Welcome to the eleventh entry in our ongling series of 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), or the sixth by Charles Russo (who has great advice on the fine art of hanging out) 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.  The goal of this occasional series is to give some pointers to new researchers in the field, as well as to bring up issue that all of us should be thinking more about.  In today’s essay I will be discussing Greg Downey, Monica Dalidowicz and Paul H. Mason’s article “Apprenticeship as Method: Embodied Learning in Ethnographic Practice” in Qualitative Research, 2015, 15(2) 183-200.



Taijiquan practitioners in a park. Source: http://english.cntv.cn

“Apprenticeship inserts the ethnographer into social situations where being inept in appropriate, as is striving for greater understanding.”

Downey et. al, page 191.


The more practical concerns of martial arts practice and fieldwork overtook me last week and I had to step away from blogging for a bit.  Still, it gave me a lot to think about.  On Wednesday I was tasked with running a martial arts tournament for one of the groups that I have been doing field work with. Or to be more precise, I am a senior student in this group.  This single evening event was the culmination of months of planning and preparation, and it yielded lots of great video footage (most of which was collected by other people) and research notes (written by myself the following day).

Yet there is no rest for the wicked. On Friday I found myself headed out for another tournament (this one a national three day affair) with a group that I have been observing (but not explicitly studying with) for a couple of years.  That trip resulted in enough notes and video that it will take weeks to sort everything out. I was able to take many contemporaneous notes at this event, and was a more active participant in gathering photographs and video.

All in all, these were two great opportunities.  But they were also very different sorts of experiences, and it is probably worth-while for us as martial arts studies students (at least those of use who are explicitly academic researchers), to consider why.  My participation in both events fell under the broad canopy of “ethnography.” They were conducted with similar communities, and they both generated the same sorts of basic data.  What differed was my social position.  I actively study with the first group, filling a recognizable role within that community. Even though I was not competing in the tournament (instead acting as event’s chief official), I am very much “part of the organization.” In the case of the second tournament, I attended purely an observer.  I have worked to cultivate friendships with the community hosting that event over the years. I believe that I am a welcome observer, but theirs is an art that I do not study.

This makes quite a bit of difference when it comes to field work. Typically, ethnographers cultivate relationships, became adopted members of communities, sit on the sidelines, and record their observations.  This is “participant observation” in its purest form.  One can be immersed within in a culture, yet maintain a certain degree of analytical distance from the events that one examined.  The challenge has always been building the rapport necessary to achieve this level of trust and immersion.  To be honest, I am not entirely sure that I achieved it with the second community yet.

The alternative, as proposed by Greg Downey, Monica Dalidowicz and Paul H. Mason in their highly recommended article “Apprenticeship as Method: Embodied Learning in Ethnographic Practice” (Qualitative Research, 2015, 15(2) 183-200), is to flip the conventional script, becoming “observing participants.” Perhaps the most reliable way to do this is to apprentice oneself to a local master.  Skill based communities, particularly when they revolve around embodied techniques, are ideal units of cultural analysis.

That does not mean that this type of research is easy, or that apprenticeship or performance based models of ethnography with martial arts societies are without their pitfalls.  Indeed, this is the sort of thing that one generally goes to graduate school to learn and then spend years honing one’s craft.  That should be stated clearly up front. There are risks to this sort of research (and readers would be well advised to see this essay by Farrer to further consider those issues).

Still, as I noted in my review of O’Shea’s Risk, Failure, Play (2019), it is clear that the majority of students of Martial Arts Studies practice some form of hand combat, and many individuals are drawn to write about the communities that they love and actively participate in.  I outlined a number of potential pitfalls that might emerge for the field if we only “write what we know” in that essay. Still, the fact that many of us are deeply invested in our own martial arts apprenticeships, and our writing is informed by that experience (regardless of our field or discipline), suggests that this article is worthy of extended discussion.

In the case that I outlined above, it all goes a long way towards explaining why last week’s two fieldwork experiences felt so different.  And an awareness of the general arguments and principles outlined by Downey, Dalidowicz and Mason are quite helpful within a field where concepts like “habitus,” “embodied knowledge,” and even “tradition” are routinely employed without a great deal of critical interrogation.  One of the great contributions of apprenticeship as a methodology, and close examinations of the ways in which expertise is manufactured within small groups, is to problematize each of these terms.


Students practice the traditional Chinese Martial Arts in Qufu, Shandong Province.


One obvious question remains to be answered before going on with a review of Downey’s argument.  Why apprenticeship?  Why submit oneself to a hierarchic teaching relationship which will almost inevitably limit your freedom (temporal, social and possibly even intellectual) as a researcher if the object of your study is social or cultural institutions rather than pure technique?

One of the central problems facing social scientists and ethnographers who wish to study communities is how to gain access to them in such a way that the student can be seen and accepted as a legitimate member of the group rather than as a perpetual guest.  Afterall, most of us act quite differently in the presence of a guest than we do with family. So how do I, as a university researcher, become an “insider” in a group that is typically composed of people who are very different from me?

The brilliance of apprenticeship as a research method is that it builds on the need of almost all embodied practices (indeed, all social groups) to perpetuate themselves through time by taking on new members.  While other social groups may define themselves through essential characteristics, most martial arts groups, measure a member’s legitimacy through their efforts and mastery of specific skills. These are organizations that specialize in taking on untrained outsiders and turning them into productive members of an organization or society.  By agreeing to become a student the researcher immediately assumes an accepted social role that grants them access to (and a bit of legitimacy within) the new community.  In my own experience it has also facilitated relationships with teachers and other authority figures. Often these individuals become invested in my success as a martial artist as they also see themselves as having a stake in the successful outcome of my various research projects.  But more on that later.

Simply put, apprenticeship grants an “outside” researcher a legible social role and set of relationships without which meaningful fieldwork is impossible. While all ethnographers face these challenges, the nature of skill-based groups makes them particularly porous, and thus the task is easier.  It is one of the reasons why I find working with martial arts communities so enjoyable.

Best of all, such groups are good at dealing with individuals who lack specific cultural skills or competences. This is, after all, the entire reason for their existence. I suspect that this is also one of the reasons why we have seen sustained discussion of apprenticeship in recent years (see also Lauren Miller Griffith and Jonathan S. Marion (2017), Apprenticeship Pilgrimage) and more acceptance of martial arts groups as valid research sites in fields such as Anthropology and Sociology over the last decade. Pioneers within the field of Martial Arts Studies have demonstrated that really impressive insights can be gleaned from working with these groups.

What else might apprenticeship be, other than a specific gateway to social acceptance?  Membership in any group comes with its privileges, and one of the first of these, according to Downey and his co-authors, is an opportunity to study the flow of power (understood as economic, political or social influence) within in a group.  Who has this influence?  How is it derived, and to what purposes is it put?

One of my pet peeves is the sweeping generalizations that we often hear about the role of “martial arts” within modern society, as though we studied a unified phenomenon.  The martial arts community is deeply fractured, showing a wide variety of goals and social functions. This tends to be related in the organizational structure (both formal and informal) of groups, and there is no better way to get at the reality of what is going on than to map out the informal flows of power and influence within in a group. Of course, to really get a sense of the variety that exists it is necessary to observe and write about more than a single community.  Yet the demands of apprenticeship might make this difficult (especially if a group’s norms forbid dealing with “outsiders”), thus undercutting the types of research questions we might pursue within a single case study. The access that Apprenticeship provides sometimes comes at a cost.

Nevertheless, the insularity of many traditional martial arts groups may also be used to the researcher’s advantage.  Anthropologists often make a distinction between etic (outside or objective) vs. emic (inside, subjective) perspectives.  Downey notes that being locked into a given community’s perspective may give researchers a chance to become deeply familiar with the perspectives on practice and social values that exist in a given community.  Yes, one might lose the comparative context by apprenticing with a single school or group, but you gain insight into how specific groups of people have taken larger ideas and social trends and reworked them for their own purposes.

Since these ideas are often shared in some form throughout society generally, it can be easy to miss the fact that words have been reworked to have idiosyncratic meanings.  Again, consider the martial arts schools that we have studied. What do terms like “hard work” or “dedication” mean within a specific training hall?  Is it the same thing that these terms mean in an individual’s day job?  Or is “hard work” now being subtly inflected with other notions ranging from proper models of masculinity to an ability to endure physical pain?  This sort of code switching is critical for our studies, but difficult to detect unless one is deeply immersed in an environment for a protracted period of time.

Unsurprisingly, Downey, Dalidowicz and Mason spend quite a bit of time on questions of pedagogy and teaching methodology.  After all, the main thing that any martial arts group does is to reproduce its social identity through the transmission of skill from one generation to the next. And as an official student, the researcher is now ideally positioned to study how this process unfolds.


Prof. Lu teaching Shuang Dao. Source: Property of Daniel Mroz.


Yet the first thing that is discovered is that term “transmission,” which implies direct replication of the teacher’s skills on the part of the student, is almost entirely wrong. [Note that Bowman has also extensively critiqued this notion from a critical theory perspective].  The authors insightfully note that in even the most conservative schools, a teacher may lay out demands as to what the student’s body should do, yet it is always up to the student to dissect, decode and reproduce these movements.

They collectively conclude that even when examined on the smallest scale this is accomplished through a process of recreation and innovation rather than direct transmission.  Even direct physical mimicry usually isn’t possible as peoples bodies, skill levels and previous experience all vary.  The more familiar one becomes with the community the more evident it is that the movements of teachers and students are always diverse.  The very act of “transmitting” this knowledge from one group of students to the next generates a fair degree of creativity.

The countervailing conservative bias that holds a community stable comes not from instructional methods, but other institutions that bolster the school and its practice.  This might include external factors such as rulesets or media representation. It may also include factors such as teacher authority, social standards of legibility, economic constraints and genre rules. The authors note that this basic fact which we all experience, the inability to do what our teachers do exactly as they do it, (hence the need to find our own solution to movement problems), should sensitize us to the role of continual re-invention, learning, variation and even failure within the transmission of the martial arts.

That in turn should make us suspicious of arguments based on concepts such as embodiment, habitus and tradition that treat these concepts as static monoliths, and thus obscure much of what actually happens within a martial arts gym on the day to day basis.  The most interesting objects of study from an apprenticeship perspective may not be commonalities in your classmates’ socio-economic indicators.  Rather, we must also consider the diversity approaches that they exhibit to the same problem.

Downey further notes another corollary to all of this, one that sometimes gets lost in our enthusiasm to advance our own personal practices.  If the object of our study is social identity and the means by which it is produced, and we (the researcher/apprentice) are the research tool, it does not follow that the sharpest tool is always the most desirable. We are best able to understand the institutional constraints that shape practice as we make mistakes, receive correction and are forced to start over.  Too quick a mastery of technique short-circuits our ability to observe the leaning process, or to observe how a student’s skills are disciplined and molded into the desired result.

We progress in our research by going through the instructional process, but there is no need to entirely master it.  As we engage with the process, we elicit cooperation in the form of feedback from our instructors and classmates who critique our performance in ways that reveal locally meaningful values and goals.  Thus, we as researchers should not be afraid to walk into new communities and to adopt new practices.  The goal is always to observe and understand the communities that practice these skills, rather than to achieve some high level of mastery before we could be permitted to write about them.

This is not to say that apprenticeship-based research is not without its challenges. As I noted in my previous essay, researchers can become the victim of serious blind spots when they only “write what they know,” forgetting that many communities within the martial arts world function differently, or even that their own perspective on a given school may not be widely shared by all individuals within it.  The opportunities that such immersion provides cannot be allowed to devolve into a sort of self-absorbed autobiography, at least not if our goal is to understand larger social structures.  This is what Downey was driving at in his discussion of reflexivity.

Practice also comes with more practical costs.  As many authors have pointed out, the quality of one’s research notes and data collection suffers in apprenticeship situations.  I was able to video and take extensive real time notes on the tournament that I attended as an ordinary ethnographer.  However, I was too busy running my own tournament to do any contemporaneous note taking, or even much in the way of photography.  The realities of social media are such that I actually have lots of footage from the event.  Still, the sorts of things that other participants might record, and share, are not always the same as what interests me as a researcher.

At one point in his book Downey shares a heartbreaking story about struggling to record his notes after a hard workout, only to later discovered that they have been rendered illegible and mangled by sweat.  He took this small tragedy as symbolic of the way that embodied knowledge and discursive insight struggle to coexist.  Our search for one type of insight seems to overwrite other, more conventional, modes of knowledge.  Once we accept the role of student it may become manifestly inappropriate to be seen taking notes while everyone else in the class is working.

And yet the purpose of the apprenticeship is not pure technical mastery.  I have found in my own research that it is necessary to take the occasional day “off” from training to focus on more traditional ethnographic observation and notetaking.  This is something that I do rarely, but I am always surprised by the amount of insight that these more traditional ethnographic sessions generate. Times when I am injured or sick are often a good opportunity to refocus research strategies, and they elicit less push back from my teachers.

Researchers must also be aware of the latent power dynamics that exist between themselves and the communities that they observe.  A degree of reciprocity is expected in any teacher student relationship.  However, many of us who have worked in the field have encountered instructors who are not only eager to cooperate with our research, but sometimes seek to shape it as well.  This presents martial arts studies students with something of a dilemma.  To the extent that the subjects are themselves “frustrated scholars” who wish to have some sort of engagement with the larger intellectual world, this can be an important opportunity, even something to be cultivated. More common are individuals who seek to promote their schools, or ensure themselves a place in history, through the writing of their students.  Downey relates some memorable instances of his Capoeira instructor giving him very specific instructions as to what should or should not be written down in his dissertation.

Obviously that level of control of a research agenda is not a healthy thing. The last thing that any graduate student needs is yet another advisor telling her to rewrite a chapter.  Still, a certain loss of freedom seems to be the cost of apprenticeship based research.  We gain access to a community by taking on a social role, yet in an era when none of us ever really “leave the field,” the social obligations that go along with these roles are likely to have lasting implications.  They may even shape our research in unpredictable ways.

Downey noted that some of these pressures can be dealt with by assisting instructors in the writing and publication of popular articles.  That may be of greater interest to individuals who are primarily interested in getting their name out there among other practitioners.  It is also something that I have done in the past.  And to be totally honest, writing short articles for martial arts magazines is usually more fun than churning out scholarly articles.  Still, these are issues that young ethnographers must consider carefully.

In conclusion, go out and read “Apprenticeship as method: Embodied learning in ethnographic practice.”  It is an important piece for young ethnographers just starting out in the field of Martial Arts Studies.  And to be honest, it’s a critical piece for the rest of us as well. Downey and his co-authors do a good job of laying out both the possibilities and pitfalls that emerge when we make ourselves, and our training, a tool in the research process.  This is a field in which it is largely expected that our personal training will inform our research, even if we are not writing from an explicitly ethnographic perspective.  This piece may help us think more deeply about the value of our experiences, how to record them, and how they might contribute to a variety of research projects.



If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: Doing Research (8): Taking Seriously the Mundane, or How I Learned that a Choke is Never Just a Choke