Proxemics --- Application In Martial Arts

By Dennis Lawson
Published on Nov 15th, 2012

This article developed out of a recent conversation with a former student. When we began talking about “social distance”, she reminded me that she was introduced to the subject at the age of 11. The Hidden Dimension had been required reading for her promotion to Orange belt.

The scientific study of social distances, later known as Proxemics, began with Zoology. Hediger, a Swiss biologist, defined the terms critical distance and flight distance to refer to situations when animals of different species meet. We’ve all experienced this idea. We approach a neighbor’s dog or cat only to have the animal stop and peer at us. This is critical distance, where the animal allows us to approach his attack boundary, but no closer. As we take a friendly step or two toward the creature, offering to pet, the animal bolts away. We’ve reached the animal’s flight distance.

Cultural anthropologist, Edward T. Hall, popularized the application of these ideas to the human species and our use of space in his books, especially, The Silent Language and The Hidden Dimension. Proxemics is the study of the cultural, behavioral, and sociological aspects of spatial distances between individuals. How humans in different cultures perceive and deal with space is a fascinating study and is one of many areas of non-verbal communication that can be critical for martial arts training.

Professor Hall separated his theory of Proxemics into two categories: territory and personal space. Territory defines an area to which an individual, group, or tribe may lay claim and would be willing to defend against others. A familiar example might be a coat left on a chair to “save” one’s place at a social gathering. A more hostile and all too common example is “Gang Graffiti” on walls and buildings defining a particular gang’s territory. With territory, actual distances may vary from a few feet to a few city blocks. Personal space varies according to both distance and the culture of the individuals. Hall separates this space into four distinct zones: Public, Social, Personal, and Intimate. For the martial artist these zones compare with Kenpo’s Stages of Range.

Public --- This zone ranges from 12 to 25 feet. This distance is often used for public speaking as it allows the speaker and the audience a view of each other. In Kenpo, this (close distance 12 feet) relates to the Out of Contact range where neither the defender nor attacker may touch each other without taking a step or two. The far distance of Out of Contact would require the use of a projectile weapon for any contact to be made. When the martial artist perceives a threat at this public distance, flight may be her best option. Like the cat or dog, in the example above, running away from an otherwise friendly pet, better safe than sorry!

Social --- This zone ranges from 4 to 12 feet. This distance is often used for discussions among acquaintances or colleagues. The close distance of this zone (3 to 4 feet) represents the Within Contact range where either attacker or defender, by maneuvering, may be able to touch each other. However, to do significant damage one must close to the next range.

Personal --- This zone ranges from 2 to 4 feet. This is a common distance for interacting with close friends or family members; people you trust in your “personal space”. This is the range of Contact Penetration. Your or your opponent’s punches or kicks may effectively do damage at this range.

Intimate --- This zone ranges from 2 feet to contact. This is the shared distance of intimate contact, whispering, touching, dancing, etc. This is Contact Manipulation range. Where you or your opponent may hold, choke, pull, push, etc. in an effort to establish a dominant position and control the other’s ability to retaliate.

I mentioned above that there was also a cultural component to these zones of personal space. Distances in these categories vary from culture to culture and country to country. The above mentioned distances are common in American, Canadian, and many Western European cultures. These distances quickly grow closer when dealing with Latino or Southern European cultures. Closer still are Middle Eastern cultural spaces, where social distance and personal distance can be one and the same! Awareness of these cultural differences could be the deciding factor in a conflict situation for a martial artist. Martial arts skills are applied for self-defense at the personal and intimate ranges. How significant could it be if the other person considers these ranges as social space? How many fights have been the result of someone “getting in someone else’s face”?

Filed under Philosophy and Opinion

Author Bio :: Dennis Lawson

Dennis Lawson has trained for 4 decades in Ed Parker's Kenpo. During his varied career, Mr. Lawson has been an IKKA Regional Director for Region #3, has acted as Master of Ceremonies for the International Karate Championships, and has published numerous articles in publications for the International Kenpo Karate Association, The Martial Arts Learning Community (TheMALC), and Kenpo 2000.

Mr. Lawson has had the opportunity to study other Martial Arts and holds advanced rank in Aikido and Takemusu Aiki Budo. Dennis taught, competed in, and promoted events in the New Orleans area for 20 years. Among his list of favorite achievements is choreographing and performing Kenpo for the Dance Council of New Orleans. His academic background in psychology and love of music allow Dennis to offer a unique and entertaining approach to tailoring "the Art" to the individual. Dennis has taught seminars in Ireland, Jersey Channel Islands, The Netherlands, Portugal, and throughout the United States.

Dennis holds a Sixth Degree Black Belt in Ed Parker's Kenpo and was awarded the title “Professor” under the auspices of The Martial Arts Learning Community (TheMALC). Mr. Lawson was inducted into the International Black Belt Hall of Fame as Master Instructor of the Year for 2006.

Other Articles by Dennis Lawson

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