the 1940’s. They combined both traditional martial arts training and invulnerability magic in the quest for local security during Northern China’s turbulent warlord era.

On the one hand nothing would seem to be more “traditional” than an invulnerability cult. Yet a closer reader of the historical record reveals that during the 1920s residents of the region saw the Red Spears as a new phenomenon rather than a simple continuation of the area’s long and well established martial arts tradition. Why? While the basic technologies of these groups were well known (and culturally patterned) their social organization reflected the strategic calculations of a new class of local elites who in many ways were different from the gentry leaders who had occupied the same space in previous generations. Thus as we look at the Red Spears we can see exactly how cultural and strategic considerations combined at one specific point in time to make a new sorts of martial arts/militia organization possible. Many other regions and eras suggest similar problems.

On an even more basic level each of these groups is comprised of individual people who make choices to invest their resources and identity in certain types of martial technologies. Why? Can the study of the martial arts or combat sports help us to understand the nature and manifestation of individual agency within complex social systems?

Of course this is where Wacquant once again enters our story. He explicitly viewed the habitus as a means of producing and understanding individual agency within a given environment rather than erasing it. His work in this area (while not without its critics) has been exceptionally fruitful. It inspired the various authors who made up the Fighting Scholars project, each of whom sought to expand some aspect of the approach to the study of the martial arts and combat sports more generally.

Nor is the habitus the only analytical tool that the study of these activities point us towards. Multiple scholars have demonstrated that the media discourses surrounding the martial arts have been borrowed, recombined and deployed as tools of self-liberation, both for individuals and entire communities. Indeed, habitus is by definition restricted to those individuals who submit to a process of transformation that requires a substantial commitment of time and resources necessary for practice.

The symbols and ideas conveyed by the media can reach a far larger audience. Practitioners of these arts are often avid consumers of such stories, movies and video games. This media discourse even frames individuals understanding of their art in critical ways. Yet practically everyone else is exposed to these cultural arguments as well.

In this way ideas and beliefs about what the martial arts extend well beyond the relatively small group of people who actually practice them. Practically all media consumers are exposed to a discourse that uses their image to reproduce core social values. Once again, we see the emergence of a small community (no matter how distorted or imperfectly understood) having an outsized effect on society at large.



An additional detail of from the same installation of murals.  This one shows the "Three Sisters" (corn, beans and squash) which were the staples of traditional Iroquois horticulture.  Such planting strategies have recently become popular again with some local gardeners.  Photo by Benjamin Judkins.
An additional detail of from the same installation of murals. This one shows the “Three Sisters” (corn, beans and squash) which were the staples of traditional Iroquois horticulture. Such planting strategies have recently become popular again with some local gardeners. Photo by Benjamin Judkins.




Conclusion: The Necessity of Martial Arts Studies



Yet none of this answers the fundamental question. Why the martial arts, as opposed to any other project? Wacquant’s own contribution to the Epilogue of Fighting Scholars starts to point us in a productive direction. Returning to his immediate concern with the generalizability of his understanding of habitus (and his study of boxing) as a means for grasping the central problem of “practice,” he relates a conversation with John Searle who directly challenged him on these very points. Searle had also concluded some sort of similar concept that was useful to understanding social action and agency, yet he criticized Wacquant’s findings as being ultimately not generalizable and therefore pointless.

Yes, he may have understood how the habitus of a boxer was forged in the fires of the Woodlawn gym, but most individuals never go through those sorts of experiences. Could Wacquant’s theory shed light on the process of becoming a sociology professor? Searle had his doubts. The physical and intellectual spheres were too widely distant. In his view case the practice of the boxers remained strictly marginal. Searle instead proposed the study of “intermediate cases” (such as soldiers) for those looking to find the common elements between both the intellectual and the athletic production of social action.

As one would expect, Wacquant used his Epilogue to mount a spirited defense of both the notion of habitus and the general applicability of his conclusions. He argued with some elegance that the philosopher and the boxer are not as different as it might seem. Both are finite beings, manifest at a given point in space and time. By their very nature both are carnal and suffering creatures. The circumstances of their existence dictate in both cases that they use the practices that they have acquired to compete and find meaning on the stage of social life. In short he finds that the difference between a boxer and philosopher is one of degree rather than kind. Thus the lessons of carnal sociology acquired in the more extreme case must have general applicability. We are bound together by the fact that we are all suffering beings.

This argument requires careful consideration. One the one hand Wacquant has defended (successfully in my opinion) the generalizability of his argument. Given that we are all ontologically the same, there is no apriori reason to believe the experiences of the boxer would have nothing to say on these fundamental questions. Yet by making the experiences of his boxer equal to, and interchangeable with, those of pretty much every other community, we are once again forced to face our central question.

Why boxing? Why the martial arts or the combat sports? Yes, their nature may be sufficiently generalizable to reveal some very basic set of social facts. But why study them rather than any other, more popular and less marginal activity? Ergo the challenge that Wacquant issues to the authors of Fighting Scholars.

Is there really anything unique about martial arts which compels our attention? Searle’s suggestion of looking for intermediary cases is actually quite interesting to me. Questions of ontology aside, the Asian martial arts make an interesting case study precisely because they were a somewhat generalized activity. Chinese martial artists might have been members of local militias or criminal groups. Opera performers employed the martial arts in their work as did security guards. The martial arts were a way to prepare for a career in the military as well as a means of building ones health in traditional medicine.

When thinking about Chinese society, the martial arts are interesting precisely because of the fact that they sit at the intersection of so many different spheres. The values that they reproduced were a lingua franca, shared in one form or another throughout society. In short, for anyone interested in questions surrounding the social production and control of violence, gender, power, health, security or a wide number of other questions it would be hard to think of a better “intermediary” case than the martial arts.

Nor is this phenomenon restricted to 19th century China. In the current global system the martial arts seem to have retained much of this same intersectionality. Individuals go to them seeking health, beauty, empowerment, security, pride and adventure. They are a common element that is tied to social products as diverse as New Age philosophy, MMA and the building of “character” within grade schools students.

The idea of a single activity that can lead to health, spiritual development and combat prowess is undeniably attractive. It is precisely the fact that these practices have once again become deeply embedded in so many core areas of popular culture that makes them useful to the researcher. This intersectionality ensures that while the number of highly dedicated practitioners within any specific system is likely to remain small, these practices may continue to have an outsized social effect. Thus these fighting systems will continue to function both as a subject of study as well as a tool to investigate other more fundamental questions for some time to come.




If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read:  Remembering Chu Shong Tin and the Relationship between Theory and Observation in Chinese Martial Studies.