Anthropologist Ray Birdwhistell (1918-1994) was the founder of kinesics, the study of human movement as culturally patterned visual communication.
coined the term from kinesis, Greek for movement, as a positive alternative to "non-verbal communication" as the field was more usually known.
held that that kinetic communication occurs in learned patterns that form systems related to and varying as much as the patterns of spoken language.
also maintained that kinetic communication conveys 65 to 70 percent of the information in a conversational interaction.
Among scholars of anthropology, folklore, and psychiatry, Birdwhistell's films and writings are legendary.
Alan Lomax, who took two seminar courses with Birdwhistell
in the early 1960s, was profoundly influenced by him.
(in Kinesics and Context, 1970: pp.
Ray Birdwhistell was born in Cincinnati in 1918 and grew up and attended high school in Fostoria, Ohio, graduating in 1936.
He received his B. A. from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, in 1940; his M.A. from Ohio State University 1941; and his Ph. D in anthropology from University of Chicago in 1951.
It is sometimes reported that he
studied ballet in his
youth or even that he
was a former ballet dancer, but according to his
daughter, this is untrue.
From 1944-46 Birdwhistell did fieldwork in Canada and taught at the University of Toronto.
While researching kinship among the Kutenai Indians of British Columbia, Birdwhistell was struck by the fact that the Kutenai could distinguish non-tribe members from a great distance merely by their posture and body movements.
also noticed that they understood a great many things, including the subtleties of their kinship system, without explicitly verbalizing about them.
"Legend has it that Birdwhistell
was a younger anthropologist listening to Mead and others comment on a Balinese film when he interjected something like, 'But did you see what the mother did with the baby after she took him out of the bath?' He then brought to their attention a fascinating medley of actions that occurred in a few seconds" (Martha Davis, "Film Projectors as Microscopes: Ray L. Birdwhistell & Microanalysis of Interaction [1955-1975]," Visual Anthropology Review, 17: [no.
In 1946 Birdwhistell joined the faculty of the University of Louisville, Kentucky, where he remained for ten years.
He did additional research on kinship for his doctorate among the "Bluegrass" and the "Hill" people of Anderson County, Kentucky.
had used twelve interviewers to assist in his
Kentucky fieldwork (the interview was then the chief research method in anthropology) and had noted that some were markedly more effective at eliciting information than others, a phenomenon he
attributed to their extra-verbal skills.
From this point on kinetic communication was to be the focus of his
was part of a movement of linguists and social scientists interested in investigating culturally learned non-explicit communication.
Birdwhistell had been at Chicago with sociologist Erving Goffman (author of The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, to whom Birdwhistell dedicated his book).
Trager, Hall, and, in the summer of 1952, also Birdwhistell
, worked as applied anthropologists at the Foreign Services Institute (founded in 1946) in Washington, D. C., training thousands future diplomats in anthropology and non-verbal communication.
Hall's best-selling book The Silent Language (1956) grew out of this work: it concluded "Culture is communication and communication is culture" (p. 186).
The anthropologists were fired from the FSI
in 1955 due to Secretary of State John Foster Dulles's dislike of anthropology, which he
believed promoted relativism.
Of all his
was the most theoretically oriented.
In 1952, he
seminal book, Introduction to Kinesics: An Annotation System for Analysis of Body Motion and Gesture, in which he
proposed a new scientific status of the study of movement, modeling his
terminology on that used in structural linguistics.
proposed the term kineme (comparable to a phoneme in linguistics) to describe a unit of movement (for example, a wink), the kinomorph, and the kinomorpheme.
chose the model of descriptive method of structural linguistics not because he
considered body communication a language in the same sense as sign language, but for its rigor.
focus was on what was being communicated outside and in addition to the formal system of signs ¾ through posture, angle of the limbs, trunk, head, and neck, and of facial parts such as eyebrows and lids.
To describe these movements he
also invented a system of notation, which he
spent the summer of 1956 at the Institute for Advanced Study
in the Behavioral Sciences in Palo Alto, California, as part of a multi-interdisciplinary investigation that came to be known as "The Natural History of an Interview.
In this book (using characteristically measured language), Birdwhistell summed up the implications of his work at Palo Alto and the FSI:
Birdwhistell taught at the State University of New York in Buffalo from 1956 to 1959.
In 1960 he
became a Senior Research Scientist at the Eastern Pennsylvania Psychiatric Institute
in Philadelphia, where he
taught seminars in Linguistic-Kinesic Analysis and collaborated on film research with the psychiatrist Albert Edward Scheflen (1920-80) and cinematographer Jacques Van Vlack, remaining at the Institute until his
retirement in 1988.
He was appointed Professor of Communication at the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania in 1969.
was married twice.
had two daughters with his
He died in October 1994.
The movie Microcultural Incidents in Ten Zoos (made with Jacques Van Vlack) was one the few films of Birdwhistell's
to be publically released.
In Italy, the children's nursemaid threw the food underhand with a motion of her
hips that Birdwhistell
called "a fine pelvic thrust.
The Taiwanese families held back and threw the food from 10 to 20 feet away, though a few brave souls ventured nearer.
To avoid having the his subjects' knowledge of the camera's position influence their movements, Birdwhistell
and Van Vlack filmed them indirectly, using mirrors or some other device, while pretending to film something else.
himself appeared briefly in the film, acting as a decoy.
A second film by Birdwhistell
and Van Vlack was TDR- 009, an eighty-minute, 16-mm black-and-white sound film of a scene in a bar in a middle-class London hotel, which examines the interactions between speakers and listeners.
continued to insist that meanings in kinetic communication could only be explained in the context of communication between two or more people, not as absolutes.
Looking back, the intensity of the debate is puzzling: the two researchers were focused on different, arguably complementary, rather than contradictory aspects of human behavior, which could both have been integrated into a larger system. (Starting in the early sixties the topic of universals also began to be studied extensively by linguists).
The real issue was that Ekman's research
had obvious practical implications in police and defense work and Birdwhistell's
in the important role of arbiter of NIMH grants for non-verbal communication research, and by the 1980s the golden era of 'naturalistic observation' of films and tapes ended" (Davis p. 46).
Thus, at the end of his
found himself and his
field marginalized and under attack.
Among scholars who have continued to study bodily communication in the context of culture along the lines pioneered by Birdwhistell, Trager, and Hall have been David McNeil, whose many publications include Hand and mind: What gestures reveal about thought (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992) and Adam Kendon, editor of the periodical Gesture and author of among other books, Conducting Interaction (Cambridge, 1990), Gestures: Visible Action as Utterance (Cambridge, 2000).