Fighting with the senses: exploring the doing and undoing of gendered embodiment in karate

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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Karate is a sensuous martial art-come-sporting practice. Through a combinations of tacit exchanges of kicks and punches, sweaty touches, sweaty smells, aggressive shouts, communal laughs and helping tweaks of the body karate practitioners come to develop their practice, know their body and one-another, and assert their status in the karate hall. As a combative bodily practice, karate replicates an imagined, and often real, source of men’s power over, and distinction from, women. Yet in practice karate is an arena where women and men spar, sweat, and laugh together whereby, through inter-bodily, sensory, interactions, women can, and often do, out perform men. As such, karate presents a fruitful arena for exploring the sensory formation of gendered relations and embodiments of gender. Despite the integral role of the body and the senses to embodied participation in sport, and indeed in our gendered performances of self and distributions/assertions of power between women and men, exploration of the role of the senses in our sporting and gendered embodiment is largely absent from existing literature. This thesis argues that to understand gendered embodiment within karate requires reflection to these multidimensional, multi-sensory threads spun between sportsmen and women in embodied play. Building a sensory ethnographic framework for conducting the research, data was gathered from 9 months of ‘sensuous participation’ at 3 karate clubs engaging in mixed-sex and a women-only classes, 6 photo-elicitation interviews and 11 semi-structured interviews with women and men from across the three clubs, and reflections from my own embodied history as a karate athlete. The findings suggest that in both mixed-sex and women-only classes karate practice could ‘undo’ conventional performances of gender, and in turn gendered embodiments, through asking its participants to engage in a range of sensory bodily motions that are conventionally seen as masculine – such as combative movements and aggression – and feminine – such as control, elegance, and artistic performance. These embodied ways of being held magnified gender subversive potential in mixed-sex karate practice whereby ideas of men’s inherent superiority in sport could be challenged, and ideas of distinction between women and men could be challenged. Recognition of similarity as karate practitioners through shared physical engagements side-lined the importance of gender to practitioners embodiment. Together the findings of this thesis point towards the role of the minute, mundane, and thus often overlooked or unconscious elements of our bodily practice in ‘naturalising’, reproducing, or subverting gendered arrangements of power. In this way, this thesis contributes to sociological understandings of both embodiment and gender.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • University of Edinburgh
  • Bancroft, Angus, Supervisor, External person
  • MacInnes, John, Supervisor, External person
Thesis sponsors
Award date4 Jan 2018
Publication statusPublished - 8 Jul 2018


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