Tag Archives: body language


Debbie says:

1) At a conference this weekend (a fabulous 40th anniversary celebration for the Center for the Study of Women in Society in Eugene, Oregon), I heard Susan Sygall from Mobility International USA, a disability advocacy organization I was not previously aware of.

Susan showed this awesome international disability empowerment video.

2) Alexandra at feministing rips a new one (which it needs) for this ridiculous anti-rape underwear project:

Here are only two of her twelve probing questions:

How does this protect people who have an intimate relationship with their assailant?
What about all the forms of sexual violence that don’t require removal of underwear?

3) The always-incisive Melissa Gira Grant responds in Slate to a study claiming that fewer men are paying for sex:

Does the availability of a partner who will cook for you mean you stop going to restaurants? Does having a caring partner who listens to you complain at the end of the day mean you will fire your therapist?

I think it’s a mistake—but an understandable one given our culture and attitudes around sex—to imagine that people who buy sex do so because they don’t have access to sexual pleasure from anyone else, in any other way. That might be true of some people who buy sex or sexual services, but—like buying a meal or therapy—when many people buy sex, they are also purchasing the environment and circumstances and even expertise that come with that sexual experience. People buy sex to have a kind of sex that they might not otherwise have, or want to have, with their intimate partner.

I remember when this study came out in the 1980s, and it’s cool to see later work that refines it and makes it more practical.

Betty Grayson and Morris Stein … filmed short clips of members of the public walking along New York’s streets, and then took those clips to a large East Coast prison. They showed the tapes to 53 violent inmates with convictions for crimes on strangers, ranging from assault to murder, and asked them how easy each person would be to attack. … [E]ven among those you’d expect to be least easy to assault, the subgroup of young men, there were some individuals who over half the prisoners rated at the top end of the “ease of assault” scale (a 1, 2 or 3, on the 10 point scale).

The researchers then asked professional dancers to analyse the clips … They rated the movements of people identified as victims as subtly less coordinated than those of non-victims.

Two decades later, a research group led by Lucy Johnston of the University of Canterbury, in New Zealand, … used a technique called the point light walker. … Using this technique, the researchers showed that even when all other information was removed, some individuals still get picked out as more likely to be victims of assault than others, meaning these judgements must be based on how they move.

… Recruits were given training in how to walk, specifically focusing on the aspects which the researchers knew affected how vulnerable they appeared: factors affecting the synchrony and energy of their movement. This led to a significant drop in all the recruits’ vulnerability ratings, which was still in place when they were re-tested a month later.

Thanks to Patti for the last link.

Unexplored Territory: Body Language and Gesture

Laurie and Debbie say:

Debbie went today to a dance performance by Nina Haft and Company (along with Pappas and Dancers, and the Al-Juthoor Palestinian Dabkeh Dance Troupe). The whole performance was excellent, but what caught Debbie’s imagination was a Nina Haft piece called “36 Jewish Gestures.” (Among other things, this piece is a comment on a Joe Goode dance called “29 Effeminate Gestures,” which is described in detail here.

This performance art piece combined traditional and ritual Jewish gestures (such as a man putting on phylacteries or a woman throwing her shawl over her head to grieve) with cultural American-Jewish gestures such as a particular tilt of folded hands or a very eloquent shrug. At one point in the piece, Haft played a voice-over recording of herself reading about some gesture research by anthropologist David Efron (scroll down to find Efron’s work). Want to know how obscure this is? David Efron does not even have a Wikipedia page (neither does his collaborator, Stuyvesant van Veen, apparently well-known among other things for his detailed drawings of human movements). Here’s one illustration van Veen did for Efron’s work:

line drawing of moving gestures

Efron studied the use of gesture of two ethnic groups in New York City: Jewish Yiddish-speaking immigrants, and immigrants from southern Italy. Using drawings, photography, and film, Efron
and his colleagues found some significant differences. The Italians, for example, used both arms, generally needed more space for their gesticulation, and stood mostly apart from one another. In contrast, the Jewish immigrants gestured mostly in front of their faces or chests, stood together in small groups, and touched one another frequently.

This is interesting in and of itself, but what struck Debbie at the time was how unfamiliar this kind of analysis of gesture and body language is. Although there is a body of research on this subject, it’s obscure and incomplete. Every freshman psych class has a section on body language, always pointing out (correctly) that body language is an enormous component of human interaction. Often they will demonstrate how one phrase can have two (or more) entirely different meanings based on body language.

But, in the academic world where words are the key currency, detailed analysis of body language is rare indeed. Simply refining out gestures as a specific kind of body language is uncommon. (Even the evolutionary psychologists who claim to be able to analyze all kinds of things about women’s sexuality by their body language don’t get careful and specific–in their case, it’s probably because specificity would prove them wrong.)

One stereotype that Haft (unwittingly) underscored was that gestural language is somehow the provenance, or at least the expertise, of the Mediterranean cultures. On the contrary, it is a staple of all cultures. Laurie points out that not only body language but also gesture are found regularly in Japanese conversation and interaction. The dense cultural communication in Japanese bows is a language in itself. And one only has to enter an American corporate boardroom to see an different language of gesture.

Is it, perhaps, time for the Department of Body Language and Gestural Studies? Or (maybe better) for some non-academic observation of the huge array of topics such a department might cover?