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Guest Posts, Martial Studies, Women and the Martial Arts

How (not) to categorise martial arts: A discussion and example from gender studies

Taijiquan practitioners by M. Louis. Source: Wikimedia.

Taijiquan practitioners by M. Louis. Source: Wikimedia.


***Over the last couple of years a discussion has emerged within the literature on how scholars should define and classify the martial arts, and whether such efforts are even a good idea.  Alex Channon, a Senior Lecturer in Physical Education and Sports Studies at the University of Brighton, has generously agreed to contribute to this ongoing conversation in the following guest post.  I was thrilled to receive this as I have been trying to get Alex to visit Kung Fu Tea for a couple of years.  When we got together at the Martial Arts Studies conference in Cardiff he mentioned that he had an idea for an essay on this topic, and I was only too happy to take him up on the offer.  Enjoy!***



“How (not) to categorise martial arts: A discussion and example from gender studies.”

By Alex Channon




A topic that has quickly become a central point of discussion within martial arts studies is that concerned with defining or clarifying what ‘martial arts’ actually are, and thereby what it is (and perhaps, is not) that we are studying when we claim to be doing ‘martial arts studies’.  As the central focus of blog posts, journal articles, and conference presentations associated with our emerging field, and appearing within most introductory (or other) chapters of books and edited volumes on the topic, it is clear that this question animates scholars and will likely continue to do so for some time.

My purposes in this post are to make a small contribution to this discussion by pointing to a manner in which we might approach constructing typological models of ways of engaging in martial arts.  I want to suggest that typologies of martial arts are an important element of our pursuit of the study of these phenomena, but the manner in which we undertake this work must be reflexively and openly configured around the specific intentions that we have for doing so.  Ultimately, we must be mindful of, and work in close relation to, the tension that exists between the need to clarify definitional criteria used in our research, with the tendency for universalising categories to break down under scrutiny across the widest possible field of their application.

To elaborate on this, there are two initial points to make.  Firstly, differentiations between martial arts should not be tied to discreet, self-identified ‘styles’ or ‘disciplines’ (e.g., boxing, capoeira, karate), such that any typological system we build should avoid falsely reifying the assumed homogeneity of styles.  And secondly, the specific purposes for which any given typology is imagined must be held in plain view when reflecting on the way in which it is constructed, and thereby its particular value and limitations for understanding martial arts made clear.


The heterogeneity of ‘styles’


Following Wetzler’s critique of the scholarly tendency to adopt the object-language of martial arts/martial artists themselves, typologies of martial arts are doomed to fail if they are based principally on grouping together extant ‘styles’ (i.e., boxing, judo, karate).  This is because any given martial discipline is constituted by dynamic social processes which vary across time and place, with the assumed objective characteristics belonging to each art being little more than “lexical illusions” (Wetzler 2015, p.25) circulating among a given group of practitioners or observers at any one point in time.  In short, the different styles of martial arts do not exist in the static and homogenous way in which they are often assumed to, throwing efforts at categorising them on such bases into disarray.


While some martial artists may argue that theirs is a strictly ‘non-competitive’ discipline, others training within them may still hold or enter tournaments. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Timothy Moore). Source: Wikimedia.


If we take for example the apparent divergence between, for argument’s sake, fighting arts with an emphasis on some form of ‘spiritual’ component, and those constituted primarily around competitive sporting purposes, then we might be tempted to suggest that the various styles of tai chi categorically fall into the former and boxing, the latter.  Yet, one person’s tai chi practice might in fact be largely sports-oriented – they may aspire to win national championships and train expressly for this purpose, disregarding or de-emphasising other training goals.  Meanwhile, the other’s boxing might involve no competition at all, and could very well be practiced in a manner tied to transcendental, ‘spiritual’ goals; for instance, it is not uncommon for powerful narratives of self-transformation to be attached to boxing classes employed within violence survivor programmes.  In this way there is little to be gained from categorically associating an entire martial discipline with one or another archetype (e.g., spiritual art vs. competitive sport), since in practice any system could conceivably be configured in ways which meet the criteria of multiple categories.

Previously, in a paper co-authored with George Jennings, I made use of a simplified approach to understanding variation among martial arts that rests on a commonly-assumed division between ‘traditionalist’, ‘sporting’ and ‘self-defence’ orientations, employed as a means of indicating the breadth of the scope of activities we were interested in discussing within that specific piece.  Judkins and Wetzler have both critiqued this approach, each quoting the same passage of this particular paper to do so, for the risk it poses in glossing over the internal diversity of styles of martial arts.  However, in the same paragraph as our twice-quoted passage, Jennings and I did also note that “complicating efforts at neatly defining or categorising these disparate arts is the recognition that, in individual practice, any given style may blur the conceptual boundaries upon which such typologies are based” (p.774).  While we might’ve been clearer on this point in the original piece, it wasn’t our intention to fall into such a trap while recognising that modes of practice of martial arts differ in notable ways.

Indeed, there are certainly differences in how and why people practice martial arts – it would be difficult to argue that there is no important distinction between competition-based and self-defence training practices for instance – and as scholars we need to be cognisant of such divergences and ask what impact they have on phenomena including the lived experience of training, the technical methods and knowledge involved, modes of popular media representation, etc.  Various forms of martial arts practice are likely to bear differing significance in many such dimensions, as will be returned to below.  Yet these differences should not be assumed to map neatly onto discrete styles of martial arts; individual disciplines are too open to variation in actual practice for such an effort to be of any use.


The specific analytical purposes of categories


Categories of martial arts might therefore be better established on bases other than descriptive conformity with the self-expressed differences existing between supposedly unique styles (or groupings of styles).  In this sense, typological differentiation might be more worthwhile if it is expressly built around analytical criteria; that is, rather than starting with the reference points established by and within particular martial arts themselves, such an exercise begins with the conceptual work that the martial arts studies scholar is hoping to undertake by doing the differentiation.

Such a choice makes clear the underlying theoretical frameworks otherwise being implicitly adopted, helping avoid the temptation to take up the assumptions circulating within particular martial arts subcultures.  It also requires scholars to make explicit the specific contexts within which their attempts at defining ‘martial arts’ might be used, thus avoiding the trap of universalism that often scuppers such attempts.  After all, what is analytically useful in one context may hold little value for understanding martial arts in another.

Moreover, this approach carries added importance if we accept that definitional efforts are very often accompanied by some form of hierarchal ordering.  To return to the flimsy dichotomy noted above – ‘spiritual’ vs. ‘sporting’ approaches – it is often the case that a hierarchal framework is subtly imposed on martial disciplines and their adherents, which may be inflected with specific forms of prejudice, when applying this sort of distinction in practice.



In one of my earlier papers on gender and martial arts training, I noted that British men who practiced so-called ‘Asian’ martial arts explicitly constructed themselves as morally superior to men involved in ‘sports’, including sportised fighting disciplines such as boxing and MMA, specifically because they eschewed a particular vision of masculinity associated with sport along with the over-competitiveness and violence this was assumed to entail.  I have consistently run up against similar discourses in subsequent research and teaching on martial arts.  A particularly fitting, recent example came when a young karateka in one of my undergraduate physical education theory classes refused to call MMA ‘martial arts’ because ‘it lacks a spiritual element’ and ‘is practiced by violent people’ – a position admittedly derived from her sensei’s teachings.

The purposes behind any given martial arts teacher’s discursive construction of their discipline as somehow ‘more spiritual’ or ‘less violent’ than another might be directed towards a particular pedagogical aim according to specific interpretations of their art.  It is conceivable that the aesthetics or other objective features of these activities might be leveraged towards a lesson in non-violence, or to highlight the perceived importance of self-cultivation over competitiveness, for instance.  But when such characteristics of practice are then taken to stand in for categorical differences between martial arts/artists in a wider sense, yet remain tied to an implicit moral framework of ‘the right and wrong ways to train’, the moralising conceptual prime-mover of this particular distinction slips unnoticed into a worldview that encourages unsubstantiated and prejudicial readings of others’ practices.

Furthermore, it is not difficult to see how far the construction of ‘morally superior, cosmopolitan, enlightened Asian martial arts practitioner’ vs. ‘violent, thuggish, ignorant boxer/cage fighter’ may feed both class-based prejudices and orientalist romanticism (at least, in Western contexts).  Although it would be unfair to assume that any application of this sort of distinction is always built around prejudicial stereotyping, it represents a problem inherent in universalising definitional meanings of martial arts which were built for a specific purpose.  When left un-interrogated in their wider applications, the analytical aims of such attempts at differentiation stand to cloud judgement in ways which are both conceptually misleading, and possibly constitutive of unhelpful and unwarranted status hierarchies (other examples of this problem might include categorisations of martial arts in terms of their perceived ‘authenticity’, or ‘effectiveness’, and so on, whereby the respective ‘lesser’ arts are implicitly subordinated/denigrated).

To this end, I argue that making the purposes of our differentiations clear from the outset is an important step in ensuring an openness that avoids this potentially harmful outcome.  We should ask ourselves why we are seeking to define or differentiate between martial arts in this or that way, making clear that any such method is likely going to be of only limited usefulness in contexts that lie beyond those connected to our immediate analytical goals.


An example from gender studies


As an example of an explicitly analysis-led effort at producing a typology of martial arts, I turn now to the model constructed in mine and Christopher R Matthews’ recent book, Global Perspectives on Women in Combat Sports: Women Warriors around the World (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).  Within the introductory chapter of this book, we posited a five-point typology specifically constructed around the implications of women’s participation in various combat sport activities for the theoretical study of gender.  We built the typology in two ways – firstly by way of interrogating how such practices might relate to a handful of key conceptual issues, and secondly by drawing on extant empirical research to help substantiate and refine the emergent categorical types.  The five categories we created were:

  1. ‘Combat’ workouts
  2. Purposive self-defence
  3. Competitive fighting
  4. Performative combat
  5. ‘Recreational’ martial arts

Although it is tempting to digress into a full discussion of these categories, I will refrain from doing so here in the interests of space.  Instead, I will focus on the rationale underpinning this model and point the reader to the original source, free to access here (pp.8-15), for further reading.

Our purpose for building this typology was to understand how women’s engagement in combat sports and related activities might hold out the possibility to challenge long-standing hierarchal constructions of gender within Western societies.  We were not trying to exhaustively define martial arts, or create a rigid, universally-applicable structure for categorising fighting activities, but instead map out a series of practical distinctions within this field that bore special relevance for our analytical objective.


‘Padded attacker’ self-defence training clearly differs from kata drills or competitive fighting, but which differences we focus on will be a reflection of our analytical aims as researchers. Source: Wikimedia.

‘Padded attacker’ self-defence training clearly differs from kata drills or competitive fighting, but which differences we focus on will be a reflection of our analytical aims as researchers. Source: Wikimedia.


Specifically, it was our hope that the differences we highlighted would be useful in furthering feminist analyses of the value of combat sports participation for challenging gender inequity, and on that basis we shaped the typology around a set of questions which we deemed to be of central importance in this effort.  These involved:

  1. To what ends are fighting techniques being studied by women?
  2. How do practitioners (physically) interact with one-another?
  3. What meanings are ascribed to the capabilities of their bodies, and to the physical and/or cultural space(s) their bodies occupy?
  4. In what manner are men present in the activity, if at all?
  5. And ultimately, how do these considerations map onto the gender norms and sexual hierarchies operating within the wider cultural spaces the activity occupies? (p.14, as above)

These questions were developed on the basis of our theoretical background in the sociology of gender, and also our engagement with the literature on women, sport and gender derived from the sociology of sport and sport psychology fields.  In this sense, the focus of our analysis was narrowed further, addressing concerns that hold particular (although not necessarily exclusive) relevance for the debates occurring among feminist sports scholars.  Indeed, these foundational questions were intended to address various issues identified by scholars as most pertinent to women’s engagement in sport and physical activity, and its media representation.

In turn, these concerns included: the long-standing association between fighting, sports, masculinity, and symbolic constructions of male power; the passivity and deferential interactional strategies embedded in traditional modes of feminine gender performance, learned through lifelong socialisation processes and mirrored historically by (mediated) idealisations of femininity; the restrictive and objectifying, often sexualised, male-centred relationship that many women are encouraged to have with their own bodies; the oppressive spatial regulation of women’s bodies and their continual surveillance by others; the assumed inevitable leadership, authority and superiority of men within cultural spheres historically defined as ‘masculine’; the pervasive, ubiquitous nature of gender as an organising principle in contemporary social life; and the potential for women’s engagement in (particularly) vigorous, combative physical training, along with the mediated representation of doing so, to disrupt, subvert or otherwise challenge many of these phenomena.

Each of these problems have been identified in previous theoretical and empirical literature as important for understanding how, why, and to what ends women engage in physical activity, and have been central concerns throughout much of the extant sociological research on women’s sport in general and martial arts in particular.  Thus, we took them as fitting problems around which to articulate a system of differentiation for grasping the social significance of these activities, relative to the politicised theoretical ambitions of figuring out how they might best be utilised to challenge the inequity of modern gender structures.


Uses and limitations of the model


Evidently, given their analytical specificity to our particular area of interest, these are not the same questions that other scholars have asked of martial arts in similar definitional efforts.  However, it is notable that they do bear some similarity to the ‘classes of phenomena’ underpinning Wetzler’s recently articulated ‘five dimensions of meaning’.  In this respect, our model falls in line with the approach Wetzler advocates, and which Judkins describes as “strongly (encouraging) focused comparative analysis”, as it builds a contextually-relevant means of defining and understanding martial arts relevant to a specific analytic objective.  The comparisons that Wetzler’s approach encourage carry resonance across fields of practice within which martial arts might be understood as bearing differing significance towards a particular theoretical focus, and are thus potentially generative of more directly theorised case-studies than generalised attempts at differentiation offer.

The approach taken in building our typology thereby foregrounds salient elements of martial arts and related activities which are explicitly determined by our analytical goals surrounding gender and sport.  It did not depend at all on the (claimed) characteristics of specific martial disciplines, so avoids the homogenisation of styles outlined above.  Here, we were careful with the terminology used in describing the practices associated with each category, using words like ‘usually’, ‘often’, ‘might’, etc., in place of more fixed, definitive language, because we did not want the model to be tied to specific objective practices but rather to the meanings any such practices might be seen to carry.  Meanwhile, being clearly articulated around specific theoretical conceptualisations helped tie the model to a finite area of analysis, avoiding any implied universalism and the obfuscation wrought by unclear theoretical frameworks.  In other words, we were forthright about the limits of the model’s usefulness, making no claims to wider applicability.


Fitness classes using fighting techniques may not be very ‘martial’, but can still be worth considering as part of the wider field of interest for martial arts studies scholars. Source: Wikimedia.

Fitness classes using fighting techniques may not be very ‘martial’, but can still be worth considering as part of the wider field of interest for martial arts studies scholars. Source: Wikimedia.

In addition, the analysis-driven focus also provided the ability to take note of activities which fall outside of more conventional definitions of ‘martial arts’, such as those subsumed within the first category, ‘combat’ workouts.  There is little involved in boxercise classes, for instance, that could be considered either ‘martial’ or ‘combative’, but this does not mean that these activities don’t or shouldn’t figure as important phenomena when analysing women’s engagement within the wider field.  Indeed, such practices are a common feature in many female martial artists’ narratives of participation, and are closely linked with the manner in which other aspects of women’s sport are structured by discourses of gender, yet would be rendered invisible here if insisting on a more generic definition of martial arts/combat sports.  Thus, while the model is inherently restrictive with respect to its theoretical utility, it is intended to be all the more inclusive within this area because of it.

The typology is, of course, far from perfect.  We took care to ‘book-end’ the section of the chapter that introduced it with disclaimers as to its incompleteness and cultural partiality, built as it is around the perspectives of two white, Western, male scholars deriving their knowledge from (mostly) Anglophone academic literature and engagement within Western(ised) cultural practices.  Additionally, many practicing martial artists may point out that their own engagement in the field straddles multiple categories.  Of course this is both possible and highly likely, and while it does not invalidate the observation that each type of practice bears differing relevance for gender analysis, it does reduce the model’s utility for understanding individuals’ specific, complex patterns of engagement in martial arts.

In terms of its actual content, the fifth category in particular (‘recreational’ martial arts) is likely to be frustrating to some scholars given its diffuseness, which was driven by what we considered to be a lack of definitive differences regarding our central thematic problem rather than any similarities between the modes of practice described within it.  This left the final category as more of a collection of miscellany than a meaningful, single ‘type’, even if its inclusion did give us reason to encourage reflection, criticality, and the extension of our analysis by others.  Indeed, it is likely that others’ perspectives on such practices, filtered through theorisations of gender, might’ve expanded this category in a more meaningful way than we managed.

Elsewhere, we omitted discussion of martial arts trained in by women within the security or military forces – an unfortunate oversight on our part of a very timely phenomenon.  This perhaps ought to figure as a separate category of its own in any future re-working of this model, given that such formations of practice clearly bear relevance for gender analyses even if they have precious little to do with ‘combat sport’, as such.  Empirical research into these practices among women serving in various armed forces would likely yield intriguing insight and make for fruitful comparisons against the wide body of work existing on women’s civilian self-defence training, for instance.




To conclude this post, I would like to invite readers to critically respond both to the overall proposition made here – that typological classifications of martial arts might be particularly useful when tied to specific, finite analytical objectives – as well as the model proposed as an example of this exercise.  As is clearly represented within more extensive, recent discussions over how and why we should define our object of analysis, there is yet little consensus among martial arts studies scholars on this vital issue.  If the proposition forwarded here is accepted, it is likely that a multitude of models for categorising martial arts will proliferate, each with its own specific sphere of application and unique theoretical utility.  Whether or not this is something that the martial arts studies community would find helpful remains to be seen.


Alex Channon

Alex Channon



About the Author

Alex Channon is a Senior Lecturer in Physical Education and Sports Studies at the University of Brighton.  Along with Christopher R. Matthews, he is the editor of Global Perspectives on Women in Combat Sports: Women Warriors around the World (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).  Alex’s research interests include sex integration in martial arts, the mediated representation of combat sport athletes, and the value of martial arts as forms of physical education.






2 thoughts on “How (not) to categorise martial arts: A discussion and example from gender studies

  1. Still digesting this – will need to come back to it. However perhaps a 6th category. The Hobbyist. At first glance one might think this is covered by ‘Recreational’, however a hobbyist may have a narrower field of interest, more specific, and more often alone; while a recreational participant might ‘play the activity field’, more often with others.

    For example, although both might participate part time a hobbyist might collect only stamps while a person who takes part as recreation might take part, or ‘collect’, on a whim, over a wide range of topics or activities, rather than focused on one field.

    Of course they overlap to some degree, but so do all the categories.

    Interesting work
    Best regards
    Kevin Earle.

    Posted by kevin Earle | September 16, 2016, 8:44 pm


  1. Pingback: MASTER – Better Living Personal Development & Martial Arts - October 13, 2016

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