A fictionalized remembrance of Ip Man’s early class photos.



While most of my own writing focuses on the Chinese martial arts, I tend to read rather widely.  In part this is simply a reflection of my interests, and perhaps some sort of escapist urge to keep me from tackling other, more pressing, tasks. But it is also a pragmatic strategy. Rarely do scholars simply invent the methods or conceptual languages needed to investigate a problem whole cloth. It is generally more efficient to borrow them from another study looking at structurally similar problems in a different research area, or even discipline.

In several respects this is quite logical. Forward progress is easiest to attain when we are not constantly reinventing the wheel. Yet caution is also required. While the underlying elements animating two puzzles may be similar, they will never be identical.  Something about the structural, cultural or informational environment is bound to differ.  This is a problem as almost all theories, in both the humanities and social sciences, are built on specific assumptions.  Problems can arise when we pluck them out of a realm and transpose them into another that violates any of these (almost always unstated) preconditions.

Nevertheless, borrowing is good.  A willingness to interrogate your concepts and adopt new tools, better suited to the task at hand, is one of the preconditions of doing interdisciplinary work.  I suspect that this is a nod towards utility that most martial artists will approve of.  But figuring out which concepts are really an improvement is almost never easy, and any answer we come to is likely to depend on the specific details of the questions at hand.

All of which is to say, students of martial arts studies should be prepared to spend a fair amount of time reevaluating things that we suspect we already know.

Just such an opportunity was presented to me earlier this week when two of my friends recommended an article on the social function of the mixed martial arts in modern American life. [Corey M. Abramson and Darren Modzelewski. 2010. “Caged Morality: Moral Worlds, Subculture, and Stratification Among Middle-Class Cage-Fighters.” Qual Sociol(2011) 34:143–175]. MMA is not one of my current research interests and as such I had not yet run across this piece.  However, I am very interested in choice, something that I think is a neglected topic in much of the current martial arts studies literature.

Why is it that only some people choose to participate in martial arts training while so many other individuals, almost identically positioned within society, do not?  Why are some people drawn to the traditional Chinese martial arts (going to great lengths to seek out relationships with specific masters who might live on the other side of the world), while others are equally dedicated to transforming their bodies and minds to find success “in the octagon.” What makes these two groups of individuals unique?

Too often the literature speaks in broad strokes about what individuals find in the martial arts, ignoring the seemingly obvious fact that there are wide variety of fighting systems, all of which are differently situated in both the economic and cultural marketplace.  We cannot come to terms with the social function(s) of the martial arts without first coming to terms with the problem of choice.

To do this we will likely need some sort of typology that describes a range of choices which are available to martial arts students, as well as mechanisms for exploring the backgrounds of the individuals who become martial artists.  The fields of sociology and anthropology have provided us with a variety of tools for measuring the cultural and socio-economic factors that define the later.  What can they tell us about the former?



Alberto Mina, training in BJJ. Source: SCMP.


Social Structure and the Meaning of Martial Arts

In a recent chapter I turned to Victor Turner and the anthropological literature on “rites of passage” to begin to develop just such a framework. Without rehashing that argument I attempted to elaborate on Turner’s distinction between more traditional “liminal” rituals, and the advent of consumer drive, highly individualistic “liminoid” modes of play, in a first effort to disentangle why individuals might choose one sort of martial arts experience versus another.

Abramson and Modzelewski’s article is interesting to me not because of anything they conclude about the question of why predominately white, upper middle class, male athletes practice MMA (Spoiler alert: because 1. They can afford the social and economic costs of training and 2. Gym culture, focused on an unrelenting discourses about “hard work” and “meritocracy,” allows them to perform middle class values for a like-minded audience more effectively than they could in more complex environments like the family or job market).   In retrospect their conclusions feel obvious. Rather, I am much more interested in a conceptual debate within the field of sociology that they touch upon in their introduction.

Specifically, how should we understand the structure of the MMA community?  And by extension, how should we understand any martial arts community, from Kung Fu, to HEMA to Capoeira?  Are these things examples of what sociologists call “subcultures”?  Or are they something else?  Have we moved into a post-subcultural era?  Might they more productively be thought of as “neo-tribes,” or “social scenes.”

Some background may be helpful.  The notion of subcultures was initially propelled forward by the “Chicago School” (1920s-1930s) which was interested in the ways that highly marginal groups (often including criminal, economically impoverished, or somehow deviant elements) constructed alternate status mechanisms in the face of an unsympathetic dominant culture. Later groups, led by the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (BCCCS) built on this initial framework.  They tended to be most interested in the aesthetically driven (or at least visually distinctive) youth subcultures that dominated the British urban landscape and musical scenes in the post-War era (e.g., something like the Punk movement).  Inspired in part by Marxist theories, they continued to link the notion of subculture to questions of class and race.  But in their formulation subcultures existed as distinctive sites of resistance which formulated their own identity, boundaries, language and social codes with the express purpose of politically resisting the norms and identities favored by society as a whole.  This political turn was typically seen in the ideological and class conflict advanced by many of these youth groups.

What is lurking in the background of all of this is the latent forces of consumerism.  Those who controlled society’s resources (the middle and upper classes) were free to express their norms and identities both through the creations of costly signaling mechanisms (such as the expansion of university educations) and the creation of an “American dream,” built in large part on a certain material standard of living.  Those without access to these resources instead invested their time and ideological efforts into the construction of voluntary subcultural societies in which they could develop their own mechanism for signaling their status as accomplished, complete, human beings.  Yet these strategies were formulated in such a way that they actively resisted or questioned consumerism.

Any such theory is not without its faults, and interestingly enough, I think that Chinese martial studies actually has a lot to offer on the question of subcultural development.  Specifically, did these groups really function as workshops that create the tools necessary to resist the dominant social order?  Or do they instead create a more limited, carefully vetted audience, before which otherwise marginal and ignored individuals could perform exactly the sorts of values and identities that the BCCCS would see as oppressing them in the first place?  In short, do subcultures serve to attack or reinforce dominant cultural narratives?

The evidence from China would seem to suggest that they can do either.  In fact, the world of the Chinse martial arts is rich in sub-cultures.  But for the sake of time I will only mention two.

At least part of this indeterminacy is the result of the fact that the dominant society’s norms, values and identities are never totally static.  In fact, they do change and evolve over time.  Subcultures can end up on either side of this process. The famous Chinese novel Water Margin(sometimes described as the Old Testament of the Chinese Martial Arts) goes about as far as one can go in the direction of creating a compelling vision of an actual subculture, substantially separated from (and somewhat antagonistic to) the values of straight culture. Subsequent generations of authors would expand this vision into the Wuxia realm of “Rivers and Lakes.”

The actions of this story’s heroes sometimes make no sense from a Confucian (let alone a modern Western) perspective.  Killing travelers at an inn and turning them into meat pies flies in the face of countless social values.  So does murdering a child that your friend has been hired to guard so that his diligent body guard can quit his job working for “The Man” and join a group of bandits in the hills.  And yet Water Margin has remained a touchstone of Chinese culture precisely because it succeeded in constructing an alternate, widely admired, vision of martial virtue, brotherhood and bravery.

Alternatively, when looking at the sorts of petty criminals and socially marginal figures in southern Taiwan (the sorts of individuals who typically joined both martial arts groups and temple societies), Avron Bortez concluded that many subcultural groups actually functioned in very different ways.  In the opening chapters of his ethnography Gods, Ghosts and Gangsters, he noted that for the most part the “Martial virtues” upheld by these individuals did not directly challenge the dominant social order that marginalized them.  Rather, they provided a sort of release valve by which individuals were given a secondary means of upholding some aspects of social order.  The end result was that the adherents of these seemingly violent and irrational youth subcultures actually became among the most conservative (one might even say reactionary) members of the local social order. In this case the subculture didn’t really allow for a complete ideological critique of the situation. Rather, it provided a smaller, secondary, stage on which one could display your loyalty to the community using a set of skills and tools that most people within the dominant society would reject.  Yet they could not deny the authenticity of one’s motivations.

Interestingly, on a structural level, his conclusions are not that different than those that were reached by Abramson and Modzelewski when looking at a much more affluent group of martial artists in North America. As Judith Butler might remind us, identity never just “is.”  It is something that needs to be performed.  And those performances are most effective when there is an audience that is well equipped to validate our mastery of these values.  Yes, the professionals in the MMA study had the resources to actualize their understanding of meritocracy in any number of settings.  And it is worth reminding ourselves that the vast majority of doctors, pharmacists, and computer programmers do not choose to enact their middle class values through a series of cage fights.  Indeed, I would expect that when pressed the vast majority of America’s young up and coming professional class would actually pay a substantial amount of money not to be forced to take part in an MMA or BJJ class, even if they fully accept the normative arguments that The Octagon is a pure “bullshit free zone” where “hard work is rewarded.”


Chris Weidman (red gloves) and Anderson Silva (blue gloves). 2013.


It is not enough to simply have the potential to express such values in a variety of ways. They must actually be enacted in some specific place and time.  And it seems that most middle-class professionals enact them in a wide variety of other realms and locations (from the workplace, to the family, or their early morning SoulCycle class).  All of which makes me wonder whether we have really made headway on the essential problem of individual choice within the martial arts.  Why is it that only some computer programmers, pharmacists and medical students end up as professional MMA competitors and dedicated members of this specific subculture?  Our authors have interesting things to say about those who found this community rewarding, but explaining a variable outcome (why only some joined) by pointing to a constant (is anyone really opposed to meritocracy?) seems like only one part of a larger whole

Other theorists might question the entire premise of “choice” that the notion of the subculture seems to be based on.  In the sociological literature these things differ from race or ethnicity in that one is not born into them.  No one can simply be born as a punk, a goth or a MMA fighter.  These are institutions that one must choose to invest scarce personal resources into, and other individuals within the community will largely be responsible for judging whether you have negotiated the social barriers to entry in an authentic and legitimate way.  Yet in older sociological thought you might turn to one of several local subcultures precisely because you could not economically succeed within, and were forced to resist, the dominant norms of the day.

What happens if we give everyone a lot more money (say, through the extension of cheap credit) while the price of most cultural products plummets (thanks to the spread of the internet)?  This is precisely what happened between the mid 1990s and the mid 2000s.  Of course, that ten year period also saw some other important shifts including the popularization of new types of martial arts (including MMA) while many of the old standbys (the traditional Asian systems) began to slide into obscurity.

In such a situation, certain post-modern theorists have argued that we should see a decline in the social salience of factors like socio-economic class and ethnicity. As society becomes both more open and diverse there will be an inevitable fragmentation of popular culture. The growth of new forms of social media will only accelerate this process.  Rather than turning to subcultures embedded in older ideological conflicts, individuals will now be forced to use their choices as consumers to construct new heterogeneous forms of identity.  Nor is there any reason to expect that these new cultural movements will play by the same rules as their predecessors.

To begin with, individuals will be free to use their consumptive power to purchase goods that either signal an acceptance of society’s dominant norms (something they are more likely to do if they are the winners under that system), or ones that challenge them.  Or, more disturbingly, they can mix and match their signals in highly personalized ways that defy simple ideological interpretation. Whereas older subcultures had easily discernable boundaries, and even readily identifiable codes of dress and behavior, newer groups tend to be more fluid.  After all, one really only participates in them when making certain sorts of consumption purchase, and these are only a small part of the bricolage that is a post-modern consumer’s identity.  And in any case, the central point of this consumption is to demonstrate one’s cultural sophistication and taste, not to signal a set of ideological values.  Certain theorists believed that they saw this transformation from subcultures to neo-tribes happening on a massive scale when, during the 1990s many of European youth cultures were replaced with a new wave of feel good club and dance music scenes.

One wonders whether there have been similar shifts within the martial arts community? And then you look at your Facebook feed and realize that the hipster-esque love of curating ever more obscure cultural trends has taken over most of the martial arts groups that you are part of. But there are other indicators as well. There is one, almost universal, complaint that I often hear from individuals whom I know within the Wing Chun (and TCMA) community.  They note that during the 1970s or 1980s people were “more dedicated” and took their training “seriously”.  At some point during the mid to late 1990s everything changed.  It didn’t just become harder to recruit new students, but student expectations as to what a Kung Fu class should be shifted radically.

Normally I would be tempted to dismiss this as the sort of personal romanticism that we all experience when thinking about our own lives.  Everything was always better in the past, even when it clearly wasn’t.

But there are couple of more concrete details in these narratives that strike me as relevant here.  Numerous individuals describe a situation where, in prior decades, students socialized outside of class very frequently.  They went to films together, ate out in the same restaurants and formed life-long friendships.  This sort of social behavior seems much less common today.  Only a handful of the schools that I have observed and study in the last few years have been able to maintain these sorts of community markers.  Some styles are better than others.  Capoeira seems to be about the best.  But in many other places we have simply seen a collapse in this sort of behavior.

We might attempt to explain this shift towards increasingly individualized students in multiple ways.  Wages in America have not kept pace with inflation since the 1980s, making this sort of social behavior more costly than it was in the past. Perhaps current martial arts students simply cannot afford it? Yet There are still plenty of restaurants in my neighborhood.  Someone is eating out.  Alternatively, we might point to the decline on “social capital” (decentralized networks of social trust and reciprocity) that Robert Putnam described in Bowling Alone. But more recent research suggests that some of this social capital may in fact be coming back.  I think the jury is still out on this literature.

Alternatively, it is possible that the transformation of the American economy and society in the late 1990s changed how most people perceived the martial arts, and redefined what they wanted from them.  Rather than viewing membership in a karate school, boxing gym or kung fu studio as a meaningful anchor of identity that was expected to change your life in meaningful ways, it became just one more good or pastime to be consumed.  Rather than the training hall being a place where one found comrades in arms, and a community where counter-cultural goals might be enacted, it was reduced to a single facet of more complex, always fluid, identity. Worse yet, it was easily forgotten when one stepped out of the studio doors.

The MMA schools described by Abramson and Darren Modzelewski seem to confound such a social shift.  While theorists describe the bonds holding together postmodern “neo-tribes” (one of the constructs seen as replacing subcultures) as typically weak and fluid, that does not seem to be the case in these gyms.  Most of the students they interviewed trained 20-30 hours a week and many were dedicated to professional or semi-pro fighting careers on top of their improbably demanding outside professions.   While more economically affluent that the martial artists in Bortez’s ethnography, they seemed to have just as much of a need for an appreciative, like minded, audience before which they could build their social status.  This ultimately leads the authors to retaining the concept of subculture when explaining their finding.  And it certainly does important work within the context of their article.

Yet when looking at the larger martial arts world, I remain somewhat hesitant.  It seems to me that any subculture based on the performance of a dominant cultural narrative isn’t really “sub” at all.  It is just a small voluntary association with high economic, physical and social barriers to entry.  And the literature on “strict” churches (and my own adaptation of that to “difficult” martial arts) suggests why it is actually very rational that such individuals would be willing to pay these costs even when cheaper alternatives exist. It is not so much that the values exposed in these martial arts clubs are really all that different from those spoken of in the Karate studios across town.  Rather, the high barriers in these MMA schools to entry ensure that one will have the opportunity to work only with other extremely talented, young, professional, and socially privileged martial artists. Perhaps what is being described is a socially, financially and athletically elite “subculture.”  But if that is the case, I think we have better terms for that.  At this point we have stretched subculture beyond what it conceptual roots, rooted in the Chicago School, can support.


Nima King Wing Chun School. Source: SCMP



Conclusion: The Levels of Analysis

As I noted in the introduction to this essay, no concept borrowed from another literature is going to fit our observations perfectly.  Though, perhaps it’s enough if they encourage us to ask new and interesting questions.  On a meta level it is interesting to ask whether we have seen a shift from martial “subcultures” to more loosely organized (social media fueled) “neo-tribes.” All of this reminds us that the early 20thcentury project of universalizing the martial arts within a national context never really succeeded then, and certainly does not describe the situation that we see (either in North America or Asia) today. The social role of these institutions has changed in the past, and we should expect them to change again in the future.

If we were move from the systemic to the organizational level of analysis, these competing concepts might ask us to consider a different group of question. Why is it that some martial art styles have retained (or recreated) a subcultural veneer, while others have fully embraced the more transitive, consumer driven, role of the neo-tribes. What niches exist within the martial arts market place?  And what are we likely to see more of in the future?

Yet I expect that these concepts might most accurately be applied at the individual level. In truth I am not sure that it will ever be possible to classify a martial arts organization as either an outpost of a subculture or a neo-tribe in any absolute way.  It is not only possible, but quite likely, that different students are going to approach the same class or training opportunities with their own goals and desires.  If I were to conduct interviews at a local Yoga studio, I am sure that I would discover that most of the students view their practice in a way that most post-modernist advocates of post-subcultural theory would find very familiar.  This would be identity construction through consumption. But would that really be true for everyone?  How about the instructor who dedicates their life to the craft?  I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that such a thing as a professional yoga subculture, with discernable boundaries and a unique set of norms and identities, exists.  Some individuals will aspire to be part of this, while others will not.

I am certain that the same thing is happening in some of the Chinese martial arts schools that I observe.  More senior instructors, who received their training in the 1980s, often have a different understanding of what it means to be part of martial community than their students.  They express considerable frustration when their students treat their training as “just” a hobby, or one aspect of their identity among many.  Indeed, as you listen to the rhetoric in these schools you can almost hear a process of negotiation going on as to what the martial arts mean. Are they meant to improve some aspect of one’s life, or to more fundamentally structure and give meaning to it?  Often these negotiations leave neither side entirely satisfied.  Perhaps the most interesting thing about Abramson and Darren Modzelewski’s study was that the very high barrier to entry into the (quasi)professional MMA world suppressed this sort of discussion, ensuring that everyone was basically on the same page.

Yet this level of social agreement would seem to be exception rather than the rule. Most other martial arts communities, and even specific schools, seemed be engaged in a constant process of reevaluation.  Perhaps we might understand them as being stuck between two models of cultural organization.  Or maybe we just aren’t well served by this sort of framework. If the problem is really what motivates individual choice, then perhaps Victor Turner’s writings about liminod rites of passage, which take both the creative individual and the advent of modern consumerism as their starting point, will ultimately prove to be more useful?  Yet both models serve to draw our attention to the more fundamental debates that are currently taking place in many traditional martial arts communities.  That is enough to encourage me to continue to read widely.



If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: Why do difficult and expensive martial arts thrive?