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Understanding body language: Birdwhistell’s theory of kinesics

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Abstract

Despite research spanning a 20-year period (from 1950 to 1970), Ray L. Birdwhistell’s work on body language and theory of kinesics has been recorded only in occasional papers. Birdwhistell defined kinesics as “the study of body-motion as related to the non-verbal aspects of interpersonal communication”. He believed body-motion communication to be systemic, a socially learned and communicative behaviour unless proven otherwise. The article extensively collates and analyses Birdwhistell’s work and theories. Birdwhistell was frequently forced to admit that a number of his theories were subject to some dispute. The article concludes that Birdwhistell’s work contains major flaws and the verdict of other researchers who have tried to develop his theories of kinesics has been damning.
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UNDERSTANDING BODY LANGUAGE: BIRDWHISTELL’S THEORY OF KINESICS
Stephen Jolly
INTRODUCTION
In semantics, there is a division conventionally drawn between two aspects of human
communication: the verbal and nonverbal (Lyons 1977: 67). This is a division which all too
often enables the linguistic scientist to mark off territory and confidently overlook those
communicative channels which fail to conform to orthodox linguistics.
For the student of human communication, such a division is unacceptable in so far as it
inhibits the development of a more wide-ranging human communicative science – an
“anthroposemiotics – which might begin to account for that full range of verbal and nonverbal
behaviours which constitute interpersonal communication.
By “communication” is here meant what Birdwhistell (1968: 380) has called “the structured
dynamic processes relating to the interconnectedness of living systems … a multichannel
system emergent from, and regulative of, the influenceable multisensory activity of living
systems”. While this is a definition which invokes a distinction between “informational” and
“integrational” communication, it overrides the less productive dichotomy between verbal and
nonverbal since it presumes that, in Birdwhistell’s own words, studying nonverbal
communication is like studying a noncardiac physiology (Knapp 1972:3).
Given the scale and complexity of the semiotic enterprise, it is clearly necessary to delimit the
field of one’s study for reasons of data management as much as to ensure validity of results.
Such a necessity, however, should not be allowed to discourage the pursuit of
crossdisciplinary research nor to provide an excuse for defensive academic parochialism.
Since, as Kendon (1972: 452) has observed, “it seems likely that ultimately we will have to
think of the system of human communicative behaviour as analyzable into a number of
subsystems”, it is important to see one’s own work on any one subsystem in relation to that
greater semiotic system of which it is a part. This is the motive behind this paper which,
although it will examine the nonverbal and somatic aspects of communication, will do so in
the hope of adding to the general debate about the semiotics of human communicative
behaviour.
In attempting to establish a typology of “intersomatic communication” which will account for
“the confrontation of two human bodies as socializing organisms, equipped by a unique highly
cognitive and intellectual ability that combines their mutual sensorial and intelligible
perception and that of their society and their world at large, operating in time and space”,
Poyatos (1983: 54) classifies eight basic somatic systems (excluding what Sebeok has called
“endosemiotic” activities) continuously in operation between encoder and decoder in a
situation that is culturally non-specific :
Chronemic
Paralinguistic
Lexico – Syntactic
Kinesic
Chemical
Dermal
Thermal
Proxemic
With such a theology, the interrelatedness of verbal and nonverbal systems is evident where
all categories come to share, to some degree, in what Bruneau (1980: 114) has called
“chronemics” – interdependent and integrated levels of time-experiencing physiological,
perceptual, objective, conceptual, psychological, social, cultural – in the form of temporal
drives, estimates, symbols, beliefs, motives, judgements, values. Similarly, the “hidden
dimension” (Hall 1966) of “proxemics”, of what Sommer (1955) calls the “microecology” of
space and its sociocultural use, also informs all categories of intersomatic communication.
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Although taking any one subsystem as an isolate may seem problematic on this basis, it is
important to recall that Birdwhistell in the earliest formulation of his kinesic science (1952)
defined kinesics specifically as “the study of body-motion as related to the nonverbal aspects
of interpersonal communication”. Since, in Birdwhistell’s terms (1952: 9), nonverbal forms of
behaviour tend to be “expressive” and verbal forms “indicative”, there thus exists some scope
for using kinesics as a paradigm for a more general ethology of expressive human behaviour.
From its inception, it is clear that kinesics has tried to do exactly this by adopting a multilevel
approach – physical, psychological, cultural – to the question of nonverbal phenomena.
Indeed, it was for this probable reason that Birdwhistell (1952: 3) formally categorised his
approach into three parts: pre-kinesic, micro-kinesic and social kinesic.
PRE-KINESICS
In the strictest sense, pre-kinesics is concerned with the general physiological bases for the
systematic study of body-motion. However, as a methodological starting-point, it cannot be
interpretatively innocent and inevitably entails a certain number of preconceptions and
inherited ideas. Birdwhistell (1955), observing that certain “approaches have combined to
provide an environment, albeit a sometimes hostile one, for the development of the filed of
kinesics”, has tentatively identified these as including not merely kinesiology but also
choreology, chirology, clinical posturology and “the new sciences of social psychology, social
anthropology, and descriptive linguistics” (pp. 10 – 11).
In so far as pre-kinesics is primarily interested in the question of “visually perceptible body
shifts whose variations have been repetitively observed and which are subject to
systemisation (and which) are learned rather than somatogenic” (Birdwhistell 1955:12), it
depends most heavily on kinesiological data, that is the data of “applied anatomy” (Cooper
and Glasgow 1968:22). In treating “all motor acts as mechanical events” and “man … as a
machine, a device for transmitting energy” (Steindler 1955), kinesiology provides kinesics with
a notion of “motor man” (Sherrington 1953):
“The motor individual is driven from two sources, the world around it and its own
lesser world within. In both cases through its selective receptors. Its activity is also
partly operated by nervous action arising spontaneously within the nervous centres
themselves. It can be regarded as a system which in virtue of its arrangement does a
number of things and is so constructed that the world outside touches triggers for
their doing. But its own internal condition has a say as to which of those things within
limits it will do, and how it will do them. Its own internal condition is also initiator of
some of its acts”
This notion forms a theoretical basis for the systematic quantification of expressive
behaviours. At the same time, kinesiology’s development of technical methods of recording,
including techniques of chronophotography (pioneered by Eadward Muybridge with his
zoopraxiscope in the 1880s) and electromyography (the recording of muscular contraction),
for the preservation and study of movement has proved an essential prerequisite for kinesic
science which relies on a detailed knowledge of “what” behaviours people characteristically
engage in when they interact”. A kinesic analyst will (Kendon 1972):
“to gather records on film or video tape of occasions when people are present to one
another and then, by patient and detailed watching, … try to describe the elements of
behaviour, that occur and the way these elements are patterned to one another.”
It is in fact from such records that kinesics is able to pinpoint concrete examples of those
isolated particles of meaning which it terms “kines” and to which it imputes simple
“discriminational meaning”. In Birdwhistell’s words (1955), such meaning “occurs when
informants from a given group repetitively report that the variation in placement, intensity, or
position of a ‘kine’ changes the meaning of a set or continuum”. Indeed, since, in terms of
duration, kines have been recorded “in sequences that ranged from 1/50 of a second … to
over three seconds” the analysis of body movement into “kines” is often only possible through
slow-motion film analysis (Birdwhistell 1970: 101).
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In order to chart the build-up and patterning of kines, Birdwhistell developed his own
“kinegraphy”, a graphic system for the notation of movement. Birdwhistell acknowledges that
his kinegraphs are in part inspired by the work of Rudolf von Laban (1927) – whose
“kinetography” (or “Labanotation”) was the first notational system to enjoy extensive use both
ergonomic and choreographic however – he feels is that choreographic notation is “intrusive
… when adapted to the measurement of interpersonal activity” (1970: 256).
Despite this disclaimer, it is evident that choreology – the science of dance - is nonetheless a
major element informing Birdwhistell’s theory of kinesics. Given the history of choreography –
its development from early symbol substitutive systems such as Arbeau’s “Orchesographie”
(1588), to the track-drawing methods of Feuillet (1700), the stick figure systems of Saint-Leon
(1852) and Zorn (1887) and the advanced kinetography of Laban (1927) and Benesh (1949) –
it is clear that Birdwhistell’s kinegraphy falls squarely within this tradition. Described as
“orthography” in which “the symbols used are developed to stand for a derived slice of the
behavioural continuum” (1970: 256), Birdwhistell’s kinegraphy is based on the idea of a
“stationary particle” (the kine) and – although it contains a number of “through space”
indicants – pays only a small amount of attention to the dynamics of time, space or effort
change. Considering that Laban, for instance, has notational means of accounting not only
for movement in space (“choreutics”) but also qualities of movement (“eukinetics”), it might be
said that Birdwhistell’s kinegraphs are choreographically primitive. Furthermore, Birdwhistell’s
(1955: 10) rejection of choreographic methods as “coercively ethnocentric as a grammar
primer” is hardly consistent since his own “orthography” is based almost entirely on North
American data.
In view of these deficiencies, it is apparent that kinegraphy is little more than a rather limited
“system of observation and notation [for] standardising the reporting of a narrow range of
microcultural events” (Hall 1962: 1003). Although proxemic notation (Hall 1962: 1003) may
have some role to play in extending kinegraphy’s range of analysis, clearly much remains to
be done before Birdwhistell can begin to claim for kinesics a form of transcription which is
anything more than crude.
However, since Birdwhistell is a descriptivist, the superiority of his methods is nonetheless
plainly demonstrated by a comparison of his work with the body-motion catalogue of his
prescriptivist predecessors. In particular, the work of elocutionist Francois Delsarte (1811-71)
whose elaborate “science of applied aesthetics” – which dissected movement into the
“excentric”, “concentric” and “normal” – was vastly influential throughout the nineteenth
century in the theatre, in music, sport and public life (Maynard 1971: 64). In a rhetorical
tradition stretching back to the “chironomia” (law of gesture) of Bulwer (1644) and Quintilian
(fl.60 A.D.), Delsarte observed an organic link between body-motion and character
(“Harmonic, Gymnastic and Pantomimic Expression” 1895):
Nothing is more deplorable than a gesture without a motive, without meaning. Let
your attitude, gesture and face foretell what you would make felt … Gesture is more
than speech. It is not what we say that persuades, but the manner of saying it.
Speech is inferior to gesture because it corresponds to the phenomena of the mind.
Gesture is the agent of the heart, the persuasive agent.
Such characterological interpretation foreshadowed kinesiology’s promotion of “callisthenics”
(Cooper and Glasgow 1968: 12) and in Birdwhistell’s own time, has been redirected into the
“psychophysics” (Bühler) of psychoanalytic posturology (Deutsch 1947).
The one element which sets Birdwhistell apart from earlier analysts of body-motion is his use
of the scientific methods of structural or descriptive linguistics. As an anthropologist,
Birdwhistell is not interested in kinesics as a psychological indicator but as a form of
behavioural relatedness between individuals (Kendon 1972: 446).
Accordingly, the aim of any science of human communication must be the systematic
description of the systems of behaviour by which this interrelatedness is brought about. On
this basis, Birdwhistell views body-motion communication as in some sense “systemic”, that is
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as a system with a structure that can be described independently of the behaviour of
particular participants.
He also presumes such behaviour to be socially learned and communicative unless proven
otherwise (Harper, Wiens, Matarazzo 1978: 121). Since, therefore, the “problem is to
describe the structure of body motion communication behaviour in a way which allows us to
measure the significance of particular motions or complexes of motions to the
communicational processes” (Birdwhistell 1970: 77), the structural approach of Bloomfield,
Sapir, Bateson and Pike is the one Birdwhistell adopts.
Dittmann’s (1971: 340-1) claims that this linguistic-kinesic analogy is a forced one have been
strenuously countered by Kendon. Kendon (1972: 444) argues that Birdwhistell adopted
structural linguistic method on an assumption that when people interact they make use of a
repertoire of behavioural forms that they share with others and that they use these forms in
accordance with sets of shared rules.
Birdwhistell’s interest in structural linguistics was, therefore, purely in its efficiency as a level
of analysis and as a means of seeking after a respected mode of explanation rather than as a
means of establishing kinesics as a linguistic modality.
Whatever the case, it is certain that structural linguistic methods of analysis became the
assumed methodology for all kinesic analysis prior to the advent of Ekman’s “external variable
approach” (1965, 1967, 1969) which once more stressed the psychological problem of the
communication system itself. Precisely, how Birdwhistell goes about applying the methods of
structural linguistics to body-motion in order to determine “differential meaning” is a question
of micro-kinesics.
MIRCO-KINESICS
“Having determined the systematic nature of human interaction and having recognised that
membership is attained in a social system only after patterned experience in this system, it is
the task of the behavioural scientist to ascertain what is learned which provides any particular
system with its particular dynamic” (Birdwhistell 1970: 191). Thus, given the pre-kinesic
derivation of the basic units of discriminable meaning (‘kines’), micro-kinesics (‘kinics’) is
concerned with the systematic “abstraction of these kines into manageable morphological
classes” (Birdwhistell 1955: 3).
Given an agreed “zero point” of response, a “kine” represents “an abstraction of that range of
behaviour produced by a member of a given social group which, for another member of that
same group, stands in perceptual contrast to a different range of such behaviour” rather than
a “point or position of articulatory activity”. As such, it is a direct structural analogue of, for
example, a phone (1970: 192).
The actual articulatory positions within the range represented by a kine are that kine’s
“allokines” or “kine variants”. Thus, given eleven positions of eyelid closure – i.e. eleven kines
with discriminational meaning – it is possible to define a number of positions (open-eyed,
droopy-lidded, squinting etc) within the range as allokinic. In turn, each class of differentiated
allokines or variants within a range – if such a class can be established – may be defined as a
“kineme”, the smallest set of body movements with “differential meaning “ (analogue, for
instance, with the phoneme).
Birdwhistell in his work on American subjects has hypothesised approximately 50-60
kinemes. However, since it has been estimated that in the facial musculature alone over
twenty thousand different facial expressions are somatically possible, there clearly remains
much work to be done in this area (Harper, Wiens Matarazzo 1978: 123).
As the basic movements that have structural meaning, kinemes are then combined into
“orderly structures of behaviour in the interactive sequence … (contributing) to social
meaning” which are known as “kinemorphs” (Birdwhistell 1970: 99). Birdwhistell argues that
these in turn are “further analyzable into “kinemorphemic classes’ which behave like linguistic
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morphemes”; classes which once “analysed, abstracted, and combined in the full body
behavioural stream, prove to form ‘complex kinemorphs’ which may be analogically related to
words”. At the final stage, these complex kinemorphs are “combined by syntactic
arrangements, still only partially understood, into extended linked behavioural organisations,
the ‘complex kinemorphic constructions’, which have many of the properties of the spoken
syntactic sentence” (Birdwhistell 1970: 101).
As Birdwhistell admits, the formal structure of kinesics and even the possibility of the
existence of some sort of ‘kinesyntax’, remain very much matters of dispute. Dittmann (1971:
341), in particular, argues that “there is no evidence that movement elements are assembled
into groupings based upon any set of rules internal to the movements themselves” but only
that “there are groupings of movements, but the boundaries of these groups are determined
by unit formation in the speech which is going on at the same time”.
SOCIAL KINESICS
In dealing with the “morphological constructs as they relate to the communication aspects of
social interaction” (Birdwhistell 1955: 12), social kinesics involves the delineation of
“contextual meaning”. This is not a question of compiling what Birdwhistell has called a
“kinecography” (an ethnographic body-motion lexicon) but rather of identifying those
relationships (“meanings”) which exist between isolated (isolatable) events and an
appropriate spectrum of surrounds.
In this sort of “context analysis”, meaning therefore becomes localizable in the “behavioural
difference occasioned by the presence or absence of a particular cue at a particular level of
context [whose] range … is governed by the range of contexts in which [that] cue can be
observed to occur” (Birdwhistell 1968: 382).
In short, this suggests that differential social meaning in kinesics is pragmatic and can only be
ascertained through and within the patterns of contextualization. A conclusion which supports
Birdwhistell’s early view of “social personality [as] a temporo-spatial system” (1955: 5).
Given Birdwhistell’s structural linguistic bias, much of his most fruitful work in context analysis
has emerged from the study of “the interdependent relationship between visible and audible
communication” as instances of “infracommunicational systems that are interdependently
merged with each other and with other comparable codes that utilise other channels” 91968:
380).
Early work on the codification of kines had originally been done using only silent film but
Hockett and McQuown’s work on “The Natural History of an Interview” (1956) revealed for the
first time “repetitive and apparently systematic body behaviours directly associable with the
vocalic stream” (Birdwhistell 1967: 61).
This led to Birdwhistell drawing a methodological distinction between "“acro-kinesics" (formal
kinesic phenomena which appear in interactional sequences whether there is speech present
or not) and “parakinesics” (cross-referencing signals which amplify, emphasise or modify the
formal constructions and/or make statements about the context of the message situation).
Within macro-kinesics, Birdwhistell identified certain phenomena (“gestures”) which acted as
“bound morphs” or stem forms and which required infixual, prefixual, or transfixual kinesic
behaviour to achieve identity (such phenomena as a smile, salute, wave or wink). However,
these proved unreliable in the analysis of context because although “they [proved]
consistently to carry the instruction to look elsewhere in the body behavioural stream for their
modification or interpretation”, it was difficult to establish any sort of “metacongruence”
(Trager and Smith) between body motion and any other contextualizing element (1967: 64).
The fact, however, that in particular linguistic contexts some forms of kinic behaviour seemed
to appear regularly around certain kinds of audible syntactic items led Birdwhistell to
hypothesise of certain “kinesic markers” – contrastable ranges of behaviour in particular
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linguistic environments – which he characterized as possessing four distinct properties (1967:
65).
1. They have articulatory properties which are abstractable into contrastive
behavioural classes.
2. These units appear in distinctive syntactic environments, i.e., the lexemes with
which they appear belong to distinctive syntactic classes.
3. The articulatory behaviour, if two or more of these units appear in series, is
always sufficiently varied to reduce signal confusion; i.e., we have situational
articulatory contrast.
4. Since the articulatory behaviour is not definitely distinctive, in and of itself, the
abstraction of the unit depends upon the isolation of contrastive sequences of
behaviour in contrastive syntactic neighbourhoods.
Birdwhistell tentatively classified five types of marker which, in some respect, acted like
suprasegementals of stress, duration and intensity in the interactional sequence (1967: 65-
70): These included pronouns, plurals, verb forms, prepositions and adverbs.
Birdwhistell’s tentative conclusion is that both paralinguistic and parakinesic phenomena are
“alloformic”, that is structural variants of each other, at another level of analysis (1967: 71).
This argument underpins his contention that linguistics and kinesics are infracommunicational
modalities and, in terms of pragmatics, sanctions the linguistic channel as an interpretant of
the social kinesic context.
The validity of Birdwhistell’s results at this point, however, must be questionable given that the
substantiation of his kinesic data depends not only on linguistic evidence but more suspectly
on the interpretative use of methodology imported from linguistics itself.
This is not to suggest that linguistics and kinesics are not, in some sense, infracommunication
but only to question whether Birdwhistell’s interpretation of that infracommunicational process
is either adequate or methodologically sound.
Furthermore, in a social kinesics which purports to define differential social meaning from the
analysis of context, it is surely suspect that Birdwhistell should neglect all modalities
(proxemic, chronemic, and so forth) other than the linguistic in order to justify the assumptions
of this own methodology – that kinesics is a structural variant of linguistics – rather than to
tackle what must remain the major social kinesic issue: the semantic / pragmatic content of
socially learned body movement.
CONCLUSION
In conclusion, it must be said that Birdwhistell’s theory of kinesics is not an adequate theory
for the explanation of body motion as an interactional modality. Although his work marks an
important beginning in the study of nonverbal phenomena and represents a first step toward a
wider human communicative science, it suffers from a number of flaws which hamper its
development and invalidate its results.
Given the mass of data kinesic study necessarily entails, Birdwhistell has never succeeded in
providing a “well-worked map of the territory” (Kendon 1972). Despite researches which
spanned a twenty-year period (1950-70), Birdwhistell’s work – the bulk of which has been
recorded only in occasional papers and conference proceedings – has never been
systematically codified, updated and published successions like. Barton Jones’ 1970
“Kinesics and Context” also fail to provide anything like a definitive edition since as
Birdwhistell observes:
This book is not a journal of completed research, Nor is it a textbook in kinesics.
Neither is it a manual of instruction …It is a book about the study of body motion.
This lack of systematic order – the inconsistent repetitiveness of views and their often
unsubstantiated presentation – makes Birdwhistell’s work difficult to assess.
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Furthermore, because of Birdwhistell’s avowed aversion to “atomistic” psychological research,
we are even denied the simplest ethnography of body motion (from the man who as an
anthropologist first observed kinesic structure among the Kutenai of British Columbia).
All this leads to what Ekman (1972: 3555) has described as Birdwhistell’s “over-abundance of
theory with too few facts”.
The second problem with Birdwhistell’s kinesics is a practical one. As a comparison of his
kinegraphy with other choreographic notations quickly revealed, Birdwhistell’s method of
analysis is neither very efficient or very accurate. His orthography remains inaccessible to
computer analysis and does not provide for the sampling of behavioural sequences other than
entire events. All this makes practical research in kinesics time-consuming and not very
productive (since it incorporates only verbal descriptions of kines and kinemorphs and its
static bias inhibits the plotting of precise movements).
However, the major flaw in Birdwhistell’s work is in fact the structural approach itself. As
Weitz (1974: 130) has pointed out, “kinesic analysis is very much like literary analysis: one
can impose one’s own structure on the material and never really be certain that this is the
best fitting model or the ‘correct’ one”.
Despite Kendon’s (1972) disclaimers, it is evident that Birdwhistell believed that structural
linguistics provided an adequate explanation of language and that kinesics as a systemic
phenomenon was amenable to structural linguistic analysis.
The fact is, however, that “the basic hypothesis of kinesics as a communication system with
the same structure as spoken language is not a viable one” (Dittmann 1971: 341). This is not
only because the structural approach has been discredited as an adequate theory for the
explanation of language. It is also because there is actually no evidence to prove that kinesic
phenomena are structured linguistically. In Dittman’s words: (1971: 341)
there is no evidence that movement elements are assembled into groupings based
upon any set of rules internal to the movements themselves.
Indeed, Birdwhistell’s work in social kinesics itself seems rather to suggest that:
movements group themselves into larger units by virtue of their relationship to
concurrent speech, not by virtue of any independent structural relationships among
the movements themselves
This is an observation which reduces kinesics to the status of suppletive “code” rather than a
“language”.
From the semantic point of view, it is evident that Birdwhistell’s kinesics suffers from
deficiencies characteristic of the entire structural approach. On that basis, it is inevitable that
the “meaning” of body motion should be consistently relegated to the status of a structural by-
product.
In as much as Birdwhistell believes in “context”, he uses it as a structural rather than a
pragmatic criterion and neglects the crucial question of the psychological motivation behind
expressive nonverbal behaviour.
In turn the “external variable” approach has shown there is evidence that nonverbal
behaviours cannot be readily decoded into discrete, specific messages. The task of future
students of kinesics is therefore to determine “meaning” through the identification of
psychological variables in relation to designated body movements.
The final verdict on Birdwhistell’s kinesics is thus a harsh one (Dittmann 1971: 341-2)
Birdwhistell’s initial impact was to spur a number of workers to look at these [kinesic]
phenomena, using whatever methods were available … The way one conceives of
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the basic data for his research determines the methods he may use to examine those
data. If the basic hypothesis of kinesics had been accepted by all investigators
interested in the communicative aspects of body movement, their research would
have been limited to linguistic methods which are really not appropriate to research in
this area, and the chances are that we would not know as much about these
phenomena as we know today. Communication by means other than language is a
field of a number of diverse topics and the types of information encountered by the
research are also diverse … Theories and methods appropriate to all these different
kinds of information are needed. Birdwhistell has given a theory, resting on
untenable premises, which would confine investigators to only one method.
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... This expressive and communicative aspect is studied in artistic domains such as dance and music, in the field of non-verbal communication, and as a means of symbolic communication e.g. through sign language. An important component of the study of movement is the development of movement classification [6], coding [7], and interpretation systems [8]. ...
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