Kinesics and Context

Kinesics and Context: Essays on Body Motion Communication

RAY L. BIRDWHISTELL
Copyright Date: 1970
Pages: 352
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt3fhk73
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  • Book Info
    Kinesics and Context
    Book Description:

    Ray L. Birdwhistell, in this study of human body motion (a study he terms kinesics), advances the theory that human communication needs and uses all the senses, that the information conveyed by human gestures and movements is coded and patterned differently in various cultures, and that these codes can be discovered by skilled scrutiny of particular movements within a social context.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0128-4
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    Ray L. Birdwhistell

    These essays are based on the conviction that body motion is a learned form of communication, which is patterned within a culture and which can be broken down into an ordered system of isolable elements. This book is not a journal of completed research. Nor is it designed as a textbook in kinesics. Neither is it a manual of instruction for those who would memorize annotational conventions and, without other training, buy a tape recorder or a motion analyst projector and turn movies into scientific documents. It is a book about the study of body motion, communication, and the need...

  4. Part I. Learning to Be a Human Body
    • 1. “There Was a Child Went Forth …”
      (pp. 3-11)

      A human being is not a black box with one orifice for emitting a chunk of stuff called communication and another for receiving it. And, at the same time, communication is not simply the sum of the bits of information which pass between two people in a given period of time.

      Let us suppose that some wealthy and benevolent foundation was impressed with the fact that the human organism is a fantastically sensitive system capable of receiving literally hundreds of thousands of bits of information and became so concerned with the implications of this that they were willing to support...

    • 2. The Age of a Baby
      (pp. 11-23)

      Traditionally, we have regarded communication as that process by which one individual imparted knowledge to another. Many scholars have felt that an exhaustive measurement of communication could be accomplished through so-called black box research. By this procedure one subject is given a set of clearly limited pieces of information which he is instructed to impart to another. It is recognized that there are certain external interferences in this process. These interferences, called “noise,” are kept in mind when the receiver subject is tested to determine the proportion of the original message which he has received. The data derived from this...

    • 3. Becoming Predictable
      (pp. 24-25)

      I have spent almost two decades exploring the social potentiality of the human body. During this period we have studied hundreds of thousands of feet of film. Thousands of hours have been spent on minutes of recorded human interaction. I have talked with artists, anatomists, and athletes. With my colleagues from psychiatry, I have observed the strange distortions of the bodies of the mentally ill and have listened to their even stranger reflections on these bodies. It was my hope that I could be forced by these caricatured performances to recognize characteristics of pathology, and, by contrast, of “normality.” This...

    • 4. Backgrounds
      (pp. 25-29)

      As will be evident in the essays in this volume, the paramount and sustaining influence upon my work has been that of anthropological linguistics. This dependency was not occasioned by a preoccupation with linguistics per se. Rather, it was only in linguistic analysis that I could find either data or models which could penetrate my preconceptions. A short but productive stay among the Kutenai, aimed at the study of Kutenai kinship, had raised problems about words and behavior in my mind. These were magnified rather than solved by an extended study of kinship practices in two Kentucky communities.

      My earliest...

    • 5. There Are Smiles …
      (pp. 29-39)

      Laughing and crying seem to be such universally recognized human expressions that from the beginning of my interest in human body motion communication I was tempted to see these as basic physiologically derived expressions, the study of which could provide us with a starting point for measuring special individual conventionalized behavior. When I began to film real children in real contexts, the temptation remained but the confidence in the method rapidly faded.

      As long as we studied the laughing or crying situations as identified by the participants, it was easy to code (linguistically and kinesically) the laughter as laughter, the...

    • 6. Masculinity and Femininity as Display
      (pp. 39-46)

      Zoologists and biologists have over the years accumulated archives of data which attest to the complex ordering of animal gender display, courtship, and mating behavior. Until recently, the implications of much of this data have been obscured by the governing assumption that this behavior was, while intricate and obviously patterned, essentially a mechanical and instinctual response to a genetically based program. There has been, however, an increasing realization that intragender and intergender behavior throughout the animal kingdom is not simply a response to instinctual mechanisms but is shaped, structured, and released both by the ontogenetic experiences of the participating organisms...

    • 7. Kinesic Analysis of Filmed Behavior of Children
      (pp. 47-50)

      In order to develop better techniques for description and analysis of the communicational aspects of human body motion, the University of Louisville Interdisciplinary Committee on Culture and Communication sponsored my filming of a series of scenes of group behavior in children from a particular neighborhood. Since the project was exploratory only, no attempt was made to set up a control situation for filming, other than that which naturally exists in well-known social situations; that is, the neighborhood was well known to the researchers and it was possible to anticipate play group composition and activities. The children ranged in age from...

    • 8. The Family and Its Open Secrets
      (pp. 50-54)

      To focus exclusively upon the words humans interchange is to eliminate much of the communicational process from view and, thus, from purposive control. Obviously, in such a situation the conditions of context, which give special emphasis to lexical exchange, become critical. If we do not understand the communicative process, our only recourse is to legislate the control of its shorthand operation as it exists in words. The following anecdote may illustrate the point behind this discussion:

      When we were both much younger, my brother wrote to say that he had finally decided to be brave and take a young lady...

    • 9. Talk and Motion in the Theater and at Family Meals
      (pp. 54-58)

      Students of the theater have long been aware that there are significant cross-societal differences in acting, direction, and stagecraft. The French, the Germans, the English, and the Americans seem each to put a national stamp upon their productions. The same script produced in each of these countries, according to afficionados of the stage, is so flavored by the conventions of production and direction as almost to become different plays. These differences are not simply matters of schools of acting, although these do vary. Nor are these only matters of styles of timing, stage construction, or wardrobe which vary from country...

    • 10. Tactile Communication in a Family
      (pp. 58-62)

      As i have lectured before a variety of audiences over the past 15 years about the complex multisensory system I conceive communication to be, I have been repeatedly asked how I “stood” on extrasensory perception. My answer to this question has always been and still is that much research on the various sensory modalities needs to be done before we conclude that the unexplained is unexplainable in terms of the known sensory modalities. Occam’s razor dictates that I utilize a simpler hypothesis of sensory explanation before I employ the more complex one which would divide all of communication into sensory...

  5. Part II. Isolating Behavior
    • 11. It Depends on the Point of View
      (pp. 65-79)

      There is a large, though scarcely comprehensive, literature dealing with the rules, the etiquette, the conventions of formal, interpersonal exchanges. In a sense, such studies might be regarded as describing interpersonal exchanges from above. We are concerned here with studying them from below. That is, by studying that systematic and patterned behavior by means of which men engage in communication with each other, we may be able to understand how these processes order, set limits upon, or, at times, determine the interactive process.

      Concern with communication is probably as old as man himself, but the history of the scientific investigation...

    • 12. Gestures: Signals or Partials
      (pp. 79-82)

      As anthropologists have become increasingly aware of the importance of comparative body motion studies, evidence has accumulated to support the proposition that “gestures” are culture linked both in shape and in meaning.

      During World War II, I became at first bemused, and later intrigued, by the repertoire of meanings which could be drawn upon by an experienced United States Army private and transmitted in accompaniment to a hand salute. The salute, a conventionalized movement of the right hand to the vicinity of the anterior portion of the cap or hat, could, without occasioning a court martial, be performed in a...

    • 13. Handicaps in the Linguistic-Kinesic Analogy
      (pp. 82-84)

      The dependency of structural kinesics (that is, those aspects of kinesic research which deal with infracommunicative, structural matters) upon structural linguistics is evident throughout this volume, and some of the thoughts evolving from this relationship and some examples of the application of linguistic techniques to the study of body motion are presented in the essays which follow. However profitable this dependency has been, it is not without handicap. The universes of sound and of light, of hearing and seeing, and of sound production and light pattern production may appear coextant in nature but they occupy very different strata. The fact...

    • 14. “Redundancy” in Multichannel Communication Systems
      (pp. 85-92)

      Perhaps one of the most elusive and thus most debatable concepts in emerging communication theory is that of “redundancy.” Many of us will recall the concept from our schoolday classes in rhetoric. Webster defines redundant as “more than enough; over abundant; excessive.” Pejorative in implication, “redundancy” is in criticism applied to any “unnecessary” duplication of words within a sentence.

      When information theorists such as C. E. Shannon and W. Weaver began to construct models for the investigation of informational passage and exchange, they modified the meaning to cover all signs, that is, behavior, that served to reduce the ambiguity of...

  6. Part III. Approaching Behavior
    • 15. Social Contexts of Communication
      (pp. 95-98)

      Unless the student of structural analysis of communication is so omnivorous in his conception of communication that he defines it to include all of culture, he must have distinct, or at least heuristically distinguishable, contexts for measuring the behavior which he is attempting to order. If he is going to study the communicated shifts of behavior in groups, he must know the contexts of these occurrences. Only in this way can he isolate the strictly communicational behavior from the idiosyncratic, on the one hand, and from the institutionally internalized, on the other.

      For the purpose of this paper, communication can...

    • 16. Toward Analyzing American Movement
      (pp. 99-110)

      It would be wonderful but premature to report that we have completed the kinological analysis of the American movement system. A number and, hopefully, the majority of American kinemes (see p. 229ff.) have been abstracted and withstood the test of contrast analysis. It seems safe now to predict that the kinemic catalog will probably contain between fifty and sixty items. At the risk of being dully repetitive, it must be reiterated that these are building blocks with structural meaning. As these units are combined into orderly structures of behavior in the interactive sequence they contribute to social meaning.

      For purposes...

    • 17. Movement with Speech
      (pp. 110-127)

      Early in my investigations, research made it clear that it was going to be impossible to develop objective interviewing techniques before much more was known about the detailed structuring of body motion and about the relationship between this structuring and that of other communicative processes. Furthermore, even preliminary evaluation of the data made me face the difficulty of the simultaneous observation of linguistic and kinesic material. In fact, neither I nor my linguistic associates could reliably distinguish the linguistic behavior from the kinesic in the interactional sequences we observed.* To hold the sound steady while we observed the visible behavior...

    • 18. Kinesic Stress in American English
      (pp. 128-144)

      In the discussion to follow, I would like to present data which demonstrate at greater length and technicality an intimate and possibly necessary relationship between certain structured body motion and spoken language forms. Although technical, the data should be, with effort, comprehensible to native or skilled speakers of American English. The example abstracts certain behaviors from the spoken and moved stream; the reader is again urged to remember that these abstracted pieces of structure do not exhaust the communicative activity in an interaction.

      Among the more important linguistic investigations in spoken American English of the past 25 years have been...

  7. Part IV. Collecting Data:: Observing, Filming, and Interviewing
    • 19. Still Photographs, Interviews, and Filming
      (pp. 147-155)

      Paul Byers and Ken Hymen have worked on ideas about still photographs which influenced our view at Eastern Pennsylvania Psychiatric Institute of the extended present, recorded and signaled by the still photo. I have always been wary of the still camera as a research tool for the study of movement, expression, and, even, for the study of stance. While research with movies has made us increasingly aware of the intrusive role of the movie cameraman and his technology, this has not reduced my bias regarding the use of the still camera as a device for the establishment of base lines...

    • 20. Body Signals
      (pp. 156-156)

      Underlying most social science procedures is the relative incidence fallacy. We are all too inclined to confuse rarity or low incidence of an aprioristically isolated phenomenon as, by definition, “abnormal” and high regularity or incidence of an isolated piece of behavior as “normal.” Such definitions become increasingly malignant in mental health research when “normal,” thus derived, is normatively extended to become “health,” “abnormal” to become “pathology.” This is aggravated when the researcher, unclear about the levels of organization from which he selects his data, counts, in a single series, diverse elements like muscle tension, tics, toe taps, and kinemorphic constructions....

    • 21. How Much Data Do You Need?
      (pp. 156-158)

      If the 30 years of work described for the leveling and analysis of American English had to be repeated for every society with which we might be concerned, microanalysis would offer little of immediate value to cross-cultural research. This is hardly the case. The analysis of American English provides us with a model which should make it possible for skilled analysts to order the communicational behavior in a much shorter time than seemed possible before. And, once analyzed, the control of patterned communication sharply increases both the acuity and the reliability of the observer.

      If the experience gained within the...

    • 22. Sequence and Tempo
      (pp. 158-163)

      As we have grown more sophisticated in social research, especially in interaction and communication research, we have become more and more concerned with the difference between timing and clocking. As I use the term, “timing” refers to those operations which relate abstracted events in an explicitly defined sequence to other events within that sequence. We are concerned with asking whether or not given events can occur together, in parallel or in series, in some kind of repetitive order. We are not, in this sense of timing, attempting to place the data in calendrical or horological frames. We are attempting to...

    • 23. Head Nods
      (pp. 163-166)

      Kinesics is no more concerned with specific body movements than it is with specific body parts. It is concerned with the derivation of ranges of movement with equivalent function. On the articulatory level no two body shifts are ever identical, but kinesic analysis reveals that it is possible to derive variants of behavior which can be used interchangeably. Usually such variants are located within a given region of the body.

      It can be demonstrated that the head-nod kine //Hn// is a kinesic unit covering a class of down and up movements of the head. This class is made up of...

    • 24. Similarities and Differences
      (pp. 166-168)

      Seemingly identical body movements supply the activity for quite different cue classes. Within the space allotted here it is difficult to illustrate this necessarily technical point. To keep the example as simple as possible, the eyebrows are selected for discussion and only the variables of context and duration are described. The specialized kinesic terminology and annotational conventions may prove confusing to the reader but the examples chosen should be sufficiently familiar to soften the technicality of the illustration.

      One of the more easily detectable kines (least perceptible units of body motion) is that of eyebrow lift and return (bbʌv). At...

    • 25. Body Motion Research and Interviewing
      (pp. 168-170)

      In the process of training ten interviewers for an extended study of a Kentucky hill community, I noted that there were considerable differences in the abilities of these interviewers to note, recall, and/or record either gestures or less explicitly defined motion complexes. Several of the interviewers were quite visual-minded and seemed anxious to pursue the leads they got from their observations. However, the majority of the interviewers, while evincing considerable interest in the method, were less capable in gathering or organizing such data. Although the reports of all the interviewers showed signs of increasing sensitivity in observing body motion, only...

  8. Part V. Research on An Interview
    • 26. Body Motion
      (pp. 173-227)

      While body motion behavior is based in the physiological structure, the communicative aspects of this behavior are patterned by social and cultural experience. The meaning of such behavior is not so simple that it can be itemized in a glossary of gestures. Nor is meaning encapsulated atomistically in particular motions. It can be derived only from the examination of the patterned structure of the system of body motion as a whole as this manifests itself in the particular social situation. It is the task of this essay to review the present status of kinesics, in such a manner that the...

    • 27. A Kinesic-Linguistic Exercise: The Cigarette Scene
      (pp. 227-250)

      “The Cigarette Scene,” an interactional sequence of some 18 seconds in duration, has remained a type site for linguistic-kinesic analysis throughout the decade following the original work on the Doris-Gregory films.* Filming techniques have improved, budgets have become sufficiently large to permit extensive recording on sound film of half-hour and hour-long sequences of conversation, interview, and interaction, and, with Jacques Van Vlack’s development of the frame count B Roll, the correlation of the vocalic and the movement stream has become more precise. Other films have attracted our research interest, but this scene, in which Gregory and Doris contemporaneously discuss the...

    • 28. Communication and Culture: A Limited Conclusion
      (pp. 250-252)

      The productivity of new approaches to human interaction and human interconnectedness should not lure us to such dependency upon the study of message systems that we subsume all human behavior under “communication.” The mechanisms of information transmission are but an aspect, albeit an important one, of social experience. The fact that communicative processes are necessary to cultural continuity should not be taken to indicate that culture is nothing but communication. I find it impossible to conceive of communication as either independent of or as merely another word for culture. I realize that it is begging the question to describe communicative...

  9. Appendixes
  10. Bibliography
    (pp. 305-338)