Ray Birdwhistell

By Ellen Harold and Susan Tobin

Anthropologist Ray Birdwhistell (1918-1994) was the founder of kinesics, the study of human movement as culturally patterned visual communication. He coined the term from kinesis, Greek for movement, as a positive alternative to “non-verbal communication” as the field was more usually known. Birdwhistell held that that kinetic communication occurs in learned patterns that form systems related to and varying as much as the patterns of spoken language. He 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 developing of his theory of Cantometrics, Lomax’s conception of song style as standardized communicative behavior owed much to Birdwhistell’s concept of communication as a systems-maintaining function. Later, Birdwhistell suggested to Lomax that perhaps dance, as a more primary communication system even than song, might yield even better correlations with social factors, and he steered Lomax to the dance notation system of Rudolf Laban. This led to the development of Lomax’s Choreometrics research.

Alan Lomax assessed the implications of Birdwhistell’s work for the understanding of music performance:

Ray Birdwhistell (in Kinesics and Context, 1970: pp. 86-87) was the first to point out that the major component of communication ¾ say of conversation - is not the new information conveyed (the fresh combination of words), but the stream of communication, itself. In the case of conversation, this stream comprises the fundamentals of the language which the participants speak and the steady signals they exchange about age, sex role, status, background, and cultural membership as well as the conversational situation. Birdwhistell estimates that this “systems maintaining” framework occupied about 90% of the conversational stream. In music, with its notably formal and repetitive structure, the percent of the “how” (style) over against the “what” (melodic movement, etc.) is still higher. This repetitiveness points to the stylistic bias shared by the performers and their audiences, and this is why song performance is an ideal place to look for the links between culture and communication. They are to be found in the models that make a performance acceptable and around which the performers coordinate their activity. In the end, one begins to see that the models of coordination and cooperation in singing mirror and support the key patterns of everyday co-action, so that in this way, art and social life are closely linked, tradition by tradition. 

This view of music as a public statement with a social function shocks those who see it as principally an outlet for individual feeling, perhaps best performed and enjoyed in solitude. Yet most music does occur as public ritual, or as a rehearsal or a recollection of it. When the individual muses in private over tunes or rhythms, such musings are always phrased in the style of his own culture, and thus prepare him for public bouts. As no one is often out of earshot in small communities, these musical soliloquies link the singer to his group. Nowadays, music compensates for the increasingly isolation of modern life by bringing the sound of some larger social entity . . . . even when performed in private, music is public in nature. (Cantometrics: an approach to the anthropology of music [1976], 14-15)

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. He also noticed that they understood a great many things, including the subtleties of their kinship system, without explicitly verbalizing about them.

His ability to analyze subtle aspects of filmed human motion caught the attention of Margaret Mead, who, along with her husband, Gregory Bateson, had pioneered the use of film in anthropology (as recommended by their mentor Franz Boas). “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. 2]: 41-42). Both Mead and Bateson were to be lifelong supporters and influences.

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. Birdwhistell 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 research activities.

Birdwhistell was part of a movement of linguists and social scientists interested in investigating culturally learned non-explicit communication. Pioneering anthropologists and linguists Franz Boaz and Edward Sapir had early on realized that non-verbal behavior played an important part in human communication: in 1927 Sapir wrote that “the unwritten code of gestured messages and responses is the anonymous work of an unwritten tradition.” Sapir’s associate, George L. Trager, had applied the method of structural linguistics to the study of voice quality and non-articulate sounds, and, with Edward T. Hall, body motion, and spatial patterning. Birdwhistell had been at Chicago with sociologist Erving Goffman (author of The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, to whom Birdwhistell dedicated his book). Others in the field included Conrad Arensburg and Elliot Chapple. After World War II there was an interest in applying ideas from cybernetics and information theory (developed in conjunction with code breaking during the war) to linguistics and the non-verbal aspects of communication. From 1946-56 mathematicians and engineers who had developed information theory met with social scientists, including Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, at a series of interdisciplinary conferences on communications sponsored by the Josiah Macy, Jr. Foundation. Nonverbal communications also interested psychiatrists and psychologists: the notion that significant human communication took place on a plane outside of conscious awareness resonated with Freud’s theory of the unconscious popular at the time. In 1946, the Veterans Administration hospital in Palo Alto, California, hired Bateson to apply insights from his anthropological work in New Guinea and (with Mead) in Bali on the analysis of family dynamics, then thought to play a part in causing mental illness. 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 colleagues, Birdwhistell was the most theoretically oriented. In 1952, he published his 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. He 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. Birdwhistell 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. His 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 called kinegraphs.

Birdwhistell 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.” Besides Birdwhistell, the researchers (informally known as “The Palo Alto Team”), included anthropologist Gregory Bateson; linguists Norman McQuown and Charles Hockett; and psychiatrists Frieda Fromm-Reichmann (former wife of Erich Fromm), and Henry Brosin. Their microanalysis of the filmed interview, known as the “Doris Film” or “The Cigarette Scene,” demonstrated Birdwhistell’s thesis that body motion, at least for American English, has a structure comparable to that of spoken language. Intensive research and examination of the data of the interview went on for years, but the results of this work were not released in full, possibly because of problems with film permissions (see Martha Davis, p. 19). Two of Birdwhistell’s essays projected for inclusion in the study were included in the compilation of his papers, Kinesics and Context (University of Pennsylvania, 1970). In this book (using characteristically measured language),  Birdwhistell summed up the implications of his work at Palo Alto and the FSI:

Analysis of the body motion communicative stream early yielded the kine and the kineme. Continuing contrastive study soon revealed the higher organization of these into the kinomorph and the kinomorpheme. In turn, these forms could be seen to combine into complex kinemorphic constructions. . . . The kinesic system structures the speech stream into forms comparable to the way the linguistic system structures the speech stream in “sounds,” “words,” “phrases,” “sentences,” and even “paragraphs.” The word “comparable” is carefully chosen - only future research will reveal whether these formalized aspects of body motion communication are indeed analogous to spoken language. I suspect that the linguistic and kenesic systems as totalities have shapes more analogous than do their components. (Kinesics and Context, p. 115).

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. Ray Birdwhistell was married twice. He had two daughters with his first wife.  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. It compares the body-motions of families ¾ typically a father, mother and one or more children - at zoos in seven different countries as they approached the elephant cage to feed the animals. As John Bishop described how he remembered it, among British families, for example, the father typically acted as interpreter of the elephant, explaining it to the children. Family members generally threw food for the elephants overhand, in a motion imitating the movement of the elephant’s trunk. French mothers, on the other hand, would stretch out their arm and guide their children’s hand toward the elephant, who took the food from it, after which the children looked at their own hands in apprehension. 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. Birdwhistell himself appeared briefly in the film, acting as a decoy. Microcultural Incidents in Ten Zoos was a particular favorite of Margaret Mead, who liked to show it to her students. The recurrent interaction patterns were observed before the filming began, and the film made it clear that these varied with the culture or even the region of the country. 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.

In the late Sixties, psychologist Paul Ekman, who like Birdwhistell had a Ph. D. from the University of Chicago, but who had a behaviorist background and had worked as a psychologist for the military, challenged Birdwhistell’s work. Ekman objected that humanistic sciences such as anthropology did not use scientific controls, and he had a particular animus toward Margaret Mead, whom he attacked in print. Ekman’s own experimental research, conducted world wide, showed the existence of inborn and cross-culturally universal facial micro-expressions of emotion, as had been suggested by Darwin. Ekman did not deny that bodily communication was culturally learned, nevertheless he believed his results definitively refuted Birdwhistell, who according to him, “cannot admit the possibility of universals and maintains his major central claim that facial and body behavior is a language.” For his part, Birdwhistell 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 did not. Moreover, the direction of linguistics was temporarily shifting, under the influence of Noam Chomsky, away from structuralism to the study of language acquisition in children and the interior workings of the brain. Martha Davis sees the controversy as part of a much larger debate. “Ekman replaced Birdwhistell 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 career, Birdwhistell found himself and his field marginalized and under attack.

Nevertheless, research on the role of body motion in communications didn’t really die away. Investigation, inspired by Chomsky, of language acquisition in children led back to a realization of the importance of movement and gesture, pointing and sign language in language formation and cognition, while brain studies have highlighted the importance of “mirror neurons” in imitation and comprehension. More recently there has also been a resurgence of interest in microanalysis of body communication in vivo, facilitated by technical advances in video recording and computer animation, prompting Martha Davis to remark that “computers have given microanalysis a legitimacy and cache that it never quite had in the ’60s, which is ironic because the new technology doesn’t mean the latest research is more advanced” (Davis, p. 48).

Nowadays, the concept of “body language” has become so mainstream that it is hard to understand how it could have once seemed astonishing. 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).




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