The Hague skyline viewed from Hetplein Square.  Source: Wikimedia
The Hague skyline viewed from Hetplein Square. Source: Wikimedia

Question: Why did you choose kickboxing instead of some other sport?

“Apparently it is a sport that we Moroccans like…We Moroccans need one or another outlet for our aggressions.” P. 40

Question: Why do you come to this school (far from where the two cousins being interviewed live)?

“’There is really nothing at all in our part of town! If we want to practice sports, we have to come all the way here.’ Asmae: ‘And we are also the only Moroccans there.’ Soumaya: ‘Yes, and there is no kickboxing, so that’s why.’” P. 40

Question (directed to a female Moroccan kickboxing student): Why aren’t you friends with her?

“She lives in Duindorp [a working class white neighborhood near the Hague]. That is why I can’t get along with her. Look, we play nice, and laugh and all that, but she will never be a real friend of mine because of that.” P.44

Jasmijn Rana. “Producing Healthy Citizens: Encouraging Participation in Ladies-Only Kickboxing.” Etnofoor, Participation. Vol. 26 Issue 2. 2014. Pp 33-48.


I am wary of ethnographies that rely too heavily on direct interview quotes. It seems that this impulse to get directly at the “data” while bypassing the ethnographer often misses something important. This could be as simple as context or analysis. More often it is the opportunity to engage with theoretical questions or the rich, multi-flavored textures of “thick description.”

Jasmijn Rana’s recent ethnographic, historical and textual analysis of ladies-only kickboxing in two minority neighborhoods in the Hauge stands out as an example of a work that strikes a good balance between all of these concerns. Her short article adroitly combines a historical discussion of recent government policies towards the promotion of amateur kickboxing within disadvantaged neighborhoods with a very close (almost deconstructive) reading of various official documents as well as her own ethnographic observations drawing on her participation in this community.

I have been meaning to discuss Rana’s article in detail for a few months now. Her research touches on a number of issues that make it interesting to a wide segment of the martial arts studies community. Most obviously those following questions of immigration, identity construction and gender within the martial arts will find much to ponder. Political scientists and sociologists will no doubt appreciate her detailed discussion of various government attempts at policy making in these areas and their subsequent failure. Even students of martial arts history, particularly those interested in China and Japan’s promotion of the martial arts in the early 20th century, may find an intriguing case for comparison.

I was particularly drawn to this article due to what it suggests about social capital creation within the modern martial arts. As such this review is the second part of my ongoing discussion of social capital in the martial arts. For a quick refresher on the basic idea of social capital and an explanation of what it might have to do with martial arts studies, see here.

Rana’s story begins in the early 2000s after a shift away from an official policy of multiculturalism in the Netherlands towards one of assimilation of new groups into Dutch society. Attempts to enact this new direction had a profound effect on sports policy, leading ultimately to a 2005 decision to promote kickboxing, martial arts and other amateur level ring sports within disadvantaged neighborhoods (often defined in explicitly ethnic terms) as a way of encouraging greater social integration of minority youth into dominant social structures.

Apparently someone in the government had been reading the literature on social capital and decided that greater participation in sports would encourage “bridging” ties between immigrant and non-immigrant youth. Having noted that combat sports were popular within the immigrant community the government decided to subsidize the creation of a number of martial arts schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods between 2006 and 2010 (when funding for the program officially ran out).

The ostensible purpose of this program was to create “healthy citizens.” Yet as Rana demonstrates through her close reading of various policy documents, the government was not overly concerned with the actual physical health of immigrant children. Instead the program was designed to promote a three-fold policy.

It was supposed to encourage social integration of minorities by creating incentives for them to “join” pre-existing social structures. Secondly, it was hoped that kickboxing and other combat sports would help to channel the aggressive and criminal impulses of Muslim male youth. Lastly, by subsidizing the creation of gender segregated classes for Muslim women (who would not be able to participate in mixed-sex sports) the government hoped to encourage a greater sense of “empowerment” and separate them from identities and norms that were perceived as problematic by Dutch society.

In short, this case details a conscious government effort to use subsidized martial arts training to encourage social transformation by manipulating social capital creation. More specifically, the policy outlined in the 2005 document “Time for Sports” (discussed at length by Rana) can be thought of as an attempt to encourage one specific vision of “integration” by encouraging the creation of bonding capital (links of friendship and trust between immigrant and native Dutch youth) while also disrupting social cohesion within the predominantly Muslim immigrant community (by actively turning young women away from their traditional gender roles, thus disrupting bonding capital). Sports policy was to be the mechanism by which all of this was to happen.

Yet as the paraphrases of the interviews at the start of this post suggest, it is far from clear that the government managed to achieve any of its goals. Rana argues that through poor conceptualization and execution this program actually made many of these problems worse. In effect they created a negative feedback loop where the ever tighter association of Moroccan ethnicity and kickboxing in the public imagination furthered segregated this sport from the social mainstream. This isolation encouraged the creation of bonding rather than bridging capital. The end result was a hardening of preexisting identity and little in the way of increased social integration.

What lessons should we take away from this case? Is this an example of the “dark side of social capital,” discussed in the previous post? Or should the failure of this policy lead to a more fundamental rethinking of what social capital is, and under what circumstances is it most likely (or least likely) to encourage good outcomes? We turn to these questions in the second and third parts of this essay.

The Schilderswijk neighborhood in the Hague, one of the locations in which Rana conducted much of her fieldwork.  Source: Wikimedia.
The Schilderswijk neighborhood in the Hague, one of the locations in which Rana conducted much of her fieldwork. Source: Wikimedia.

Social Policy and Kickboxing in the Hague

Jasmijn Rana earned an undergraduate degree in Anthropology from the University of Amsterdam and is currently a doctoral candidate at the Berlin Graduate School of Muslim Cultures and Societies at Freie Universität. Her field work began in 2008 and her subsequent research has focused on the intersection of kickboxing and the daily lives of young Muslim women in the Hague. Her English language article titled “Producing Healthy Citizens: Encouraging Participation in Ladies-Only Kickboxing” examines a fascinating period of change that speaks to many questions regarding the effects of government support and subsidization within the martial arts.

As Rana’s article makes clear, much of this policy discussion was actually triggered by a more fundamental shift in social policy towards immigrants. During the 1990s the government promoted multiculturalism, while its official sports policy classified the combat and ring-sports (along with football hooliganism) as elements that challenged national norms.

The rise of populism early in the 2000s was accompanied by a shift away from the theory of multiculturalism towards the idea that immigrants should instead adopt (and be absorbed into) the dominant social structures of Dutch life (institutions, incidentally, that they had no voice in creating). To further this ends national sports policy created programs designed to encourage social integration among the youth by encouraging them to join various athletic clubs.

The first half of Rana’s article is dedicated to a historical outline of how this policy effort evolved, as well as a close look at the technical language used to describe and implement these efforts in various official documents. This aspect of her article is particularly helpful to non-Dutch readers for at least two reasons. First, it is a quick way to introduce foreign readers to the fairly nuanced evolution of a policy debate which they would likely otherwise miss.

It also emphasizes, in no uncertain terms, the social power of language both in its ability to define certain situations as problematic (even if a few years before they had not necessarily been seen that way) while at the same time creating a set of normative beliefs that would perpetuate this socially constructed order. Given the various debates about the nature of the martial arts that we see in the literature, it is fascinating to have before us a case in which they are so clearly invoked and subsidized as part of a broader political project. Rana demonstrates that a close reading of the nuances of this official language is key to understanding this project.

Her article then goes on to examine a number of more specific questions. She notes that the “neighborhood” has been taken as the essential unit of analysis in which government experts seek to diagnose social problems and address them with concrete policy measures (the creation and subsidization of certain kinds of sports clubs). Yet this is also where the story of the government’s efforts to promote kickboxing among Muslim youth becomes complicated.

Throughout the course of her article Rana notes a paradox that will no doubt sound familiar to students of Chinese martial studies. On the one hand Dutch fighters have been exceptionally successfully (especially given the small size of their homeland) in the international arena. The country has produced a number of professional Thai kickboxers, MMA and K1 fighters over the years. Yet “ring sports” have not been popular with the Dutch people who tend to associate them with violence and criminal behavior. In fact, the government has actually attempted to ban a number of professional kickboxing events which in turn has complicated their efforts to promote amateur training.

As a result the government did not seek to create kickboxing schools in mostly white middle class neighborhoods. In those areas more popular sports (like swimming) were promoted. However, it was decided that since combat sports were popular in economically disadvantaged areas (which often had large immigrant populations) they would be subsidized there in an effort to promote “joining in” and the creation of bridging capital.

The result was a two-fold process. The combat sports, which had never been that popular to begin with, increasingly came to be associated with the nation’s Muslim immigrants in both the popular media and official discourse. Rather than boxing or kickboxing being pursuits that attract the “working class” in general (see Wacquant for more on this) they were now linked with a single ethnic group and the neighborhoods that they occupied.

Over the course of her research Rana found that this growing media discourse had a powerful effect on many of the young women that she interviewed. She noted that a number of them decided to take-up kickboxing precisely because the media had defined the practice as an almost exclusively Muslim or Moroccan pastime. This view is illustrated by the first quote above.

The other result of this process was an escalating process of segregation within the sports facilities available in different neighborhoods. Recall that the entire purpose of this policy push was to increase “social integration” between various communities. Yet Rana notes that it was always the Muslim minority that was called upon to integrate itself into majority institutions and practices. Neighborhoods or sports clubs dominated exclusively by racial and ethnic Europeans were never seen as a problem by the government. Instead they were accepted as the norm.

If one really wishes to encourage social integration at some point the communities in question must be allowed to interact with each other. Yet official sports policy ended up working against that rather obvious goal.

By promoting kickboxing schools in only Muslim neighborhoods, while other areas got swimming clubs and ice rinks, young athletes from different backgrounds were denied a chance to meet and compete against one another. The end result, in terms of social capital, would have been the strengthening of bonding capital among increasingly homogenous groups to the total exclusion of any “bridging.” The stated goals of the government policy were universal in scope, but they were undercut by an approach that focused on specific neighborhoods (often in only disadvantaged areas) as the area of execution.

The first and second quotes at the top of this article illustrate the situation nicely. Here we have women who understand their identity as a martial artists as somehow derivative of their ethnic identity. The case of the two cousins is particularly interesting as it most clearly illustrates the geographic aspect of this policy failure.

These girls did not live in a “disadvantaged” area, but they were Muslim and most sports clubs had no ladies-only sections. An accommodation had been made for this in the case of kickboxing (as it furthered an important government goal). So if they wanted to participate in sports at all, their only option was to travel across the city to the proper sort of neighborhood (an economically disadvantaged one) so that they could participate in an activity that a sports bureaucrat had decided was the befitting of someone of their “social status” (a Muslim teenage girl). It is actually hard to think of a better example of what Rey Chow (2002) calls “coercive mimeticism.” She conceptualizes this as the process by which ethnic stereotypes are socially enforced and certain behaviors mandated from a subject as though they are somehow an expression of their essential nature.

Of course this situation (which according to Rana was wholly the result of multiple layers of government policy and media discourse) effectively deprived them of the opportunity to participate in some other sort of school which might have emerged in their neighborhood if things had been left to evolve naturally. There they might have dealt with people from a variety of backgrounds in a more “authentic” (or at minimum, differently constructed) community.

While these government policies were ostensibly designed with the goal of creating “bridging capital,” they had exactly the opposite effect. The third quote, in which a Muslim girl discusses her lack of empathy with a white working class woman who travels into her neighborhood so that she can study kickboxing (there probably isn’t a club in her home town) is the end result.

Kickboxing trainig in the Hague.  Source: Sports Provocation.  Photo by Jasmijn Rana
Kickboxing trainig in the Hague. Source: Sports Provocation. Photo by Jasmijn Rana

Conclusion: The Ignorant Schoolmaster and Social Capital

Except that it is not. After providing that quote Rana notes parenthetically that following a year of working together the two girls actually did develop a genuine friendship. Of course, “as with other friendships, the boundaries between ethnicities are spelled out.” (p. 44) Still, I suspect that this is really the best that one can hope for. New identities tend to overlay and cross-cut old ones. They do not erase them.

This final quote provides an important silver-lining to an otherwise depressing article. Despite all of the obstacles that the author reviewed, some naturally occurring, others the result of counter-productive social policy, a new friendship did emerge. This was also the single example of bridging capital formation that Rana points to in her work.

Nor was its creation quick and easy. It took repeated interactions of a particular kind to build the levels of trust necessary for a friendship to flourish. Importantly that process played itself out on the training floor of a martial arts school.

Some might hope that mutual participation in something like the martial arts, where two individuals share a powerful embodied experience, might actually erase older identities so that they could be replaced with something entirely new. Adam Frank explored this idea in his study Taijiquan and the Search for the Little Old Chinese Man, and found that while shared training might create a new layer of identity, it could not erase the old boundaries.

From the perspective of social capital this is precisely what makes such relationships so important. If old identities were actually forgotten, then one could not really create linkages between two communities that might facilitate better cooperation and more empathy. Instead one group would simply hegmonize and absorb the other. Seeking true cooperation is predicated on first accepting the reality of difference. As Rana has shown those differences, while very real, are themselves the result of layers of discourse, policy and history. In short they are socially constructed rather than ontologically given.

This is a critical point to bear in mind when thinking about the idea of social capital. In my previous post on the subject I noted that we often treat this topic as though it is based on “methodological individualism.” Readers may recall that in defining social capital we started off with individual agents and asked about their capacity to demonstrate decentralized norms of trust and reciprocity.

We noted that this is a skill, rather than an innate ability, and it is learned through intensive social interaction. Since group membership is often linked to socioeconomic status (wealthy individuals have the resources to be members of more groups), disadvantaged persons and communities tend to rank low on measures of social capital. Luckily, this skill can be relatively quickly acquired through group interactions.

Yet there is an inherent contradiction in all of this. While an individual may be the agent that experiences the abundance or lack of social capital, the situation that led to that outcome is fundamentally social and structural in nature. In fact, social capital really only becomes a useful concept when we begin to think of entire social institutions as the actual unit of analysis. Only then does it make sense to talk about how these norms may allow an institution to function in a more desirable manner.

While discussions of social capital often start with the individual level of analysis, they point towards the importance of larger forces that transcend the human. This brings me to my central criticism of Rana’s article. While she invokes the idea of social capital, and points to Putnam’s work in a number of places, she does not really explore the details of the theory. This is critical as upon closer examination there is not simply one approach to this topic. Indeed, there are literally dozens of theories of social capital coming out of a variety of perspectives that span the distance between quantitative economics and poststructuralist Theory.

I agree with Rana’s basic assertion that social capital is a useful concept in analyzing the current case. In fact, the Dutch Ministries seem to be tacitly invoking the idea in their policy documents. But if really pushed I am still not sure where she would come down on the various theoretical debates about this concept.

This question is not merely academic. A more developed theory of exactly how social capital is expected to function would do much to both create expectations as to when the martial arts are likely to play a socially constructive role, as well as to explain the exact mechanism by which the policies that she reviewed managed to fail so spectacularly. Indeed, one is forced to ask how a group of individuals tasked with encouraging social integration could turn around and create a set of institutions promoting exactly the opposite sort of segregation. Could a more critical approach to the idea of social capital help us to resolve this?

While I have found the concept of social capital to be useful in my own work (much of which focuses on post-hoc historical and institutional analysis), I was a little disturbed to see the idea being invoked so freely in a current policy debate. The real danger in this situation is that if the actual systemic origins of social capital are not well understood, the policies crafted around this concept will be both naïve and self-serving. One suspects that this might explain some of the problems that Rana describes.

One of the pitfalls in a situation like this is the misidentification of a systemic problem as a psychological one. Yes, it may be the case that individuals in certain communities score lower on certain measures of trust, and this does affect an entire range of economic and political outcomes. And it may even be true that on an individual basis this can be changed through certain sorts of policy interventions.

Yet none of these individuals are fundamentally responsible for the political processes or social discourses that resulted in this low level of social capital formation in the first place. That is an issue that is located very much at the social and systemic level. Further, that problem does not go away just because certain government programs treat (or possibly exacerbate) the symptoms that it manifests at the individual level.

The larger systemic failing is still there, and it affects every social process in every neighborhood (not just the disadvantaged ones that policy makers have chosen to focus on). In essence what we have in this case is a government blaming a vast systemic problem (lack of trust) on precisely those individuals who are most likely to be systematically excluded. They then attempt to treat the problem by manipulating psychology and culture within the minority group. The actual systemic nature of the problem, and the need to involve other groups in the solution, is ignored. The end results of this are failure.

Yet again we return to the central puzzle of Rana’s argument. This isn’t simply a case of ordinary random failure. Instead we see a paradoxical reinforcement of the very problem that the policy was created to solve. Rather than identities being softened they were hardened. Rather than the martial arts creating a common identity (something that they are known to do in other places) here they replicated and reinforced social segregation and hierarchy?

The French writer Rancière would not be surprised by this outcome. In fact, he has predicted that this is precisely what we are likely to see whenever a policy intervention proceeds from a “presumption of inequality” (e.g., where an outside expert who is presumed to understand the situation more clearly than those actually involved imposes an exogenous “solution.”)

This idea, spelled out in The Ignorant Schoolmaster (1991) and The Philosopher and his Poor (2004) was originally advanced in an attempt to explain why a Bourdieuian intervention into the French educational system designed to solve the problem of persistent economic inequality was destined to fail. More recently, Paul Bowman in his forthcoming book Martial Arts Studies (2015) has sought to show how we can use this approach for both understanding the problem of pedagogy within the martial arts, as well as critiquing a number of popular approaches to the subject (not least of which is Wacquant’s “habitus”.)

The present case, combining as it does the classic problem of a failed response to economic inequality as well as the martial arts, would seem to suggest that Rancière might be of some use. But what would he say about social capital and the debate between its bonding and bridging forms?

As Bowman notes, Rancière’s critique begins with the presumption of inequality, or more specifically the thought that expertise in some field (politics, sociology, education or even art) qualifies one to an opinion that is more valid than an individual who is actually engaged in that process (fighting, earning, learning or creating). While some individuals may claim expertise in these areas, they are fundamental problems that many people are constantly engaged with.

The great fear is that by experimentation, groping effort or happenstance these more plebeian individuals might stumble upon a way of solving their problems that is not “correct” or socially approved. This might upset the social order which places “experts” of various sorts at the top and mere “workers” beneath them. Teaching, leading and performing then become “stultifying” activities. By this Rancière means that they are designed to replicate a certain type of social order (a fundamentally conservative one) rather than to actually accomplish the liberation of the student, citizen or potential artist.

In the case of Rana’s article it is interesting to note for instance that the existence of ethnically homogenous neighborhoods only became a problem to be solved after changes in leadership during the early 2000s. Prior to that, under the policy of multiculturalism, this was not as much of an issue.

Thus the promotion of kickboxing in the post-2005 period would very much be an example of “stultification” as it was consciously designed and promoted as an effort to police the bodies and social relationships of a perceived underclass by a group of social elites. Rana notes in her conclusion that because the martial arts are not being practiced for their own sake, they have lost their ability to act as a mechanism for “emancipation.” Rancière can explain in some detail exactly why this is.

Likewise, he could also predict that by structuring a policy intervention around the assumed characteristics of a group, all one will ultimately do is reinforce them. This will be the result both of the material structures that the policy creates (kickboxing studios in some neighborhoods but not others) and the social discourse that elites promote (one in which “everyone knows” that Muslims like violent and aggressive sports). Seen through the lens of Rancière critique of other elite led efforts to impose “solutions” to inequality the results of the Dutch case are not so much a paradox as overdetermined.

One also suspects that Rancière would also have quite a bit to say about the idea of social capital. Tocqueville used the term to describe the sort of frontier democracy that he observed as he traveled around America in the 18th century. Everywhere he went he saw committees of local people (without any expert guidance or particular know how) getting together to figure out how to build a road, fund an elementary school or develop a better variety of crop. Tocqueville was quite impressed with this communal grassroots ingenuity and I suspect that Rancière might have been as well.

Yet starting in the 1990s social capital became something else entirely. It moved from the realm of description to prescription. Putnam’s landmark study of social capital in Italy, Making Democracy Work, was funded directly by the US Congress with the expectation that it would solve the riddle of lagging economic growth in the developing world, which of course was critical to the closely related problem of spreading the neo-liberal economic order. One expects that Rancière would have had choice words about the cadres of World Bank employees sent out into the field armed with the latest policy papers on the links between social capital and economic growth. This was no longer just an observation, but was now a theory designed to impose a specific sort of social order.

I have not had as much time to read and think about this as I would like, but I suspect that one can see this problem most clearly in the increasing emphasis put on “bridging” capital in recent years. Rather than simply being a more specific designation for the basic idea of social trust, its creation has become a reified policy objective unto itself. How so? How is it that so many policy makers have simply come to assume that in-group trust is a problematic thing, but out-group trust is the silver bullet that will solve so many problems?

Again, the issue appears to be presumption of inequality. Respectable communities can be shown to have this characteristic and they enjoy good outcomes, so disadvantaged ones should aspire to it as well. This view seems to misunderstand the essentially systemic and positional nature of social capital.

Indeed, this species of trust may be misnamed. In reality it is not a form of “capital” at all. It can’t be saved up, invested in bonds or spent at a later date. It is not a “thing.” It is basically a characteristic of a relationship, and it exists only within relationships. That is to say, it is socially defined.

This fact should help us to temper our enthusiasm when we think about social capital and the question of agency. Having “enough” social capital alone can never inspire any sort of action. Rather it is a combination of both what a decision maker can imagine doing (her level of trust) and the material position she finds herself in (who does she interact with, what resources are available, what challenges are faced) that determines action. Bridges will be built when it is possible and rational to do so.

We seem to diagnose a “lack of bridging capital” when we do not observe the outcomes that we want. Yet in truth those outcomes likely have little to do with the mental state of an actor separate from all of the other social and systemic factors that they interact with. In fact, the development of “bridging” relationships will only be a rational response under certain conditions. For instance, our kickboxers in the Hague cannot really be faulted for developing only bonding capital when they have been socially segregated by a sports policy that focuses on neighborhood development. Yet freed from a stultifying regulatory regime and left to their own devices, these same individuals would likely grope their way to a genuine social network in time, much as the martial artists in Rana’s third quote managed to do.

Many individuals have wondered about the capacity of the martial arts to deliver on their often repeated promise of emancipation. Other scholars have speculated on their ability to create new and exciting identities. This review of Rana’s study, as well as our consideration of both Rancière and the idea of social capital, suggest that a better formulated set of questions might instead focus on when personal liberation is most likely or how identities change. In reality the ability of the martial arts to deliver on any of these promises is closely connected to the social and political institutions that regulate their expression within a specific society. In fact, much of what we think we know about how the martial arts function may simply be a reflection of the larger institutions that a few of our favorite cases were embedded in. Future studies must more closely consider the intersection of the martial arts and the political institutions that seek to regulate and exploit them.


If you enjoyed this article you might also want to read: Government Subsidization of the Martial Arts and the Question of “Established Churches”