How did you come to study Brazilian jiu-jitsu and its embodied meanings?
I initially applied to the Graduate Institute with a PhD research proposal on indigenous street vendors in Mexico City. However, when I was offered the possibility to work as a research assistant in a project on indigenous migration in Rio de Janeiro, I took the opportunity to completely rethink my PhD project. Since Rio de Janeiro is a global hub of the martial art Brazilian jiu-jitsu, which I practice myself, I decided to bring together my passion for anthropology and martial arts. Reading on the anthropology of sport and thanks to the support of my supervisor, Professor Isabelle Schulte-Tenckhoff, I realised that sport is an excellent doorway to understanding society because it exhibits the rules and values structuring society in an idealised way since it is defined as different to everyday life. Sport and play are also important for the reproduction and change of societal structures because it is in play that people incorporate and negotiate social values. Like judo and wrestling, Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) is a grappling sport in which two opponents use their bodies to seize and unbalance the other using specific techniques to achieve a dominant position. However, it is also said to be a life-changing activity by which practitioners develop a “BJJ habitus” influencing how people live their everyday lives.
At the beginning of fieldwork, I serendipitously met high-ranked BJJ masters belonging to the Fadda-lineage, who invited me to come to a graduation ceremony at the Fadda Academy, which was founded by Grandmaster Oswaldo Fadda (1920–2005). It is located in Bento Ribeiro in Rio’s North Zone, which forms part of the city’s low-income periphery, and connects Fadda coaches in that area and beyond. Fascinated by the way the Fadda BJJ identity was performed at this event and by the values put forward in speeches and movements, I decided to embark on an apprenticeship ethnography with Fadda coaches in Rio de Janeiro’s periphery to study first-hand how their bodily practices are shaped by political, social and economic contexts.
Can you describe your thesis question and methodology?
My research was guided by the question: How do Fadda members learn to embody a specific moral self and create a community of good citizens? To answer it, I analyse the relationship between the bodily practices and the conservative moral project of Fadda BJJ coaches. Since my interlocutors perceive the state to be at war with drug traffickers and society to be morally corrupted, they employ BJJ to continuously call for moral self-transformation and to construct a virtuous community of good citizens that provides an alternative. By working the body, BJJ practitioners instil values that set them apart from the mundane and make the body symbolise the group’s moral project.
Methodologically, the dissertation relies on Chris Shilling’s “corporeal realism” to move beyond Loïc Wacquant’s “enactive anthropology”. I developed my thesis question and problématique out of the data I collected while practising BJJ among coaches belonging to the Fadda network. The idea of using one’s own body as an object of study and a methodological device to inquire into contemporary social phenomena is based on the insight that peoples’ bodies and movements are socially formed, presenting a pathway into understanding peoples’ lived experiences of society. For that reason, I engaged in apprenticeship research, using classic and experimental methods like participating – including active participation in BJJ classes and competitions –, observing, interviewing, photographing, filming, walking, archival work, and engaging with social media. I enrolled in three Brazilian jiu-jitsu academies connected to the Fadda network to practice BJJ and immerse myself as deeply as possible into the local BJJ culture. I produced data in form of written notes and audiovisual files, which I transcribed, sorted and coded with the help of qualitative analysis software. For my analysis, I collected, displayed and reduced data to identify crucial topics and actors and reach conclusions. My methodology allowed me to learn about the specific embodied meaning of Fadda jiu-jitsu and gain an understanding of my interlocutors’ sensory categories by employing my own sensory experiences and emotions evoked through physical engagement.
What are your major findings?
Within my general conceptual scope regarding conservatism and embodiment, I demonstrate that Fadda BJJ practitioners create a specific understanding of urban space, religion and citizenship through their sport:
- Regarding urban space, I explore how the Fadda BJJ identity is closely linked with Rio de Janeiro’s periphery, especially its North Zone. I analyse how the city’s moral geography is both maintained and subverted by the strategic essentialism of Fadda practitioners, who utilise BJJ to create territorial belonging in the periphery and claim their right to Rio de Janeiro’s symbolic centre in the wealthy South Zone.
- With respect to religion, I repeatedly witnessed evangelical practices being made part of Brazilian jiu-jitsu training. Given the seeming contradiction between the peace-loving Christian faith and combat sport, I analyse how BJJ and evangelical faith are made compatible. My major finding here is that evangelical BJJ coaches understand the practice of BJJ as a disciplining technology embedded in the theology, which allows them to embody Christian values.
- Concerning citizenship, I describe how coaches belonging to the Fadda network aim to raise underprivileged youths living in favelas into good citizens. Their aim is to teach their disciples to perceive the state as the only legitimate institution, “immunising” them against accepting the parallel rule of drug trafficking as normative. Contrary to the hegemonic discourse in society that essentialises drug traffickers as a self-evident social category, I show that my interlocutors have a more nuanced understanding of the arbitrariness of entering the drug business, attributing this to the lack of civic education and role models that could serve as a moral compass. Nevertheless, most of my interlocutors see drug traffickers as lacking social personhood, thus excluding them from Brazilian citizenry. I term my interlocutors’ perspective inclusive conservative subjectivity because it tries to prevent socially disadvantaged children and teenagers from becoming drug traffickers but places them outside of society if they do so. This finding productively complicates research findings arguing that a shift in the relationship of Brazil’s popular classes to human rights has occurred – which has paved the way for Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro to come to power – by pointing to their particular concern for society.
What could be the political and social implications of your thesis?
In my thesis, I argue that popular conservative narratives need to be taken seriously to better understand why political authoritarianism is thriving in Brazil. Although Brazil’s current president poses a real threat to Brazil’s democracy, parts of Bolsonaro-voters are not necessarily antidemocrats but people who seek a life of social stability, inclusion and moral values amid the urban violence they experience. Bolsonaro’s self-presentation as non-corrupt, hard-working, heroic and evangelical became congruent with the moral sentiments of Brazilians at a specific historical moment, including the BJJ coaches among whom my research took place. However, this alignment is prone to change if Bolsonaro’s self-constructed image as righteous sheriff crumbles, creating a mismatch between his political project and the long-term embodied moral project of BJJ practitioners.
“Does the COVID-19 crisis confirm the significance of your thesis's political implications?"
I would say that the crisis confirms the importance of taking sport into account to better understand how authoritarian politicians create an image of themselves as being hypermasculine heroes. President Bolsonaro claimed in 2020 that the virus is nothing more than a “little flu” and that he would not be affected by it because of his background as an athlete. While most commentators have focused on the “little flu” aspect of his speech, which downplayed the virus’s danger, I argue that the “athlete” aspect is even more important to understand why people buy into his negationist agenda. The reference to sports allowed Bolsonaro to present himself once more as a superior man who would win against all odds, even the SARS-CoV-2 virus. He had done so already after having survived a knife attack during the electoral campaign of 2018 when he was awarded an honorary Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt. By reproducing the narrative of the “heroic warrior,” he has been able to maintain his supporter base and stay in power, despite the almost 600,000 Brazilians who lost their lives to COVID-19 during his term.
Does the COVID-19 crisis confirm the significance of your thesis's political implications?
I would say that the crisis confirms the importance of taking sport into account to better understand how authoritarian politicians create an image of themselves as being hypermasculine heroes. President Bolsonaro claimed in 2020 that the virus is nothing more than a “little flu” and that he would not be affected by it because of his background as an athlete. While most commentators have focused on the “little flu” aspect of his speech, which downplayed the virus’s danger, I argue that the “athlete” aspect is even more important to understand why people buy into his negationist agenda. The reference to sports allowed Bolsonaro to present himself once more as a superior man who would win against all odds, even the SARS-CoV-2 virus. He had done so already after having survived a knife attack during the electoral campaign of 2018 when he was awarded an honorary BJJ black belt. By reproducing the narrative of the “heroic warrior”, he has been able to maintain his supporter base and stay in power, despite the almost 600,000 Brazilians who lost their lives to COVID-19 during his term.
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Raphael Schapira defended his PhD thesis in Anthropology and Sociology of Development in June 2021. Assistant Professor Graziella Moraes Dias Da Silva presided over the committee, which included Honorary Professor Isabelle Schulte-Tenckhoff, thesis supervisor, and Research Professor Noel B. Salazar, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Leuven, Belgium.
Full citation of the PhD thesis:
Schapira, Raphael. “Good Citizens on the Mats: Embodying Fadda Brazilian Jiu-jitsu in Rio de Janeiro’s Periphery.” PhD thesis, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, 2021.
Good to know: Members of the Graduate Institute can download the PhD thesis from this page of the Institute’s repository. External persons may write to Raphael Schapira to receive a copy.
Banner picture: Brazilian jiu-jitsu athletes competing at the Club Municipal in May 2018. Courtesy of Raphael Schapira.
Interview by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.