It isn’t every day that scientific research involves a bloody cage match, but that’s the life of a sociologist. In his Social Problems article, UCLA graduate student Neil Gong reports on his observations in a no-holds-barred fighting and weapons group, a club where there are no rules to maintain order or safety in the ring. The group’s only decree is that fighters should remain “friends at the end of the day.” After observing bouts and participating, Gong describes how fighters create and follow unofficial rules. He details three ways in which the participants regulate happenings in the arena.
First, the participants cultivate a code of honor, including shared, core understandings of “dirty” or dishonorable moves in the ring. Second, Gong finds that hesitation helps maintain order; since the fighters rely on rules and regulations in the rest of their lives, hesitation about how to handle unexpected moments in the ring tend to keep things in check. And third, rules external to the club, such as self-defense laws in general society, quietly enter these spaces, helping to shape the tools and tactics participants are willing to use.
In essence, even when there are no official “rules,” people in social contexts stick to a general set of norms and ideas for maintaining order. Gong’s hard-hitting research highlights how there are always rules… even when there aren’t.