Investigating The True Meaning of Gestures
By Robert Schroeder
Remember the body language wars of the 2008 presidential election? John McCain blinked too often; Hillary Clinton was too stiff and unfeminine; Barack Obama fashioned the "terrorist fist jab."
So said the networks.
As the 2012 presidential campaign season nears, it's fair to ask the question: does any of this matter? National Louis University's Gale Stam, Ph.D., professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, says the answer is as complicated as a candidate dancing around a pointed question.
"Gesture was studied for a long time before the 1900s, from the time of Cicero onward in terms of rhetoric and how to use gestures to present better," Stam said. "Politicians are pretty good in their presentation skills, so they have mastered certain types of gestures that don't reflect thinking but are acts they do for emphasis."
Subtlety in our movements, hidden, unrealized, or purposeful, is the subject of "Integrating Gestures," a collection of the leading research in gesture studies co-edited by Stam. The book is a bellwether of the growth of the field of gesture studies since its relatively recent founding in the 1970s.
Gestures called emblems are culturally specific and usually intentional, like an "OK" sign or a thumbs-up. Spontaneous gestures are innate and serve many functions: furthering expression of meaning, showing a part of thought not revealed in speech, helping speakers and listeners retrieve words, and helping with cognitive processing.
The book includes articles examining gesture among primates; gesturing among autistic children; gestures in second-language acquisition, problem solving and gesture; and how children can actually have conversations with gesture before they learn speech.
"A child before speaking will do a pointing gesture, and that will be the first gesture," Stam said. "Then they acquire some vocabulary, some single words, and then they acquire what is called iconic gestures and conventional gestures, a visual representation of a concrete object or action, but the speech and gesture isn't matched up yet.
"So children will sometimes use gesture, sometimes speech, but not together."
As children move past the single-word stage, Stam said, children will start to pair a gesture with a word before transitioning to two-word speech. As their language skills develop, their range of gestures also grows.
What happens if that growth is stunted—or stopped completely? In totalitarian countries like Iran, gestures as innocent as clapping have, at times, been banned for reasons ranging from religion to fanaticism.
"When you're looking at a culture and you inhibit physical movement, you are inhibiting a central aspect of human behavior," Stam said. "We have to move to express ourselves, and when a culture does that it is inhibiting its citizens."
Stam says the book's release comes at a pivotal time in the growth of the gestures field. "We wanted to show that this is an interdisciplinary field and we wanted readers to get a sense of the field," Stam said. "We are learning more and more about thinking and the role of gesture in reducing cognitive load, so I think this is a field of the future."
The book is expected to be published in June 2011. For more information on research featured in the book, visit the publishing company's website.