Being aggressive: an Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis of Kung Fu practitioners' experience of aggression.
Abstract: Whilst human aggression is discussed widely in psychological literature, it is often addressed from the standpoint of positivistic science which suggests it is outside the control of the somewhat passive individual, who requires interventions to prevent or control it, implying that all aggression is pathological. Whilst this has its uses, it provides only a one-sided view, and contributes little to a fuller understanding of the experience of aggression. This paper begins to address this 'gap' in the literature by presenting findings from an Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis into the experience of being aggressive. The study reports data from semi-structured interviews with six martial arts practitioners and shows how participants described the process of learning to deal with a physical aggressor in training, the difficult feelings they had to confront (including their own fear and aggression), and the inner resources they drew upon during this process. In doing so, participants described achieving a state they called 'intent' which allowed them to deal with an aggressor with relative ease. In contrast to the current psychological literature, participants described themselves as active in engendering their own aggression, and outlined some of the more positive aspects that it played in their lives. Some of the questions this raises for practitioners, and areas for further research, are then discussed.

Keywords Aggression, Critique, Health, Pathology
Authors: Fletcher, Roly
Milton, Martin
Pub Date: 01/01/2009
Publication: Name: Existential Analysis Publisher: Society for Existential Analysis Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Psychology and mental health Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2009 Society for Existential Analysis ISSN: 1752-5616
Issue: Date: Jan, 2009 Source Volume: 20 Source Issue: 1
Accession Number: 196305875
Full Text: Introduction

Human aggression is found in many forms in everyday life and this is reflected in the wealth of psychological literature on the subject. However a review of this literature in this journal (Fletcher and Milton, 2007) showed it focused mainly on defining and explaining aggression through generalised models, independent of context and subject, in an attempt to find standardised ways to prevent and 'treat' those who would perpetrate it. Such standard causal models rest upon particular philosophical foundations that result in the assumption that aggression is the result of 'causes' outside the control and awareness of the somewhat passive individual, and ultimately imply that all aggression is pathological, in need of 'removal' (Fletcher & Milton, 2007).

There is little literature which contributes to a phenomenological understanding of aggression or the meaning of aggression in people's lives. Therapeutic practitioners are therefore left with one-sided causal explanations that ignore the possibility that healthy expression of aggression may be a pathway towards greater realisation of the self. Without being able to engage with the more positive aspects of aggression, practitioners risk 'disowning' their own aggression and attempting to 'suppress' that of their clients . Aggressive clients are considered passive (and pathological), denied their autonomy, unable to explore their needs and the needs of the environment in which they interact, denied the possibility to meet their potential in a manner which is right for them, and grouped together with others from whom they may be very different (Fletcher & Milton, 2007). Ironically, in the attempt to avoid being objectified in this manner, a power struggle may ensue within the relationship, which is inevitably frustrating, conflict ridden, prone to anxiety and further aggression (Sartre, 1943/1958).

It would be helpful, therefore, to acknowledge the intersubjectivity of any relationship in which aggression is present and avoid, as far as possible, assumptions of objectivity which lead to normative judgements that stigmatise all aggression as 'unhealthy' or pathological. What is needed are studies which strive to discover the fuller meaning (including the possible value) of aggression. There are very few studies which have begun to explore aggression in this light (e.g. Milton, 2005); and so practitioners have to turn to other sources, such as those found within the field of martial arts, to find non-pathological encounters with human aggression. As Frantzis (1998) points out, "By its very nature, the field of martial arts deals directly with this area of human existence, not by sublimating our natural violent tendencies, but by delving into them." (p18). Martial artists, unlike the psychological literature, explicitly acknowledge the possibility that healthy and appropriate expression of aggression may be a natural way to move towards greater realisation of the self.

This study attempts to begin to bridge the 'gap' between the psychological literature and martial arts by exploring the experience and meaning of aggression for martial art participants who are considered 'nonpathologisers' of aggression; who engage with it in an effort to gain greater realisation of their self. It is hoped that this will provide alternative suggestions for how to engage with aggressive clients.



In an effort to offer an analysis that does not lose the "subtle inflections of meaning" (Brocki & Wearden, 2006; p94), whilst still allowing a large enough range of individuals to talk about their experiences in depth, this study interviewed 6 martial arts practitioners face-to-face. As the 'typicality' of the perceptions and interpretations of these martial art practitioners cannot be ascertained, it is subjective and specific to them. Participants are recruited from one particular school of martial arts, that is explicit about their stance towards aggression. Recruiting solely through one school clearly limits the transferability of the findings, but these participants are attractive as co-researchers because they are in line with Brocki and Wearden's (2006) suggestion that participants be recruited on their ability to provide "interesting insights into the subjective ... processes involved [in their] experiences [and] contribute to understanding [this] area of interest through a deeper, more personal individualised analysis" (p.99). As with any qualitative study, we make no claim to be exhaustive, or to form a more general picture, themes or processes in the engagement of aggression. Instead the study aims to provide "adequate contextualisation", as suggested by Brocki and Wearden (2006; p.95), in order to provide some insights into the experiences that are currently absent in the psychological literature.

Recruitment used advertisements (containing brief information and contact details) placed within the training room following prior formal agreement with the director and was limited to students aged 18 or over, currently in training, who have achieved grade 4 in the system or higher as;

Someone who is working on grade 5 is probably the lowest grade to go for, as up to there it's still 'techniquey' [At 5] things are a bit more mental [Below this students] have only just encountered aggression aimed at them, and so are having to get to grips with bringing some sort of aggression out of themselves, even though they may not have control of it.

(Fenegan, 2006)

These criteria were a way of attending to participants' well-being and were considered likely to recruit participants who have a deeper level of engagement with their aggression. Such participants can be thought of as possessing experience that was currently absent in the psychological literature and hence are considered the primary experts (Brocki and Wearden, 2006)

No exclusion criteria were set in terms of gender, age, race, sexual identity or other demographic characteristics.

After potential participants expressed interest, they were approached by telephone, which allowed confirmation of their membership of the school, their level of training, and their ability to give informed consent. This initial assessing allowed for some screening of suitability before meeting face-to-face, thereby giving greater protection of well-being for both participant and researcher. Participants were then sent an 'Information for Volunteers' pack which included a consent form and background information questionnaire. Upon return of the signed consent form, they were considered eligible to take part. A suitable time for interview was then arranged. All of the interviews took place within a private distraction-free room; 4 at the training school, 1 at the University of Surrey, and one at a student's home.

Interview Schedule

The interview aimed to elicit an account of the participants' experience of aggression and hence a semi-structured interview schedule was used to allow the participants the freedom to speak freely and openly. Willig, (2001; p22) suggests this will "generate novel insights for the researcher", whilst enabling the researcher to "maintain control of the interview" and the original research question. The interview schedule aimed to explore participants' experiences of aggression (own and others), both within their training and outside of the training.

A pilot interview was carried out prior to the main interviews, at the end of which the participant was given the opportunity to give feedback about the procedure. This informed the interview schedule and the way the main interviews are conducted, by the suggestion of adding some 'warm up' superficial questions at the beginning, e.g. "how long have you been training in [this approach]?". All interviews were digitally recorded, and then transcribed verbatim. They were stored securely, and names and demographic data were changed in the analysis to ensure confidentiality. At the end of the project the recordings were destroyed.

Ethical Considerations

Ethical approval was granted by the School of Human Sciences Ethics Committee at the University of Surrey.

Participants were offered the chance to read the finished report following the summer exam board and provide any feedback they may wish to give.

Situating Roly in the research process

As researchers are active in interpreting the participants' material, it is 'best practice' to reflect on their role in the process, and how this impacts the study, e.g. the research question, the selection of participants, the analysis, and so on (Brocki and Wearden, 2006; p.97).

As a practising martial artist of 10 years, my own engagement in this process gave me some insider experience into engaging with aggression. In particular, it placed me in a position that held no negative view of aggression, giving me an alternative view to the wealth of pathologising material in the current literature.

This made me ideally placed to gain access to participants, while raising the risk that participants assumed that I had a level of knowledge that readers of my analysis would not. In order to manage this, I attempted to bracket my knowledge as far as possible, asking participants to clarify any jargon specific to the system. In terms of analysis, my insider experience was useful as it helped me draw out themes that were perhaps not obvious to an outsider. Of course it created a risk of the introduction of bias in theme selection or missed details. This is inevitable in IPA research (Brocki and Wearden, 2006) and introduced the need to ensure credibility as far as is possible. In order to achieve this I kept self-reflective notes throughout the project, and my analysis was examined by my supervisor. In addition, interpretations were grounded by examples from the interviews. My findings were discussed with practitioners of this system who did not meet the eligibility criteria for interview. The different interpretative positions that my supervisor and the practitioners held meant that they were sensitive to the data in ways that differ from my own.

These steps are in line with Elliott et al.'s (1999) criteria for assessing qualitative research.

Analytic Strategy and procedure

In moving away from the simple biological/environmental models of aggression in the current literature, there is an acknowledgment of the constructed nature of aggression and the importance of understanding participants' perceptions and interpretations (Fletcher and Milton, 2007). An Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) (Smith, Jarman and Osborn, 1999) approach allows an exploration of these experiences and how participants make sense of them in order to gain a greater understanding of how these feature in participants' lives. Whilst approaches such as grounded theory (which might also be used to explore the experience of aggression) were considered, IPA seemed ideally suited to an exploration of participants' experiences of aggression.

IPA aims to identify different themes from within the data, selected by prevalence, clarity, the immediacy with which passages exemplifies a point, and/or how the theme assists in the explanation of other aspects of the account. Each transcript was analysed individually. Initially the first transcript was read, and notes made of key phrases, summaries of content, connections between different aspects of the transcript and initial interpretations. From these notes, themes were identified that captured something essential about the quality of what was being said. Checks were continually made to ensure that emergent themes were consistent with the data and not simply a product of expectations that had been shaped by the researcher's awareness of relevant literature (or the analysis of other transcripts).

This allowed themes that captured something about the participants' account of aggression (and the loss of those themes that were not well represented in the text or marginal to the research topic), whilst remaining true to the real world perceptions of the participants and providing as full an account as possible.

This process was repeated in turn for each transcript following which a 'master list' of all themes across transcripts was produced. The interpretative task of choosing which themes to include or exclude was then repeated.

In this analysis participants' real names were replaced with pseudonyms and the material is presented in a way that aims to protect participants' confidentiality appropriately. Data extracts are used to illustrate interpretations allowing the reader to assess persuasiveness for themselves. Care was taken to distinguish between the researcher's interpretations and the participants' original accounts. In the quotations, empty square brackets indicate where material has been omitted, material within square brackets is provided for clarification and ellipsis points (...) indicate a pause in the flow of participants' speech.


Demographic Information

Due to the small and close-knit nature of the community from which the participants were recruited, the demographic information presented here is limited. This step is necessary to maintain confidentiality. All the participants were white, heterosexual males and between the ages of 20 and 49. The occupations given were all distinct from each other and provided the participants with incomes that varied from between 15K [pounds sterling] and 20K [pounds sterling], to between 30K [pounds sterling] and 40K [pounds sterling].

Participants' length of time training in the system varied from 2.5 years to 14 years. Training with a teacher varied from weekly to twice a year, training with a partner varied from weekly to monthly and training alone varied from daily to monthly. Half the participants identified this training as their first experience of aggressive training. Previous aggressive experiences included other martial art styles (competitive and noncompetitive), army and gangs.

Data Analysis

Overall, participants suggested a dynamic process of aggression characterised by different but inter-related mental) and physical experiences that lead to a sense of significant personal change. This can be represented diagrammatically (Figure 1). The process began with engagement with aggression aimed at participants (represented in the smallest circle), and led to engagement with different aspects of themselves (represented in the larger circles). This process was ongoing over time (represented by the arrow) and participants outlined the difficulties they faced in engaging with each of these aspects of themselves (represented in the rectangle). This process is described in full following the diagram.


Evolving and consistent engagement with aggression Aggression was said to be difficult to define, suggesting that this was due to its emotional and subjective nature, "it's quite a personal thing" (Gary). Despite this difficulty it is clear that participants were all deeply engaged with their aggression. This is demonstrated by their awareness of a multitude of possible ways in which they might express their experience.

They described:

* "verbal and physical aggression" (John)

* "a purely physical side [and a] mental side" (Rob)

* "an emotional response to something" (Rob)

* "predatory aggression where it's not personal [] and affective aggression where [] you're doing it to intimidate [] like a status thing" (John)

* "a pride thing" (Peter)

* "anything that puts you ill at ease" (Peter)

* "to take the offensive" (Edd)

* a "conflict [] between people [that] taking it to its nth degree it ends in physical violence" (John)

The awareness of this complexity can be seen throughout the analysis. Despite this, participants were consistent in saying that aggression has a physical dimension. This is expressed as physical violence within their training. John said "aggression is part of the training we do, and you will experience it, you can go to a lesson and expect to be hit". Despite the complexity, participants stated that their impression of aggression had remained consistent. Rob described this succinctly when he said: "I think I've changed a lot through doing martial arts but I don't think my impression of an aggressor has changed".

As can be seen in Figure 1, participants described an ongoing process of engaging with this aggression at both a physical level--e.g. John said "[we try to] apply techniques ... under realistic circumstances"--and at an emotional level: "there's always something new to learn, or a higher level of being able to control yourself and your emotions" (Rob)

While aggression may be experienced as constant, the engagement with it was said to lead to significant change. Edd said "it will change you for life [ ] and it will be forever changing". This leads us to one specific experience that is thought to lead to change ... that of fear.

Fear as a response to aggression

Participants described fear as being a common initial response to aggression in their early stages of training and was thought to be a "natural instinct of danger [making you] alert [and] ready to act" (John). However, participants also described the emotional and embodied aspects of fear as interfering with their ability to act. This included distorted mental and emotional perceptions, e.g. "you get a heightened sense of what isn't there" (John) and it also resulted in decreased physical effectiveness, e.g. "I wouldn't be able to effectively do what I needed to do" (Rob). Lastly, it resulted in a "run for your life response" (Rob). Hence participants described their desire to engage in a process that would allow them to overcome the fear and confront aggression when it was aimed at them.

Aggression as a response to aggression

Participants suggested that "aggression will overcome the fear [ ] so aggression needs to be trained in" (Edd). But this was not seen as an easy process and participants initially found their aggression difficult to control. Gary said he felt like a "time bomb", unable to "consider anything". Bill described it as "blind rage" that would "spill over into daily life" at "inappropriate times".

Within training, Bill felt that, like fear, his own aggression "destroys your physical posture" and hence you are "less efficient in your movement and power". Bill noted that this made it hard to "obey the rules of kung fu [and hence he would] get hit".

In order to use their aggression, participants engaged in a delicate and complex process. John said "I've got to be more aggressive than the person coming towards me but I've also got to be in control" and Edd added "you must have a clear mind [] if you train aggression into your thinking faculty then you could argue that you don't have a clear mind". So clearly, this complexity is difficult at times. However, with perseverance it is possible to find a way through these tensions. And participants termed this 'intent'.


At later stages of training, participants described being able to have an alternative response to aggression; a state which they termed 'intent'. John described how 'intent', balances out both fear and aggressive responses; "the normal response is that it brings the passive people up, makes them a little bit more aggressive. It brings the aggressive people down".

Peter described 'intent' as the "total commitment to doing something". So when faced with an aggressor, and in contrast to the debilitating effects of fear, Rob said:

While in this state of intent participants were keenly aware of what was going on, rather than being subject to the mental/emotional distortions experienced when afraid. Rob expanded saying:

Similarly, the state of 'intent' was embodied, and participants were not subject to the loss of postural/physical effectiveness experienced during fear. This was exemplified by John who said, "There's no sort of deviance, you're not physically trying to get out the way, and also you're able to attack at the same time".

The state of 'intent' is still an aggressive state; Rob described it as the will "to knock this person down and finish the fight as quickly as possible". However, in contrast to the purely aggressive response described earlier, 'intent' was described as being characterised by "not losing control [and] maintaining a state of equilibrium" (Bill).

Once experienced, intent reassured participants that they were not out of control, that their 'intent' would not 'spill' into their daily life. Peter said "intent for me doesn't have to be overly aggressive, it's doing as much as is necessary".

This experience of control includes an embodied dimension linking the physical and mental. Edd described it as "controlling your aggression means controlling your physical posture [] centering, mentally and physically".

As the participants talked, it was apparent that they were experiencing a struggle to articulate an experience that is both conceptual and embodied. However, there was an implication that the state of 'intent' was somehow peaceful, with a natural sense of pleasure and ease. Rob summed all this up by saying;

Barriers to engaging in the process

In contrast to the sense of ease implied by the state of 'intent', participants were clear about the struggles they had encountered to get to this point.

Five of the participants had trained in other martial arts but felt that none of these arts had allowed them to engage with 'overt aggression' (Bill). Gary summarised this saying:

Each participant described a different struggle that they had to overcome in response to being exposed to such 'overt aggression'. Rob noted; "an awful lot of people drop out at grade five because they can't handle it". For Peter it was self-doubt; "I can't do this, it's too hard". For Gary it was confidence "my confidence in myself at that point was really destroyed [and] I fell to pieces". And for Peter it was disillusionment, "you learn that fighting isn't going to improve your self-image".

Participants understood their emotions had to be controlled or they would not progress. Rob implied this, saying, "If someone has that much of a problem controlling their emotions then to actually take the first few steps in martial arts is going to be virtually impossible". Peter agreed, saying, "[for someone with anger issues] I would recommend they go and talk to somebody before training". Edd pointed out that gaining control of these emotions, "it's a slow process, some take longer than others".

Others agreed, saying this is "a very sensitive and gradual process [] that won't "work no matter what" (John). Bill expanded on this, suggesting that the process isn't necessarily linear, "the mind wants to pull you back [] it's the nature of the mind". Engagement with aggression seems to be like any other emotion in that there is thought to be no start or end point. Emotion implies a process of ongoing engagement and hence, Bill said, even "high level martial artists [] can be aggressive in inappropriate times [] some martial artists get to a very high level but never get away from that".

Rob joked that he was able to keep going, despite the slow process and the feeling he might not be able to cope because, "I'm a stubborn bastard [laughs] I had the goal in mind all the time [and] I was going to finish the system, no matter how long it took me, no matter how hard I had to work at it". Stubbornness (or at least hardiness) seemed to help Gary too, who said, "I carried on and on and on, keep taking all these knocks and just picked myself up and kept going".

For Peter however, it was the desire to try, and overcome his fear that kept him persevering. He said "well even if I can't do it, at least I've tried [] I came back because I wanted to overcome the fear".


Participants' found that the process of engaging with a physical aggressor led them to confront their own fear, aggression, ability to cope, confidence, and sense of disillusionment. This was experienced as a slow (non-linear) process, which requires inner resources such as stubbornness, hardiness, perseverance, and an ability to gain control of their emotions. However, in doing so, participants experienced a state they called 'intent' which allowed them to deal with the aggressor with relative ease, without the disabling physical/mental effects of fear or aggression.


Whilst the current psychological literature invites practitioners to consider only the problematic aspects of aggression, suggesting that their role is to 'banish' it forever, this seems counter-intuitive if one considers the experiences of the participants in this study. Hypothetically, had one attempted to 'rid' these participants of their aggression when they felt it was out of control, this would have 'halted' their process and their progress, leaving them subject to their initial fear, and unable to go through their uncontrolled aggressive response to reach what they called the state of 'intent' characterised by a sense of calmness and greater control. Participants would have been 'labelled' as essentially passive (and pathological), risking them feeling helpless, hopeless, and afraid, rather than active and autonomous. Practitioners in turn would be left attempting to work with the client's anxieties, unable to 'tap' into the valuable resource of aggression (theirs or the clients). If practitioners do this, they risk being unable to recognise the individual's autonomy and hence the individual's freedom to realise themselves (or deny that freedom) in any given situation. Instead, they risk bringing normative judgements into the relationship, which ultimately might lead to greater frustration and aggression, distancing the client from themselves and others considered normal, and not considering context and the social environment within which the client interacts.

Maybe what is needed in the therapeutic domain is an understanding of aggression as normal, healthy and appropriate. This might allow a therapist and client to 'align' themselves as 'same' (or at least grappling with similar aspects of Being), leading to a more collaborative relationship in which the fuller meaning of the aggression in the client's life can be explored. This potentially opens up greater opportunity to explore how the client uses their aggression to relate and act in the world, and how such a relational stance helps or hinders their ability to meet their possible potential in a manner which is right for them. Clients, like the participants within this study, are therefore given the opportunity to engage with their aggression, and reach their own valued state, the equivalent of 'intent'.

This suggests a number of areas for further research. Concepts, such as 'intent' have no equivalent with the psychological literature and so it is unclear what the therapeutic equivalent of this state of ease would be, and how one could achieve it (for practitioner or client). It also raises questions as to whether it can only be achieved through the use of aggression. If this were the case it would challenge current therapeutic notions of therapeutic practice being characterised by warm, calm intimacy. It might mean that we would have to consider the appropriateness, ethically or otherwise, of voicing our aggressiveness towards our clients, or to engage in aggressive relationships with our clients. The dilemma is that if we do not facilitate some equivalent in therapy, we risk becoming directive and limiting in what clients can explore and achieve. Clients may value engaging with aspects of themselves that are less comfortable or less socially acceptable, as did the participants in this study. Having said this, it may be difficult to 'attune' ourselves to this aspect of our clients and engage openly and honestly with their aggression. And maybe this is the core of the challenge we face where human aggression is concerned, and others such as martial artists, may have much to teach us.


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Roly Fletcher is currently undertaking the Practitioner Doctorate in Psychotherapy and Counselling Psychology at the University of Surrey and works within the NHS.

Dr Martin Milton is Senior Lecturer on the University of Surrey Practitioner Doctorate in Psychotherapeutic and Counselling Psychology.. All correspondence to: Roly Fletcher, Trainee Counselling Psychologist, Department of Psychology, School of Social Sciences, The University of Surrey, Guildford, Surrey, GU2 7XH. Telephone: 01483 686931 (through departmental office). Email:
you're still completely aware of the fact that you've been hit but
   it doesn't mean anything to you ... you just let it go without even
   thinking about it, it's not that you don't notice it, you're just
   not affected by it in any way.

it's more than just seeing what your opponents doing. It's being
   able to feel what they're doing and the changes in direction,
   forces they're making with their body [] you feel it on a different
   level because your emotional mind is not there at all.

[Intent is] almost impossible to describe it, you know it's taken
   me nine years to understand it. It's not even, it's not an emotion,
   it's not even, it's not a wanting to do someone damage, it's ...
   when you're purely 'intentful' and you're in a fight, it's almost
   like walking through a field of corn as some old Chinese masters
   say, you just kind of brush the corn aside, right that's it and
   it's gone, and, there's no real feeling of aggression, but the
   physical act of being in the fight is being aggressive ... it is as
   if you are fighting nothing. It's as if there's nothing there at

I've been training since I was about nine years old, I've done
   taekwondo, juijitsu, erm ninjitsu, erm, kickboxing, vambudo which
   is a mixture of tae kwondo and judo, juijitsu ... it was like it
   was a sport really, there was never any aggression in it really.
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