Phenomenological Meanings of Martial Arts Participation

Article excerpt

Asian martial arts are defined historically as emancipatory (Halbrooks, 1974), religious (Reid & Croucher, 1983, Chap. 4), and/or military praxes (Carr, 1993; Draeger, 1973). Modern definitions of martial arts emphasize either psychological maturation or skill acquisition (Draeger, 1974). In Japan, for example, Karate may be defined as Karate-do or Karate-jutsu. The former stresses psychological developments one undergoes while mastering the art whereas the latter focuses on skilled applications of method (Reilly, 1985).

Although participation in Asian martial arts has gained a measure of popularity in North America (Cox, 1993), the meaning of these arts in North American contexts is blurred (Columbus & Rice, 1991; Dann, 1977; Forster, 1986; Keenan, 1989; Wagner, 1990). While martial arts embody sedimented cultural beliefs, values, and practices (Back & Kim, 1984; James & Jones, 1982), sports of alien cultures are assimilated rather than accommodated such that values and meanings of foreign sports are altered for consistency with identities of native participants (Allison, 1988; Duda & Allison, 1990). Forster (1986), for example, identifies a greater public acceptance of full-contact karate in North America relative to Asia. Likewise, form and content of martial arts training may he altered toward adaptation to new cultural situations (Dann, 1977; Staley, 1983).

Research on martial arts participation in North American and European settings indicates personality and motivational factors can influence selection of a martial art as a sport and fitness endeavor (Anyanjor, 1981; Knoblauch, 1985), and martial arts training may offset felt deficits in other areas of life (Fritschner, 1978; Jacobs, 1970). Typically expressed reasons for starting martial arts training include self-defense, health and exercise, and discipline (Kim, 1991; Madden, 1990; Wingate, 1993). Studies suggest, that training in martial arts alters experiences of control and vulnerability (Madden, 1990), self-esteem (Richman & Rehberg, 1986), self-concept (Finkenherg, 1990), and fitness, confidence, and relaxation (Konzak & Klavora, 1980). Thus martial arts practice is characterized by some researchers as a form of self-help (Fuller, 1988; Konzak & Boudreau, 1984; Wingate, 1993).

In the present study, we were interested in phenomenological meanings of martial arts for a group of North American participants. In other words, we wanted to clarify what is experienced in everyday life such that a martial art is understood as an activity worth learning and knowing. For example, how might figural aspects of an individual's world be perceived and experienced such that self-defense is reported as a motivation for participation in a martial art? What are the contexts or grounds for these perceptions and experiences? How are contexts and meanings similar or different for various reported motivations for martial arts practice? Moreover, how do phenomenological meanings relate to modern definitions of martial arts? Through phenomenological analysis of written narratives, we explicated some experiential dimensions through which individuals conclude that being or becoming skilled in a martial art is a meaningful aspect of their lives.



Participants in this study consisted of 10 men and 7 women, all students at a small college in the southeastern United States. Ages ranged from 20 to 46 years, with a mean age of 25 years. Skill or rank in the martial arts (karate, taekwondo, or tai chi) ranged from novice (less than 6 months) to 2nd degree black belt (more than 10 years). Both quantity and quality of participants were consistent with subject selection requirements for phenomenological psychological research (Polkinghorne, 1989, p. 47-48).

Data Collection

Participants were given the following request: "Please describe in writing your experience of an everyday life situation in which you realized that training in a martial art is, or would be, a worthwhile activity. …