Yang Style Taiji in Shanghai, 2005. The traditional Chinese martial arts are always forced to create a sheltered space within the larger community. Source: Wikimedia.



“Do martial arts really make for more pro-social citizens? How the pandemic can help us answering that.”

By Andrea Molle


Martial Arts Studies in Interesting Times

“May you live in interesting times,” also known as the “Chinese curse” in the English-speaking world, is said to be the translation of an obscure, and unconfirmed, “traditional” Chinese hex. While seemingly a blessing, the proverb should only be used ironically to reaffirm that life is better lived during “uninteresting times,” characterized by tranquility, than in “interesting” ones, which are filled with trouble. As it tends to happen, and despite being widely attributed to an overly Orientalized wisdom, no known equivalent expressions are to be found in Chinese. In fact, the nearest Chinese adage roughly translates as it is “better to be a dog in times of tranquility than a human in times of chaos,” which has several different, and even more profound, political implications that I will barely touch on in this essay (Menglong et al., 2009).

As our times started to become “interesting,” my professional life brought me into the eye of the storm of COVID-19 social-scientific research, and I have published a few works on the impact of population structures and social networks on the epidemic’s spread (see for example Molle et al., 2020 under review). Nevertheless, I tried to keep tabs on how martial arts would adapt to, and hopefully overcome, the new threats posed by the need for physical distancing and the unexpected, computer-mediated, ways we seek to carry on with our lives (see for example Elmer, Mepham & Stadtfeld, 2020). As other, and better, scholars have already noticed (Frank, 2020), these threats as so dramatic that they pose an “existential level threat” for professional martial artists and entire disciplines, which might as well be as good as dead by the time the pandemic is over. This is particularly true, ironically, for the most popular martial arts, like BJJ or MMA, which based their success on intense physical interactions. At the same time, it might not be as tragic for once-popular and now-forgotten disciplines like Taijiquan, Capoeira, or Japanese, kata-based, Karate as well as those who provide training in obsolete weapons.

On the other hand, we have seen martial arts instructors and practitioners show an unprecedented degree of resilience, completely restructuring their practice and classes to meet the demands of their students and the limitations imposed to learning by social distancing (Viner et al., 2020). Online courses and homemade grappling dummies were not only inconceivable just a few months ago, they were absolutely anathema to every “true martial artist” in pre-COVID-19 times. These are now the norm and, interestingly enough, the narrative around them has changed even more rapidly than around any other industry, like food or entertainment, which have also been forced to adapt their traditional delivery systems, and corporate creeds, to survive our new reality (Jasmine, 2019; Nastopoulos, 2020).

I personally hope that some of the new offering hinging upon “how to defend from an infected person without getting sick” or “how to grapple wearing an N95 mask and surgical gloves” won’t see the light of the next day. But it is remarkable to observe how quickly martial arts have adapted. And so, it hit me, a thought that (and pathway for survival) which rubs against my social scientific, almost neo-positivist, upbringing. What if I am defining martial arts the wrong way? What if my biased understanding of martial arts, namely that they require intense located physical interactions, is preventing me from seeing the opportunities the pandemic crisis in presenting us with?

What if there is no “right way” to define martial arts and, as tends to happen in our field, Paul Bowman (2019) is correct? Perhaps I have finally bought into the idea that we should not bother ourselves too much with trying and defining what a “martial art” is, but instead should be looking at how these disciplines have been repeatedly socially constructed in different social contexts over time. Reflecting upon the structural and social meanings of these practices is probably the most critical endeavor we shall devote ourselves to as scholars in the fields of Martial Arts Studies and Hoplology.

One of the most exciting facets of these more fundamental questions is to understand whether or not martial arts actually promote personal improvement and pro-social behavior. I feel that as a field we have talked extensively about this, until now there has been no practical way to experimentally test our claims. The current pandemic crisis, however, offers ample opportunities to escape the classical, nearly cultish, tautological narrative that wants martial arts, especially the ones which are labeled as traditional, to function as a non-violent pathway to psychological and spiritual betterment (see for example Croom, 2014; Berg and Prohl, 2016; Goto-Jones, 2016; Greco, Cataldi & Fischetti, 2019). Also, it finally allows for the ideal quasi-experimental conditions to test the universal claim, embedded in most disciplines’ constitutional documents, that the practice of martial arts absolutely translates, for the majority of individuals, into a path to acquire more “pro-social” and leadership skills (Rowold, 2006). Is that really true, or, on the contrary, is it a myth, yet one more required belief to belong to the martial arts community? Hence, my interest in the nexus across Martial Arts and Martial Laws as the nexus of these two, seemingly unrelated, spheres finally provides a way to solve this question.


Karate students. Source: Wikimedia.


Martial Arts and Martial Law

I must start by saying that I am going to be using the concept “martial law” in a very liberal way. To my knowledge, except for China, and limited to the Wuhan province (Williams, 2020), we have not seen any examples of martial law implemented. In Political Science, martial law is defined as the imposition of direct military control of civilian life and/or suspension of civil law in response to a temporary extreme crisis (Wallace, 2014). Typically, the imposition of martial law accompanies extreme measures of top-down social control such as curfews, the suspension of civil law and rights, and the extension of military law or military justice to civilians. While we are not formally there, yet, many democratic countries have implemented softer versions of it in their lockdown or shelter-in-place policies. Several Asian and European countries, for example, are imposing extreme limitations on citizens’ mobility and enforcing it with unprecedented rigor in order to contain the virus (Chauhan et al., 2020). In doing so, they are frequently assisted by the military and top-notch surveillance technologies (like drones or tracing apps, for example) to an extent that we have only previously seen in dystopian fictional realities (Ruiz Estrada, 2020; Shirzad et al., 2020). Hence, the reason why I am referring to these experiences as martial law.

Naturally, as a political scientist, I feel drawn to analyzing the potential consequences of this; but that is not my goal of this essay. As a Martial Arts Studies scholar, I am interested here in looking at the interplay of this new reality and the fighting arts. At this point in time, I do not have much to offer besides a few anecdotal observations and one relatively simple hypothesis. I hope, with time, to inspire more people to pursue this line of investigation and provide some robust findings. I would like to start with the hypothesis:

H1: If martial arts are a tool to acquire pro-social behavioral skills and become what is generally called a “better person,” we should expect to observe that martial artists are, on average, more compliant with social norms.

Narrowing down the analysis and identifying which data we need to test this hypothesis, requires us to define what we mean by “pro-social” and clarify which social norms do we expect individuals to comply with, along with the best ways to measure them. Providing a complete definition of “pro-social” behavior, or a full understanding of “compliance,” is beyond the scope of this contribution, which is hopefully the starting point of a broader conversation. But I would like to suggest we focus our attention on the target of them how these concepts are directs in individual life. As Benjamin Judkins put it during a private discussion, we must clarify what we are really implying when we claim that martial arts make practitioners more “pro-social” and “compliant.” Are we suggesting that they make them pro-government or loyal to society as a whole? Or do they make them more loyal to whichever communities, biological, ethnic, or political, they find themselves embedded in? In the case of the US, for example, do we expect a martial artist to be more accepting of the dictates of the Federal or local governments, or merely the ones of their party of choice? Do we expect them to look after the wellness of the entire society, or to focus on the specific good of their kin, peer group, or subculture?

Historically speaking, martial arts have served both masters (Griffith, 2016; Bennett, 2015; Farrer and Whalen-Bridge, 2011). Born, in most cases, to preserve the clan or local community against others, with the advent of modernity they were converted into an efficient tool to promote the uniqueness of the nation amongst its equal members. The tension between these two equally fascinating social functions of martial arts is irrefutable. If anything, because, as Ambassador Spock (cited in Roth, 1987) nicely put it: “logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” But who are the few, and who are the many? Political Scientists have long observed, every new policy creates sets of winners and losers, and the costs and benefits of these shifts are typically unevenly distributed (Curini, Jou & Memoli, 2012). Hence the needs of the government, or society as a whole, tend to collide with the requirements of one’s small community of belonging, whichever it might be, simply because, for someone, the latter is the only collective that really counts.

The balance between the two can be extremely delicate and certainly varies vis-à-vis one’s set of preferences, and within the context of cultural variability. Typically, even in the most tribalized and individualistic societies, we do not really experience such tension because we can scale up our allegiances. However, with shelter-in-place orders and social-distancing measures enforced, the chances to observe a disruption of that system have increased exponentially.

For example, on April 30th, 2020, several dozen armed individuals rallied in the state capitol building in Lansing to protest Michigan’s coronavirus lockdown orders (Bufacchi, 2020). Within the media the protesters were immediately portraited as oblivious of the greater good and accused of putting everyone, themselves included, in danger by not complying with the public health rules, and with their reckless anti-social behavior. Naturally, we tend to passionately disagree with the protesters. Yet, our disgust does not change the fact that they were undoubtedly in compliance with a set of social norms cultivated by their sub-culture and were, ironically, extremely “pro-social” within the boundaries of their relevant political community.

This is a community that, interestingly enough, revolves around gun ownership and shooting practice (Utter and True, 2000; Olmstead, 1988), which can be regarded as a modern American martial art. Another example comes from Europe. Italy is undoubtedly one of the countries that COVID-19 has most fiercely impacted. Local news reports an unexpected increase of illegal boxing and MMA fights, conducted in secret and in undisclosed locations, much like what we see in the movies. Contact sports and most martial arts, as much as any activities that require prolonged physical contact, are currently prohibited in Italy. And however, just in the Veneto region, as many as ~1,400 athletes allegedly engage in this illegal practice exposing themselves to fines and incarceration. Indeed, it may be possible to explain their behavior using financial motives and ruling out any “pro-social” intent. But there is an alternative explanation that is suggested by interviews with some of the athletes involved in which they assert the need to preserve their art and their community throughout the pandemic. Indeed, the need to preserve the community is so great that putting one’s life in danger is considered acceptable.

Returning to the question of potential research strategies, after arriving at an operational definition for both out concepts, a straightforward study design could use multiple independent variables to measure environmental factors and fundamental characteristics of a relatively small sample of individuals, with two subsamples of martial artists and not martial artists. Such investigation could be conducted online and compare several countries from Europe, to Asia, to North America. These variables would include, but will not be limited to, the nature of the social distancing policies and the way they are monitored and enforced. Individual-level variables would potentially include the rate of compliance during the crisis, the frequency of social interactions before social distancing, the importance of political and social institutions, and the level of trust towards them. Specific subsample indicators could also be factoring the duration and significance of one’s martial art practice, and the ties with its community. A comparison between practitioners and non-practitioners, controlling for the most common demographic factors, will allow computing the relative effect of martial art practice on the tendency to “pro-social” behavior and “compliance.”

Such a study could also disentangle the degree to which individuals are compliant with the perceived needs of society as a whole, versus the promotion of sub-cultural normative positions taken by political parties or other ideological groups. If martial arts practice tends to create more universally pro-social students, we should see an obvious linear trend in the data.  If, however, the loyalties created within these communities are an intensification of more diverse regional or ideological identities, we can expect to see more divergence in the adherence to social distancing practices among martial artists than we would within the control group.

As a scientist, I do not normally engage in prophecies. However, if I had to venture into predictions, I would expect to see considerable variability in our results depending on the pre-existing cultural context. It is reasonable to expect that in some Asian countries, like China or Japan, martial arts would promote more compliance and obedience toward the state. That is primarily because of the underlying social structure and pre-existing level of political integration (Su-zhan, 2007; Keane, 2001; Hechter and Kanazawa, 1993). However, in an area like the US (Nye, Zelikow & King, 1997) or most European nations, perhaps except for countries of Germanic heritage and especially in Southern Europe (Ellison, 2011), martial arts will likely promote more insular in-group integration and aggravate the grade of failure to comply with state-level mandates. Italy, for example, as a historically low level of trust towards the state, caused by centuries of foreign occupation and micro-states fragmentation before the establishment of the Kingdom of Italy (In-Young, 2008). I do expect to see martial art practice there to have either no effect or, most likely, a mixed effect on “pro-social” behavior and compliance based on individual preferences along with the preference continuum state/local community.

In conclusion, such a study could provide evidence of whether martial arts effectively promote “pro-social” behavior and compliance or, on the contrary, proof that they do not deliver what most people, including us scholars, have assumed so far to be true or rather they deliver it in very different forms. It will be challenging to disentangle the effect of martial art practice on our outcome variables, sociality, and compliance, and nevertheless, it would be of paramount importance to our field. After all, clarifying if martial arts are what they claim to be, instead of assuming it a priori, might be one of the most critical findings in the study of the martial arts.


A HEMA Class. Source: http://www.academyofarms.com




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About the Author:

Andrea Molle is Assistant Professor in Political Science and Research Associate at the Institute for the Study of Religion, Economics, and Society. From 2006 to 2008, he was JSPS Fellow in Anthropology at the Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture (Nagoya, Japan). His current research and teaching agenda focus on the investigation of the intersection of religion and politics in different fields of the Social Sciences. Specific research interests include international relations, computational social sciences, cross-cultural studies of new religions, religious violence, martial arts, and warfare studies.