An exemplary model of how to conduct and communicate ethnographic fieldwork in martial arts and combat sports

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Anna Kavoura
Department of Psychology, University of Ioannina, Greece


George Jennings
Reinventing Martial Arts in the 21st Century: Eastern Stimulus, Western Response
256 pages, hardcover
Oxford, Oxon: Peter Lang Publishing 2023 (Sport in East and Southeast Asian Societies)
ISBN 978-1-4331-8293-8

George Jennings presents a compelling exploration of the evolving landscape of martial arts in his book Reinventing Martial Arts in the 21st Century: Eastern Stimulus, Western Response, that was published in 2023 by Peter Lang Publishing as part of the “Sport in East and Southeast Asian Societies” series. As a sport sociologist and a martial arts scholar and practitioner with over 15 years of (auto)ethnographic research in martial arts, Jennings brings a wealth of knowledge to his analysis of how martial arts have adapted to the socio-cultural shifts of our times. His research presented in this book “traces and articulates a story of reinvention of practitioners and their arts over longer periods of time, with a focus on Western practitioners of the martial arts that are either from the Eastern side of the globe, or have some influence from them in their philosophy, pedagogy, structure or practitioner biographies” (p. xxvii).

The book is organized in three parts, exploring different themes in relation to how martial arts have been reimagined (part I) and reconstructed for different purposes (part II), offering also unique insights into the lived experiences of individuals who have invested in this practice, including the author’s own autoethnographic tale (part III). Jennings, starts the book with an engaging collection of ethnographic vignettes gathered before, during and after the disruptive era of the COVID-19 lockdown. He then moves on to an introduction that seeks to expand existing definitions of martial arts and combat sports, offering his own meticulously crafted definition, proposing that a martial art can be best understood as “an imaginative, adaptable system of physical human fighting techniques designed in order to deal with perceived problems in combat and society” (p. 7).

Here I have to say that one noticeable aspect that left me with a lingering question after reading this male-only section (and the whole book in general) was the limited presence of female martial artists in the narrative.

Building on this working definition, Chapter 2 unfolds as a captivating case study of Wing Chun and Taijiquan communities in the British context, shining a spotlight on the “art” element of martial arts. The chapter explores the intricate ways in which these martial arts transcend mere physicality to become expressions of human creativity, through the works of pioneering instructors, their students, and the organizations they have instituted. In Chapter 3, the book delves into the realm of movement within martial arts, using as case studies the innovative work of movement coaches Ido Portal and Cameron Shayn, who have integrated martial arts techniques with broader movement methods to train a diverse array of individuals, ranging from celebrities to the general public, and even elite martial artists.

Chapters 4, 5, and 6 are the true gems of this book for me, as they navigate the “light” and the “dark” sides of martial arts, both illuminating the potential to enrich practitioners’ well-being and mental health, and shedding light on the shadows where abuse and exploitation can creep in. Particularly, Chapter 4 explores the fascinating intersection of self-help and martial arts, asserting that martial arts can serve as a foundational structure for individuals seeking personal development and self-improvement. The chapter dissects this concept through the lens of three compelling case studies featuring self-help books written by martial artists, such as Bruce Lee and his daughter Shannon Lee, Geoff Thompson, and Steve Jones. Yet, Jennings, goes beyond the surface, delving into a critical analysis of self-help literature. He contends that these books often place excessive emphasis on the individual’s agency to transform their life, while sidelining the crucial influence of socio-cultural contexts. In support of his argument, Jennings draws upon the insights of critical thinkers, including the work of Korean-German philosopher Byung-Chul Han, who postulates that self-help books align with the neoliberal paradigm, fostering a culture where individuals are transformed into achievement subjects, perpetually preoccupied with self-promotion.

Following this, in Chapter 5, part I ends by delving into the diverse intersections between martial arts and therapy. The chapter examines projects in which the author has played an integral role, such as Fightingandspirit and the Martial Movement Method. As a sport psychologist, I was intrigued to read about these projects and the potential of martial arts for the exploration of different kinds of relationships, such as the relationship with the floor, with one’s body, and with other bodies in general.

(Shutterstock/Eugene Onischenko)

Chapter 6 marks the beginning of part II where the focus shifts to the mechanisms by which individuals and organizations endeavor to regulate the ongoing reinvention of martial arts. Particularly, this chapter explores the McDojo critique, which includes the humorous criticism of the unregulated facets of the martial arts industry as those are exposed in the social media, but also the more serious critiques addressing martial art instructors who engage in unsafe, abusive, and exploitative practices. In Chapter 7, the discussion moves to endeavors aimed at revitalizing martial arts traditions in Europe (e.g., HEMA) and Mexico (e.g., Xilam), and to the broader global initiative (fostered by UNESCO) to recognize martial arts as integral forms of cultural heritage.

Subsequent to the examination of these global initiatives, part III delves into the life narratives of dedicated martial arts instructors (Chapter 8) and long-term practitioners (Chapter 9) who have been key figures in the author’s ethnographic research in the British context. The section then pivots to the author’s own autoethnographic journey as a martial arts practitioner and scholar (Chapter 10). Here I have to say that one noticeable aspect that left me with a lingering question after reading this male-only section (and the whole book in general) was the limited presence of female martial artists in the narrative. While the book does highlight the contributions of certain women, such as Shannon Lee (the president of the Bruce Lee Foundation), Marisela Ugalde (the founder of Xilam), and Georgia Verry (who leads the Fight Back project and the Trauma Informed Martial Arts Network), women were more often depicted in the book in auxiliary roles, such as martial art wives or daughters, rather than as central figures in their own right. In light of this observation, I appreciated the author’s candid acknowledgment of this limitation in the concluding section of the book (Chapter 11). The author’s recognition of this imbalance serves as an important call to action, urging scholars to investigate further the role of gender within the martial arts world.

In conclusion, I really enjoyed delving into the pages of this book, which undeniably offers a substantial and pioneering contribution to the field of martial art studies. Its impact, however, stretches beyond the realm of martial arts scholarship, making it an invaluable resource for ethnography and anthropology students. The book serves as an exemplary model of how to conduct and communicate ethnographic fieldwork, making it an indispensable guide for those aspiring to master these research methodologies.

Copyright © Anna Kavoura 2023


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