The 'McDonaldisation' of Martial Arts

This is something I wrote in 2007 about the way martial arts training is changing in the digital age:

Me hitting the pads at UKWCKFA HQ

I have thought about this for a while, and I would like to ask for thoughts on the matter. I am looking at this idea from sociological perspective and one of the areas of focus for this is cultural anthropology, but I also thinking about social criticism.

There is a book by George Ritzer called The McDonaldization of Society, which details the developing "fast food" mentality of our society. Essentially it is making the argument that our culture is becoming too fast paced and people want results as of yesterday. Patience is no longer needed when you have the world at your fingertips thanks to computers and the internet.

According to Ritzer, McDonaldization means "the process by which the principles of the fast-food restaurant are coming to dominate more and more sectors of American society as well as of the rest of the world."

In the book, there are a few criteria that detail this process. The ones that I feel are relevant to the Martial Arts (MA) world are-

  • Efficiency
  • Calculability
  • Predictability

Efficiency basically deals with the optimum method for getting from one point to another. This can be shown in a variety of different ways. One of the arguments that can be made is part of the discussion about whether hybrid forms of martial arts are superior to pure forms. The MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) approach can be classified as taking what works and using it. If it gets the job done, use it. This can also be seen in so-called TMA (Traditional Martial Arts) as well, and I think it can be argued that most martial arts started out this way. However, most TMA purists would argue that this is a bad thing since the system specific principles are not realised.

Notwithstanding, efficiency is becoming a paramount concern in terms of the speed with which one acquires skill. People now want 'the skills to pay the bills', i.e. teacher status, without having to work for it. They want a short three-step plan that will have them well on their way to being the next Bruce Lee, Royce Gracie, Muhammad Ali, etc.

In the book, Ritzer argues that in a society, as the frenetic pace of life increases, the efficiency of a fast-food meal, for example the ubiquitous drive-through option, often proves impossible to resist. It seems obvious that this same appeal is to be found in the modern martial arts world even though anyone with any sense can see that it is doomed to failure. The reality is there is no short-cut to improving your muscle tone, your lung capacity, your strength and stamina. These things take time.

People are drawn to arts that are purported to be easily learned in a short amount of time, like Krav Maga. But just like a fast food meal, which can leave you yearning for a more refined, even tasty, culinary experience, these disciplines tend to be a "quick fix". What happens once you've learnt them? You are left asking, "o.k., what's next?".

Today anyone can just buy a DVD or catalogue and start studying the art of their choice. The DVD costs a fraction of the cost for even one month's tuition at a legitimate school. With the advent of video-fu and the internet, knowledge has become more important than practice. People watch a video and think they know how to fight. Enhanced by the millions of websites and forums there are out there, detailing basic theory, and one begins to understand how the army of  'key-board warriors' out there can seem pretty knowledgeable to a laymen or recreational practitioner.

The next criterion, calculability, deeply affects the state of kung-fu. Calculability is an emphasis on the quantitative aspects of products sold. In McDonalised systems, quantity has become equivalent to quality. Nowhere is this more evident than in kung fu, in my opinion. There are so many "forms factories" with a Smörgåsbord  of forms to offer- many forms of which are simply taken from a variety of systems that have no relation to each other; nothing to do with each other at all. This is a blatant attempt at keeping you coming so that they can keep your tuition fee coming in. This is a blatant marketing technique: the school considers
they have more to offer you and thus you will continue to return.

Calculability can also be seen in the recent phenomenon of martial arts schools offering cardio-kick-boxing/ boxercise etc. to their clientèle so that they can target the parents of the kids who, normally, fill up the majority of their classes.

Predictability is becoming more of a problem, especially with your "strip mall" variety schools. Predictability is the assurance that products and services will be the same over time and in all locales. This phenomenon can be found in school associations that have branch schools all over the place. If you have paid your dues, you can go to any branch school and train and expect the same level of training you get at your home school. Instead of each teacher being an individual with their own merits in the martial world, they are expected to conform to the association's model.

More and more schools are becoming "cookie cutter" versions of more monetarily successful schools. The predictability factor comes into play, because, as the McDonaldisation model suggests, many people have come to prefer a world in which there are few surprises. According to Ritzer, a British observer noted, "This is strange, considering [McDonald's is] the product of a culture which honours individualism above all." People have come to expect certain things from martial arts, and they'd rather be part of the status-quo than thankful they are practising an original art. They want to keep up with the Jones', so to speak. I've noticed this with many kung fu schools claiming to teach Tit Sa Jeung (iron palm). Not so long ago, hardly anyone even knew about it, and now that books, DVD's and videos are in circulation, there are TONS of schools claiming to have Tit Sa Jeung as part of their curriculum. Or even worse, you have people practising it from advice given on the internet...uggh!!!

An example: I had a friend who had learnt Tai Chi Chuan over many years and was a respected teacher in the area. A certain local Karate teacher who I would accuse of the type of martial arts sin I am complaining about here, asked this teacher to show him the round form. Immediately after, he was advertising that he could also teach Tai Chi Chuan! I saw this repeated with a few people who he got to know through my shop, Crouching Tiger. He was just trying to make more money with no consideration for the quality of his product. If he was selling a product rather than a service, trading standards would have had him shut down!

Seminars, a big cash cow for some, exhibit all three of these criteria. You get your efficiency (material in a quick amount of time), calculability (another form to add to your repertoire , and predictability (you'll probably be learning something that is not that important, but at least you have the experience of going, and at the very least, the DVD of the event).

One of my key issues with the McDonaldisation process is that it is slowly dehumanising our society. Words like 'traditional' have become a marketing tool and people want old school respect after a two week course. They don't consider that you need contact with a human being to get a job done. This is clearly evident in the MA world with the advent of video training programs. It feeds a hunger we see in our whole society to free us from the need for discipline, commitment and a process of layering knowledge. People want an instant fix. People claim someone as their teacher when they haven't even met them, or even learned from a living, breathing person, let alone tested their knowledge. This is probably one of the most preposterous things about the entire process. You have a discipline that is all about physical contact and interaction, how can you remove that contact and interaction and still claim that you are proficient?

My living, breathing, Sifu, James Sinclair, on the cover of Martial Arts Illustrated




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