December 30, 2014

Kung Fu Sociology

Peter kaufman 2014By Peter Kaufman

With a title like Kung Fu Sociology you are probably wondering what this post is about. Here are some possibilities to consider:

  1. The contributions of sociologists from Asia and the Far East
  2. An analysis of the sociological dimensions of martial arts training
  3. A sociological review of the Kung Fu Panda movies
  4. A reflection of a quote from a recently deceased French sociologist

Source: Wikimedia Commons

If you are well-versed in taking multiple-choice exams, you probably guessed that the answer is 4. That’s correct. Pierre Bourdieu, one of the most prolific and important sociologists of the twentieth century (by one account, he is the second most cited author in sociology of all time), once alluded to this Chinese practice to describe sociology:  

I often say sociology is a martial art, a means of self-defense. Basically, you use it to defend yourself, without having the right to use it for unfair attacks.

To understand this quote, it is actually useful to have some comprehension of the word kung fu. Kung fu is a Chinese term that is used to describe a variety of martial arts that center around self-defense. Traditionally, individuals do not learn a form of kung fu to wreak havoc in society. It is not meant to be used as an offensive weapon to cause injury and destruction. Instead, “the basic goals of kung fu are to protect against opponents and disable them quickly with strikes.”

Bourdieu’s famous quote, which is also the title of a documentary movie and a book of political writings from this French sociologist, uses this perspective of protection to capture the task and the promise of sociology.  As Bourdieu says in the documentary film, people tend to say that things are right when they serve the interests of those making the statements. For example, it’s those in power who say that inequalities are justified because it’s in their interest to make this argument. In describing how sociology can be used as a form of defense, Bourdieu implores us to ask an important question when evaluating the claims made by others: “What are the social reasons for why that person is making that argument?”

It may seem odd to think that someone would use sociology for unfair attacks. But as sociologist Joel Best explains in his books, Damned Lies and Statistics and More Damned Lies and Statistics, many politicians and media pundits often misuse social research—and often intentionally—to promote falsehoods and to rationalize a particular position. The role of the sociologist is to not only abstain from this misappropriation of our disciplinary knowledge; more importantly, we need to recognize and then refute when such fictions are fabricated. In effect, sociologists must see themselves as defenders of intellectual honesty.

Unfortunately, there are countless examples of individuals using faulty research and data to advance their own interests. But fortunately, there are just as many examples of sociologists heeding Bourdieu’s call to action and exposing these erroneous assertions as lies, misinterpretations, and misrepresentations. Some of the most accessible examples of how sociology is like a martial art can be found in the book, Sociologists in Action by Kathleen Odell Korgen, Jonathan M. White, and Shelley K. White. This book offers numerous examples of sociologists using their disciplinary knowledge to advocate for the disenfranchised, counter prejudice and bias, and inform public policy.

Bourdieu’s notion of sociology as a martial art is particularly relevant today given the nationwide protests over the recent grand jury decisions that exonerated white police officers for the killing of unarmed black men. As I wrote in a previous post about the Michael Brown case, many white people see the actions of these police officers as justifiable and they deny that race is a relevant variable in this discussion. In particular, the issue of white privilege and white racism are often discounted. When we are confronted with these views, which ignore and deny decades of sociological research demonstrating racial inequality, it is useful to remember Bourdieu’s question: “What are the social reasons for why that person is making that argument?”

In this example, the answer to the question is quite clear. As Bourdieu suggests, these arguments are used to defend the status quo. They are a way for individuals to maintain their dominant position in society. Denying the existence of white racism and white privilege, what sociologist John Foster refers to in his new book as White Race Discourse, is almost a comical inversion of the Thomas Theorem:  If we don’t define racism and privilege as real, then there will not be any real consequences. This sort of argument is the underlying premise of those who believe we live in a post-racial society free of racial inequality and injustice.

One of the most outspoken critics of the failure to see the existence of racism in the United States is Tim Wise. In his writings, lectures, and videos, Wise embodies Bourdieu’s notion of sociology as a martial art to the extent that he uses sociological knowledge to debunk and deconstruct flawed and untrue assertions. Recently, Wise wrote an essay that uses statistics collected by the federal government to disprove the argument that the criminal justice system is free of racism and white privilege. Much like a skilled kung fu fighter, Wise deflects harmful claims about race through persuasive rhetoric and counter points based on rigorously collected data. 

One dictionary definition of kung fu suggests that it is: “prescribed stances and actions [that] are based on keen observations of human skeletal and muscular anatomy and physiology.”  In much the same way, sociology is based on keen observations of human relations and on the social anatomy and composition of society. I don’t know if Bourdieu was drawing such direct definitional parallels with his analogy nor do I know if he was a student of the martial arts. Nevertheless, like any great master of kung fu or sociology, he is full of wisdom and insight.


Well I would agree on this theory for just about any topic, the more knowledge you have the better you can defend yourself from a fair or an unfair attack. The wiser you are the better you can respond.

I would have to say this is a great article in terms of how kung fu and sociology intertwine with one another. However, the word "kung fu" goes even further and actually mean "hard work". Think of it in terms of farming: the more you toil to get the lands fertile, the more fruit will manifest for you to pick when ripe.

did you know the technology exists to create dreams and visions.
so when you go to sleep at night....
you do the math.

suki nixon

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