All Sources -
Updated Media sources (1) About content Print Topic Share Topic
views updated


Contemporary study

Future research


Kinesics is the science of body behavioral communication. Any person who has “learned how to behave in public” and is at all aware of his response to the awkward or inappropriate behavior of others recognizes the importance of body motion behavior to social interaction. It is more difficult to conceive that body motion and facial expression belong to a learned, coded system and that there is a “language” of movement comparable to spoken language, both in its structure and in its contribution to a systematically ordered communicative system.

Communication is a term used to describe the structured dynamic processes relating to the interconnectedness of living systems. As such, it has much of the indefiniteness and usefulness of terms like “gravity,” “electromagnetic field,” or, perhaps, “metabolism” in their respective phenomenological contexts. While communication studies must investigate certain biological, social, and cultural processes, communication is an essential aspect of, not a master category for, such processes. Communication is a multichannel system emergent from, and regulative of, the influenceable multisensory activity of living systems. The spoken and the body motion languages thus are infra communicational systems that are interdependently merged with each other and with other comparable codes that utilize other channels; they are operationally communicative. Emphasis upon communication as a multichannel system stresses the difficulty of final objective appraisal of the relative or specific importance of spoken language to communication before we know more about communication. It is unproductively tautological to argue from the fact that language is characteristic of humans to the position that language is the central or the most important communicative code utilized by humans. All infracommunicational channels are equally necessary to the whole of which they are dependent subsystems. To attempt to weigh their relative importance to cultural continuity without more evidence than is now available is somewhat like arguing whether sex or food is more important to speciational continuity.

Communication is a continuous interactive process made up of multileveled, overlapping, discontinuous segments of behavior. The interaction of communication does not cease when interactants lapse into silence, to begin again with the onset of phonation; other channels continue communicative operations even when the auditory–aural channel is not in use. Humans move in relatively orderly fashion while they vocalize and when they are silent; they can perceive the regularity in the visible movement of others (or at least become aware when it is irregular) and proprioceptively in themselves. They can smell, taste, touch, and otherwise register perception of themselves and their surroundings. When regularities appear, they are not simply mechanical, “automatic,” or happenstantial. Research with visible body motion is convincing us that this behavior is as ordered and coded as is audible phonation. Like language, infracommunicational body motion behavior is a structured system that varies from society to society and must be learned by the membership of a society if it is to interact successfully.

It is as yet unclear how taste, smell, touch, heat, and cold, to speak only of the sensory potential of the more obvious communicative channels, are structured and utilized. However, as we gain control of the theory and the methodology (including the technology) prerequisite to their isolation and description, these should prove to have decipherable codes. Body behavioral communication has been the subject of extensive research and major theoretical formulations contributed by descriptive and structural linguists. Yet much of the structural analysis of body motion behavior had to await the development of the movie camera and the slow-motion projector before elements of kinesic structure could be isolated and demonstrated as significant. Comparably, even the preliminary investigation of the relationships between linguistic and kinesic structure discussed below could not be tested and demonstrated until the linguist and the kinesicist gained control of the sound movie, the tape recorder, the slow-motion projector, and the speech stretcher. Engineers are confident that the technology for recording the behavior of other sensory channels is now within the range of possibility. However, such developments are not likely until there is sufficient sophistication about the essential nature of these channels so that the investigator is not drowned in an ocean of insignificant data. Just as linguistic research laid bare data for kinesic investigation, linguistics and kinesics, as they exhaust their respective behavioral fields, should point the way for definitive research in the other communicative channels.

It is within this conceptual framework that some of the results of communicational body motion research are sketched below. The scientific investigation of human body motion communication is a recent development. While a bibliography of thousands of items could be developed which attest to the fact that the graphic artist, the writer, the story teller, the dancer, and the ethnographer have long noted the fact that men gesture, posture, move, and grimace in interesting, significant, and unusual fashions, it does not seem that anyone prior to the twentieth century suspected the structured, languagelike nature of human body behavior.

Contemporary study

Darwin is often seen as the father of modern communicative studies of body motion. Yet neither in his Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872) nor anywhere else does he seem to have made the qualitative jump between his brilliant observations of animal and human body motion and expression and these as related to ordered communicative systems. Franz Boas is said by his students to have laid the groundwork for Sapir’s brilliant intuition that body motion was coded and that this code had to be learned for successful communication (Sapir 1931; 1933). Efron (1941), another of Boas’ students, conclusively demonstrated the culture-bound nature of southeastern European, Jewish, and Italian gestural complexes. From these insights and from others provided through psychoanalysis and psychiatry, LaBarre (1947) reviewed the literature to discuss “phatic” communication and the “pseudo languages” that preceded and surrounded vocal language. However, the beginning of the scientific investigation of the structured nature of body motion communication was marked by the publication of the Introduction to Kinesics (Birdwhistell 1952).

More directly relevant to the development of kinesics was the theoretical and methodological progress of the modern descriptive linguists, who in their penetrating and exhaustive analysis of human vocalic behavior presented a model that could be used for the investigation of other kinds of behavior (Bloomfield 1933; Sapir 1921; Trager & Smith 1951). One stimulus to investigate the meaningful variability of human body behavior came from the culture shock induced by the difference between Kutenai and American gestural and expressional patterning. Body motion research gained maturity and discipline under responsible linguistic tutelage. The recognition that a bilingual Kutenai moved in a consistently and regularly different manner when speaking Kutenai than when speaking English could not be understood until systematic analysis of the structure of American kinesics was undertaken.

Context and meaning

From the outset of kinesic research, investigators have been distracted by the temptation to pursue the phantom of “meaning.” Each new form or segment of structure isolated during investigations provoked the question, “What does it mean?” Even linguists, long since chastened by the relative sterility of their own explorations into the semantics of speech forms, seemed to cherish the hope that the kinesicist might present them with an “expressionary” or a kinecography that would list specific gestural, expressional, or movement complexes, together with their exclusive meanings. It is true that when informants are questioned they may give the investigator an extensive listing of such forms and a range of meaning for each. Cross-cultural comparison quickly reveals that an Arab from Beirut, a Chinese from Taiwan, and a Harlem Negro respond quite differently to apparently identical body behaviors. It can be easily established that these differences in response are cultural rather than idiosyncratic; different cultures exploit the potential for body motion in differing ways. Data are accumulating in the literature; particularly worthy of note is the work of Gordon Hewes (1955), who has compiled an extensive cross-cultural listing of body posture. However, like other studies of the specialized gestures of particular groups (Saitz & Cervenka 1962), these belong more properly in the province of ethnographic studies than in the area of kinesics or communication studies. Such lists often have the same relationship to kinesic anthropology that dictionaries do to linguistic anthropology—they are suggestive, but of indirect relevance.

Structural analysis of even the apparently most discrete facial expression (the “smile” or the “frown”), the apparently most explicit gesture (the “nod” or the “head shake”), or the apparently most indicative posture (“military uprightness” or “sag”) show reports of such behavior to be impressionistic summaries of quite complex and systematically varying particles of activity that are, more importantly, always dependent upon other behaviors. The assemblage of component body behaviors that is reported by informants cannot stand alone any more than the phoneme can stand alone in functional speech behavior. Furthermore, while some informants may have quick responses as to the “meaning” of such behaviors and others may be goaded into choosing more likely “meanings” from a dichotomous battery, when these body behaviors are studied in a natural social setting they prove to depend upon the range of stimuli available in the larger contexts of interactive behavior in which they appear. It appears that these nonlexical forms have the same variability of semantic function as do “words.” Whatever it is we mean by “meaning,” it is a term which covers the relationship between an isolated event and its appropriate spectrum of surrounds.

Research into the nature of body motion communication over the past decade has proceeded in two differing but intimately related directions. An attempt has been made to isolate the significant forms of communicative body motion behavior and, in separate research operations, to gain perspective upon the nature of the levels of context in which these forms function. These latter operations, ultimately concerned with meaning, have been termed context analysis. While research in this area remains exploratory, it is promising. In differing ways, the studies of Goffman (1963), that of Hall (1959), and that of Ruesch (Ruesch & Kees 1956) have been pioneering. Their work points toward the rich data that await the investigator who would systematically describe the structural logic of interpersonal activity in precise social settings. More cogent to context analysis is the work of Scheflen (1965). He and others who have followed his lead report the isolation of interactional units characteristic of the psychotherapeutic situation. Such studies give promise that minutes-long sequences of communicative behavior may be as structurally marked as are syntactic sentences (1/2 to 4 or 5 seconds in duration) or the kinesic constructions that are contained within triple-cross kinesic junctures (ranging between 5 seconds and 2 or 2 1/2; minutes). These larger regular shapes of behavioral sequences increase the possibility of objectively measuring the function of particular communicative elements in contextual contrasts. Discovering the structural aspects of the interactive process is necessary to the objective definition of the “meaning” of the integral units, the messages carried by the communicative system. From the point of view of context analysis, meaning is the behavioral difference occasioned by the presence or the absence of a particular cue at a particular level of context. The range of meaning of a particular cue is governed by the range of contexts in which the cue can be observed to occur.

Units and structure of body motion

Kinesics has been concerned with the exhaustive description and analysis of the American kinesic structure. Structural linguists have traditionally approached their data through the word and then, in one set of operations, engaged in morphological and phonological research, and, in another set, moved toward the isolation and description of lexemes and syntax. More recently, linguists have sought to analyze the longer sequences of discourse. Using an analogous model, kinesic studies have demonstrated that the “gesture” is a bound morph (a stem form) and have gone on to analyze the position and activity of such forms. The tentative descriptions of kinemorphology prepared the ground for analysis of behavior into the component kines and kinemes. As research proceeded, it became increasingly evident that the American kinesic pattern, at least, was not simply a sequence of these complex kinemorphs (kinemorphic stem plus suffixes). By conventions of junction, these wordlike forms are combined into sentencelike sequences.

Clearly, kinesic forms at each ascending level of analysis resemble linguistic forms in their duality of patterning (Hockett 1960). Just as syntactic sentences do not dangle isolated in nature, these extended, linked sequences of body motion behavior, the complex kinemorphic constructions, do not exhaust the potentials of body activity in communication. These again are building blocks for still longer sequences of behavior, evident in operation but which have thus far resisted analysis. Kinesic forms at each level of analysis (kinelogical, kinemorphological, and kinesyntactic) have distinctive contrastive identity as significant forms and also operate as items of structure.

Over the past century, acoustic phoneticians have developed a sufficient theory and an increasingly complex and reliable technology for the description of the physiological behavior that underlies the production of significant sounds utilized in human speech. It should not be surprising that some students confuse the activity of the apparatus for phonation with the linguistic process. At the present preliminary stage of kinesic research, it is even more difficult to keep the prekinesic activity of the body separate from the structured activity utilized in the kinesic code. Just as we are so impressed with the activity of the lips, the teeth, the tongue, the lungs, the larynx, the pharynx, etc., that we think of them as emitting speech, it is difficult not to be so preoccupied with musculature, bones, fatty tissue, the vascular system, and skin that we think of these as emitting body motion language. Rather these must be regarded as sources of potentials for behavior which are selectively regulated to form the kinesic code. The arm and hand of the telegrapher are of no direct consequence to the telegraphic code.

An example of kinesic communication

As long as the kinesic anthropologist can remain sufficiently disciplined so that he does not confuse the particular activity of a particular part of the body with the code that makes use of certain activities of that body part in certain situations, he can profitably examine the body as an instrument specifically adapted for interactive behavior. Seemingly identical body movements supply the activity for quite different cue classes. To keep the example as simple as possible, movement of the eyebrows is the activity 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 (here transcribed as bb⋀). At times such movement is fleeting; I have been able to detect and record brow movement lasting but thousandths of a second. For instance, the brows may be raised in certain contexts and held for a short duration before returning to the zero or base position. Such positioning may operate as one of the allokines (again using the linguistic analogy, the allokines would be, as allomorphs are, members of a class of events that can be substituted for one another) of the junctural kineme (the least cue class) of (/k//). This bilateral eyebrow raise is quite comparable to, and may during phonation co-occur with, the linguistic single bar of terminally raised pitch, appropriate to the context of “doubt” or “question” or as a signal to repeat a message. If we ignore the duration of the action and attend only to the spatial movement of the brows, an identical movement of the brows may be seen in the circumvocal behavior of speakers who select the brows for kinesic stress functions. Intensive experimentation on the relationship between spoken and moved American has demonstrated that there are four degrees of kinesic stress (Birdwhistell 1965). The brows form one of the positional allokines of the kinemes of stress. Other allokines are provided by the head, hand, foot, or body nodding, or the lid closure that accompanies speech.

Thus, the kine eyebrow raise (bb⋀) may b allokinic with the kines of superior head nod (h⋀) or hand nod (/⋀), members of the class kineme of kinesic single bar (/k//) in one context position and an allokine of the form degrees of kinesic stress (/primary, secondary, unstressed, or destressed/) in another. These two allokinic roles do not exhaust the cue potential of the brows. Furthermore, with the same muscular involvement, the (bb⋀ ) may be an allokine of the kineme, the first degree of eyebrow raise (/bb1/), which combines with other circumfacial kinemes to form a kinemorph.

I fully appreciate the reader’s difficulty in picturing these abstractions. The point made here may be comprehended if the reader will conceive of a conversation in which an animated speaker is being attended to by an interested auditor. The eyebrows of the speaker rise and fall as he speaks (kinesic stress kinemes). From time to time, the speaker’s eyes “focus” upon the face of the auditor and he pauses in his speech and raises his brow (/k//). He may continue vocalization following the single head nod (/hn/) of the auditor. During one sequence of the conversation, the auditor may “de-expressionalize” into the complex kinemorph of dead pan (// O //); the speaker, without signaling response, may continue vocalization until the auditor raises his brows (/bb1/), while sustaining the dead pan (//O//) , to form the kinemorph . At this point, the speaker hesitates in his speech flow, drops his head and lids , and arter several vocal false starts repeats part of his lexication. In the situations that we have observed, several conversationalists returned in discourse correction to the topic under discussion at the onset of the auditor’s dead pan (//N→O//).

These three kinesic activities do not exhaust the cue potential of the eyebrows. Like the scalp, the eyebrows, while mobile in position in the young, gradually become relatively stationary in base placement (the point from which movement is initiated and the point of return following movement). As measured at the most superior aspect of the hirsute brow, there is a possible range of almost one-half inch for brow placement. While the diakinesic (comparable to language dialect) range is less marked in Americans, any observant traveler in England can mark the contrast between the high placement of the brows among people of certain regional and economic groups (many Englishmen look to the American as though they were perpetually surprised) and the low brow placement in other areas and at different socioeconomic levels (so-called beetle-browed). Such brow and scalp placement is learned behavior and is, on the one hand, an aspect of unique identity, and thus part of signature behavior, and, on the other, co tributes to the common appearance of family, group, and regional members. The latter represents signature behavior at another level. From this example of certain eyebrow behaviors and from this view of communication it becomes clear that communicative units may vary in duration from milliseconds to years. It may be argued that individual appearances, such as diakinesic variation, are not to be classified as communicative behavior. Such a position, focusing on short sequences, would also deny the communicative role of dialect and individual speaking style. However, any regular and systematically variable learned behavior that redundantly contributes to the definition of an aspect of the code is in itself part of a larger code and must be understood if we are to comprehend the structure of the interactive process. As we have long realized intuitively, there is more that goes on in any conversation than is present in the immediate interaction. It is the researcher’s duty to adapt his observations to the shapes of nature.

Future research

Kinesics has been preoccupied with the description and analysis of body positions and movements. It has been possible to isolate and test thirty-four kinemes in the American kinesic system. While such a prediction is risky, there may be no more than fifty base units in the system. However, as kinesic research proceeds to gain security from cross-cultural studies it is going to have to pay systematic attention to other body associated phenomena. Such matters as the oiliness, wetness, and dryness of the skin, tension and laxity of the skin and musculature, variable and shifting vascularity in the skin’s surface, and shifts in the underlying fatty tissue are all going to have to be studied intensively and systematically. All of our present observations, and these have been extensive but crude and nonconclusive, lead us to believe that these are coded in both long and short durational cue complexes. While at the moment these behaviors are assigned to paralanguage, a catchall category for insufficiently analyzed behavior, there seems every reason to believe that they will be subject to isolation, analysis, and communicative assignment. In this perspective particular attention must be paid to the work of Hall and Westcott. Using what may be an unnecessarily limiting dyadic model, Hall, in his conception of proxemics (Hall 1963), places emphasis on the human use of space arrangements as a coded system of transaction al process. His work forces attention on all primary telecommunicative processes. Westcott (1964), in his discussion of streptistics, is attempting to order the various channels and their operative codes in structural relation to each other. These approaches, when taken together with the accumulating data from kinesic and linguistic anthropology, lay the groundwork for communication analysis.

Ray L. Birdwhistell

[Directly related are the entriesCommunication; Communication, animal; Ethnography; Language, article onlanguage and culture.]


Birdwhistell, Ray L. 1952 Introduction to Kinesics. Univ. of Louisville (Ky.) Press.

Birdwhistell, Ray L. 1959 Contribution of Linguistic Kinesic Studies to the Understanding of Schizophrenia. Pages 99–123 in Symposium on Schizophrenia, San Francisco, 1958, Schizophrenia: An Integrated Approach. New York: Ronald Press.

Birdwhistell, Ray L. 1961 Paralanguage: 25 Years After Sapir. Pages 43–63 in Conference on Experimental Psychiatry, Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, 1959, Lectures on Experimental Psychiatry. Univ. of Pittsburgh Press.

Birdwhistell, Ray L. 1962 Critical Moments in the Psychiatric Interview. Pages 179–188 in Tenth Anniversary Symposium on Biological, Psychological and Sociological Approaches to Current Psychiatric Problems, State Research Hospital, Galesburg, 111., 1960, Research Approaches to Psychiatric Problems: A Symposium. New York: Grune.

Birdwhistell, Ray L. 1965 Communication Without Words. Unpublished manuscript.

Bloomfield, Leonard (1933) 1951 Language. Rev. ed. New York: Holt.

Darwin, Charles (1872) 1965 The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Edited by Francis Darwin. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Efron, D. 1941 Gesture and Environment. New York: Kings Crown Press.

Goffman, Erving 1963 Behavior in Public Places. New York: Free Press.

Hall, Edward T. 1959 The Silent Language. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday. → A paperback edition was published in 1961 by Fawcett.

Hall, Edward T. 1963 A System for the Notation of Proxemic Behavior.American Anthropologist New Series 65:1003–1026.

Hewes, Gordon 1955 World Distribution of Certain Postural Habits. American Anthropologist New Series 57:231–244.

Hockett, Charles F. 1960 Logical Considerations in the Study of Animal Communication. Pages 392–430 in Symposium on Animal Sounds and Communication, Indiana University, 1958, Animal Sounds and Communication. Washington: American Institute of Biological Sciences.

Indiana University, Conference on Paralinguistics and Kinesics, Bloomington, IND., 1962 1964 Approaches to Semiotics, Cultural Anthropology, Education, Linguistics, Psychiatry and Psychology. Edited by Thomas A. Sebeok, Alfred S. Hayes, and Mary C. Bateson. Janua linguarum, Series maior, No. 15. The Hague: Mouton.

LaBarre, Weston 1947 The Cultural Basis of Emotions and Gestures. Journal of Personality 16:49–68.

Labarre, Weston 1954 The Human Animal. Univ. of Chicago Press. → See especially pages 165–168 on “Paralinguistics,” and page 349 on “Kinesics.”

Ruesch, Jurgen; and Kees, Weldon 1956 Nonverbal Communication. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

Saitz, Rorert L.; and Cervenka, Edward J. 1962 Colombian and North American Gestures: A Contrastive Inventory. Bogotà: Centro Colombo Americano.

Sapir, Edward A. (1910–1944) 1949 Selected Writings in Language, Culture, and Personality. Edited by David G. Mandelbaum. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

Sapir, Edward A. 1921 Language: An Introduction to the Study of Speech. New York: Harcourt.

Sapir, Edward A. 1931 Communication. Volume 4, pages 78–80 in Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences. New York: Macmillan.

Sapir, Edward A. 1933 Language. Volume 9, pages 155–168 in Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences. New York: Macmillan.

Scheflen, Alhert E. 1965 Stream and Structure of Communicational Behavior: Context Analysis of a Psychotherapy Session. Behavioral Studies Monograp No. 1. Philadelphia: Eastern Pennsylvania Psychiatric Institute.

Tracer, George L.; and Smith, Henry L. JR. (1951)1962 An Outline of English Structure. Washington: American Council of Learned Societies.

Wescott, Roger W. 1964 Strepital Communication: A Study of Non-vocal Sound Production Among Man and Animals. Unpublished manuscript.

views updated

kinesicsadmix, affix, commix, fix, Hicks, intermix, MI6, mix, nix, Nyx, pix, Pnyx, prix fixe, pyx, Ricks, six, Styx, transfix, Wicks •Aquarobics • radix • appendix •crucifix • suffix • Alex • calyx •Felix, helix •kylix • Horlicks • prolix • spondulicks •hydromechanics • phoenix •Ebonics, onyx •mechatronics • sardonyx •Paralympics • semi-tropics •subtropics • Hendrix •dominatrix, matrix •administratrix • oryx • tortrix •executrix • Beatrix • cicatrix •Essex, Wessex •kinesics • coccyx • Sussex •informatics, mathematics •Dianetics • geopolitics • bioethics •cervix • astrophysics • yikes

views updated

ki·ne·sics / kəˈnēsiks; -ziks/ • pl. n. [usu. treated as sing.] the study of the way in which certain body movements and gestures serve as a form of nonverbal communication. ∎  [usu. treated as pl.] certain body movements and gestures regarded in such a way.

views updated

kinesics See BODY LANGUAGE.

More From