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Hoplology – The Science Behind How and Why We Fight

A label is just a label, and among those of us who practice the fine art of bashing each others' skulls “martial artist” is probably just as good as any, but what if I told you that you could re-invent yourself with a simple name-change that would forever influence how others look at you? You would terrorize your opponents before you even lifted a finger, you'd have the admiration of martial experts the world over and you'd have more groupies than you'd know what to do with.

How much would that be worth to you?

Welcome to Hoplology – the behavioral science that studies the evolution and development of how people fight. The weapons they use, the strategies and tactics they develop, the mental and emotional energies they bring to the conflict, the history of the arts – it's an all-encompassing term for those of us who eat, sleep and breathe martial arts and constantly strive to better understand them. A Hoplologist attempts to see the connections between the street-fighter in Brooklyn, the Taekwondo practitioner in Korea and the mixed martial artist in Los Angeles.

The term “hoplology” was coined by Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890), an explorer / adventurer / researcher / scholar. He began cataloging combative systems and noting patterns that connected them in various ways, but after his death hoplology was largely ignored until Donn F. Draeger (1922 – 1982) came along.

Draeger was in many ways the modern-day incarnation of Burton: widely traveled and intensely interested in the world of martial arts, a Marine in World War II and a hard-living, hard-fighting, two-fisted kind of guy, Draeger picked up Burton's research in the late 1950's and continued and expanded it, defining hoplology as “the study of the basis, patterns, relationships, and significances of combative behavior at all levels of social complexity”. He also founded the International Hoplology Society, which breaks their study down into three sections:

Technological Hoplology

The study of environmental factors, materials and production processes and their relationship to the development of weapons, armor and combative accouterments.

Functional Hoplology

The study of the structure and organization of combative systems including the analysis and classification of combative systems, the observation of training patterns and their relationship to real and idealized applications and investigations into the reciprocal relationship between weapons and combative systems.

Behavioral Hoplology

The study of the psychological and physiological factors inherent in man's combativeness and his development of combative capabilities including the variables that influence the evolution of combative systems. This covers the sociocultural roles and effects of weapons and combative systems on the individual and collective social organization. This area of research includes the identification and description of man's belief systems and their corresponding social and institutional import. The analysis of expression of behavior (internal and external) in relation to weapons and combatives systems and the study of linguistic relationships in the evolution of combative culture are also included in this area of study.

Reasons and Rituals

Hoplology is also concerned with the reasons human beings fight. That may seem obvious – people fight to protect themselves or those around them. Or they're motivated to fight for financial reward. Or, if they have psychological problems, they fight because they're rewarded with the sense of power or the satisfaction that comes from harming others. They're all valid reasons in determining the motivations for pursuing conflict, but the hoplologist looks even deeper.

Sometimes fighting is ritualistic – some early cultures engaged in brutal warfare in which entire tribes were wiped out. Others decided battles by capturing enemies or humiliating them rather than killing them. Sometimes fighting changes because technological advances introduce unintended consequences. Napoleonic tactics with smooth-bore muskets produced limited casualties in Europe in the 17th century. One hundred years later in the American Civil War, the same tactics produced incredible carnage because soldiers were equipped with rifles. A look at Hawaiian shark-toothed clubs is enough to make one shudder. Were they used regularly, or was their appearance enough to intimidate an enemy? Such questions and the implications of their answers are the concern of the hoplologist.

If you've spent as many years on martial arts forums as I have you'll have seen comments such as this repeatedly made: “If (X Style) is so tough, how come their knife defenses stink?” The hoplologist knows that no fighting art can be expected to deal with strategies, weapons or situations outside the bounds of the culture in which it developed. “The Ultimate Fighting Art” and “Defeat Any Attacker” make great advertising copy, but they ignore a basic premise of hoplology: we and our combative systems are all limited by historical and cultural boundaries. We can adapt, but no fighting system can adapt sufficiently to address all or even most human fighting behavior. If we tried, we would eventually lose the basic principles that distinguish the art and give it structure.

An appreciation of hoplology, even from the perspective of the amateur, reveals the remarkable complexity and profundity of the fighting arts. Too many enthusiasts ignore this aspect of the combative disciplines. Human beings have always engaged in fighting. Various cultures have developed arts intended for this purpose, some sophisticated and some simple. Cultures have attached moral or philosophical elements to their arts. Some are surrounded with esoteric teachings; others have evolved into sporting forms. Some demand membership in an ethnic or religious group, while others insist on certain codes of behavior. The person who views all of them as just “fighting arts” is looking at this major enterprise of humanity in a limited way. Hoplology reveals just how deep and profound our species' combative arts are. It's a study that can, like the fighting arts themselves, occupy one for a lifetime.


Martial Arts | Martial Arts Philosophy


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