Welcome to the eighth entry in our series of guest posts titled “Doing Research.” If you missed the first essay by D. S. Farrer (which provides a global overview of the subject), the second by Daniel Mroz (how to select a school or teacher for research purposes), the third by Jared Miracle (learning new martial arts systems while immersed in a foreign culture), the fourth by Thomas Green (who is only in it for the stories), the fifth by Daniel Amos (who discusses some lies he has told about martial artists), the sixth by Charles Russo (who has great advice on the fine art of hanging out), or the seventh by Dale Spence (on ethnographic methods and dealing with radically unexpected events while in the field) be sure to check them out!
Compared to other fields of scholarly inquiry, Martial Arts Studies has a distinctly democratic flavor. Many individuals are introduced to these systems while students at a college or university and are interested in seeing a more intellectually rigorous treatment of their interests. 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.
In today’s post Prof. Kyle Green offers some important advice for new ethnographers seeking to become better observers. While our personal experiences on the mats are important, its also critical to pay close attention to everything that surrounds and upholds these brief moments of intense interaction. Embodied experience is never simply self-interpreting.
Kyle Green is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Utica College. His research on pain and community in the mixed martial arts gym, the connection between storytelling and the embodied experience, representations of masculinity in Super Bowl commercials, the relationship between binge drinking and athletic participation, and how people discuss socially controversial issues has appeared in journals such as Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, Social & Cultural Geography, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, Qualitative Sociology, and International Review for the Sociology of Sport. Kyle co-produces and co-hosts the Give Methods a Chance podcast, and is co-authoring a text of the same name. Kyle is also currently working on a book on the allure of training in mixed martial arts. For more information on Prof. Green and his research visit www.kylegreen.org
Taking Seriously the Mundane
Training was done.
It had been a relatively unstructured and relaxed day. Pete, the instructor, had given the majority of his attention to Pat whose amateur mixed martial arts debut was now just a handful of days away. They were working through a few minor details of how Pat could more efficiently use the cage wall to get back to his feet while taking minimal damage. The rest of us were scattered haphazardly across the mats, chairs, and floor—the amount of sweat that had soaked through our respective shirts, and accumulated in puddles underneath us, provided a clear indicator of how much each participant had pushed themselves during a day with virtually no oversight. Some were removing gear—unstrapping head gear, taking off gloves, unwrapping hands, removing gis, pulling off drenched rash-guards—others gently stretched or were taking a moment to relax and recover.
Cris, a violin player for the orchestra was talking about his upcoming travel plans with Andrew, a patent lawyer, while they both did some light stretching. Andrew responded by sharing his dream trip to the jiu-jitsu schools (and “dangerous streets”) in Rio de Janeiro. Mark, a hip IT consultant and Ed, a custodial engineer, engaged in a loud exchange about whether or not people who ride fixed-gear bikes are “pussies” who were “blowing their trust funds.” Their conversation was punctuated by frequent laughter. Sam, a jazz guitarist and Marine vet, Stewart, an ex-bodybuilder and Army vet, and Steve, a young veterinary’s assistant, debated the ideal fighting body and the proper exercises and nutrition to get to that body. Ray, a cook, was telling Pat, a young mechanic, about fighting at parties and in basements back when MMA was really underground and how he would show up to work bruised-and-battered. Luke, a young, athletic bartender made his way over to the timer that indicated the beginning and end of the 5-minute rounds. His frustration with the device led to a rant about outdated technology that eventually transformed into a prediction about how phones would soon be able to hook into our nervous systems to allow better ease of use. George an accountant and professional golfer talked to me about a recent news story on bullying in grade school and whether it was a social crisis or just something boys had always experienced and would always have to deal with. And, Mark, a industrial welder, was using the small mat burn on his elbow as an excuse to admire his body in the mirror—twisting his body to look at his arm flexing his triceps, tightening his pectorals, and inspecting his increasingly defined stomach and recently tattooed chest.
The conversations continued as the men slowly prepared to head home. Groups mixed, others separated, and new ones formed. Talk ebbed and flowed as people showered, mixed protein drinks, finished stretching, packed their gear, trickled out of the gym, leaned against their vehicles, and finally drove away.
For my dissertation, and current book project, I trained alongside and engaged in conversation with the people who fill the mixed martial arts (MMA) gyms that dot the Twin Cities metropolitan region. For nearly six-years I tried to make sense of and theorize the allure of spending lunch hours and after work learning to punch, kick, choke, and joint-lock, and then trying out those techniques on fellow gym-members. Some had dreams of making money as professional cage-fighters, but the majority had no intention of ever testing the prizefighting waters. Instead this was a prime case of “deep play” – a turn of phrase coined by Jeremy Bentham and popularized by Clifford Geertz to describe the heavy investment in games and activities that have seemingly little utilitarian value.
Over time I learned that the seemingly meaningless moments of downtime before, in-between, and after the painful and violent exchanges were some of the most revealing. It is during these mundane moments that participants build on the shared physical experience by telling stories that shape their understanding of MMA, masculinity, and their daily pursuits. In this essay, I use my experience studying studying mixed martial arts to suggest that it is the boring and seemingly peripheral that is key to understanding the allure of MMA.
Recent scholars of martial arts, sport, and physical culture have a done an excellent job demonstrating the value of the ethnographic method for delving into the corporeal experience of training. Scholars inspired by Loïc Wacquant’s seminal work on boxing, Body & Soul, have treated the body as both a topic and a tool (see Fighting Scholars edited by Raúl Sánchez García and Dale C. Spencer for excellent collection of works demonstrating this approach). As academics took to the mats and stepped into the ring, they offered insight into the sensory experience of entering a martial arts gym and submitting to the techniques that callous the body and transform it into a more effective combat tool. Much of this work is great. I myself still return regularly to my heavily creased and thoroughly underlined copy of Body & Soul for methodological and theoretical inspiration.
It isn’t surprising that ethnographers of martial arts ends up focusing heavily on the physical act itself. All the hours spent punching and kicking the air, pads, and each other is clearly what stands out about time spent in the gym. And, if I asked someone in an MMA gym what they do during training, their answer would certainly revolve around the physical skills they gain and the act of fighting. Much like the surfer who forgets the hours of driving, carrying gear along the beach, suiting up, and paddling out before catching the big wave, the gym member’s memory is dominated by the ten-minutes of sparring that left both participants bloodied and battered. So, of course the ethnographer of martial arts ends up spending a lot of time trying to better understand engagement in the physical and potentially violent practice through looking at the physical and potentially violent moments.
We should also not forget to consider the academic’s experience as they head out into the field. In leaving behind the social science tower and joining pro, amateur, and hobbyist fighters on the mats, I was stepping from a decidedly disembodied space to an explicitly embodied one. It is easy to get caught up and take pride in participating in a world where it is the body, and ability to use one’s body, that is capital. The chance to perform a type of masculinity not celebrated in academia can be particularly seductive. So, it is not surprising that stories of violent encounters are offered with vivid detail with the author front and center. Or, for that matter, as the ethnographer interacts with participants outside of the gym, perhaps it is not surprising when a night of drinking and debauchery makes it into the text rather than a few hours helping someone move furniture into a new apartment.
Lost in the focus on the physical experience of training and moments of peak excitement is all that other stuff that goes on. These encounters beyond the moment of physical exchange make up the majority of the time that people spend in the gym. For this reason, as researchers of martial arts, we are guilty of effectively only exploring the tip of the iceberg. It is worth noting that this is true outside of studies of martial arts—the more interesting story to me is what happens before and after the base-jump, or what happens the day before and the morning after an aggressive demonstration of masculinity and a night of substance filled risks?
From a pragmatic perspective, following my insight does not require a dramatic change for the ethnographer already interested in pursuing the “carnal approach”. The same path to entering the field, taking part in the practice of interest, and monitoring how you are both shaping and being shaped by the field holds. However, taking seriously the mundane does require an expansion of interest to all those other seemingly less exciting moments and treating them with the same reflexive awareness. For instance, much like describing how repeatedly kicking a Thai bag conditions the shin, the researcher can use their immersion into a field to uncover how repetitions of a particular narrative of why men need to fight shared while recovering from sparring shape the way they perceive the world. Or instead of explicating how working on a particular grappling movement programs the body, the researcher can use their experience in the gym to detail the feeling of openness and types of conversations that follows an intense sparring session in comparison to the more perfunctory exchanges as people arrive and get ready for class. For instance, on the drives home from the gym, I often found myself using my phone to record observations about what people were talking about while they watched people spar rather than the sparring itself.
Reflecting back on my research, two guiding questions helped me in extending my research to take seriously the mundane and often-ignored.
First, what does the practice enable? In other words, what does all that stuff that people like to focus on allow to happen? In this case, through spending time on the mats and in the changing room after hard sessions of training, I experienced how the exchange of pain forged a trust that allowed the men to share a level of vulnerability and honesty they would not have otherwise. Bill, a grizzled Navy vet who made his money in banking, liked to explain this intimacy with some variation of, “No reason to be fake or act tough after some old guy just had you trapped with his balls on your face.” Or, as the aforementioned Ray explains, “when you tap, and your opponent chooses to let go…your life was literally in his hands.” Time and time again, I witnessed men sharing intimate details about failed relationships, unhappiness with the path they have taken, or just trying to figure it all out with people they shared little in common with other than the recent sharing of sweat, blood, chokes, punches, and pain. Precisely because of the physical vulnerabilities and fears that are shared on the mat, the men are more at ease in abandoning the cold facade of masculinity that dominates much of their lives.
Second, how do people make sense of the practice. In other words, how do the participants discuss what just occurred to explain what they were doing and why there we doing it. As I wrote about in my article, Tales from the Mat: Narrating Men and Meaning Making in the Mixed Martial Arts Gym (2015), participants work in tandem to craft complicated stories of what led them to the MMA gym and what they learn from the experience. The stories invoke an array of topics including but not limited to necessity (“it is a violent world”), evolutionary biology and masculine urges, celebrating the exotic, spiritual teachings, alienation from a consumption-oriented society, and the body as a project. In the MMA gym, the bulk of the situating and explaining occurs in the marginalized moments rather than through the instilling of a set narrative from the instructor. It is through the rather ordinary act of simply talking that ensures a punch is never just a punch, and a choke is never just a choke.
While these two guiding questions are related, each takes advantage of different strength of ethnographic research. The former focuses on behavior; taking advantage of the researcher’s access to observe what actually happens rather than what people say happens. Because I was immersed in the scene I was able to witnesses and participate in the behaviors that simply get left out of most accounts and interviews. The latter focuses on the process through which meaning gets constructed. By being on the mat I am able to see how fragments of discourse get woven together to explain the shared experience that just happened and motivate continued participation. Taken together, the two questions help reveal how it is only through taking seriously the mundane and often marginalized that we can understand the exciting moments central to the practice and the larger allure of spending time in the MMA gym.
If you would like to further explore Prof. Green’s research see: “Tales from the Mat: Narrating Men and Meaning Making in the Mixed Martial Arts Gym.” (Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 2015)