KINESICS

Birdwhistell Notations

A man stands inside of a closed glass phone booth. You cannot hear a word he says, but you see his postures, gestures, and facial expressions. You see his kinesics. --Marjorie F. Vargas (Louder Than Words, p. 67)


Linguistic analogy. 1. Founded by anthropologist Ray Birdwhistell (1952, 1970), kinesics is the study of nonverbal communication using the methods and concepts of American descriptive linguistics of the late 1940s. 2. The anthropological term for body language.

Usage: Students of kinesics searched for a grammar of body movements, facial expressions, and gestures, much as descriptive linguists formulated a grammatical structure of words.

Birdwhistell-isms: 1. "Social personality is a tempero-spacial system. All behaviors evinced by any such system are components of the system except as related to different levels of abstractions" (Birdwhistell 1952:5). 2. "Even if no participant of an interaction field can recall, or repeat in a dramatized context, a given series or sequence of [body] motions, the appearance of a motion is of significance to the general study of the particular kinesic system even if the given problem can be rationalized without reference to it" (Birdwhistell 1952:5). 3. ". . . all meaningful [body] motion patterns are to be regarded as socially learned until empirical investigation reveals otherwise" (Birdwhistell 1952:6). 4. "No kine ever stands alone" (Birdwhistell 1952:15).

RESEARCH REPORTS: 1. "I suggest that this separate burgeoning evolution of kinesics and paralanguage alongside the evolution of verbal language indicates that our iconic communication serves functions totally different from those of language and, indeed, performs functions which verbal language is unsuited to perform" (Bateson 1968:615). 2. "The first premise in developing this type of notational system for body language, Dr. Birdwhistell says, is to assume that all movements of the body have meaning. None are accidental" (Fast 1970:157). 3. "A kineme is similar to a phoneme because it consists of a group of movements which are not identical, but which may be used interchangeably without affecting social meaning" (Knapp 1972:94-95). 4. "Not everyone agrees with Birdwhistell that kinesics forms a communication system which is the same as spoken language" (Knapp 1972:96). 5. The linguistic analogy was popular in the 1970s, e.g.: "This [the authors'] model draws its components from several social sciences, especially linguistics. Its basic idea is that face-to-face interaction can be construed as having a definite organization or structure, just as language is understood in terms of its grammar" (Duncan and Fiske 1977:xi). 6. "The system developed by Birdwhistell (1970) is by far the most elaborate and famous example of a structural approach" (Burgoon et al. 1989:42). 7. "So as you can see, Birdwhistell based his category system of behaviors on a model taken from the categories of verbal communication (allophone, phone, phoneme, morpheme)" (Richmond et al. 1991:55). 8. "Her [Margaret Mead's] dilemma was how to acknowledge universals in facial expression [discovered by Paul Ekman] and not disavow [her student] Ray Birdwhistell's conclusion that there were no universals" (Ekman 1998:388).

See also PARALANGUAGE, PROXEMICS.

Copyright 1999 - 2010 (David B. Givens/Center for Nonverbal Studies)
Illustration shows a sampling of the whimsical notation-system ideographs invented by anthropologist Ray Birdwhistell, who used them to record human nonverbal behaviors as they happened, on film and in real time; though his linguistic-analogy approach was seriously flawed, in reading nonverbals Dr. Birdwhistell was a master (illustration copyright 1952 by Ray Birdwhistell).