Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) and the sociology of martial knowledge

by Sebastian Benthall

Maybe 15 months ago, I started training in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ), a martial art that focuses on grappling and ground-fighting. Matches are won through points based on position (e.g., “mount”, where you are sitting on somebody else) and through submission, when a player taps out due to hyperextension under a joint lock or asphyxiation by choking. I recommend it heartily to anybody as a fascinating, smart workout that also has a vibrant and supportive community around it.

One of the impressive aspects of BJJ, which differentiates it from many other martial arts, is its emphasis on live drilling and sparring (“rolling”), which can offer a third or more of a training session. In the context of sparring, there is opportunity for experimentation and rapid feedback about technique. In addition to being good fun and practice, regular sparring continually reaffirms the hierarchical ranking of skill. As in some other martial arts, rank is awarded as different colored “belts”–white, blue, purple, brown, black. Intermediary progress is given as “stripes” on the belt. White belts can spar with higher belts; more often than not, when they do so they get submitted.

BJJ also has tournaments, which allow players from different dojos to compete against each other. I attended my first tournament in August and thought it was a great experience. There is nothing like meeting a stranger for the first time and then engage them in single combat to kindle a profound respect for the value of sportsmanship. Off the mat, I’ve had some of the most courteous encounters with anybody I have ever met in New York City.

At tournaments, hundreds of contestants are divided into brackets. The brackets are determined by belt (white, blue, etc.), weight (up to 155 lbs, up to 170 lbs, etc.), sex (men and women), and age (kids age groups, adult, 30+ adult). There is an “absolute” bracket for those who would rise above the division of weight classes. There are “gi” and “no gi” variants of BJJ; the former requires wearing special uniform of jacket and pants, which are used in many techniques.

Overall, it is an efficient system for training a skill.

The few readers of this blog will recall that for some time I studied sociology of science and engineering, especially through the lens of Bourdieu’s Science of Science and Reflexivity. This was in turn a reaction to a somewhat startling exposure to sociology of science and education, and intellectual encounter that I never intended to have. I have been interested for a long time in the foundations of science. It was a rude shock, and one that I mostly regret, to have gone to grad school to become a better data scientist and find myself having to engage with the work of Bruno Latour. I did not know how to respond intellectually to the attack on scientific legitimacy on the basis that its self-understanding is insufficiently sociological until encountering Bourdieu, who refuted the Latourian critique and provides a clear-sighted view of how social structure under-girds scientific objectivity, when it works. Better was my encounter with Jean Lave, who introduced me to more phenomenological methods for understanding education through her class and works (Chaiklin and Lave, 1996). This made me more aware of the role of apprenticeship as well as the nuances of culture, framing, context, and purpose in education. Had I not encountered this work, I would likely never have found my way to Contextual Integrity, which draws more abstract themes about privacy from such subtle observations.

Now it’s impossible for me to do something as productive and enjoyable as BJJ without considering it through these kinds of lenses. One day I would like to do more formal work along these lines, but as has been my habit I have a few notes to jot down at the moment.

The first point, which is a minor one, is that there is something objectively known by experienced BJJ players, and that this knowledge is quintessentially grounded in intersubjective experience. The sparring encounter is the site at which technique is tested and knowledge is confirmed. Sparring simulates conditions of a fight for survival; indeed, if a choke is allowed to progress, a combatant can lose consciousness on the mat. This recalls Hegel’s observation that it is in single combat that a human being is forced to see the limits of their own solipsism. When the Other can kill you, that is an Other that you must see as, in some sense, equivalent in metaphysical status to oneself. This is a sadly forgotten truth in almost every formal academic environment I’ve found myself in, and that, I would argue, is why there is so much bullshit in academia. But now I digress.

The second point, which is perhaps more significant, is that BJJ has figured out how to be an inclusive field of knowledge despite the pervasive and ongoing politics of what I have called in another post body agonism. We are at a point where political conflict in the United States and elsewhere seems to be at root about the fact that people have different kinds of bodies, and these differences are upsetting for liberalism. How can we have functioning liberal society when, for example, some people have male bodies and other people have female bodies? It’s an absurd question, perhaps, but nevertheless it seems to be the question of the day. It is certainly a question that plagues academic politics.

BJJ provides a wealth of interesting case studies in how to deal productively with body agonism. BJJ is an unarmed martial art. The fact that there are different body types is an instrinsic aspect of the sport. Interestingly, in the dojo practices I’ve seen, trainings are co-ed and all body types (e.g., weight classes) train together. This leads to a dynamic and irregular practice environment that perhaps is better for teaching BJJ as a practical form of self-defense. Anecdotally, self-defense is an important motivation for why especially women are interested in BJJ, and in the context of a gym, sparring with men is a way to safely gain practical skill in defending against male assailants. On the other hand, as far as ranking progress is concerned, different bodies are considered in relation to other similar bodies through the tournament bracket system. While I know a badass 40-year old who submitted two college kids in the last tournament, that was extra. For the purposes of measuring my improvement in the discipline, I will be in the 30+ men’s bracket, compared with other guys approximately my weight. The general sense within the community is that progress in BJJ is a function of time spent practicing (something like the mantra that it takes 10,000 hours to master something), not any other intrinsic talent. Some people who are more dedicated to their training advance faster, and others advance slower.

Training in BJJ has been a positive experience for me, and I often wonder whether other social systems could be more like BJJ. There are important lessons to be learned from it, as it is a mental discipline, full of subtlety and intellectual play, in its own right.


Bourdieu, Pierre. Science of science and reflexivity. Polity, 2004.

Chaiklin, Seth, and Jean Lave, eds. Understanding practice: Perspectives on activity and context. Cambridge University Press, 1996.