Kinesics is the interpretation of body motion communication such as facial expressions and gestures, 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 Ray Birdwhistell, considered the founder of this area of study, neither used nor liked (on the grounds that what can be conveyed with the body does not meet the linguist's definition of language).
Kinesics was first used in 1952 by an anthropologist named Ray Birdwhistell. Birdwhistell 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 popularized in the late 1960s and early 1970s by such popular mass market (nonacademic) 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 that were not clearly seen otherwise. One of his most important 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 and that nonverbal 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 that was 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, although kinesics can be equally applied in any context and type of setting to construe innocuous messages whose carriers are indolent or unable to express verbally.
Relevant concepts include:
Kinesic behaviors are an important part of nonverbal communication. Body movements convey information, but 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.
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