Masculinities and Martial Sports: East, West and Global South

Jul 6, 2021 | Masculinities, Projects, Transformations (Issue 3)

Professors Lynda Boothroyd (Psychology) and Kay Schiller (History) discuss the origin and progress of their IAS project of 2018: 

How the research project was born:
At the beginning there was an informal conversation between men about masculinity and sports. This happened when Stephen Lyon (then in the Anthropology Department, now at the Aga Khan University in London) and Kay Schiller (History Department) drove back in from a training event in Newcastle to Durham in early 2017. Stephen is American and Kay is German, and we discussed our own ambivalent feelings about violent sports like American football and martial arts which we had played and practised in the past. We were especially interested in how as men we were both attracted and repelled by the violence in these sports. And we were wondering why. From this came the idea to look more closely at masculinity and violence in martial arts and combat sports (MACS) and to do so from an interdisciplinary perspective combining historical and anthropological approaches. We were encouraged by the always supportive IAS co-directors Nick Saul and Rob Barton to apply for an IAS grant which we duly did. We were lucky. While we loved our project, the IAS selectors did so too. The grant would allow us in due course to bring both an international social science and a humanities scholar, Tammy Kohn from Melbourne, and Dave Scott from Dublin, for a term to Durham. We chose Tammy because we knew that she was a high-ranking Aikido dan who used her martial art in unusual contexts such as with her research on lifers and death-row inmates in US prisons. Dave in turn is a very accomplished amateur boxer who as a literature and visual studies professor has written important articles and even fiction on boxing in 20th-century literature.

What we did in preparation for the grant period:
With Stephen’s departure to London on the horizon, we decided to make the project even more interdisciplinary by asking a scientist to come on board. Enter Lynda Boothroyd, an experimental evolutionary psychologist. Armed with biosocial perspectives on the gendered body, Lynda helped us refine our project, not least by forcing us to understand the role of physical determinants such as hormones in creating objective biological differences, but equally in recognizing how recent neuroscience and psychology has advanced arguments to the effect that the gender binary is culturally determined and malleable. Due to the generosity of the IAS, and the assistance of its manager Linda Crowe especially, we were able to further broaden our perspective in 2017/18 by holding a series of talks at Durham, providing multidisciplinary perspectives on issues of gender and violence to audiences across the university. The speakers focused on topics such as gender non-conformity and sexual arousal (Gerulf Rieger), sex-integrated martial arts training (Alex Channon), boxing as a male preserve (Christopher Matthews) and the role of affect theory for masculinity studies (Todd Reeser). 

What we did during the grant period:
When Tammy and Dave arrived in Durham in Michaelmas 2018/19, we convened a weekly reading group open to the university community at large where we discussed important texts related to our topic. These ranged from evolutionary approaches to male-male competition to psychological studies on attitudes to muscularity, from Joan Scott and Thomas Laqueur’s work on the historical construction of sex and gender to Judith Butlers gender ‘performativity’, to recent anthropological understandings of martial arts, (combat) sports, violence, and gender. In our discussions we were regularly joined by Peter Hansen, another historian and independent IAS fellow who had much to contribute, having written himself extensively on mountaineering and masculinities. Our IAS project culminated in the fellows’ lectures and a very successful interdisciplinary workshop with colleagues from the UK and Thailand held at Cosin’s Hall in December 2018. The pre-circulated papers focused on different MACS and their intricate relationships with masculinities through politics, hierarchies, education, media, and cultures and led to many fruitful conversations. A selection of these has since been published as a special issue of Sport in History 40.3 (September 2020). 

And what we have done since and will do in the future:
When the IAS project came to an end, Lynda and I were joined by AJ Rankin, a scholar in Durham’s Sports Department specializing in issues of gender, race, and class intersectional identities in sport. AJ and Kay have since teamed up with Alex Channon (Sports Science, Brighton) and Kate Cross (Psychology, St Andrews) to develop a grant application on Violence and Politics in Martial Arts and Combat Sports (VPMACS). Its aim is to bring together this very exciting, however, fragmented field of scholarship between the humanities, social sciences, and sciences at a time which is marked by a backlash against globalist neo-liberalism with the rise of an often violent nationalist populism, along with equally visible and highly vocal anti-fascist, pro-LGBTIQ+, and other related protest movements. In a global cultural moment marked by struggles over identity politics, the symbolic power of the fighting body can play a crucial role in substantiating competing visions of politics and its wider symbolic referents. A first submission with the AHRC was unfortunately unsuccessful because the project was considered too interdisciplinary for this funding body, but we will no doubt try again with others. 



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