Comparative martial arts studies as a cultural-historical discipline: Possible objects, necessary sources, applicable methods.

The recent growth and integration of martial arts studies as a field of academic research raises fundamental methodological questions: Beyond attempts to define the objects taken into perspective, researchers should aim at a better mutual understanding concerning the sources that have to be studied, and the methods to be applied. Based on the experiences of the four conferences on martial arts studies held by the German commission Kampfkunst & Kampfsport (martial arts and combat sports), the lecture will argue for a comparative perspective on martial arts, and a polysystemic approach to put the various meanings ascribed to a given martial art system into an comprehensible network. Among the most obvious/important dimensions of meaning in martial arts are the sportive, the violent, the performative, the philosophical, and the health care dimension; more dimensions could be found. In most cases, martial arts systems are defined by an interplay of several of these dimensions. Consequently, the usefulness of a distinction between the terms ‘martial arts’ and ‘combat sports’ (or, further, ‘self-defence systems’) shall be contested, and an alternative will be proposed, which tries to acknowledge the multifaceted character of martial arts. Possible objects of study include movements & techniques, weapons & material dimension, media representations, teaching methodology & training outline, myths & philosophies, individual self perception & social structures, and larger social context & cultural setting; they shall be discussed briefly. Once the dimensions of meaning and the physical/intellectual properties of a number of individual martial arts systems have been described, a comparative study can put them in perspective, thus helping to improve understanding of a given system, of a cluster of systems, or of ‘martial arts’ as a cultural category sui generis. Methodological models for a comparative approach can be found in religious studies and can be transferred to the field of martial arts studies, mutatis mutandis, as the lecture will argue.

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