I am happy to announce that a special guest has agreed to drop by Kung Fu Tea for a visit. Andrea Molle is an Assistant Professor of Political Science and a Research Associate at the Institute for the Study of Religion, Economics, and Society at Chapman University. He is also the director of Budo-lab, a new research center dedicated to advancing the fields of hoplology and martial arts studies (MAS). His center is the first in the US (which I am aware of) to be dedicated exclusively to the interdisciplinary investigation of martial arts systems and other forms of combative behavior. Prof. Molle has generously agreed to discuss his own research and the goals of this new center below. But readers should feel free to submit some of your own questions in the comments section if you would like to delve a little deeper into the topics that we touch on here.
Kung Fu Tea (KFT): First off, welcome ot Kung Fu Tea. Can you begin by telling us a little bit about yourself? What is your academic background, and how did you end up at Chapman University?
Andrea Molle (AM): Sure, I was born and grew up in Italy 40 years ago. My undergraduate studies are in Political Science and I have a PhD in sociology with an emphasis in the Social Anthropology of Religion and Research Methods. My Phd thesis mainly dealt with Japanese New Religious Movements (NRM) and their expansion in Christian countries.
In 2006 I was appointed Fellow of the Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science and spent two years in Nagoya (at the Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture) researching into the perceived and constructed spirituality of Gendai Budo – post WWII martial arts. I particularly focused on Aikido, which I started practicing in 1991, and Kenjutsu that I experienced for the first time in Japan being humbled to be admitted to the mainline Yagyu Shinkage Ryu lineage in Nagoya.
(KFT): When did you first start training in the martial arts?
(AM): I started with judo when I was a little kid, and transitioned to Aikido around the age of 16 along with Kendo. I’ve been practicing Aikido in the Buikukai lineage ever since. Our lineage is part of the Aikikai and was created by the late Kobayashi Hirokazu, a student of the Founder Ueshiba Morihei and before that of Takuma Hisa (Daito Ryu Aikijutsu).
Within Gendai Budo, besides Aikido (which I currently teach at Chapman) I also practice Atarashi Naginata and Jukendo (Bayonet fighting). I also have a fairly decent level of experience with Koryu mainly in Yagyu Shinkage Ryu and Meifu Shinkage Ryu Shurikenjutsu. Over the years I’ve had the pleasure to practice Shorinji Kempo and Taiji for brief period of times but I wouldn’t dare to say that I have an extensive knowledge of these styles.
(KFT): When did you first become interested in martial arts studies as an academic and professional project?
(AM): I would say right before applying to become a JSPS fellow. The project I wrote for the application, my research on the spirituality of Budo, was enormously influenced by this newly discovered interest. Being part of the MA milieu, as a practitioner, I’ve probably always experienced it but never really noticed how pervasive it was. Then, conducting my research in graduate school, I started to notice how often new members or postulants in these NRM were also involved in a recurrent set of activities including very specific martial arts: typically aikido and kendo.
(KFT): What prior research projects did you work on in Japan?
(AM): As I mentioned before I conducted almost 2 years of fieldwork as a “fighting scholar” where I was researching and practicing at the same time. My focus was principally into the way spirituality in the martial arts was constructed and diffused across practitioners networks of both native (Japanese nationals) and non-native subjects (non-Japanese nationals, typically Americans and Europeans).
Among the other topics I explored the main ways MA functioned as gateway to eastern spiritual traditions (more or less legitimately) as well as a complete surrogate to any established spiritual experience. It is of course more complicated than that but I would argue the former is more common in the case of Kendo and the latter in the Aikido milieu.
(KFT): I notice that some of the literature on your webpage lists “hoplology” and “martial arts studies” together as related fields. In your usage, what is hoplology, and how does it relate to martial arts studies?
(AM): Hoplology is the study of combative behavior, technologies, and performance and by its own definition includes the martial arts as codified systems evolved in different civilizations and societies (it is quite a universal) to deal with violence, particularly from a warrior class/state perspective. I consider martial arts studies to be a subfield of hoplology that investigate a very particular nexus of combative behavior and society. I believe that hoplology, with its non-normative or moralistic approach to violence, could also give a broad and innovative contribution to the study of violence.
(KFT): Can you tell us a little bit about the BUDO-Lab at Chapman University? How did this project come about and what are some of its long terms goals?
(AM): BUDO-lab is an interdisciplinary research cluster within our college of arts, humanities, and social science. We are a group of social scientists, historians, language experts and scholars in the fields of cultural and critical studies. Currently, we have several research projects in the works and our main long-term goal is to establish a permanent research center at Chapman University. We would love to see it growing as a point of reference for all academics and independent researchers in the field. Our University, and particularly the College, is very supportive.
(KFT): I noticed that we have a couple of things in common. To begin with, we are both political scientists! Which is interesting as it seems that most of the academic work on the martial arts has previously been done by cultural and film studies students, anthropologists and historians. What tools or approaches does political science (or the social sciences more generally) bring to the table that might be useful for the future development of martial arts studies?
(AM): You are spot on! Many of the contributions to the field are coming more from the humanities. I for one did my first works as an anthropologist and the more I looked into that, the more I realized that it was yet one more field the social sciences were missing. Don’t get me wrong, these are all interesting works but I believe as social scientists we can bring about change in terms of methodological rigor, especially in terms of quantitative/comparative research which is still basically missing from the literature.
Additionally, with a socio-scientific framework we may be able to better interface with scholars in both the natural and physical sciences who are also researching the martial arts. As political scientists we are also well positioned to examine the role that governments play in relation to organized violence and social control.
(KFT): Paul Bowman (among others) has argued that martial arts studies is best understood as an interdisciplinary research area. Do you agree with that assessment? And if so, what does good interdisciplinary work look like within MAS?
(AM): Absolutely. Paul is 100% right. Let me tell you that I don’t think “interdisciplinary” means to create yet one more discipline nor destroy disciplinary boundaries. I like Paul’s suggestion of disrupting it instead.
I would say that good interdisciplinary work requires two things both within MAS but also in any other field. These are the capacity to engage in a dialogue with and understand disciplines other that yours and a firm and solid grounding in your own discipline(s). The metaphor of martial arts practice is very useful here for we all understand the limitations of our arts and expand out horizons but you can’t pretend to be an expert of too many styles at once!
(KFT): In addition to being political scientists we both share an interest in religion’s role in the modern world. What sorts of lessons might martial arts studies learn from religious studies? How does this background influence your own work?
(AM): My background influences my work mainly with respect of both its substantive and methodological aspects. On the methodological side I attempt to combine interpretative methods of data gathering such as ethnography with more structured ways to analyze it such as statistical and computational tools. I wouldn’t call it a mixed-method approach, because I have my doubts about that, but rather a deliberate triangulation. On the substantive side my focus on religion has been guiding me in the direction of researching religious and ritualized violence, legitimacy and costly behavior. If you think about it, studying religion prepares us to comfortably approach topics such as violence and death.
(KFT): Can you tell us a little bit about the projects that BUDO-lab is pursuing now (specifically, but not limited to, the current effort to make a database of martial arts schools)?
(AM): Our main project at this time is to try and map MA practice and interest in the US as thoroughly as possible. We started our 1st phase a month ago. Our study will collect openly available anonymous data on the geographical distribution of Martial Arts Schools in the United States. Data will be used to explore how the practice of martial arts connects to fear and actual existential threats. Our hypotheses is that the density of martial arts schools is positively correlated with the perception of existential threats, such as violent crimes and worsening living conditions, but negatively correlated with the reality of it.
(KFT): It seems to me that in some important respects the development of martial arts studies in the United States lags behind what we see in Europe (e.g., Germany and the UK) or Asia (China, Japan and Korea). In your opinion, why is this? What sorts of things need to happen to bolster the strength of martial arts studies in this academic environment?
(AM): The US is still very entrenched in an old way of understanding disciplinarity. Our entire reward system and research practice are not yet wired for interdisciplinarity despite the cheap propaganda of being fully open to it. At the end of the day we have our departments offering redundant programs and classes (this is particularly true in the case of research methods) and evaluating their faculty exclusively on the basis of publications in discipline-oriented journals or conferences. We need more synergies and cross pollination before thinking about additional development. I am actually happy MAS hasn’t been fully developed yet because I don’t think we should aim to replicate the existing method but instead look at what has been done in Europe. I hope BUDO-lab will start the revolution!
(KFT): What stands out to you as a good example of martial arts studies scholarship that other researchers may want to consider and emulate? Or maybe to put things slightly differently, what should I be reading, especially if I would like to learn a little more about the state of scholarship on the Japanese arts?
(AM): You should take a look at the works of Alexander Bennett. Alex has PhDs in both the fields of Anthropology and Japanese history. His last book on the development of Kendo (Kendo: Culture of the Sword. UC Press, 2015) should be on the reading list of any classes that deals with Japanese Budo as well as Japanese Politics in the Meiji up to the contemporary era.
I would also recommend following the Archives of Budo Journal and the works of the Japanese Academy of Budo. Another good resource is the anthology Fighting Scholars: Habitus and Ethnographies of Martial Arts and Combat Sports (Anthem, 2014). And of course I’d suggest some of my works you can find on our webpage.
(KFT): Thanks for the suggestions. And thank you for taking the time to discuss your research with us. We look forward to hearing more about BUDO-lab’s progress in the future.
If you enjoyed this interview you might also want to read: Roundtable Discussion on the State of Martial Studies with Paul Bowman and Ben Judkins, Part I-II.