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Chinese Martial Studies, Doing Research (An Introduction to Fieldwork in Martial Arts Studies), Guest Posts, Martial Studies, Pop Culture Kung Fu

Doing Research (10): Trying to Think Inside the Box with Paul Bowman

 

 

Introduction

 

Welcome to the tenth 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), the seventh by Dale Spence (on ethnographic methods and dealing with radically unexpected events while in the field), the eighth by Kyle Green (why a choke is never just a choke), or the ninth by D. S. Farrer (who argues we should think a bit harder about the perils of performance ethnography), 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.  It is our hope that this series will provide new students or researchers a few tips as they put together projects of their own.

In this post we will hear from Prof. Paul Bowman (Cardiff University), who has been closely following this series from its inception.  Yet rather than focusing on what scholars do once they enter the field (or the library), Bowman asks us to think more deeply about a prior stage in the research process.  Specifically, can we develop a personal method for formulating better research questions?  After all, the value of our data will never exceed the rigor of the questions we ask.  How do prolific writers and researchers find novel questions that will have a good chance of generating non-trivial findings while remaining tethered to a strong theoretical foundation?  Or to put it in slightly simpler terms, how do we avoid becoming the sort of author who rewrites the same paper year after year?  Can adopting a personal method, or intellectual discipline, force us to explore more of what the field has to offer?

 

 

Author’s Preface

 

What is my ‘method’? Do I even have one? I normally analyse and reflect on media texts and discourses, but how, and why? I wrote what follows when I realised that I was doing again something I had once done once before: applying a particular – perhaps unique – technique to structure and guide a piece of analysis. I wondered whether this might be a unique ‘method’ that others might try. So, what follows is an account of it. I currently refer to it as ‘trying to think inside the box’.

 

Two Conferences, one box

 

In 2013 I wanted to support a colleague’s conference, so I offered to give a paper. The conference title was ‘The Meaning of Migration’, and I thought it would be easy to come up with something on the ‘migration’ of martial arts around the world.

However, from the outset, I was clear on two things:

  • The first was that I wanted to argue for the powerful role played by media representations in the spread of martial arts. (I thought this was an important argument to make, because not enough people seemed to be aware of it.)
  • The second was that I did not want to offer an overview of the specific career of one or more martial artist migrant. (I thought such studies were all too common, and that they didn’t think hard enough about how culture and history ‘work’.)

So I decided to place a strict limitation on my paper: I would block out all reference to actual martial artists, and only discuss media fictions and the general movement of notions of ‘martial arts’ in Western/Anglophone film, TV and popular culture.

This exercise in imposing a deliberate and strategic limitation on the enquiry helped to generate new insights for me, and I have anecdotal evidence that it helped at least some people to think about martial arts history in a more sophisticated way than before.

In any case, the final version of this reflection appeared under the subheading ‘eclipsing the human’ in chapter two of my 2015 book, Martial Arts Studies: Disrupting Disciplinary Boundaries.

I recall all of this now because a similar situation has recently occurred, and a lot about it has given me pause for thought. Some elements are the same, but some are different.

In the current situation, once again, I wanted to support a colleague’s conference by giving a paper. However, to do so obliged me to work out a way to wrench the conference topic and my own interests into some kind of relationship. And once again, the solution I found took the form of imposing a deliberate limitation.

However, what strikes me as significant about this is that the ‘artificial’ limit I have found for my study now seems strategically valuable in that it may generate significant insight.

In the current situation, the conference in question is called “You talkin’ to me?” Dialogue and Communication in Film, which takes place in Cardiff on 5-6 June 2017.

Knowing that the organiser was specifically interested in papers that focus on film dialogue – i.e., studies of spoken/verbal communication in film – I initially speculated that maybe I could do something on dialogue about martial arts in martial arts films.

But the question was: what, specifically? And – more importantly – why? I always need to have an answer to the question of why: why this, why is this important, why now, why does it matter, to whom, with what significance, consequences, effects?

In order to answer such questions, I recalled my efforts in chapter two of Mythologies of Martial Arts (2017) to explore some of the discourse that surrounds martial arts ‘proper’, so to speak, in order to glean some insights into the status of martial arts in popular culture.

Specifically, in Mythologies of Martial Arts I asked questions about the kinds of jokes that are made about martial arts and martial artists, and explored them in order to reflect on what this might tell us about wider ideas circulating about martial arts today.

Consequently, I thought that the film dialogue conference might provide an opportunity to extend this kind of exploration. So, I came up with the following proposal:

Title:

‘Oh, no! That’s karate!’ Speaking of Martial Arts (in non-martial arts films)

Abstract:

Michael Molasky’s exploration of Japanese and Okinawan feelings about the American occupation proceeds by looking at the ways America and the occupation feature in a wide range of Japanese and Okinawan literature of the post-war period. Molasky’s focus is not literature specifically about the occupation or about Americans; rather it surveys Japanese and Okinawan literature in general, for clues, evidence, and interesting cases. In a similar spirit, and using a similar approach, this presentation (which is part of a larger inquiry into wider feelings and ideas about ‘martial arts’ in Western popular culture) will look at examples of dialogue about martial arts in non-martial arts films. In other words, for the purposes of this exercise, the focus is resolutely not on martial arts action itself, but only on dialogue about martial arts. Moreover, films that are widely regarded as ‘martial arts films’ will also be disallowed. The premise is that films, in various ways, record, register and deploy wider discursive sensibilities, configurations, structures of feeling, and so on; and the objective is to begin to glean some insights into the discursive status and conceptual, associative and connotative configurations of ‘martial arts’ in contemporary English language popular culture. (The reasons for wanting to do this are complex and perhaps beyond the scope of a short paper, but I will try to gesture to the wider value of such a project.)

As you can see, once again I am imposing a strategic limitation, or exclusion. In this case, I am not going to look at any dialogue about martial arts that takes place in anything that could be regarded as a martial arts film.

 

 

 


Drawing Lines, and Boxes

 

Of course, this is a tricky line to draw. When, for example, does an action film become a martial arts film? This is one hell of a question to begin to explore. But already, then, in obliging us to think about such questions (when does an action film become a martial arts film?), our self-imposed and ‘artificial’ limitation has prompted us to think a little more about categories that we might otherwise have merely accepted without thought. To this extent, in playing this game, we are already potentially sharpening our critical faculties.

In this instance, as I say, I am deliberately excluding all martial arts films. Furthermore, just to be sure, the ‘grey area’ exclusion zone will also extend to action films and also certain other difficult to classify films (say, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai).

However, as deconstruction has taught us, in the act of drawing a line, of specifying what is ‘in’ and what is ‘out’, we always in some way and to some extent transgress that line, that limit. We have to pay some attention to what is on the other side of it.

Moreover, by drawing a ‘clearly artificial’ line, we may be provoked to think about what happens when any line is drawn. We may see that a lot of lines have been drawn that we have so far given little thought to. This might prompt us to reflect on the necessity or arbitrary character of the lines we use to structure our thought and actions more widely. So, we might see and possibly learn more about the boxes that we always think inside of.

But, that’s as maybe. For the purposes of this exercise, such possible gains in our propensity or likelihood to think critically ‘more widely’ are actually secondary. For, the primary purpose of the exercise in this case is to glean more insight into what we might call the ‘discursive status’ of martial arts in the wider circuits of culture. As my abstract puts it, my ‘premise is that films, in various ways, record, register and deploy wider discursive sensibilities, configurations, structures of feeling, and so on; and the objective is to begin to glean some insights into the discursive status and conceptual, associative and connotative configurations of “martial arts” in contemporary English language popular culture’.

So, that is what the paper will be about. But is this ‘my method’? It is not really a method – at least, not yet. What anyone could and would ‘bring’ to such an exercise will be determined by how they have been trained or learned to interpret films, and how they have been trained or learned to connect them to other areas of culture or consciousness or practice. But none of this is set in stone. None of it is certain. None of this is science.  My own efforts will be contingent connections that I make based on the contours and coordinates of boxes that my own thought processes have become accustomed to.

Of course, such boxes can be shaken up, disrupted, poked and prodded into movement. This is part of the value of imposing seemingly arbitrary limitations on the exercise from the outset. And there is much that might be said and thought and done about all of this.

However, I want to conclude by reflecting on some differences between the earlier occasion on which I undertook such an exercise (2013) and today (2017).

 

 

Then and Now

 

Some things are different. For me, the main differences relate to the development of my own experiences and thinking in martial arts studies. But another significant different relates to the growth of an online martial arts studies community. So now, unlike in 2013, I can easily put out a call or question or query on social media, and a community of people are present and listening and thinking and prepared to respond, to an extent that simply was not the case in 2013.

Accordingly, in a way that is very different from when I did this in 2013, as soon as my strategic limitation occurred to me in 2017, I put out a call online for ideas and suggestions. Specifically, I asked: ‘Can anyone suggest any films that are not martial arts films but people talk about martial arts in them?’

Maybe it has slightly convoluted syntax; but still I thought this concise question would be clear.

I got some predictable suggestions. I got some unique suggestions. I also got some recurring, repeated suggestions for films that I could look at. (The fact that several films immediately popped into the minds of quite a few different people from different countries suggests a lot: that such examples have some kind of special significance, and definitely deserve consideration, perhaps.)

But I also encountered some fascinating ‘resistance’, some surprise ‘results’, or at least peculiar responses. These took the form of a frequent inability to grasp exactly what it was I was asking for. Sometimes, when people did eventually ‘get’ what I was enquiring into, I was met with an inability to comprehend why I would be asking such a thing.

Of course, that’s fine. It is, after all, down to me to show why I would be asking such a thing – and to my mind there would be less point in undertaking an argument or analysis that is immediately transparent to anyone who hears about any aspect of its initiating question. In short, explaining why I would ask questions about martial arts dialogue in non-martial arts films is part of what my conference paper will do.

But one thing fascinated me. I asked the question (‘Can anyone suggest any films that are not martial arts films but people talk about martial arts in them?’) and many people came back with the titles of (… wait for it …) martial arts films.

When I reiterated that I was not going to look at martial arts films, people came back with suggestions about TV series.

When I reiterated that I was asking about films, not TV series, people suggested cartoons, action films, martial arts films; TV series, martial arts films, TV series – and moreover, and more specifically, people kept coming back to scenes with martial arts in, rather than scenes in non-martial arts films in which people talk about martial arts.

This happened so frequently that it really gave me pause for thought. What is going on here, when a question like ‘Can anyone suggest any films that are not martial arts films but people talk about martial arts in them’ is unintelligible?

One normally extremely lucid commentator even took the time to reflect on the question of why a film maker would take the time to have any kind of discussion of martial arts in their film if martial arts were not the theme of the film…

By way of a concise reply, I asked whether he had seen Napoleon Dynamite.

To this, he replied – as many had before, on the same discussion thread that we were currently on, as well as on several others – ‘Rex Kwon Do!’ So I duly clicked ‘like’, to confirm that we were still having fun, still ‘all in this together’, and so on.

And then – despite the fact that that this one conversation thread, prompted by one peculiar question, had already generated possibly thousands of words and quite a few interesting exchanges, and loads of examples, and loads to think about – someone commented, ‘I think this may be a refreshingly short presentation’.

The conversation thread stands at that, for now. But, to be clear: I beg to differ. On the contrary, I think that this may turn out to be a refreshingly and unexpectedly surprising and rewarding exploration – led not by ‘method’, as such, but rather by the generative potential of an apparently eccentric but fundamentally principled strategic research question.

 
oOo

About the Author:  About the Author: Paul Bowman is no stranger to Kung Fu Tea, where he has been a regular guest author.  He is Professor of Cultural Studies at Cardiff University, and has written multiple book on Bruce Lee and Martial Arts Studies.  Bowman is also the co-editor of the interdisciplinary journal Martial Arts Studies, the editor of Rowman & Littlefields’ Martial Arts Studies book series, and is one of the hardest working scholars you are likely to meet.  His practical resume includes decades of experience in Choy Li Fut, Yang style Taijiquan and Escrima (among other arts).  Lately he has been exploring the joys of Judo. Be sure to check out his most recent article. 

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