Doing Research (1): Fieldwork Methods in Martial Arts Studies by D. S. Farrer

Chin Woo crouching tiger quarterstaff stance, Singapore, 2007
Chin Woo crouching tiger quarterstaff stance, Singapore, 2007



It is my distinct pleasure to introduce the first entry in a new series of guest posts titled “Doing Research.”  Compared to other fields of scholarly inquiry, Martial Arts Studies has a distinctly democratic flavor.  This stems from a number of sources.  Mostly obviously, the martial arts are widely practiced in both the East and West in the current era.  Many individuals were introduced to these systems while students at a college or university and are interested in seeing a more intellectually rigorous (or even academic) treatment of this phenomenon.  And certain practitioners want to go beyond reading studies produced by other writers and undertake research based on their own time in the training hall.   The emphasis on ethnographic description, oral and local history, as well as the methodological focus on community based collaborative research within Martial Arts Studies (itself a radically interdisciplinary area), makes participation in such efforts both relatively accessible and highly valuable.

There is also another class of reader who might find themselves embarking on their first ethnographic research project.  With the growing popularity of this field of study we are increasingly seeing classes in Martial Arts Studies offered at the undergraduate and graduate level.  Some of these courses include a “research component” in which students are encouraged to go out and join a class or school in the local martial arts community and then to reflect on their experience.

What ever their source, a new generation of novice researchers is likely looking at the challenges that lay ahead and asking themselves, what comes next?  To help smooth these first forays into the world of ethnography, a number of researchers (most of whom have taught these sorts of classes in the past or have conducted field research) have agreed to contribute to a series of short posts on this topic.  Each of these will attempt to pass on a single piece of advice, insight, research strategy or concept that the author wishes that they might have had when first setting out to begin their fieldwork.  Most of these posts will be released in the first few months of 2016, but after some discussion it was decided to launch this series over the holiday break.

D. S. Farrer has generously offered to open this series with a post titled “Fieldwork Methods in Martial Arts Studies.”  Farrer is an anthropologist and longtime student of the martial arts.  He has studied a number of systems and his contributions to Martial Arts Studies have been discussed on this blog both here and here.  For an added sense of depth readers are strongly encouraged to take a look at Farrer’s recent article in the Fall 2015 issue of Martial Arts Studies in which he further expands upon his anthropological approach to researching the traditional Asian fighting systems.

His essay below serves as an introduction to the upcoming series and advances a few of the considerations that novice researchers will need to take into account as they begin to plan their field work.  The list of references at the end of this post is well worth the price of admission and will be especially valuable for anyone wondering about the current state of the discussion or wanting more guidance in planning their own project.  We hope that this occasional series will give students of all backgrounds something to consider as they tackle the unique challenges inherent in doing field research on the martial arts and combat sports.



Fieldwork Methods in Martial Arts Studies


Since 2001 I have researched martial arts in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Guam, Yap, China and Hong Kong (Farrer 2015). At the outset of my career, the indomitable prison anthropologist, Ellis Finkelstein (1993), said: “You don’t become an anthropologist by reading books, someone has to take you under their wing and show you the ropes.” To set up my research project on silat, we reviewed the essentials of anthropological research methods or ‘ethnographic fieldwork,’ including hypothesis (question) formation, the literature review, participant observation, language acquisition, gaining access, sampling, key informants, covert and overt approaches, subjectivity and objectivity, reflexivity, theory and practice, reliability and validity, induction and deduction, emic and etic concepts, informed consent, writing fieldnotes, description and explanation, triangulation, depth interviews, dangers, ethical concerns and publication (Farrer 2009). To cover ethnographic fieldwork requirements is a tall order for a short blog, so the novice researcher should seek a guide, just as they would seek out an expert to learn a martial art. That said, much of what Dr. Finkelstein relayed may be found in Michael Agar’s (1996) The Professional Stranger (see also Robben and Sluka 2006). Below I address the essential attributes of fieldwork methods, and the “who, what, why, when, where, and how” of participant observation.

Great insights may be gleaned from observing different cultural ways to solve common human problems. Therefore anthropologists recommended extended periods abroad learning about the ‘other’ to better understand the ‘self’ and their own societies (Agar 1996; Pelto 1970). Classical fieldworkers ideally spent eighteen months fully ‘immersed,’ learning the language and the rules associated with another culture and environment (Malinowski 1948). Nowadays, while the emphasis remains on “being there” anthropological fieldwork may involve travel to multiple locations, be of short or long duration, and be conducted at home and online (Davis and Konner 2011). The supposed distance between self and other, ‘us’ and ‘them,’ similarities and differences, may be regarded as an ‘ontological’ device, to contrast the lifeways, worldview, existence (‘being’) of self and other, where social anthropology is the study of social relations (how people relate to one another and their environment). ‘Epistemology,’ how to know, via experience, exposure, then, is intimately tied to ontology. Ontological assumptions concerning the subject, for example, whether societies are fundamentally moulded by economic structures or religious actions, condition epistemology—how to know—with scientific, positivist/realist/Marxist or phenomenological/interpretivist theoretical perspectives. Predominantly a sociological concern, ‘methodology’ is the study of methods; whereas ‘research methods’ are the actual tools employed— mostly, for anthropology this means ‘participant observation’ and ‘depth interviews.’ Training in methodology affects the ultimate selection of research method, using, for example, an experiment to test a hypothesis and/or depth interviews to generate a narrative account.

‘Performance ethnography’ is where the researcher joins in and learns a martial art from the ground up as a basis for writing and research (Farrer 2015; Zarrilli 1998). Similarly, Wacquant’s (2004) ‘carnal sociology’ of boxing is based in participant observation (and the occasional beating). Martial arts fieldwork may involve a higher degree of participation as compared to observation in regular anthropology. The ratio of participation to observation is something the fieldworker needs to periodically address. Too much participation may obscure observation making it difficult to write detailed in situ notes and record verbatim conversation. Observation without participation may leave the fieldworker with scant appreciation for what is really going on. Basically the researcher joins in with day-to-day activity and keeps an on-going written record or ‘fieldnotes.’ Notes may run into hundreds of pages. Good notes are written in first person, recording local concepts, using the active voice to “show” rather than “tell” (Emerson et al: 1995). Some ethnographers record as much data as possible in exacting detail to provide a snapshot of a culture at a particular time; others employ fieldnotes as an inspirational source of material from which to write. While ‘ethnography’ and ‘anthropological methods’ are often used interchangeably, more precisely ‘ethnography’ is descriptive recording, whereas anthropology engages social activity to formulate social theory (Ingold 2014). Ethnography seeks to describe (who, what, when, where). Social anthropology ventures to describe and explain, where explanation asks ‘how’ and/or ‘why,’ to relate the individual to the society, the particular to the general (induction) and/or the general to the particular (deduction). Explanation links theory to practice, testing a hypothesis, or tracing out lines of interconnections (multiplicities).

Participant observation provides a ‘primary’ source of data, where the information gathered is collected first-hand by the researcher, supplemented by ‘secondary sources,’ such as knowledge gained from existing literature. Participant observation has been considered too ‘subjective’ for the purposes of ‘objective’ or ‘positivist’ data collection in the social sciences, where ‘subjective’ choices, values, and preferences supposedly tarnished research findings, to ‘confound variables,’ obscure relations of cause and effect, and conjure up spurious correlations (Pelto 1970). The problem of objectivity and subjectivity in fieldwork was broached by notion of ‘reflexivity,’ where the researcher recognises, takes into account, and incorporates changes in the interlocutors and researcher as part of the research design (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992).

Primary data helps to ensure ‘validity’ (what is supposed to be measured is actually being measured), if not always ‘reliability’ (where another researcher may repeat the same measurement), because non-digital ethnographic studies were by nature bound in time and space to the presence of the researcher with the ‘informants.’ Nowadays ‘informants’ are called ‘interlocutors’ or ‘correspondents,’ but should never be referred to as ‘respondents’ (a term reserved for those ticking boxes on surveys). Gaining access to key informants and a (martial arts) group may be achieved by serendipity, introduction, or through a literature review followed by a formal request. A ‘key informant’ may provide an endless stream of valuable information (Whyte [1943] 1993); alternatively they may act as disruptive gatekeepers barring access to vital information (Metcalf 2002). Crosschecking findings with multiple informants is important to ensure reliability and validity (Babbie 2016). ‘Triangulation’ is further achieved by applying other methods such as depth interviews, extended conversations with occasional open-ended rather than closed-ended (yes/no) questions.

An adequate if not ‘representative sample’ may be collected through ‘snowball sampling,’ where one informant introduces another and so on. However, it may be difficult, dangerous, and even unethical to study two groups simultaneously, to test a hypothesis in a ‘field experiment,’ where one is the ‘control group’ and the other the ‘experimental group’ (Festinger et al 1964). ‘Field experiments’ occur in social psychology: anthropology may regard such procedures as simply generating other forms of narrative (Clifford and Marcus 1986). Nevertheless, comparisons are possible via a series of case studies either carried out longitudinally (over extended periods of time) or simultaneously by multiple teams of researchers. Distancing themselves from a colonial past, some anthropologists advocate ‘community based’ ‘collaborative research,’ where the community helps to investigate itself, and maintains control over the research outcomes (Barbash and Taylor 1997). Community participation is achieved by asking interlocutors to advise at every stage of the research process, from the formulation of the project right down to reading the final draft of the report to check for inaccuracies and produce a rounded, detailed, sincere account. Large-scale community participation is achievable given widespread contemporary access to digital and visual technologies in social media environments, spurring the development of visual anthropology and digital ethnography (Pink et al 2015).

community based research.Farrer
Community based collaborative research, Ah Kin and Ah Feng, Hong Kong, 2012.



To some extent anthropologists differentiate internal, ‘emic’ attributions, concepts employed by the informants, from external, ‘etic’ theoretical concepts and constructs developed outside the field site (Pelto 1970). Dividing emic from etic may not be realistic where the researcher is ‘interviewing up,’ researching high social status people with advanced degrees, or conducting ‘dialogical’ research in an on-going conversation, where the anthropologist shares knowledge and expertise concerning problems at hand (Fabian 2014).

Signed permission slips should be obtained from informants prior to carrying out research, where a brief explanation or ‘cover story’ is provided to attain ‘informed consent.’ Informed consent and community participation necessitates an open, ‘overt’ approach to the research, rather than a ‘covert’ or secret investigation, to avoid ethical dilemmas and gain richer data (Alfred 1976). Publishers often require informed consent forms prior to publication, covering participant observation and interviews, and may insist on the consent of those filmed or photographed (unless the film or photograph is ‘public domain’), the photographer/filmmaker, and the owner of the photograph/footage. Names presented in ‘research outcomes’ (articles, chapters, books, blogs) may be their actual names, or pseudonyms, depending on the sensitivity of the data, whether obscuring the names is realistic, and taking into account the wishes of the interlocutors.

As a general ethical precept the researcher must “do no harm,” and protect the interlocutor’s identity and right to privacy, because the publication and dissemination of the research may result in negative unanticipated consequences. Correspondingly, the martial arts researcher may be a “vulnerable observer” subjected to routine violence as part of their fieldwork (Behar 2014). Martial arts are commonly entangled with shamanic, mystical, and magical practices that may involve murderous assault sorcery (Farrer 2014; Whitehead and Finnström 2013). Historically many anthropologists were thrown into the deep end to conduct fieldwork, but given the expense and time-consuming nature of this enterprise decent preparation is essential.

Pilot research on Yap, Micronesia, 2013.
Pilot research on Yap, Micronesia, 2013.


: Dr. Douglas Farrer is Head of Anthropology at the University of Guam. His research interests include martial arts, the anthropology of performance, visual anthropology, the anthropology of the ocean, digital anthropology, and the sociology of religion. On Guam he is researching Brazilian jiu-jitsu.



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Zarrilli, Phillip B. 1998. When the Body Becomes All Eyes: Paradigms, Discourses and Practices of Power in Kalarippayattu, a South Indian Martial Art. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

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