Kinesics is the interpretation of body motion communication such as facial expressions and gestures — that is, nonverbal behavior related to movement of any part of the body or the body as a whole. The equivalent popular culture term is body language, a term Birdwhistell never used, and did not consider appropriate (on the grounds that what can be conveyed with the body does not meet the linguist's definition of language). Even so, many people use this term.
Kinesics was first used (in 1952) by Ray Birdwhistell, an anthropologist who wished to study how people communicate through posture, gesture, stance, and movement. His ideas over several decades were synthesized and resulted in the book, Kinesics and Context. Interest in kinesics specifically and nonverbal behavior generally was popularised during the late 1960s and early 1970s, through such popular (definitely not academic) publications as How to read a person like a book. Part of Birdwhistell's work involved filming people in social situations and analyzing them to show elements of communication not clearly seen otherwise. One of the most important of his projects was The Natural History of an Interview, a long-term interdisciplinary collaboration including Gregory Bateson, Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, Norman A. McQuown, Henry W. Brosin, and others.
Drawing heavily on descriptive linguistics, Birdwhistell argued that all movements of the body have meaning (i.e. are not accidental), and that non-verbal behavior has a grammar that can be analyzed in similar terms to spoken language. Thus, 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".
Birdwhistell estimated that no more than 30 to 35 percent of the social meaning of a conversation or an interaction is carried by the words. He also concluded that there were no universals in these kinesic displays - a claim disputed by Paul Ekman, who was interested in analysis of universals, especially in facial expression.
In a current application, kinesic behaviors are sometimes used as signs of deception by interviewers looking for clusters of movements to determine the veracity of the statement being uttered.
Relevant concepts include:
- Emblems - Substitute for words and phrases
- Illustrators - Accompany or reinforce verbal messages
- Affect Displays - Show emotion
- Regulators - Control the flow and pace of communication
- Adaptors - Release physical or emotional tension
Kinesic behaviors an important part of nonverbal communication. Body movements convey information; interpretations vary by culture. As many movements are carried out at a subconscious or at least a low-awareness level, kinesic movements carry a significant risk of being misinterpreted in an intercultural communication situation.
- Ray Birdwhistell
- Intercultural competence
- Metacommunicative competence
- Nonverbal communication
- Birdwhistell, R. L. (1952). Introduction to Kinesics: An Annotation System for Analysis of Body Motion and Gesture. Washington, DC: Department of State, Foreign Service Institute.
- Birdwhistell, R. 1970. Kinesics and Context. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.
- Nierenberg, G. I., & Calero, H. H. (1971). How to read a person like a book. New York: Hawthorn Books.
- Jump up ^ Leeds-Hurwitz, W. (1987). The social history of The Natural History of an Interview: A multidisciplinary investigation of social communication. Research on Language and Social Interaction, 20, 1-51.
- Knapp, M. 1972. Nonverbal Communication in Human Interaction. Reinhart and Winston, New York, pp. 94-5.
- McDermott, R. 1980. Profile: Ray L. Birdwhistell. The Kinesis Report, 2, 3: 1-16.
- Ekman, P., & Friesen, W.V. (1971). Constants across cultures in the face and emotion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 17: 124–129.