A New Hoplology
Over the last few weeks I have been thinking quite a bit about what hoplology was and what it might yet become. What were the advances and shortcoming of this field’s previous incarnations, both prior to the First World War and during the Donn F. Draeger era? My own involvement with the quickly growing field of martial arts studies, now institutionalized in the form of grants, conferences, peer reviewed journals and dedicated book series, has made me curious about such things. Why exactly did the field of anthropology seem to lose interest in the subject (at least as a cohesive literature) following WWI? Why did Draeger’s renewed efforts, while inspiring much popular enthusiasm, never find a place in academia? And what precisely can students of martial arts studies learn from all of this regarding the birth and growth of scholarly fields?
While problematic in a number of ways, there was also much about the older hoplological tradition that was very interesting, and even admirable. While martial arts studies has made great strides in establishing the notion that these practices can, and indeed must, be examined through a variety of theoretical lenses, I am sometimes surprised that we have shown little interest in engaging the more material and technical aspects of hand combat. Only a handful of articles in our journal have sought to record and provide a detailed analysis of actual techniques. Embodiment is a theoretical concept that is often discussed in the abstract, but only rarely is the hard data presented to the reader.
Likewise, there has been almost no discussion of the material culture that is so central to most individual’s lived experience of the martial arts? Where did the now ubiquitous “Wing Chun Dummy” actually come from, and how has it managed to spread itself across so many other styles in the last decade? Would recent advances in the fields of history and critical theory allow us to say anything new about the development of the ubiquitous white training uniforms and colored belts that the Japanese introduced to the global martial arts? What exactly happens to a non-Japanese system when these foreign artifacts begin to colonize the imagination of a new generation of students? Why are there no studies of the various phases of the standardization and evolution of the Chinese jian (or even the dadao) in late imperial and Republican China?
While it is easy to criticize aspects of the older hoplological tradition, or perhaps salvage ethnography as a whole, no one could never claim that these fields neglected the connection between material culture and the lived social experience. This is critical as the material goods that we consume, the weapons, media, uniforms and ephemera, often testify to a set of values and social functions that support martial arts practice on a deep level that most of us perceive only dimly.
Nor did the older generation of hoplologists shy away from the topic of social violence. Over the last two years both Paul Bowman and I have called, in different settings, for a more sustained investigation of the relationship between martial practice and the experience of violence in the modern world. In general, I think it is a good thing that so many martial arts studies researchers are also students of hand combat. Yet this can also work against us. There is a natural tendency to “write what you know.” Gratefully, most (though not all) scholars are able to work and train in environments where the actual threat of physical violence is rare. But that has not historically been true for the world’s martial artists. And even when we are aware of these things, there is a tendency to play down or ignore some of the darker aspects of modern martial arts practice.
While discussing this topic with Prof. Swen Koerner, he noted that all sorts of sociologists are interested in projects related to how the practice of the martial arts contribute to good social outcomes. Yet we have tended to ignore their correlations with violent or anti-social behavior. When we disregard this, we may save ourselves a degree of embarrassment (or maybe cognitive dissonance), but we also miss an opportunity to discover the many ways that hand combat practices intersect with the realm of social violence. Yet this was precisely the territory that individuals like Burton and Malinowski explored in the late 19thand early 20thcenturies.
Is there room for a “new hopology?” And what purpose would such a literature serve? What would its relationship be to the traditional disciplines, and to the growing field of martial arts studies?
Such questions are impossible to answer in a single blog post. Indeed, they cannot be answered by a single researcher. If we have learned anything in martial arts studies it is that the creation of a field is by definition an experiment in applied sociology. One certainly hopes that a new hoplology would address some of the intellectual and social shortcomings of its predecessors. Beyond that, for reasons that I will touch on below, I think it would have to be grounded in rigorous theoretical and methodological discussions. Finally, by both tradition and necessity, the new hoplology would probably be an empirically oriented wing of martial arts studies, dedicated to the collection and comparative study of interpersonal combative behavior and culture. Beyond that it is hard to say much at all.
This is not to imply that the earlier hoplologists never advanced theoretical or conceptual models. They certainly did. Yet I think their greatest achievement was in building databases of information that essentially captured a single cultural snapshot in time that would forever be available to future scholars looking to test whatever theories they had. A new hoplology could certainly make important contributions to the overall growth of martial arts studies by carefully gathering comparative data focused on the material and technical aspects of martial culture, as well as the many unique local experiences of social violence.
The Research Expedition
Nevertheless, it is one thing to state that the new hoplology might be an empirically driven pursuit, it is quite another to narrow down the range of investigations that we are likely to see. Historical research in the archives, the collection of large-N datasets using on-line surveys, and the writing of “thick descriptions” of culture via participant observation are all equally “empirical” paths. Indeed, it is quite possible to imagine each of these methods being employed in hoplology projects. Draeger encouraged a myriad of students to spend years intensively training with specific ryu in postwar Japan. Likewise, Malinowski and his students sought to collect textual archives and museums full of artifacts to enlighten future generations of researchers. Like martial arts studies, hoplology, in actual practice, seems to have always been deeply interdisciplinary (and in its more amateur forms, pre-disciplinary).
All of these methods of data collection are seen in a number of other fields and their possibilities and limitations are relatively well understood. It sometimes seems that I spent my entire graduate school career doing nothing other than debating the relative merits of historical vs. large-N research, and how best to leverage various empirical approaches when dealing with different types of theoretical frameworks.
Yet there is one specific research method which seems to have become hoplology’s hallmark, and it is much less well understood. What can be accomplished by short term research expeditions carried out by teams of individuals who, while possibly highly trained, tend to be non-specialists in the geographic or cultural areas that they seek to explore?
Perhaps that last sentence undersells the challenges that such expeditions face. Let us rephrase the question more succinctly. What do we really expect a bunch of academics who have just stepped off an airplane to be able to learn about a new set of martial arts in a short period of time (anywhere from a single week to perhaps a couple of months)? Can such an exercise ever constitute “serious research,” or will it always amount to an intellectualized version of the sorts of martial arts themed package vacations that have become so popular in the last few years?
I suspect that many readers will have no problem coming up with reasons why the utility of short duration expeditions will be limited. At the most obvious level one is unlikely to master a foreign language, culture, or even a nuanced system of etiquette, in only a few weeks. This will impact both your ability to interact with local martial artists and one’s capacity to gather data. In the short term it, may even be difficult to determine what data one should be collecting. The sorts of puzzles that arise when thinking about a martial practice that one has practiced for two weeks are qualitatively different from instances where one has studied the material for a few years. And while it is possible to establish friendships in only a few weeks’ time, the quality of those relationships is simply not the same as what comes with daily interaction over a period of years.
There are many good reasons why anthropologists traditionally looked down on this sort of research. A senior professor of the discipline here at Cornell recently confessed to me his disappointment that so few graduate students have the funding or inclination to spend a few continuous years in the field as part of their professional training. In his view this massive investment of time not only led to richer, more insightful, descriptive data. It was the transformative initiation that produced his field’s professional ethos. It was the process by which anthropology students were turned into anthropologists. It was a matter of great concern for him that so many graduate students split their fieldwork into three-month chunks, or only studied groups that never require them to go into “the real field” at all.
While the development of hoplology may have had important early connections with anthropology, it goes without saying that not all students of martial arts studies are attempting to write classical ethnographies. So once again, what might be achievable in short duration research expeditions given the obvious limitations of the exercise?
I think that there are at least three possibilities that deserve consideration, and their utility to any individual researcher may be a function of both their disciplinary background and theoretical orientation. First, while it is true that most martial arts studies scholars do not do ethnography, anthropologists do seem to be overrepresented in the rather small group of scholars who continue to be interested in hoplology. Wondering how they might make the best use of their time I decided to interview my own father on the subject, who is also a cultural anthropologist and a strong supporter of “old school” ethnography.
After listening to me lay out the basic structure of a hypothetical hoplological expedition he noted that, no matter what someone like him says in a “Classics of Ethnography” lecture, in truth many anthropologists do a great deal of work-related short-term travel. He further noted that every long-term stint of field research goes through progressive phases, each of which are important and yield their own sort of data and level of understanding. Learning to get the most out of these first few weeks or months can make a big difference to the success of a long-term project. There was no reason why, in his view, such expeditions could not be treated as “pilot projects” dedicated to making initial contacts and gaining a degree of understanding of the local martial culture that would make the next visit to the area both possible and profitable.
Given the realities of the current funding process, most research is now produced through multiple short expeditions, and so figuring out how to set up the next phase of research is always vital. Additionally, he noted that such travel was actually important for more senior researchers as, by building their network of professional contacts, they could identify research opportunities for the next generation of graduate students. While intensive participant observation is not really possible in short duration studies, they might still be valuable as a pilot projects to identify future ethnographic opportunities.
Of course there are other approaches to understanding short duration research. The empirical data generated by ethnography is descriptive and qualitative in nature. Yet the social sciences (fields like sociology, political science or economics) tend to focus on the creation, and testing, of causal theories. To vastly oversimplify, rather than treating culture or a society as a literary text to be interpreted, they seek to understand which constellations of material, structural, strategic and discursive variables lead to specific, observable, outcomes. Even as the humanities and (American) anthropology have moved away from such approaches, the emphasis on investigating causal explanations through positivist research methods have grown within much of the social sciences.
Nor is this necessarily a bad thing if we are contemplating the development of a “new hoplology.” A positivist orientation would allow researchers to develop and test a wide range of theories regarding the evolution of basic martial structures through either focused comparative case studies or the creation of larger datasets. Sadly, we have yet to see much in the way of sustained comparative research within martial arts studies. And topics that have been central to hoplology, such as the evolution of weapons, or the causes of certain types of social violence, may be particularly amenable to these research strategies.
None of this means that social scientists can, or should, indulge in a sort of naïve empiricism. I think that this is a common misconception about how this sort of research works. A short duration research expedition is a great opportunity to gather rich troves of data. Both training and performance can be photographed and filmed. Masters, students and supporting community members can interviewed. One can investigate the economic and political institutions that uphold such practices. Journals can be distributed to allow local practitioners to record their media consumption habits. There is actually much that one can do in a few weeks. But given the temporal constraints of short duration research, any researcher is going to be forced to prioritize these things. That means that they must have a clear idea of exactly what sorts of hypotheses they might want to test, and what sort of data will be of the most use to future researchers. In other words, extensive causal theories must be developed and submitted to initial “plausibility probes” before anyone ever sets foot on an airplane. And those causal stories are likely to be the most meaningful when they build off of, and take into account, the basic concept that arise from the various philosophical schools of critical theory.
Whereas an anthropological approach might see short duration research as the very first step of a much longer process, within a social scientific framework, heading out into the field to gather data usually comes in the middle (or even toward the end) of a project. It is this logic of discovery that forces social scientists to begin by thinking about theory. That doesn’t mean one might not discover that a new causal story (or theoretical framework) will be necessary when you sit to analyze your hard-won data. As all of us who work in this area can attest, that happens with some frequency. But even that sort of “negative finding” is an incredibly important aspect of the research process and should not be confused with naïve empiricism.
The great advantage of such a data intensive, social-scientific, approach is that it allows for the construction of comparative case studies in which more general hypotheses about martial arts development, or social violence, can be compared across a variety of groups or even regions of the world. In the best-case analysis this might lead to the development of “covering laws.” I suspect that such a discovery would have thrilled old school hoplologists.
The obvious disadvantage to such a research strategy, however, is a subtle shift in focus. The data that we collect in our expedition is now geared to reveal more about our theories of human behavior in the abstract than the specific practices of a given community at a single point in time. One assumes that the “thick description” of participant observation would always address those realities better. Yet that is a process that inevitably takes time. Once again, martial arts studies researchers will need to think carefully about their basic goals long before they ever design a research project and set foot in the field.
Finally, it is worth considering who will be responsible for making these decisions. Much of the preceding discussion has assumed that it is a single researcher headed into the field as that is what reflects my personal experience. Yet one of the things that I find most interesting about the classic hoplological expedition is that they were undertaken by entire teams of researchers. That implies a much greater scope for potential specialization.
While everyone on a research team might bring their own martial arts background, members could be selected to represent a variety of disciplinary and methodological perspectives. A research trip to Southern Taiwan might include a researcher looking at social marginality, another who specialized in traditional medicine, an ethnomusicologist and a media studies specialist. Each of these individuals might be tasked with collecting data and testing a set of distinct hypotheses which all spoke to a larger set of theoretical propositions regarding the Southern Chinse martial arts in relation to any number of factors (globalization, social transformation, fictive kinship, the echoes of imperialism, etc…).
It is not hard to imagine the ways in which such a team might generate important synergies within their collective investigation. And if each of these researchers were to spend only a month in the field, they might generate a body of cultural insight that a single researcher working in isolation might take years to match.
As always there are dangers. One would need to guard against the emergence of “group think” or the fostering of potentially blinding ethnocentric attitudes among a small group of relatively homogenous researchers. Still, teams could also be constructed to bring a greater variety of perspectives and life experience than any one researcher could ever hope to possess.
It is difficult to say what a new hoplology might be, and whether such a thing could make unique contributions to the development of martial arts studies. It would certainly be nice to have a group of scholars dedicated to the careful construction of empirically rich case studies and datasets which might, in turn, inspire the creation of new research questions. And I personally would welcome a more sustained (and theoretically informed) investigation of the weapons and material culture that so many modern martial artists seem to fetishize. I suspect that the field as a whole could only benefit from these efforts.
This is not to say that there were not problematic elements within the older hoplological tradition, or issues that would have to be addressed before any attempt to resurrect the label within a modern academic framework could move forward. Yet I do not believe that the classic hoplological expedition is one of these problems. We would certainly want to avoid anything that smacks of amateurism or naïve empiricism. Yet from my perspective as a social scientist, such exercises might finally facilitate the emergence of a body of detailed, theoretically informed, comparative studies. That is a very exciting possibility for researchers who are interested in explaining causality or unraveling the functions of social structures. And even those individuals who are more focused on ethnographic approaches might find such short duration, highly focused, research opportunities useful as pilot projects opening the way for more sustained participant observation in the future.
There are likely good reasons why prior attempts to create something like martial arts studies failed to find a foothold in the academy. And if a new hoplology were to succeed, I suspect that it would be quite different from the projects that Draeger or Burton imagined. Yet short duration research expeditions constructed around the research interests of teams of specialists almost certainly have much to contribute to the field.
If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: Martial Arts Studies: Answering the “So What?” Question