Health Research: Where Medicine Meets Martial Arts Studies?

By George Jennings

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The martial arts may appear mysterious or homogenous at first glance

Why Medical Research Needs Martial Arts Studies

 We all know what medical research involves, or at least we think we do. It is well established around the world as a dominant worldview to understand the psychological and biological world. It can ask and answer questions relating to physical health, the structure of the body, the reasons behind illness and ways to cure or offset it. But can it really pose and solve all problems relating to health? Rapid weight loss among athletes, concussion in training and competition and novel forms of movement therapy have obvious physical components, but perhaps also sociocultural, historical and even geopolitical ones.

The world’s martial arts include a variety of systems and stylised forms. Some are divided into families or lineages. Others are organised in official or breakaway federations. This complexity and diversity has enabled the newly coined ‘martial arts studies’ to borrow from traditions such as anthropology, cultural studies, film studies, history, philosophy and sociology. Specialists ask questions regarding the changes in fighting systems over time, the ways in which they are taught, the role of culture and language in their pedagogy and the exercises that help transform the people that practice them. They raise questions from a highly sensitive cultural, political and social dimension, and might aid medical studies following a biomedical standpoint. For example, with head injuries in combat sports: what are the cultural, moral and pedagogical issues behind this issue? Can we glean information from the different rules, tournaments and styles?

Uniting Tai Chi (Chuan) with Health Research

In terms of these styles, Tai Chi Chuan (sometimes spelt Taijiquan) is one of the most common forms of structured exercise in the world, although in a more technical sense, it is also a martial art that involves weapons and partner training (the ‘chuan’ represents a ‘fist’). There is a spear and sword sequence, and even stamping and explosive techniques in the supposedly original Chen style. The Tai Chi (the ‘grand ultimate’), generally understood as a gentle exercise in contemporary society, has been studied extensively as a medical intervention. The solo exercises of the form and its corresponding warm-ups can be helpful for elderly populations prone to falling, who have formed the base sample for hundreds of clinical trials.

This research often briefly situates Tai Chi in terms of its history (often a folkloric one), and gives a basic account of its various styles (Yang, Chen, Wu, simplified, etc.) before focusing on interventions using simplified formats of the art. This introduction does not normally use the increasingly rich literature on its history, culture, pedagogy and language. By overlooking martial arts studies, medical research does not explain the subtle differences between styles, pedagogies of schools or critique the history of the art. Martial arts studies could be useful in this regard, by illuminating the specific ways of teaching, the particular techniques and movements, unique warm ups and drills, and the metaphors that make lessons more meaningful for students and patients alike. So, the established and reputed field of medicine could learn from the emerging field of martial arts studies.

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A popular form of Tai Chi often adapted for elderly or ‘frail’ populations

Beyond the Martial: Health Research Aided by ‘Studies’

I have used the example of martial arts studies and how it can help inform detailed and thoughtful research projects by health researchers. Yet this potential union between fields of knowledge known as ‘studies’ and typically experimental forms of research known as ‘science’ is not unique to the world’s fighting systems. Psychologists can work with historians. Neuroscientists can work with sociologists. And ethicists can work with sports doctors. Health and wellbeing are not just the remit of science: They are central themes for the social sciences and humanities, too. Art therapy, social mindfulness, and biopsychosocial research are all emerging trends in doctoral training and funding. The creative, historical and expressive elements of humanity could then be explored in greater detail in the lab and be appraised and critiqued by experts from a variety of backgrounds. I hope this blog stimulates further discussion on this possibility from all spectrums of academia and beyond.

Dr. George Jennings is Lecturer in Sport Sociology / Physical Culture at Cardiff Metropolitan University, Wales, where he teaches modules relating to social theory and research methods. His main research interest is in martial arts cultures, pedagogies and philosophies as explored through various qualitative strategies. George is one of the convenors of the Documents Research Network (DRN), an association dedicated to scholarship where documents are used as data across the disciplines (http://www.documentsresearch.net), and is an active member of the Martial Arts Studies Research Network. His earlier exploratory research examined martial arts associations in Britain and Mexico and he is currently interested in martial arts and health from a critical, interdisciplinary and theoretical perspective.