PWSA Meet and Greet: Michael J. Altman

What is your area of study/research?

I’m Associate Professor in the Religious Studies Department at the University of Alabama. My research has focused on religion in America, and I’ve been particularly interested in the ways religion functions a category for the construction and performance of individual and group identity.

What led to your interest in pro wrestling and how do you approach pro wrestling from your scholarly discipline/field? 

I got interested in pro wrestling academically because I was interested in thinking through two main concepts: authenticity and belief. Research on religion in America often falls into the trap of trying to figure out who “evangelicals” (for example) “really are.” Or what this or that group “really believes.”

Pro wrestling offers an interesting example for thinking about these sorts of questions. How does an audience “suspend their belief” when they watch a pro wrestling show? What is “real” or “authentic” about wrestling? So there are a lot of questions in religious studies that can be applied to pro wrestling and that got me interested.

Of course, I’ve been watching wrestling since I was a kid but this new interest in it academically is only a couple of years old. I’m also interested in the ways ideas and theories from religious studies (myth, ritual, etc.) can be used to understand pro wrestling. In that way my interest goes back and forth between religious studies and pro wrestling studies.

Are you currently working on any pro wrestling scholarship/research/public scholarship/media? If so, please tell us about it!

I was really honored to get to work with Jessica Fontaine and Eero Laine to co-edit a special issue of Professional Wrestling Studies Journal on kayfabe this year. That was my first real work on pro wrestling. But I am slowly working on a book project titled Wrestling with Religion: Working Theories of Culture. The plan is that the first half of that book will use terms from religious studies to analyze particular examples from professional wrestling. The second half of the book will use terms from professional wrestling (work/shoot, kayfabe, marking out, etc.) to analyze examples from religious studies.

Michael Altman
Photo provided by Michael J. Altman

Do you bring pro wrestling into any of the classes you teach/attend or research hubs that you work in? How do you find it is received or taken up? 

This past semester I included a section on pro wrestling in my undergraduate course on “Authenticity.” We read some of the work on kayfabe and work/shoot. It went over really well and students kept coming back to kayfabe and work/shoot as useful categories for understanding other examples of authenticity claims we looked at throughout the semester.

What is a piece of pro wrestling scholarship (article/book/chapter) that has been generative for you that you recommend PWSA members read?

Two pieces that I’ve found really useful are Eero Laine’s chapter “Kayfabe: Optimism, Cynicism, Critique” in Professional Wrestling: Politics and Populism and David S. Moon’s article “Kayfabe, Smartdom and Marking Out: Can Pro-Wrestling Help Us Understand Donald Trump?” in Political Studies Review. They both offer examples of how concepts from pro wrestling and pro wrestling studies might be useful for understanding other examples in culture/society.

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